Collaboration: Revisiting Purpose and Countering Competition

If your network or cluster finds that there is a lack of commonality, it may be time to rethink the needs and purpose of the network. In this case, it is possible that schools have been focused too much on implementing change programmes for teachers and not enough on inquiring into the practices of all network participants including learners and communities. This can lead to schools and/or services preferring to work alone whereas inquiring into practices would allow you to ensure that you are regularly adjusting the network focus to accommodate the needs of all schools/services involved or to consider new membership for the network. Returning to work alone in your school or service could also indicate your preference to keep collaboration at a less challenging and less effective level because it allows you to maintain what Fullan and Hargreaves (1991) have described as “cosy relationships” (p. 76) with your colleagues in the network. Inevitably, these less effective “sharing” practices can reduce the relevance of network activities.

I have found that it is common for clusters that have been working together for many years to end up with too many focus areas as they continue to add goals and projects to their plans in order to accommodate the schools that no longer wish to focus on the original areas. This can end up a bit of a mess as the cluster focus is watered down and spreads out too far or feels too big. I've seen clusters that break up into sub-clusters to try to cater for this issue and make the work more manageable and meaningful. This might work but if you want to genuinely collaborate as mentioned in my previous posts, you really need to stop and rethink the common needs-based goals for the cluster. A consequence of adding focus areas and having some schools commit to only some areas is that you are no longer really collaborating. Schools can opt in and out of cluster activities and roles and accountabilities become unclear. Ultimately, trust breaks down and resentment builds up.

Schools and/or early childhood services can often shift away from collaboration to work alone when network leaders have allowed system levers that encourage competition between schools to overtake their desire to work together to improve outcomes for their combined student population. While I agree with the experiences of most people in schools that competition is a distractor and can hinder collaboration, it isn't going away and you can find ways to avoid the negatives. For example, schools can keep their focus on their combined student needs and set up agreements and protocols between them that enable collaboration while acknowledging the competition. For learners, the benefits of leaders and teachers continuing the collaboration across schools outweigh the benefits of schools working alone to keep a competitive edge.

Revisiting purpose and countering competition takes trust to expose the "elephants" in the room

Schools could work together to help each other to develop their unique strengths, promoting each other for and agreeing on different strengths, rather than working against each other to compete for students with the same offerings in each school. To do this, it is important for network members to build relational trust with each other. This can be built through practices such as sharing expertise with challenging dialogue, ensuring role clarity across network members, deliberately fostering the development of professional relationships between teachers from different schools, establishing respect between leaders and teachers and acknowledging that collaboration is not always easy.

One of the clusters that I am currently working with is exploring way to actively support each other in building up their school communities. They are having open, honest conversations in order to build trust and expose the "elephants" in the room. We have recently started to build an agreed set of actions that engender trust using Joan Dalton's Learning Talk resources and reflecting on Lencioni's work. Here is a short clip from Lencioni on his work about the five dysfunctions of a team:

 Here is the model that Lencioni is talking about: 

It is really important to find safe ways to expose those elephants!

If you have ideas or experiences in the areas I've covered in this post, I would love to hear from you, as would my clusters!!

Image credit: Mark Osborne 


Dalton, J. (2010). Learning Talk: Build Understandings

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

Lencioni, P. (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Jossey-Bass

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.