Book review: Collaborative Professionalism

Why the teaching community must join forces to find a better way to collaborate
10th June 2018, 11:03am


Book review: Collaborative Professionalism

Collaborative Professionalism: when teaching together means learning for all

Authors: Andy Hargreaves and Michael T O'Connor

Publisher: Corwin

Details: 176pp, £10.99, paperback

ISBN: 9781506328157

A C-word is merrily bandied around staffrooms and educational policy bodies alike. It's a word that's oft-cited as the elixir for anything from teacher workload to curriculum reform and school improvement: collaboration. But the type of cooperation too often engaged with in our bid to improve education long-term is marginal. Instead, it is essential that we create deeper collaborative practice - and this demands a culture of genuine collegiality and collective enquiry.

To achieve this, the authors make a case for shifting from professional collaboration to collaborative professionalism. While this may seem like pure semantics, they are able to demonstrate a significant difference.

My master's thesis focused on the conditions for teacher collaboration. At the time, Andy Hargreaves' influential definitions of professional cultures, in particular concepts such as "Balkanisation" and "contrived collegiality", struck a chord with me. My Bosnian heritage and personal experience of failed collaboration made me wary of approaches that could inadvertently reinforce division, competition and distrust, or inspire individualism, cynicism or apathy.

This book develops the authors' 30 years of research on the subject. It offers a comprehensive study of the frameworks and principles required for successful collaborative professionalism - it certainly would have come in handy during my literature review.

Journeying through international case studies, the authors explore a range of collaborative models across different socio-economic contexts: open classroom and lesson study in Hong Kong; collaborative curriculum planning networks in rural North America; cooperative learning in Norway; collaborative pedagogy in Columbia; and professional learning communities in Canada.

Hargreaves and Michael T O'Connor distil their research into 10 facets of collaborative professionalism and four "Bs" of collaborative professionalism. The focus is on what happens before, betwixt, beyond and beside collaborative professionalism initiatives to make them successful. They assert that context and culture are king. Well-intentioned attempts may fail if their design and delivery are not well suited to the circumstances. "Collaboration can make us better … but not any or all kinds of collaboration will be right for the task or time," they note.

There is no precise recipe - collaboration can flourish in all kinds of educational settings. However, an appreciation of the distinct contextual elements that affect workplace dynamics is essential, as is the knowledge that effective professional relationships take time to mature. Beyond contextual differences, they argue some common traits are required to ensure that collaborative initiatives are effective.

A common theme is the need for authentic, teacher-led endeavour, as opposed to top-down directives. For teachers to fully engage and invest in collaborative professionalism, they need to commit to the following essential principles: collective autonomy; collective efficacy; collaborative enquiry; collective responsibility; collective initiative; mutual dialogue; joint working; common meaning and purpose; collaboration with students; and big-picture thinking for all.

Much of this may sound familiar and common sense, yet much of what occurs in our schools is in fact professional collaboration, rather than a richer, deeper, more sophisticated and embedded version of collaborative professionalism.

The book warns of transplanting one collaborative model into another context in the hope of replicating its success, reminding readers that "reform is like ripe fruit: it rarely travels well". However tempting it may be to follow fads - such as lesson study and professional learning communities - these approaches are likely to sink unless pre-existing cultural foundations are in place. School leaders, they argue, need to be anthropologists, understanding their schools' unique culture and designing collaborative ventures that can be adopted successfully.

Hargreaves and O'Connor share a compelling vision in which collaborative professionalism underpins teacher morale and retention. Through engagement in fulfilling, stimulating and empowering practice, teachers can become reinvigorated.

The authors assert that collaborative professionalism can be messy and challenging, but that we should not shy away from its complexity. Genuine collaborative professionalism permeates a school's culture, rather than manifesting itself in one-off meetings and tasks. They further warn that a rush to action to achieve immediate outcomes is likely to prove counterproductive.

This is a handbook for school leaders and teachers keen to facilitate lasting and substantive collaboration. It also tests the reader's assumptions of how truly collaborative we and our schools really are.

Helena Marsh is executive principal of the Chilford Hundred Education Trust, principal of Linton Village College, Cambridgeshire, and a member of the Headteachers' Roundtable

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