Susan Riley | July 2013

Should Collaboration Be Directed?

I am currently engaged in one of the most valuable experiences I’ve ever had as an educator.  For the last few weeks, I’ve been coordinating and working with over 300 amazing educators from across our county in writing and editing over 55 pieces of curriculum for the 2013-2014 school year.  Under any normal circumstance, this would be an exhaustive experience.  But this is not normal.  This is decidedly weird.

We brought together all content areas and curriculum into one school, and made available technology folks. Everything from arts integration specialists and special educators, to district-level staff.  We provided 15 hours of up-front professional development and writing time prior to our two-week academy together, both face-to-face and online, that highlighted key elements of UDL/DI, Common Core, standards alignment and assessment.  We created a common template for all curriculum, aligned to a gap analysis and a curriculum evaluation rubric.  And then we went to work.

What has happened these past two weeks has been incredible.  We’ve seen teachers walk across the hall to collaborate with peers in other content areas.  We’ve seen special educators working side by side with curriculum writers to find authentic ways in which to extend and deepen the curriculum for all learners.  And, we’ve addressed technology issues from bandwidth to platforms to instructional technology elements all within the same space.  How weird does this all sound?  I’ve been giddy with excitement each day.

And yet.

We’ve learned so much along the way.  We’ve discovered that everyone hears the same message differently.  That no matter how clear you think you are, you need to constantly differentiate how you deliver your ideas.  We’ve seen what happens when you just let people work in collaboration with each other, without clearly directed check-in points.  Turns out, even adult learners need directed collaboration opportunities.

Never was this more clear than during our Peer Review day.  For the first week, our writers worked at a furious pace to get their content into our template.  During our second week, we took one whole day to peer review each curriculum twice.  In essence, we assigned each curriculum group to review two other curricula, provide comments and feedback, and then score the curriculum using our curriculum evaluation rubric.  The results were astounding.

What everyone realized is that every content area approached their curriculum in a different way.  While there was integration and collaboration occurring at organic levels, there wasn’t a consistent path that led them towards the purpose of the collaboration and integration.  And of course, good intentions without clear purpose lead only to a dead-end.

And so, a question rose to the surface: should we direct collaboration?  When it comes to working with others, how much of a framework should be provided before we stifle creativity?

Based upon our fantastic 21st century curriculum writing process, what remains clear is the need for some kind of balance between sharing the road and the ability to create a new path.  As learners, we all need an outline with clearly marked signs along the way that ensure we are on the right track.  While we must collaborate if we are to grow, it is imperative that we collaborate using the same language and expectations on the same project.

We can learn much from areas where collaboration is like breathing air.  Think about gaming, for instance.  In a virtual gaming environment, collaboration is essential to leveling up.  You must rely on each other, while having a clear understanding of the language of the game that can be used to get to the next level.

Or look at music.  As a choir, it is essential that everyone singing know the exact meaning behind the text, what techniques to use to shade each phrase and to do so in unison while still being able to contribute something personal to each member.  In both examples, the frame is provided with ways in which to mold, but not break, the glue that holds it together.

And don’t forget flashmobs.  I think these are some of the best examples of directed collaboration between users, producers, and even among the roles that each participant is assigned.

Collaboration is certainly a key component of success in our global society.  Yet I think we are all still figuring out what collaboration truly means and how to harness its benefits while also outlining the process for ourselves.  In the end, our examples may come from the collaboration that our students model to us each day: share, listen, repeat.

What do you think?  How much direction is needed in a 21st century collaborative environment?

About the Author

Susan Riley is the founder and CEO of The Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM. She focuses on teacher professional development in arts integration, STEAM, 21st century learning skills, and technology. She is also a published author and frequent presenter at national conferences on Arts Integration and STEAM education. Susan holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education from the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ and a Master of Science in Education Administration from McDaniel College in Westminster, MD. She lives in Westminster, MD with her husband and daughter. Email Susan