“Through a narrow window we can see only part of the sky, and not the whole vastness, the magnificence of it.” ― Jiddu Krishnamurti, Life Ahead: On Learning and the Search for Meaning
Picture: The learning community in the Arava desert in Israel
I’m new to my role as Head of Network Development and I must say I do start each day with a spring in my step, feeling intellectually challenged by the task at hand. My main focus is to get my head around understanding what is working well and how this is being shared effectively locally and nationally. It’s an amazing place to be, at the heart of a busy, collaborative, purposeful network of over 300 schools across the country.
Personally, I need to collaborate in order to make sense of the world. I’m happiest and most productive when my job involves team working, challenge and collaboration. Similarly, my ideal holiday is one where at least part of it is spent creating or building or doing something meaningful with like-minded people. (Although with my dicky knee and as I get older and more decrepit I am warming to the idea of just slowing down and sitting in the sunshine reading a good book instead).
I think one of the happiest times of my life and the most relevant in terms of personal development, was working in a newly founded learning community in the Arava desert in Israel. The community was based loosely on the teachings of great educationalist and thinker Krishnamurti where the purpose of daily life was self-awareness and growth through collaborative exploration. The key teaching of his that I took away was, “understanding of the self only arises in relationship, in watching yourself in relationship to people, ideas, and things; to trees, the earth, and the world around you and within you. Relationship is the mirror in which the self is revealed. Without self-knowledge there is no basis for right thought and action.” I think Krishnamurti has a lot of wisdom when it comes to collaboration of all forms. I will try to use some this to illustrate my thoughts below.
Collaboration and competition
I’ve never found it easy working with those that hold their cards close to their chest and who are constantly in competition with colleagues and wary of others. I remember my distaste of it from the early days of my own schooling where I saw some children would be hunched over their work, protective arm cradling their page and head bowed to prevent ‘copying’ from any angle. Or those indignant cries you still hear in schools from children young and old: “you stole my idea!” I was so against it that when a school friend was anxious she wouldn’t have time to do her biology homework that evening for various reasons, I did it for her alongside my own. When she got an A+ and I got a B, we both thought it was hilarious and so telling of how wrong the world can be!
Even in the 8 years I have just spent in the highly competitive world of business development, I have steadfastly believed in sensible sharing of information, platforms and opportunities with others operating in the same space. I was told once that the CEO of one of The Key’s fiercest competitors used to spit on the floor of his office every time he had to say our name, and yet I would always make sure I go and say hi to their business development team at their conference stands and would be genuinely interested in their progress. Aside from the spitting CEO, we frontline BD folk were cordial and warm to each other. Why should we not be? We were all working for the same cause, to solve the same problems and enjoyed our work immensely. Krishnamurti says, “real learning comes about when the competitive spirit has ceased.”
So I am curious about how collaboration and competition can exist side by side and I am cautiously starting to investigate what collaboration is for when it comes to the education sector. There are several interesting blogs and articles on this that I have read recently. Assumption number one could be that collaboration and competition are not mutually exclusive. There can indeed be collaboration in a competitive environment and competition isn’t all bad in a collaborative environment.
While I love to collaborate, I am the first person to tear my hair out at long and pointless meetings that don’t seem to achieve anything except provide an outlet for those that love to talk (myself included). I will be trying to define the purpose of a meeting, project, discussion, working group before I agree to take part. In a classroom setting, I suppose the most obvious form of collaboration is the oft dreaded and much debated ‘group work’. This can be highly fruitful or completely soul-destroying depending on how it is defined and how and when deployed. I often hear my Year 8 daughter wail over the dinner table school-day-debrief when referring to another group work session at school. It goes like this:
“I mean, it’s like my teachers just want me to fail! Why do they make me do their work for them when I can’t teach the kids that don’t know what they’re doing? And all that happens is that we end up with something crap and I feel totally stressed out having to do all the work and get them to concentrate and work!”
My Year 6 daughter’s experience is different. She is a bright bunny but writing, spelling and organising herself on the page are often a struggle. She will come home buzzing:
“ We had such fun today in literacy – I’m really strong at ideas and can think of good words to use, Anna is great at getting it all down on the page quickly and has great handwriting and Carlos mucks about a bit but he is so good at making the story interesting with funny unexpected twists. We wrote a really good story and when Carlos read it aloud to the class they really liked it!”
As a teacher, coping with heterogeneous classes of up to 36 students, I often would use group work as a way to sub-divide ability groups and make sure I could spend meaningful time with each group in rotation. It takes immense clarity of purpose, clear instruction and iron rule to make it work. I am sure many teachers have really great examples of group work where the stronger students feel empowered and that they are consolidating their knowledge and skills while the weaker students feel enriched and ready to take on the challenge set by their more able peers. Tom Sherrington writes about this in his pedagogy postcard and his post on science co-construction.
Assumption number two of any collaboration is its purpose must be clearly defined, mutually beneficial and create impact and growth for all parties involved.
Collaboration with efficiencies, outcomes and impact
Collaboration can’t just be about sharing practice. Schools are flooded with examples of practice. But it can be around working out what works. This is what the school-led self-improving system is all about. And thoughts on evidence-informed self-improvement are key here. Collaborating around practice is especially useful if you can save money and time and avoid reinventing the wheel. It can also be a way to help you understand with absolute clarity how something is going to work in your school’s context. And you are more likely to believe in what you are doing and have success if you have gone through this process. Krishnamurti believes that “you must look most intimately and discover for yourself; then it is your own, not somebody else’s, not something that you have been told, because there is no teacher and no follower.”
If by collaborating you are going to be challenging yourself and each other, as well as developing some way of quality assuring each others’ and your own practice. This shouldn’t be confused with comparison, ranking, rating, measuring and grading each other’s efforts. Krishnamurti says, “most people think that learning is encouraged through comparison, whereas the contrary is the fact. Comparison brings about frustration and merely encourages envy, which is called competition. Like other forms of persuasion, comparison prevents learning and breeds fear.”
Assumption number three is that collaboration is worthwhile if it results in saving money, time, resources and involves an element of holding each other to account. You should be able to clearly articulate ‘what works’ in your context and the impact of this collaboration.
Collaboration to understand the problems
What schools need is time and space not just to deliver the curriculum and get through the packed school year – or to collaborate even – but to properly think through what the problem is they are trying to solve. This should happen even before they look at collaborating around how a certain practice may solve that problem. After that, they also need time to think how to incorporate a new practice into their school and to articulate how the problem they have identified will be addressed by this. But the first step should be as Krishnamurti says, “If we can really understand the problem, the answer will come out of it, because the answer is not separate from the problem”
Assumption number four is if you can define what the problem is that you are solving and what has improved as a result of the collaboration, this is a sign that it has had an impact and was time well spent.
These are some initial thoughts on the purpose of collaboration. As I steep myself more in the theory, the practice, examples and the actual outcomes of collaboration, I am sure I will be able to articulate myself more clearly. But in the name of collaboration, I have shared some thinking here with the hope that you will help me develop it over time. Comments welcome.