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Thoughts on collaboration in education

One of the most social and isolating professions?

 |  education

collaboration teaching agile

While digging through the usual daily stack of academic papers, in pursuit of that one report that might help me understand my own research questions, I stumbled upon the work of Kathleen Ofstedal and Kathryn Dahlberg. In a 2007 paper called “Collaboration in Student Teaching: Introducing the Collaboration Self-Assessment Tool", they explain why collaboration in student-teaching environments might prove troublesome.

Two major reasons are brought forward.

1. Power

According to them, “Respectful, supportive, and collaborative relationships that go both ways are difficult for teachers and their candidates to build when there is a noticeable power differential.”

Evaluation of the teacher candidate by the cooperating teacher is a significant factor in creating the power differential. Smyth (1986)

Then they continue to talk about the hierarchical relationship between the university supervisor (e.g. my PhD supervisors) and the cooperating teacher/teacher candidate (e.g. me?). It struck me as how similar this is to my own experience in re-entering higher education after eleven years of experience in the field. My peers of course respect me, as they do others who are less experienced than me. However, there is indeed a nearly visible hierarchical “thing” going on.

The ones with the PhD and tenured professorship status, and the ones that work for them. However hard they try to debunk this, it is unfortunately still very present.

2. Isolation

Lortie’s research in 1975 already concluded that teaching is marked by privatism: you do your thing, I do my thing - let’s not interfere. You want me to use your tool? I’d rather not. Mine is better. I’m used to this one. Does this sound familiar?

Cookson described it teaching (in higher education) as:

…one of the most social occupations, but also one of the most isolating professions. Cookson (2007)

Although collaboration and sharing is required to help students achieve their maximum potential, it still barely happens. In 2020, thirteen years later, I can scarcely see any improvements.

Attempts of my own to unify things are mostly dismissed - although they were “well-evaluated”. Everyone uses their own teaching methodology, toolset, way of interacting with students, and so forth. I’m not advocating for one tool to rule them all, but feedback from students is clear: they hate that every professor, assistant and researcher requires them to do things differently.

We usually respond by saying the feedback is statistically irrelevant. That’ll teach them.

The introduction of the paper ends with this encouraging sentence: “Armed with these skills, new teachers will be able to change the traditional culture of isolationism.” I think it’s planned for release somewhere in 2034.

After reading this, I simply felt very sad. It (again) made me seriously doubt my decision to leave the team-based software development world. We as academics love writing about things, like collaboration, but I have the feeling that we don’t really know what we’re talking about. It not only confirms what I wrote about agile and academica, but it generalizes the notion of “no fast feedback” to “no feedback at all”.


I once spoke to Wim Bollen of Ductu about collaborating. “Teamwork", a fancy word that is likely to pop up in any business-related contemporary article, is something we also loved to complain about in the industry, when I worked as a software engineer. Working together is certainly challenging, but Wim identified interesting nuances in “collaboration”: he called 90% of what everyone thinks is collaborating, co-working. You do this, I do that, and in the end, we’ll throw stuff together. Done.

This is exactly the well-employed strategy in the academic world when researchers (including myself) claim to have collaborated with someone. In Elseviers’ A brief guide to research collaboration for the young scholar (I wonder if 35 still counts as a young scholar?) presents a few synonyms:

It is widely accepted that collaboration in research across disciplines, between young and more senior researchers and with practitioners is critical to the career of novice researchers.

I completely agree. However, based on the context of the article, it’s clear that they are talking about co-working. You do this, I do that, and in the end, we’ll throw stuff together. Done. I’m afraid I’ve been spoiled too much with pair programming and some exceptional ex-colleagues. Thanks guys.

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I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a level 35 Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too. Read more about me here.

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