Dr. Anne Hynds is a Pākeha Researcher / Senior Lecturer in the School of Educational Psychology and Pedagogy, Faculty of Education at Victoria University of Wellington. She is also a Research Associate for the Jessie Herrington Research Centre at the Faculty of Education. As a teacher, Anne taught in primary, intermediate and secondary school settings, and in mainstream and Deaf education. Anne has a real interest in collaborative research / action research methodologies and has worked in a number of bi-cultural evaluation projects including the National Evaluation of Te Kotahitanga; the coordination of the Quality Teaching Research and Development in Practice Project (QTR&D) and the National Evaluation of Te Kauhua: Maori in the mainstream pilot project.
There are different terms associated with teacher collaboration, including collegiality, professional learning communities, and partnership work to name but a few. It is important to draw distinctions between teacher congeniality and collegiality. Congeniality refers to the comfortableness of teachers’ social relationships, while collegiality refers to the quality and impact of professional relationships and shared responsibility for change across classrooms through collaboration.
In culturally responsive schooling contexts, teacher collaboration must extend beyond the staff-room door, because the development of culturally responsive practices requires teachers to form reciprocal learning relationships with diverse groups of students and their parent/caregiver communities. Friend and Cook (1992) state that “…collaboration is a style of direct interaction between at least two co-equal parties voluntarily engaged in shared decision making as they work toward a common goal” (p. 5). Teacher collaboration implies collective responsibility for improving all student outcomes within culturally responsive and inclusive environments. This means challenging deficit thinking and low expectations within classrooms and schools that prevent all students from realizing their full potential.
One significant challenge to the development of culturally responsive schools is enabling teachers and other school community members to understand that our classrooms and schools are already culturally responsive; that is they are responsive to the cultural capital and social activities of the dominant group (White, middle-class, heterosexual). Certain groups are privileged in schools over others. The development of more equitable forms of culturally responsive practice occurs through a shared rejection and eradication of the ‘cultural deficit’ explanation. This explanation frames the issue of student ‘under-achievement’ or students ‘at risk’ with perceived deficits located within the child, their home language and their family background rather than with teachers’ low expectations, mono-cultural teaching styles, institutional racism and unequal power relationships within schools .
Collaborative inquiry activities designed to raise teachers’ collective consciousness are essential in identifying classroom and school practices that produce and reproduce deficit thinking and low expectations for students perceived as ‘different’.
Literature on teacher collaboration highlights many teachers’ avoidance of conflict through ‘niceness,’ and this resonated with my own personal experiences as an educator and as a researcher (Hynds, 2000). Teachers may view conflict as a ‘communications killer’ and something to be avoided or immediately resolved. Researcher and author bell hooks (2003) maintains that teacher’s social niceness is often related to “bourgeois values” and social class within classrooms and schools. It disrupts the “possibility of confrontation and conflict”; a process which she argues teaches us to “maintain order at all costs”.
Social class is an important but rarely talked about issue in collaborative learning settings, particularly in educational contexts. hooks argues that class issues in educational settings are “more than just a question of money” as they shape participants’ “values, attitudes, social relations, and the biases that informed the way knowledge would be given and received”. Further, hooks warns that when participants entering schooling reform contexts (whether as a teacher or as a student) are encouraged to engage in “free speech, most students are not comfortable exercising this right”. Fear of losing face with one’s peers, or of not being liked by such peer groups, undermines all possibility of constructive dialogue. Culturally diverse participants (students, teachers, parents/caregivers at all levels) must be challenged and empowered to become conscious of, examine, and question assimilation processes within mainstream educational contexts.
Teacher collaboration can create potential for conflict because we hold varying beliefs about learning, reform intentions, goals, means and ideologies, which can remain unexamined and hidden from view. New insights fail to be incorporated into practice because they conflict with deeply held internal images or “mental models”:
Since most mental models in education are ‘undiscussable’ and hidden from view, one of the most critical acts for a learning school is to develop the capability to talk safely and productively about dangerous and discomfiting subjects. (Senge, Cambron-McCabe, Lucas, Smith, Dutton, Kleiner, 2000)
Mental models can limit people’s ability to change, causing most change initiatives to fail. Sources of change problems cannot be remedied by expert advice, better consultants or more committed managers or teachers, as the sources lie in our most basic ways of thinking. If these do not change, then any new ‘input’ will end up creating the same fundamentally unproductive types of actions. Therefore, getting people to talk openly, honestly and constructively about ‘undiscussable’ topics in schools, as well as encouraging ongoing inquiry into thinking and evidence for personal assumptions, remain major challenges for those working for change.
Environments of trust are needed if teachers are to work together to create responsive and inclusive practices for diverse groups of learners, because teachers must first identify, accept, respect and value diversity in the staffroom before changes can be made across the organization (Shields & Sayani, 2005). Implementation of whole-school inquiry, which is a necessary step toward developing culturally responsive practice, requires all members of the school community to “examine their own issues, biases and cultural differences” in openly supportive and challenging learning environments. A natural by-product of collaboration is conflict and disagreement, particularly when teachers’ practice and teachers’ beliefs become topics for public inquiry and conversation. There is a need to recognize conflict as a ‘friend’ within the collaborative learning environment, because diversity of thinking is needed to solve complex problems (Stoll, Fink & Earle, 2003). In empowering schooling environments, difference and diversity should be identified, valued and celebrated (Banks, 2006).
In discussing qualities of communities of practice, Wenger (2005) has argued that we need dislocations in thinking in order to learn and relearn. He makes the point that there is great potential for learning when the practices of different cultural groups collide. He maintains strongly that during such collisions there is often conflict, misunderstanding and emotional upheaval but there are also extensive learning opportunities. Wenger argues that the upheaval is due to our assumptions being dislocated through different interpretations of competence and that it is only through this uncomfortable process that these assumptions can be rethought and challenged.
Learning to collaborate and deal with conflict are necessary skills that with practice and commitment can be incorporated into action. A tolerance for conflict and debate is made possible only once teachers have reached broad agreement on fundamental values, directions and non-negotiables (Forest, 1998; Fullan, 2005). In culturally responsive and inclusive learning environments such non-negotiables are really shared moral and political imperatives which must include equity and excellence for all students, alongside the elimination of racism and other marginalizing practices, including sexism, ableism, classism and homophobia. This is the work of change.
Forest, L. (1998). Cooperative learning communities: Expanding from classroom cocoon to global connections. In C. M Brody & N. Davidson (Eds.), Professional development for cooperative learning. New York: State University Press.
Friend, M., & Cook, L. (1992). The new mainstreaming. Instructor, 30-36.
Fullan, M. (2005). The meaning of educational change: A quarter of a century of learning. In A. Lieberman (ed.) The roots of educational change: International handbook of educational change. Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Springer.
hooks, b. (2003). Confronting class in the classroom. In A. Darder, M. Baltodano & R. Torres (Eds.), The critical pedagogy reader. London: Routledge Falmer.
Hynds, A. S. (2000). Airing our dirty laundry – a case study of collaboration within an action research project. Unpublished MA thesis, Wellington: Victoria University of Wellington.
Senge, P., Cambron-McCabe, N., Lucas, T., Smith, B., Dutton, J., & Kleiner, A. (2000). Schools that learn. A fifth discipline fieldbook for educators, parents, and everyone who cares about education. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishers.
Wenger, E. (2005). Cultivating communities of practice. The art of learning together. Conference Presentation for the Ministry of Education, Duxton Hotel, Wellington, July 29.