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Monday, March 29, 2010

Collaboration - The Role of Communication - Part ll

Over the last 10 years, I have observed a marked decrease in students' ability to communicate clearly with one another in a group.  Consequently, it is an area we need to address as educators especially due to the emphasis placed on our students ability to collaborate in the 21st century. Classrooms provide learning labs for these strategies.  Following are some guidelines.

According to To the Handbook for SMART School Teams by Conzemius and O'Neil there are 4 types of communication essential to collaboration.
  1.  Sharing:  Information needs to be shared with everyone involved.  This can consist of keeping records, inviting feedback during team meetings, sharing information outside of the team, and checking with team members between meetings.  During school implementation, the failure to share information in a timely manner can be viewed as an attempt to exclude others.  This can sabotage the best of intentions and programs.  With the technology  available, it is easy to create one center for posting information and sharing with everyone.
  2. Discussion: Individually, discussion has to do with clearly expressing one's thoughts.  However, in a team, collaborative format, members of the team need to have the skills to stimulate thinking in the group and keep the team productive.  Here is the list from the SMART Handbook.  You will recognize many of them from the work we have done around purposeful language in EDU 590 and 591.
    • Leading: Introducing new topics and keeping the discussion moving.
    • Innovating: Introducing new ideas and strategies in order to think outside of the box.
    • Summarizing: Restating key ideas and decisions, checking to be sure everyone is on the same page.
    • Clarifying: Identifying confusion and asking clarifying questions.
    • Advocating: Challenging underlying assumptions in order to rethink roadblocks.
    • Resourcing: Bringing new information and strategies to the group that is pertinent.
    • Integrating: Merging disparate conversations, ideas, and concepts together into an integrated whole.
    • Initiating: Initiating new models of working together and working to implement them.
  3. Dialogue: Balancing Advocacy with Inquiry - The SMART Handbook defines dialogue this way, "Dialogue is a special way of talking together.  Its purpose is to explore meaning - to create mutual understanding, not necessarily to come to an agreement,  a decision, or a solution.  Dialogue is a balancing act - balancing speaking and listening, reflection and assertion, advocacy and inquiry." Page,47.
Here, advocacy is defined as making your thinking or personal point of view clear including assumptions, the rationale for your assumptions, and how you feel about the topic.   Inquiry is defined as asking others to share their thinking, points of view, assumptions and feelings and listening in order to understand.  The  glitch occurs, in my experience, when members come to the collaborative group, committed to their point of view and unwilling to listen or consider others.This is often based on strong beliefs about what is best for students, but does not make the mind set any easier to change. 
 4.   Active Listening:  Providing feedback to the person who is talking.  Following are some
        suggestions from the SMART Handbook.

    • Paraphrasing: Repeating or summarizing what is said to the speaker to clarify what you heard, i.e. "If I heard you correctly..."
    • Perception Checking: Interpreting what is heard and stating to the speaker for accuracy, i.e." I hear your frustration."
    • Probing: Taking the conversation deeper by expanding ideas, going deeper in understanding, getting clearer about meaning, unearthing assumptions, and exploring applications - all within the comfort zone of the speaker.
 These strategies must be taught explicitly and practiced consciously - by adults and students.
Remember to practice the conventions of conversation: don't interrupt, respect everyone's opinion, and keep an open mind. 
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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Collaboration - What is it? - Part I

This is the time of year I always focus on the level of collaboration present in the groups of teachers I have worked with throughout the year.  I am holding final sessions and know from experience the change we have initiated will only become embedded in their teaching, schools, districts if they can truly collaborate together on the implementation we have begun. 
This year it is particularly poignant for me because I have been visiting classrooms where teachers are meshing technology and literacy and my observations keep taking me back to collaboration.    Collaborative reasoning is key to the intelligent use of technology and I keep wondering - How can teachers instruct students in collaboration if they themselves do not understand it? SO... I am writing to clarify my thinking  and hopefully assist you in thinking about how it works for you and your school.

In my opinion, collaboration is one of the most overused and misunderstood pieces of educational jargon today.  In my role as an educational consultant, I often "sit outside of the circle" and watch the human dynamics of meetings dealing with implementations in schools - alternately teacher based and student based.  What I have come to understand about Maine schools is this:  many schools equate collaboration with consensus and see the purpose of collaboration as decision making about issues in their schools.   

If this is the case -  unfortunately, for whatever reason - the issue often becomes political, effectively blocking the process of collaboration. 

" Collaboration," according to The Handbook for SMART School Teams by Anne Conzemius and Jan O'Neil,  "for its own sake is not enough.  Collaboration is a process we use to achieve shared goalsHaving people share their knowledge, expertise and experience gives us a better understanding of the challenges we face.  The end result of collaboration is both a better solution, program or idea, and a greater commitment and capacity to implementing that solution, program or idea...  When people come together around a common purpose, each contributing his or her unique perspective and skills, and ultimately achieve a mutually defined goal, there is an infusion of energy into the school that is unmatched by an single initiative or program."

According to this definition, collaboration is a creative, problem solving process involving invested individuals.  Productive collaboration transpires only when the following elements are in place on the team:
  1. Approaching the process with an open mind - no presupposed individual agendas
  2. Willingness to work towards a new solution as a group
  3. Respecting each person's expertise
  4. Focusing on shared goals 
From this perspective, collaboration is the precursor of consensus.  

Consensus becomes just one way to agree on the solution created by collaboration.  

This sounds too simple, yet it is the core of the change process and until we can understand and embrace it, our schools will be stalled, locked in power struggles between the yeahs and nays of change - rather than committing to effective problem solving.

What does meta-cognition have to do with it?  Each of us needs to reflect on our thinking and purpose regarding collaboration. 

Here is a framework for our thinking. 
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