Collaboration and relational trust with Dr Kylie Lipscombe
Dr Kylie Lipscombe is a senior lecturer and researcher in the School of Education at the University of Wollongong (UOW).
Her program of research is aimed at positively influencing professional practice in schools in the fields of middle leadership, school leadership, teacher collaboration, and teacher and leadership professional learning.
In these 4 videos, Dr Lipscombe explores building relational trust and a collaborative culture, and the importance of collaboration as a school leader and in student learning.
Building relational trust
Working together does require a very high level of relational trust. It's interesting because there's a bit of a misconception that you need to build trust to be able to engage in deep levels of collaboration. In actual fact, it's the opposite, that it's when you engage in deep levels of collaboration that is respectful that you develop trust. It doesn't happen. It's not a prerequisite to collaboration. It actually happens by doing the work and then how you do the work together.
Some of those key components I think are a level of psychological safety, for example. There's some work by Amy Edmondson, who's a professor in psychological safety, and she talks about that teams need to build a culture or an environment where they're not threatened to engage in highly complex work.
Part of that, again, I think, really comes back to the importance of a facilitator, because you want that facilitator to provide protocols, for example, or processes that are transparent, so people know steps and, and questions and tasks that they're going to engage in together. There's a level of safety around it because it's a set protocol.
Middle leaders can model as well. Model failing, model problem solving, model innovation. They are able to come to these meetings and say, "I tried this and it didn't work, but what I've learned is this". That creates that environment where teachers feel a level of safety being able to share what's really happening in classrooms, and know that they have people around them that, again, are taking collective responsibility for the students that they serve by helping that teacher problem solve that practice.
Collaboration and student learning
School leaders need to ensure that the investment in collaboration in their schools is directly impacting student learning, and they can do that in a range of different ways. First and foremost, they need to make sure that the educators and leaders that are working together in collaborative teams usually have trusting relationships.
Now, trusting relationships, it is a bit of a fad word. We have professional trust, we need to build trust, but it is so important for student-centered impactful teacher collaboration, because unless you have trust with the people that you are collaborating with, you're not going to have the space to challenge assumptions and challenge ideas and share student learning data and engage in those really complex conversations that we know can make a difference to student learning.
We need to also have shared goals. Again, if we want to focus the work in our collaborative teams on something that's going to make a difference, we need to have shared goals based around student learning. Of course, to do that, we need student learning data.
Part of being student centered and impactful teacher collaboration is making sure that data is part of the work that we do. Data includes having access to data. It includes being data literate in terms of knowing how to analyse data, collect data, make evidence informed decisions based on data.
Of course, when we invest in that work as a school leader with our teachers, we can ensure that the task of collaboration will have an impact on student learning. We need to make sure that when people come together. I like to talk about that as collide. School leaders need to find opportunities, as many opportunities formally and informally for teachers to collide together to talk about teaching and learning.
We need to support them to actually have deep level conversations that are both reflective as well as facilitated. Reflective is about giving them tools and strategies, and again, the use of data to deeply reflect on their own practice and think about the relationship between teacher practice and student learning. What's making an impact for who? How do we get to growth? If this student isn't growing to the capacity that we'd like to see, well, what do we need to change and do differently? What resources do we have? What resources don't we have? How can we do things differently?
So, deep levels of reflective and facilitated conversation are also really important for student-centered impactful teacher collaboration.
Collaboration for school leaders
Collaboration is a really broad term, and it's used in lots of different organisations, lots of different settings, but it has a very deliberate meaning when we're thinking about collaboration in schools and in educational settings.
There's been significant levels of research completed around collaboration from many, many years ago, both nationally and internationally. As we research and examine it at a deeper level, we're starting to really unsurface what is it, what are the main characteristics that define effective collaboration in schools?
I would say that it's based around sort of 4 key areas. The first one is really around a process, and it is a process of 2 or more people working together. In the case of schools, it's usually teachers and leaders working together. It's certainly a relationship. The relationship component is that those 2 or more people working together have to have an interpersonal and interdependent relationship. The interpersonal relationship is they have to have professional trusting relationships together in order to be able to do the complex work that they need to do.
The second part of defining collaboration is really around relationships, and the relationship of 2 or more people needs to be interdependent. That interdependence means that they rely on one another and they have a collective responsibility around the work that they do. That really distinguishes the difference between cooperation, which is often where groups of people find a way to work together to be most efficient, whereas collaboration isn't necessarily around efficiency, it's around effectiveness. We know that effectiveness is working together, learning together, engaging in deep levels of collaboration, and taking shared responsibility for teaching and learning.
The third part of defining collaboration is around the task. The task is, bringing people together in deep and meaningful relationships actually won't make an impact unless the work that they do is actually based on teaching and learning. The tasks that people do when they're working collaboratively together have to be focused on teaching and learning, which is the fourth component, we get results and impact. The whole purpose of collaboration in schools is really to make the greatest difference and the greatest impact for the students that we serve by working together and taking collective responsibility.
Now, why is that significant for leaders? Well, we know from research, both nationally and internationally, we have some fantastic scholars such as Andy Hargreaves and Alma Harris. We've done some work nationally as well, around the impact that collaboration can have in our schools.
It can have impact around team effectiveness, obviously building relationships so people can work better together. It can have a greater impact on teacher practice in terms of actually improving the capacity of teachers. We also, most importantly, know that it can improve student learning, which is why it's worth investing in by school leaders.
Building a collaborative culture
School leaders need to have a very active and committed role in building teacher collaboration in their schools, and they can do it in a range of different ways.
First and foremost, they need to be student-centered leaders themselves. They need to have a commitment, moral purpose to student learning. Viviane Robinson, almost the pioneer of student-centered leadership, would say that moral purpose isn't enough. It needs to be followed by action. School leaders need to have the moral purpose of commitment to ensure that student learning is positive and growing and making a difference, but it needs to be followed and aligned with action that is focused and aligned to that moral purpose.
Part of that as a school leader is ensuring that you don't develop silos of teacher teams. What I mean by that is, and this is particularly relevant in large schools and particularly large secondary schools, where you can build a structure where you've got multiple teacher teams working, but they're actually not working as a collaborative culture. Instead, they're working in silo in their own teams.
A school leader needs to invest in building a collaborative culture, a pattern of learned assumptions that educators and leaders have learnt by working together and have built those beliefs and assumptions that working together is the most effective way to improve student learning.
I guess culture is then really about if we understand that this is the way we work, then we invest in it and prioritise it. Part of building the culture is actually creating the conditions and creating the conditions for everyone within that culture to work that way, so work in a student-centered, impactful, collaborative way.
One of the conditions is time. Teachers need dedicated time outside of their teaching to be able to work together. Again, that is timely enough to make a difference in the classroom, and we need processes.
It's not enough to say, "okay, team A, you're going to meet from 12.30 to 1.30 every week. Team B, you're going to meet from 2.30 to 3.30 every week". That's not enough. School leaders need to invest in processes. There are so many different strategies and processes that are around nationally and internationally to support collaborative work. But one of the most significant ones is inquiry.
Again, there's different models of inquiry. I know the School Leadership Institute have their Leadership for Inquiry and Innovation Framework, which is based around a deep examination of inquiry from research, both internationally and nationally, to come up with a framework that is very contextualised to New South Wales public education.
That would be a wonderful start, something like a process that actually helps teachers move through different stages. It doesn't have to be linear because inquiry isn't linear, but move through different stages to learn about what's happening in their environment by engaging with others, researching evidence, trialling and piloting ideas, obviously determining a key focus for the inquiry and then investing in it deeply and moving through small levels of inquiry to keep learning and celebrating and reflecting and modifying their practice.
Those types of processes like inquiry really help teachers or are a really positive condition for teachers to actually work with student-centered impactful teacher collaboration.