My work as an educator has been guided by a firm belief in the power of the collective wisdom of groups to engage in their own professional learning and work collaboratively to improve learning for all students. Richard and Becky DuFour, Michael Fullan and others have promoted this idea as a key to educational change.
Yet, this simple idea has remained elusive. Working together is tougher than it would seem. Educators struggle with how to make their collaborative work with colleagues productive, engaging and transformative. Throughout my own career, I have had two kinds of experiences. I have participated in lively discussions with colleagues, asking tough questions and really pushing to make our classrooms engaging places for students to learn. I have also been a part of other group or team efforts that are nothing more than an exercise of going through the motions — filling out a meeting log, following a perfunctory protocol, and having stilted conversations. I have wondered what makes the difference between these two very different team processes.
Margaret Wheatley’s book, Leadership and the New Science, provided a good starting point for me in exploring the tendency of well-intentioned efforts to implement professional communities to fall short of their larger purpose – fostering genuine, student-focused collaboration. Wheatley suggests that as educational leaders attempt to implement changes, they tend to focus most of their attention on “rational” elements of their organizations “above the green line” such as strategies, processes, and structures (Dalmau, 2000; Wheatley, 2006). By attending to these more visible aspects of the organization, they attempt to exert control over the change process (Wheatley, 2006). In essence, the observable aspects of organizations align with expectations of the traditional role of school administrators namely to manage people and procedures aimed at achieving specific objectives.
In their initial efforts to implement PLCs, school leaders have placed their primary focus “above the green line” – toward those aspects of the organization that are visible, and seemingly “controllable.” Along these lines, educational leaders focus their efforts on creating schedules and blocks of time for teachers to meet, implementing team meeting logs and agendas to monitor group processes, structuring protocols to guide goal setting and discussion. In so doing, many schools reform initiatives that have only attended to the aspects of collaboration “above the green line” fall prey to “collaboration lite” (DuFour, 2003).
Applying Wheatley’s conceptual framework to teacher collaboration helps us to understand the difficulties noted in implementing these practices. Even though much of the literature on professional learning communities has identified critical processes, structures and strategies aimed at facilitating teacher collaboration that are focused on student learning, this work does not really help us to understand the essential elements “below the green line” – how trust, mutual relationships based on respect, and the free flow of information – make authentic collaboration possible.
Educational thinkers have highlighted the importance of structural, process and strategic factors in fostering collaboration — the need for creating time to meet, physical proximity and size of school to facilitate interaction, interdependence of teaching roles, maintaining a focus on student learning, communication systems in building and sustaining teacher professional communities. All of these aspects that bring teachers together for collaborative purposes lie at the surface. While these structures and processes may be necessary for the development of professional learning communities, they are not sufficient.
By approaching “the development of a PLC as an innovation to be implemented,” Karen Seashore Louis (2006) notes practitioners have failed to appreciate the depth and complexity required to bring about cultural change. To ensure deep learning and authentic engagement also requires going beneath the surface to explore the conditions that facilitate healthy relationships and open dialogue in which all participants have access to information about the organization and how it is performing.
Moreover, people in the organization need to feel safe in taking reasonable risks, asking questioning and challenging each other’s ideas and practices. If educational leaders are truly interested in fostering the kinds of conditions that support more authentic collaborative working arrangements among teachers, then, Wheatley’s conceptualization urges us to shift our field of vision to examine the dynamics “below the green line” to the less visible, but very powerful aspects of organizations that hold the potential for adaptation and growth.
Wheatley suggests that to facilitate this kind of adaptive change and growth needed for organizations to thrive, special attention needs to be paid to the open and free access to information and developing relationships based on mutual respect and care. In so doing, people in the organization can develop a deep sense of identity based on shared values and purposes.
So, the question becomes — How do we cultivate the aspects of our organizations that are “below the green line” to foster the kinds of professional communities focused on authentic collaboration and meaningful learning for our students?
Feel free to contribute to the dialogue.
A more complete development of these ideas can be found in my dissertation study, “Below the Green Line”: Collaboration, Constructive Conflict and Trust in Teacher Professional Communities.
Dalmau, T. (2000). The Green Line Lens Retrieved from www.dalmau.com/pdfs/green_line_lens.pdf (The “Green Line” model was originally developed by Tim Dalmau based on the work of Meg Wheatley).
DuFour, R. (2003). Leading Edge: ‘Collaboration Lite’ puts student achievement on a starvation diet. Journal of Staff Development, 24(3). Retrieved from http://www.nsdc.org/news/jsd/dufour244.cfm
Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a Culture of Change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Louis, K. S. (2006). Changing the Culture of Schools: Professional Community, Organizational Learning and Trust. Journal of School Leadership, 16(4), 477-489.
Wheatley, M. J. (2006). Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World (Third ed.). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.