19 September 2011

Teamwork? A title in progress

One of the upsides, from a comedy standpoint, of the increasingly influential movement to run schools like businesses is the influx of acronyms. In fact, our esteemed co-founder of the BlazeBlog, Dr. Dick Johncock, has even written on this phenomenon. One of the newest and most powerful buzzwords, which comes to us via the tech sector and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills is "collaboration".

Collaboration has become a massive buzz-word in education today. It's almost as though we've shifted our paradigm from talking about being standards based to being data-driven in professional learning communities.

There are two kinds of collaboration: planned and unplanned. Educators don't talk about that. We talk about library collaboration and parking lot collaboration.

"Library" collaboration is planned and scheduled. Some schools plan it into the day. In fact, a school I used to work at has built what might be the world's worst schedule so that they could build in planned collaboration time. This time can be very useful, provided there is good guidance from the administrators. Many schools have boosted student achievement with the so-called PLC model. PLC is an acronym for "Professional Learning Communities," and many states have begun to mandate PLC time for teachers. In California, every Wednesday is shorter with kids by 30 minutes, and we use that time as a PLC.

So many teachers could become better teachers simply by collaborating with their peers. If they were given the chance to talk, in a relatively open and free forum about what they're doing and what works. The problem is that many administrators fear open time, and think that it would be wasted. Since they are under pressure to prove that they are working to improve scores, they want to prove that the PLC time is being used well. To that end, they (in the BlazeBlog's humble opinion) over structure the time. They have teachers fill out forms, and jump through hoops, and then they say, "Tada! We did PLCs! Hooray! Our test scores are sure to rise!" (or words to that effect).

I currently work at a school that uses PLC somewhat differently. We were given certain tasks, and we do fill out a form so that they can track what we're doing, but they don't give us super-specific tasks. Then, miracle of miracles, they let us be professionals and work on tasks which we think are important. We create common assesments, we write pacing guides, we talk about resources we have, and how we might use them in the classroom. We collaborate.

It isn't perfect. Many people might be forced into PLCs with people who aren't really interested in growth. But, as this New York Times article points out, no profession is populated entirely with high performers. On the whole, I find this type of collaboration, when done in a relatively unstructured way, is pretty useful. 

The second type of collaboration in what yours truly calls "parking-lot" collaboration. I, and many educators I know, find this type of collaboration more cathartic than planned collaboration. I don't know if it's more useful or not, but it often feels like it. Parking-lot collaboration is unplanned. It happens when you run into somebody in the mail room, and your conversation carries over into the parking lot. It's one of those conversations where you're solving the world's problems.

The key to the success of unplanned collaboration is that it is totally open and unsupervised. There are obvious pitfalls with this. On occasion, it descends into a bitch session. However, the openness of it, the lack of accountability provide a framework in which really really creative ideas can pour out. I think that some of the biggest innovations in education probably have their roots in the parking lot.

Further, since informal collaboration takes place outside of the pay structure and contract day, it allows teachers to do something which they are very good at, but which tax-payers tend to oppose. A really good parking-lot collaboration session will require relocation to an establishment where adult beverages can be consumed. Once inhibitions have been sufficiently lubricated, the good ideas really start to fly. In fact, I'm almost certain that this very blog was inspired by a sketch on a napkin in the dark confines of a bar. 

And if nothing else ever gets accomplished because of collaboration (and depending on where it takes place, that may be the case), I hope we can agree that if it helped to create the BlazeBlog, it's a good thing.

Perhaps we can meet sometime, and collaborate on how we could make the BlazeBlog better. You pick the time and place, I'll bring the beer and the ideas.

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