Collaboration is great – except when it is not!
It is very easy to tell people that we need to collaborate, but for some the idea of working together will evoke terrible memories of group tasks where one person ending up doing all the work. Or where the arguments between the team members meant that little learning was achieved – apart from maybe a shared distaste for future group work.
It is therefore important to have a closer look at dysfunctional collaboration – through the context of Lesson Study. This is partly because, I think, unless you can recognise dysfunction, you can’t start to address it. I also think that dysfunction can look different in different contexts, and as I am unlikely to have experienced all of the types of dysfunction you might experience in a Lesson Study, this blog just hopes to provide some insight into dysfunction you may encounter.
I suppose a suitable spoiler at this point is: Simply putting someone into a team does not mean that their collaboration will be effective, efficient or kind. There are a lot more considerations that are important, and if you neglect them dysfunctional collaboration can occur and this could be quite damaging to any future collaboration you do.
What does dysfunction look like?
Dysfunction is when the Lesson Study team – within the participants – collaborates in a way that is more difficult, disruptive or unpleasant. When I recently framed dysfunction in Lesson Study (Mynott, 2019) I suggested it might look like this:
Extract from Lesson Study Outcome Framework (Mynott, 2019)
Under each heading of Time, Collaboration and Expertise you can see some of the qualities that might make a Lesson Study dysfunctional.
In the rest of the blog, I am going to focus on egos and their impact on collaboration.
Types of egos
There are always egos. Egos can be big and they can also be small. One of the things I have learnt about egos is that you cannot be entirely sure of the root of someone’s ego and what they ego might look in a Lesson Study context, until you start. This is because confidence can be bluster, and equally what might look like uncertainty could be masking detailed knowledge. What is important is that in a Lesson Study team, particularly as a facilitator, you need to be prepared for all types of ego.
A dominant ego might belong to someone who wants to consume the collaborative space. This is an individual who has a lot of words to say (these might be brilliant and inspiring words) but they are dominating the space and therefore they are not necessarily giving others space to explore their thinking and also giving themselves time to reflect on their own learning. This kind of dominant ego can be addressed through the facilitator or chair of a Lesson Study team ensuring that all members are heard in relatively equal amounts. Of course, that might mean at times asking this dominant talker to take a turn listening.
The uncertain ego. The individuals who appear uncertain can be very tricky in a Lesson Study dynamic. They are tricky because they might genuinely be uncertain, in which case they need time and encouragement, or they might be self-deprecating in order to appear a certain way to the rest of the team. The danger of spending time in a Lesson Study team building the confidence of these individuals is that the team might end up being dysfunctional because it has been drawn into affirming the egos of these uncertain individuals. Again, structure can help. If the facilitator gives specific tasks such as asking each individual to comment on the planned learning in the group, it deflects the focus of the collaboration away from the individual and back to the learning, meaning that the individual can find certainty in their thinking, even if it takes longer to feel it in themselves.
The ‘I’m right’ ego. Sometimes, learning can cause a significant amount of threat to an individual. This is often felt strongly if the belief challenged is something the individual feels passionately about or has worked hard on. At other times an individual might have more experience within a subject, topic or year group than other members of the group. This can lead to heated exchanges within a Lesson Study team. If this occurs it is important that the facilitator or chair returns to the protocols of the Lesson Study (see Dudley, 2014 or Stepanek et al, 2007 for more information on protocols). It is also important to remember that if a large amount of cognitive dissonance occurs for an individual, a break, might be a really good idea. This break might give an individual time to process and reflect on their learning, but also come to terms with what they now think, without taking their frustration out on the rest of the Lesson Study team.
It is also important to recognise that the ‘I’m right’ person could be correct, but can the rest of the group see this from their own reading, observing and notes. If not, it might be that reflection and revision of the learning so far are needed to help understand the differences of opinions within the group. The facilitator needs to help this understanding grow, and this might mean they need the break to re-plan and re-shape the discussion focus to revisit previous work in more detail, or draw out more evidence from the current work to support further discussion based on learning, so it does not become solely focused on opinions or preferences.
The ‘non-sharing’ ego. There are a few individuals who do not share freely in collaborative structures. There reasons are not necessarily linked to the above egos but are more culturally tied to the way the school system works. These individuals cannot see any benefit in making others better, because if they do, then they will have to be better themselves in order to continually be perceived as better than someone else. Therefore, in collaboration they might only provide lip-service to the process, and never discuss or share anything of depth. This kind of ego is very challenging, because essentially there is a real fear behind this ego, that in helping someone else be better they will be perceived as becoming worse. The fact that any teacher can feel like this is heart-breaking, because it is never a message that they would teach to a child. Yet, in a high-stakes accountability structure if you perceive yourself only through comparison this can be hard to change. This barrier can stop schools and individuals working together and a facilitator has to work hard to ensure that each participant is contributing. Again, the structure of how a session runs will need to make sure that everyone has both opportunity and space to contribute and that it is expected that everyone will bring their observations of the learning to the review meeting.
Reasons behind the egos
When someone is projecting fault or failings onto another, the team is not working together in collaboration. In that moment of challenge, it can be easy to blame the individuals, but actually, each challenging ego needs to be considered in their context, their history and within the dynamic of the Lesson Study team. Some of the contexts or reasons have been outlined below.
Lack of experience with observation
If teachers are only used to being observed in formal systems of accountability, they will think that observation is a critique of the teacher rather than a discussion of the learning. This is dangerous, because it means that the observers are only thinking about a person within the team, not the essence of the collaborative work. It can be all too easy to fall into a trap of criticism of an individual when actually it is important to remember that Lesson Study work is exploratory, and therefore unlikely to be perfect. Dudley (2014), Stepanek et al (2007) all suggest that it is important to ensure that the Lesson Study team understand that their collaboration is a joint endeavour and therefore when they talk about a lesson, they need to shift their pronoun usage to ‘We’ and ‘Our’. For example, it would be: Our lesson did not quite go the way we planned it! The dominant and uncertain egos are likely to be influenced by the previous experience of the observation system and it might mean that prior to the Lesson Study cycle starting its research lessons, time needs to be taken to practice and build observation skills.
Not being prepared to work collaboratively
Secondly, if teachers have not been sufficiently prepared to work together, they may be threatened or anxious about sharing their thinking or work. Teachers are too often working on their own and this means that they have to work to traverse their own individualism to work with others. This is where the old issue with group tasks also plays a part, because while the value of learning from others will not be denied, it is often more straightforward to just get on with the task at hand.
Not usually working with others can also make collaboration scary as the teachers might be uncertain about their own practice. Not feeling safe to fail, is a good way of describing this, and while we spend a lot of time ensuring that pupils feel that they could and should learn from their mistakes, this philosophy is often denied to teachers. And sometimes as teachers we can be our own worse enemies. I will always recall a primary languages, non-specialist, teacher posting a resource online (a good few years ago now) that was then ripped apart by language teacher colleagues, as it was deemed imperfect. That is an example of dysfunctional behaviour, because in all likelihood, that person hasn’t posted another resource again, and probably felt less confident teaching languages. If you are worried that is how you will be treated with your own teaching work then it can make you reticent to try.
This is even more the case if you have already worked hard to develop something in your own practice, but in the collaboration proposed you are being asked to freely share it and allow it to be critiqued. You might need to have sufficient time to explore this in the collaboration, or if an individual is taken into a team because of their knowledge, should they be a team member or are they a knowledgeable other? Whatever is decided it is important that the collaboration is clear and explicit from the beginning: the collaboration needs a purpose.
The purpose will focus the work, the learning and the whole project. The stronger and clearer the purpose the easier it is to navigate different egos. What are you developing? What do you need to find out? If the purpose of the Lesson Study is clear then using protocols like those offered by Dudley’s (2014) Handbook are going to support the discussion away from individuals and towards joint exploration.
Creating a safe space is vital. This stems initially from the protocols set at the beginning of any Lesson Study work. I have started writing this up on a piece of large paper, with each individual team taking ownership of the precise working of their protocols so they become the governing rules of the individual Lesson Study team. Being on a poster, means they are easy to refer back to and whenever there is a need to address an aspect of dysfunction within the collaboration, reference to the protocols is then visual, simple but also understandable by all members of the team. In establishing your team’s protocols, you set out the basic expectations of how the team will interact, and this in turn helps create a safer space to work in, fail in, and to exchange thoughts that are still forming.
Using a facilitator or a chairperson. I am sure in some Lesson Study teams it is possible for the team themselves to facilitate the whole process, but I find it increasingly useful to use a facilitator in the meetings to help guide the discussion, to keep time and to help everyone have a section of space. How the facilitator can work effectively will be the subject of another blog, but as I have written this blog, I have shown how the facilitator can counter any aspects of dysfunctional egos.
Maintaining purpose. It is really important to maintain the purpose and focus of a Lesson Study cycle. Revisiting your question regularly, summarising what you know and what you have learnt at the end of each session and starting the next session with this summary is a good why to keep focused. I like to use the question: What has been in your minds this week linked to the Lesson Study work? It is a good way to bring everyone back to the learning from a previous session, but also see what reflection has taken place outside of the Lesson Study structure. There is always something, someone has read something, someone has tried out an idea, and this question allows it to be valued, drawn into the cycle and then if useful integrated into the shared work.
Dudley, P. (2014). Lesson Study: A handbook, Cambridge, Lesson Study UK (LSUK) http://lessonstudy.co.uk/lesson-study-a-handbook/
Mynott, J. (2019). ‘Lesson Study Outcomes: a theoretical model’, International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, https://doi.org/10.1108/IJLLS-08-2018-0057
Stepanek, J., Appel, G., Leong, M., Mangan, M. & Mitchell, M. (2007). Leading Lesson Study: A practical guide for teachers and facilitators, Corwin Oaks Press, California.