|Thoughts on Collaboration for 21st Century School Professionals|
Moving Forward or Lost in Space?
Marilyn Friend, Ph.D.
Recently on the news, a NASA official was being interviewed about the progress being made on the construction of the International Space Station, including the opportunities it will present and the problems being encountered. One of the most remarkable comments he made went something like this: “It’s a lot more complicated than we realized working with 16 other nations on a project of this magnitude. It’s going to take longer, cost more, and require a lot of patience on everybody’s part, but eventually we will be successful.” What the official did not say is equally enlightening:
He did not say that the effort wasn’t worth it, or that NASA wanted to quit because of the complexities; he did not say that the United States scientists, with their technological and financial edge, would just take over the project and do it the way they wanted; and he did not say that it wasn’t fair that the level of commitment and contribution of resources on the various countries’ part varied widely.
The official’s remarks and omissions could easily have been referring to efforts by school professionals to work with one another in educating their students. Certainly over the past decade as emphasis on collaboration in schools has increased, we have learned that creating a collaborative culture is a lot more complicated that it would, at a glance, seem. Many administrators, teachers, specialists, and others have discovered that it takes a long time to foster professional collaboration, and it requires ongoing attention to sustain it. A cost is invariably involved: There is the financial cost of offering professional development on topics related to adults in schools working intensely with one another. There is the systemic cost of arranging opportunities for school professionals to interact as they plan, carry out, and evaluate teaching/learning activities for students. There is the professional cost of re-defining professional roles and relationships with fuzzier boundaries, less control, and more uncertainty. And certainly patience is a key. In attempting to move a group of professionals who typically have been prepared to function as loyal but essentially independent agents of instruction, remediation, or therapy to not just shared visions and goals, but truly shared responsibility, implementation, and accountability, the effort sometimes seems too great, the barriers insurmountable.
Given the challenges and frustrations of collaboration and the set of pressures operating on school professionals, it might seem preferable to retreat to the more comfortable, apparently successful approaches of times past. After all, the United States was the first country to place a man on the moon—and did it alone. But if NASA officials are not backing away from the difficulties of the International Space Station project, the largest international scientific project ever undertaken, perhaps there is a lesson to be learned for those of us in the business of education. Maybe the United States is persisting with the project because the potential scientific and economic gains are not just worth the effort, but may enormously and positively affect its citizens. Perhaps the American scientists are not bullying others or arguing about who owns the project because there is room at the table for all the players, because each one has a contribution to make, because there is too much to know and too much to learn for a single country to horde the project, and because the diversity of the participants not only enriches the project but increases the quality of the outcomes. Fairness is not even an issue. In the context of a global society, this collaboration is imperative.
For schools, too, collaboration is no longer a choice; it is a necessity. Working together is not just rhetoric—it is essential in order to address the increasingly diverse and sometimes daunting needs of students, students with IEPs, students for whom English is not their first language, students whose lives outside school may be chaotic and unsafe, students who need structure and stability in a rigorous learning environment. If we work together, both when it is easy and when it is difficult, we can meet these needs. No single educator can possibly hope to know all that is necessary to effectively reach today’s students, and only by pooling expertise—sharing it without losing its focus, respecting and drawing upon the differences in perspectives to create new options, can those professionals succeed at their task. Each individual makes a contribution, and the fairness of working with diverse learners, of dividing the tremendous labor educating children has become, and of being accountable for the outcomes of instruction should not be an issue.
Collaboration is the reality of the twenty-first century in business, in industry, in health care, in science, in social services, and, emphatically, in education. The goal of providing students a high quality education is as clear as the goal of creating a space station. What does not seem as apparent is the level of commitment to working together through both celebration and tribulations. To the extent that educators are dedicated to fostering collaboration as the norm in public schools, they will have a guide for an unknown but increasingly complex future. To the extent that they dismiss collaboration as an unneeded luxury, they will be lost in space.