What is the true meaning of collaboration?

3rd April 2009 at 01:00

Collaboration is all the rage in education. Pupils are encouraged to engage in collaborative learning with their peers. Teachers are urged to take part in communities of enquiry with their colleagues, sharing knowledge and skills, and engaging in research projects. Various professional groups (in education, health and social work) are told they need to work more closely with others, thereby preventing the dangers of a narrow and inward-looking attitude to service provision.

It is not hard to see the attractions of this advice. Enabling children to learn together seeks to avoid the competitive individualism of the past and to promote teamwork, which many employers are said to value. Allowing teachers to explore the issues that are relevant to their school in a co-operative way is said to be a good form of staff development. And advising those public-service professionals who are concerned with the welfare of children to co-ordinate their efforts should help reduce the chances of "at risk" youngsters failing to get the support they need.

However, there is a danger of over-stating the benefits to be derived from collaboration. I have always been suspicious of pedagogical fundamentalists who push one particular approach to learning at the expense of others. Children are immensely varied in their learning styles and the sensible course is to aim for a "mixed economy" of methods. Some children may learn best on their own under the guidance of a teacher who respects that. Moreover, there are particular problems associated with the over-use of collaborative approaches - for example, the dominance of one or two members of a group and the disengagement of others.

Similar issues apply to professional communities of enquiry. The choice of topics to investigate may not reflect the real interests of some staff: for the sake of an imagined greater corporate good, individual freedom may be restricted. There is a strong case for respecting diversity and acknowledging that valuable professional development can take many forms. The desire to create one big collaborative "happy family" is often management-driven and motivated by a wish to contain dissent. In other words, the discourse of collaboration may mask an agenda of control.

The case for inter-agency co-operation has been strongly advanced in recent years, particularly in the wake of tragic events, such as the murder of Brandon Muir, aged 23 months, in Dundee. Despite a series of previous recommendations for more effective communication and collaboration among professionals, these cases keep occurring. While sharing information about vulnerable children is undoubtedly important, it can be argued that what might have prevented some of these tragedies was not a more effective "case conference" but an individual with the courage to step outside "approved procedures", challenge bureaucratic obstruction and out-of-touch managers obsessed with budgets and targets, thereby shaming the agencies into taking action. However, justified moral outrage is not seen as a desirable "professional" characteristic: anyone who exhibits it risks being labelled "not a team player".

Finally, a mischievous thought. In war-time, the word "collaborator" was used to describe those who gave comfort to the enemy in exchange for benefits or to avoid persecution. It involved sacrificing principle for personal advantage. Is it too fanciful to suggest that parallels can be drawn with present-day forms of collaboration?

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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