Ingredients for Authentic Collaboration
True collaboration results only when there is a commitment to bringing the experiences, values and thoughts of multiple educators to the table so that they can listen to one another. Merely convoking teachers with different backgrounds and expertise, or who work in different grade levels or types of schools, will not ensure a rich exchange of ideas or promote growth in learning.
The Definition of and Importance of Real Collaboration
Ecclesiastes speaks about how one should not be alone, as there is greater protection, support and strength when one has a partner: Tovim hashnayim min ha-echad, two are better than one. As educators, we all know that the same principle applies whether writing curriculum or developing programs. Working with a partner can be far more effective than working alone. Even more relevant is the continuation of the verse in Ecclesiastes: “a threefold cord is not easily broken.”
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “collaborate” as “work jointly with others or together, especially in an intellectual endeavor.” The definition sounds simple: put two or more people together to work on a joint venture, and you’ve got collaboration. But what we strive for in education in terms of collaboration is so much more. Our belief is that by proactively crafting joint efforts that take into account the unique strengths of each working partner, the result will be far better than merely putting two people together in a room and telling them to collaborate.
The education theorist Joseph Schwab focused on the need for a deliberative stance in curriculum planning. Schwab claimed that in order to produce the best materials, groups needed to be formed so that there was one participant to represent each of the four commonplaces of education (child’s perspective/development, teacher needs, subject matter innovation, and social component/social change) with a fifth who was a curriculum specialist. Simply put, Schwab understood that in order to achieve quality curricular results, one needed to bring together a range of varied expertise in a way that would allow for serious and productive collaboration.
An “Old-New” Model of Collaboration
As Jews, we do not have to go far to find an excellent model for good collaboration. Havruta learning has been the core of Jewish text study for thousands of years. However, it is not self-evident that good collaboration takes place in every environment where havruta is used. Havruta study that is a truly collaborative effort involves far more than just sitting with a partner.
According to the landmark scholarship of Orit Kent and Allison Cook, “Havruta learning [is] composed of three pairs of core practices: listening and articulating; wondering and focusing; and supporting and challenging.” Within each of those couplets, havruta participants are required to bring their own thoughts, feelings, ideas, beliefs. They are expected to wonder about the thread of the text from their own perspective, and to challenge their partner’s ideas with their own. At the same time, havruta participants are not only encouraged but required to take into account the partner’s thoughts, feelings, ideas and beliefs. They must actively listen to their partner and validate their thinking; they must support their partner’s wondering and then help them refocus on the text when it’s time; they must challenge their partner in a supportive manner and support their partner in a challenging manner. In short: real havruta learning inculcates and celebrates the idea that different people can and should work together. Each havruta participant is charged with bringing their own best self, and with bringing out their partner’s best self. In havruta learning, both of these are of equal and utmost importance.
This is the collaborative model we believe in at Pardes. Bringing together learning partners from different backgrounds, denominations, genders and interest areas is the ideal that we aim for in our beit midrash. Our cohorts of Jewish educators in training consist of both future day school Jewish studies teachers and experiential Jewish educators; the cross-pollination of the very different types of educators working collaboratively exponentially enriches the program.
Now, it is imperative to say out loud: the skills of havruta—collaboration—must be learned and practiced. They must be modeled and instilled. Within actual Torah study, these skills are much more important than the learning level of the two members of a havruta. The object is not to get through the material but to wrestle with it, so that the ultimate understanding is far greater than what either partner could have achieved alone—the mark of good collaboration. This is just as true in our schools when creating curriculum or solving institutional issues as it is in a beit midrash when studying Torah. That wrestling with material, addressing an issue, or creating a program or curriculum can certainly happen within or across departments and grade levels if collaborative skills are taught to faculty, and if school leadership stresses the value of each individual bringing their own self, knowledge, experience and openness to the other to the endeavor. We need to ask ourselves if, and how often, we do that in our schools and institutions.
Bringing each teacher’s voice to the collaborative work
We believe that the first step toward collaboration is actually self-reflection, as counterintuitive as that might seem. Each partner needs to be aware of his/her own thoughts, values, strengths, challenges and the experiences he/she brings to the equation. In laying out his theory of multiple intelligences, Howard Gardner includes intrapersonal (the ability to self-reflect).
We have made self-reflection a key and initial component of the work we do at the Pardes Center for Jewish Educators. In pedagogy class, we ask students to first reflect on themselves as learners. Later they explore what it means to have a vision, and before graduating, they produce a piece on their own beliefs (Ani Ma’amin). Our last two tefillah conferences (called Aleinu Leshabe’ach) began with sessions on “Myself as Mitpalel,” and from there to “Myself as Tefilah Facilitator.” We have taken the same approach in our professional development work on “Myself as a Student of Bible,” and moving from there to “Myself as Bible Teacher.” In all settings, to achieve valuable collaborative work, each person needs to be aware of what they have to contribute.
The second step involves sharing that reflection with others. Not only do we need to know “who am I,” but also “who is the other.” What different perspective might they have to share based on what they bring? (Here, we connect to Gardner’s interpersonal intelligence.) In fact, simply recognizing that there are other ways to view the world than the one we have is a major step forward, and requires the type of learning how to collaborate that we referred to above.
Being clear as to what we bring, and understanding what the other brings, is the basis upon which we can then proceed to learn, grow and work together in applying the learning. This prevents the situation where one person drags along the others in the team, without giving them ample opportunity to contribute—and therefore to arrive at a collaborative work that is deeper and more nuanced than what any one member might have done alone.
There are so many opportunities for this to take place in schools. Peer coaching, practiced in only a few schools thus far, has the potential for real growth if carefully carried out. More schools are beginning to experiment with PLCs (Professional Learning Communities), designed to allow teachers to collaborate and enrich one another’s understanding of the field they are addressing.
Assuring we Have Set the Stage
As administrators we need to ask ourselves, have we done the necessary preparatory work to allow collaboration to happen? Have we sufficiently emphasized its value within our school? Have we communicated that value in annual reviews and in hiring? Have we created time and space within the school for teachers to work together? Have we created community and safe space for our teachers? Have we helped them to acquire the needed skills?
Thousands of educators have embraced the concept of 21st-century learning, with collaboration a key element of that approach. The skills for success that are now needed for the global citizens of tomorrow rely upon creative collaboration. If for no other reason than to be able to help our students acquire these much-needed skills, we as administrators and teachers need to experience what it means to work collaboratively. We must learn how to work effectively and respectfully with others who may come from different backgrounds and function differently than we do. We need to be able to value the contributions made by each member of any team of which we are a member.