Collaboration: sharing is not enough

My first blogpost is about sharing some of my expertise with you. This is an introduction to collaboration. Have a read and ask me some questions!

Many school leaders and teachers are now part of a cluster or network of schools. Terms such as collaboration, clustering, learning networks, networked learning communities, and professional learning communities are used to describe the arrangements that schools have set up in order to work together. Some networks remain focused on leader and teacher membership while others involve parents, communities and iwi in network activities at all levels. These networks have emerged as people in schools and services discover the benefits of working with others on areas of common interest or need. Some networks start out as sporting or cultural networks and remain at that level, while others develop a shared focus on student learning needs. Government funding has incentivised many schools to begin to work together in New Zealand. For example, ICT PD, EHSAS and LCN.

Regardless of who participates, it is common for network members to remain at a comfortable “sharing” level of collaboration. This might include the pooling together of funding to get better deals on facilitation or other external expertise and resources. The sharing of ideas for classroom practice or professional learning and development may occur at this level, and teachers may visit each others schools to get ideas and to be inspired. These are all positive, affirming practices that adults across many schools take part in to re-energise their own outlook and practice. There are, however, a number of changes that your network will need to consider if you are to move beyond the “sharing” level of collaboration. If your network wants to have an impact on teacher learning and improvement and ultimately, on student outcomes a shift to something beyond sharing is particularly important.

If a network’s aim is to learn and improve, then sharing ideas, strengths, problems, solutions or resources (including funding) is not enough. Such practices are not sufficient for raising student achievement because they can create a climate that Hudson-Ross (2000) suggests may be too positive where members do not challenge each other and therefore further entrench ineffective practices that make them feel good.

Several researchers discuss practices which involve inquiry, effective leadership and capacity building so that learning and improvement can occur for leaders, teachers and students (Katz et al., 2009; Robinson and Lai, 2006; Timperley and Parr, 2010; Timperley, McNaughton, Lai, Hohepa, Parr and Dingle, 2009; Little, 2002; Firestone and Pennell, 1997; Fullan and Hargreaves, 1991; Head,  2003).

Over the next few months I will write a series of blog entries that describe all the practices that you need to have present in your network for effective collaboration to occur:


Firestone, W. A., and Pennell, J. R. (1997). Designing State-Sponsored Teacher Networks: A Comparison of Two Cases. American Educational Research Journal, 34, 2, 237-266.

Fullan, M. G., and Hargreaves, A. (1991). What’s Worth Fighting For? Working Together For Your School. Ontario: Ontario Public School Teachers’ Federation.

Head, G. (2003). Effective Collaboration: deep collaboration as an essential element of the learning process. Journal of Educational Inquiry, 4, 2, 47-61.

Katz, S., Earl, L., and Jaafar, S. B. (2009). Building and Connecting Learning Communities: The Power of Networks for School Improvement. Ontario: Corwin Press.

Little, J. W. (2002). Locating learning in teachers' communities of practice: opening up problems of 
analysis in records of everyday practice. Teaching and Teacher Education, 18, 917-946.

Robinson, V., and Lai, M.K., (2006). Practitioner Research for Educators: A Guide to Improving Classrooms and Schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Sweeney, R. (2011). An exploration of the collaborative practices within learning networks of New Zealand schools. Unpublished Master of Education thesis. Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

Timperley, H., and Parr, J. (Eds.) (2010). Weaving Evidence, Inquiry and Standards to Build Better Schools. Wellington: NZCER Press.

Timperley, H., McNaughton, S., Lai, M., Hohepa, M., Parr, J., and Dingle, R. (2010). Towards an Optimal Model for Building Better Schools. In Timperley, H., and Parr, J. (Eds.) (2010). Weaving Evidence, Inquiry and Standards to Build Better Schools. Wellington: NZCER Press.


Hazel Owen said…
OK - having a minor moment that I can't comment with the blog post readable, unless I open the comments in another tab! ;-) But that is a limitation of the platform, not feedback on your post.

Really enjoyed your post...thanks for addressing some key points around how and why collaboration that is transformational happens in some communities but not others.

The notion of being comfortable and focussing on the positive, rather than formatively challenging...or extending someone's thinking is, I feel, a fundamental aspect of a robust (gotta love that word) professional community.

From experience of, and research into, the Virtual Professional Learning and Development (VPLD) community (, one of the two reasons that some dialogue can ask some hard questions, are 1) the clarity of roles and trust within the community; and 2) the commitment of some core members (who participate in the associated VPLD programme) to share and reflect on their practice. What are your experiences / thoughts?

This brings me to a few further questions:
1) How do you feel a community can build the sort of dynamic where it is OK / encouraged to 'go below the surface'?
2) What do you feel "commitment to a common, needs-based goal" look like? How do you feel this can be detailed enough to be relevant to a diverse range of community members?
3) How do you feel that community members can be encouraged to develop the skills such that when they give feedback, or ask questions, they don't undermine confidence or come across as confrontational?

There's a few more questions...but maybe later ;-p

Thanks for the thought-provoking post!
Becc said…
Thanks for adding your valuable thoughts and knowledge here Hazel!
In my experience a lack of role clarity in a cluster/network can lead to a breakdown in relational trust and your second point about commitment from some core members is a good one - I think commitment needs to spread much wider than a core group of leaders and accountability needs to be spread to communities and children and families etc etc. This is about coherence too and I will write a whole separate piece on the importance of coherence.

As for your final three questions - I have lots of experience and ideas about how to ensure/achieve these things and I will be writing several posts about each of those and more.

Please keep coming back and adding more comments as I share more in this space!

:) Becc
Derek said…
Great post Rebecca (and good feedback Hazel) - I'll be watching the future posts with interest! I think these questions are really pertinent to the emerging discussion and policy direction around clusters and clustering of schools. Too many things about how the cluster relationships work and what it takes to sustain and maintain them are taken for granted I feel - your post exposes the thinking that needs to be done and knowledge that is to be generated and shared.