Collaboration: Use Practices that Challenge

In this post I'm sharing another aspect of effective collaboration from my research and that of others. 

In my experience, New Zealand school leaders that work together in clusters or networks often demonstrate a “sharing” level of collaboration. This includes practices such as cross-school visits and tours to look at effective practice or presenting good ideas to each other at seminars or conferences. It also might include sharing funding to pay for professional development or materials (see my first post).

Teachers who meet in groups to share a classroom problem and possible solutions are also only sharing information. These examples are all “information-out, information-in” transactions and do not include critical dialogue. The “sharing” level of collaboration does not involve challenge, a key practice required by network members if they are to build relationships, skills and knowledge to achieve change and improvement.

I should point out here that I have nothing against "sharing" practices! We all gain a lot of great information and energy from these practices so I wouldn't say to anyone that they should stop doing these things. However, I would say that if you are a cluster or network of schools or services, and you want to have an impact on learner outcomes, then you need to move beyond this and engage in practices that challenge as well (see my earlier posts for the other practices you need to consider).

Fullan and Hargreaves (1991) suggest that if network members move away from advice-giving and material-sharing and towards more challenging practices such as asking difficult and necessary questions about their work and how to improve, they will successfully build relationships, skills and knowledge. With this in mind, it is important to think about how network members will ensure that the focus remains on using dialogue that challenges practice. De Lima (2001) emphasises the use of conflict as a catalyst for school change and improvement whilst Timperley et al. (2007) and Katz et al. (2009) claim that the role of external expertise assists in creating more challenging dialogue across a group. Using practices that challenge may feel uncomfortable at first, and network members should use a framework to guide them until the practices become more natural.

Annan, Lai and Robinsons’ “learning talk” (p. 31) is one way to introduce the necessary challenge and critique that is often missing from network practices. Such talk assists groups of schools working together to solve student achievement problems. Learning talk consists of three types of talk labelled "analytical", "critical" and "challenging" so that network members are able to discuss and consider evidence, evaluate the impact of practices and make decisions about changes to practice that are required as a result of the learning talk.

Dalton's Learning Talk framework is also an amazing resource that helps people to engage in more challenging dialogue. In her fourth Learning Talk book, Developing the Art of Inquiry (Dalton and Anderson, 2013) Dalton provides practical ways to building inquiry capabilities that can help people to transform their world collaboratively. Dalton says that we need to "work on inquirer capabilities so that we do not remain mired in past paradigms that no longer serve us" (2013, p. 6). I encourage clusters to explore perspectives and the Learning Talk examples for building inquiry capabilities are helpful in guiding us towards surfacing concerns and differences and using "possibilities thinking" to move forward (2013, p. 55). 

So you can see my perspective here on the importance of dialogue and effective communication in how we use practices that challenge. Below, is another table of "do's" and "don't's" that describes more practices that move beyond the way we communicate and into what we value and do. These are a summary from the literature review in my thesis. I use these as an initial way for clusters/networks to self-review their collaborative practice. 

Please go ahead an ask me questions about this post or the table below. I find that clusters always have questions about the tables that I provide for self review and sometimes we consider other perspectives and evidence and we change the table or we clarify what is meant. I'm also really interested in what you do to encourage practices that challenge. What has worked for you? What issues have you faced?

Practices schools should and should not use to encourage practices that challenge
Check to ensure that agreed knowledge and practices are actually used in each others schools.

Provide contexts where network members can confront limits to their own knowledge, learn from common difficulties and challenge their beliefs.

Use a framework that exposes and then focuses on improvement of teacher practice and establishes norms for professional interaction.

Continually check each other to ensure that rules and standards are not violated.

Allow issues of context to be addressed, ideas to be challenged and the effectiveness of the collaborative work to be checked (problem analysis).

Challenge teachers about the way they interpret data.

Use conflict as a catalyst for positive change and improvement.

Foster the presence of tension between building trust and maintaining a level of debate that lead to knowledge growth.
Use practices such as advice-giving, trick-trading and material-sharing.

Allow a climate that is too “positive” where members do not challenge each other.

Have a preoccupation with relationships.

Share expertise without a challenging dialogue.

Use a critical friend with a pre-existing relationship in the network or who is also in a position of power.

Value collegiality and friendship over challenge and conflict.


Annan, B., Lai, M.K., and Robinson, V. (2003). Teacher talk to improve teaching practices. SET Research Information for Teachers (1): 31-35

Dalton, J. (2013). Learning Talk: Develop the Art of Inquiry

De Lima, J. A. (2001). Forgetting about friendship: using conflict in teacher communities as a catalyst for school change. Journal of Educational Change, 2, 97-122.

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

Katz, S., Earl, L., and Jaafar, S. B. (2009). Building and Connecting Learning Communities: The Power of Networks for School Improvement. Ontario: 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., Wilson, A., Barrar, H., and Fung, I. (2007). Teacher Professional Learning and Development: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration (BES). Wellington: Ministry of Education.


GeoMouldey said…
Thanks for this series of posts. I have been digging back through them to help as we get started with collaborative inquiries within our school.