Collaboration, Leonardo, and Jazz; Lessons for Teachers

All too often teaching is an isolating profession.  It is ironic that new teachers enter the profession because they like to work with people.  Instead of collaborating with other teachers and working together as professionals to teach students and learn from and support each other, many new teachers end up alone in their classroom feeling a sense of isolation.  It is unfortunate that often even experienced teachers seek an isolating practice. This may occur because of structural constraints within their school such as a lack of common prep/collaboration time, or because the teachers prefer to keep their planning and reflection as a professional to themselves.

Certainly it can be argued that truly gifted and passionate teachers can engage students and develop practice without needing to collaborate with colleagues.  A truly gifted and passionate teacher may pore through the journals of teaching, learning, and assessment and develop their practice and scholarship in the classroom without ever having to work with a collaborative team of colleagues. While I will acknowledge this isolationist practice may be successful, I contend that this would be the exception and not the rule for our profession.  DuFour and Eaker argue that:

“…to build professional learning communities, meaningful collaboration must be systematically embedded into the daily life of the school… Building collaborative cultures require that schools create structures to ensure that every staff member is assigned to a team that works together on substantive issues.” (1998:119)

Consider the story of Leonardo da Vinci.  When Leonardo died in 1519 his collection of some 13,000 pages of notes containing his eclectic and brilliant theories, discoveries, knowledge, and research essentially became lost to his contemporaries.  Indeed, of the original 13,000 pages only a rough estimate of 7,000 pages remains today.  The others have been lost through time and through the carelessness of those charged with watching over Leonardo’s estate.  Biographer, Michael White estimates that “Leonardo’s work was effectively lost to civilization for almost two hundred years; two hundred years in which others rediscovered many of the ideas Leonardo had revealed but never published” (White, 2000:3).

Leonardo has been labeled by countless historians as the “Renaissance Man”, primarily because he epitomizes the sought after characteristics of the age.  His mastery of art, architecture, science, engineering, and mathematics are a testament to his brilliance.  Leonardo was also labeled the “lone genius” in large part because his knowledge was far more advanced than his contemporaries.

“Leonardo’s findings, we now know, predated many important scientific discoveries, but in this account I show how his thoughts were literally sealed off from society and tragically wasted, lost for two centuries while the world caught up and relearned lessons already taught…. In Leonardo we may see the marriage of what many consider the extremes of human intellect, and in him art and science reached a Gestalt, giving us both true art and true science, each energized and made better by the other.” (White, 2000:9)

Imagine if Leonardo had collaborated.   Imagine if his knowledge had been taught and communicated with colleagues who shared his passion for discovery and the refinement of their craft.  While I acknowledge that da Vinci was a unique genius gifted to us all to serve as a reminder of potential greatness of humankind; I struggle to understand why he could not bring others along with him in his journey of brilliance.

In education, the ‘lone genius’ as it applies to teaching, is largely ineffectual in isolation.  A master teacher, one who has advanced his/her pedagogy coupled with experience, is a tremendous asset to the profession and obviously to students. However, in isolation, even the most driven teacher must battle complacency and can become static, even cynical. The social nature of schools suggests collaboration as an alternative paradigm to professional practice.  Collaboration facilitates growth for the entire professional learning community. The implications for teaching and learning with regard to a collaborative culture are far-reaching and certainly more effective.

Consider the following metaphor of jazz musicians as an alternative paradigm to teaching practice:

“As in the artisan [collaborative] communities we studied, communities of jazz musicians work together to develop their improvisational skills, to create new compositions and arrangements, and to build and sustain commitment to jazz among musicians and the public.  Experts guide younger members in applying their technical knowledge by constantly rehearsing and performing with them, thereby transmitting their deep sense of responsibility for the music. With time and experience, newcomers gradually accept greater responsibilities within bands, not only serving as soloists, but contributing original ideas for repertory and musical arrangements.” (Talbert & McLaughlin 2002)

When teachers purposely collaborate about curriculum, methods of formative assessment, and formatively use the results of common summative assessments, the data and the discussion will inform curricular decisions and teaching practice.   This collaboration and improvisation among teachers, similar to the collaboration and improvisation which occurs among jazz musicians, serves to further their pedagogical understanding and promotes a positive professional learning community where teachers work in concert with curriculum, practice, and students.

Furthermore, the metaphor can also be useful when you consider the interplay between teacher, student, curriculum, and assessment in the classroom.  Each student as a learner brings to the classroom different understandings and levels of motivation for the lesson and the teacher (who you could consider to be the director of the band) has to work to nurture interest and formatively assess understanding as the lesson progresses.  Together the band (teacher and students) make decisions and interact with the curriculum in an intentional manner to create scholarship similar to how a band interacts with the written score and director to create a concert of music.

This approach while neat in theory will often be messy in practice. In practice with colleagues there will be conflict, disagreement, strong pedagogical differences and emotion which will need to be navigated. But this is natural and expected; rarely do a group of teachers sit around and discuss practice and find themselves reaching complete agreement on every topic.  Actually I’ve experienced more growth as a professional when there is some tension and conflict.  Not the type of conflict which results in feelings being hurt or people being attacked, but rather the differences of opinion which can be debated and tested.  Michael Fullan argues that, “Conflict, if respected, is positively associated with creative breakthroughs under complex, turbulent conditions.  Consensus would be pleasant, but actually is impossible to achieve except through superficial agreement.” (1999:22)

Indeed as a teacher in the Social Studies I relish those moments in the classroom when there is genuine and respectful debate and discourse among the students.  You can see, feel and hear the scholarship being created and the levels of interest and motivation rising.

I’ve also experienced those moments with my colleagues in our collaborative efforts.  We have worked together for several years now and the dialogue is professional.  We have developed a relationship and level of trust which affords genuine and respectful debate and discourse.  This situation has fostered professional sharing and creative thought as we work together on curriculum and common assessments.

Collaboration may sound like pedagogical utopia, but it isn’t.  It has some negative characteristics (others may call them challenges) which you need to be mindful about as you navigate your professional practice:

  1. Collaboration can create an outstanding mediocrity.  Collaborative groups are often expected to work together because they teach a common curriculum; however these groups often vary in experience which is a double-edged sword.  Sometimes in an attempt to reach consensus some opinions are stifled while others ‘give-in’ and before you know it you’ve agreed upon a compromised solution which invariably achieves mediocrity.
  2. Collaboration can squash the most driven professionals.  Recently I’ve been reading Drive by Daniel Pink; it’s an interesting and well-written book investigating ‘what motivates us.’  He reveals that when people are forced to work together using a carrot-stick model the results can often be far less productive.  Read the book; the implications for teaching and education are fascinating.
  3. Collaborative models are often forced onto the traditional schedules and teachers are expected to navigate the challenges.  Teachers are already over-scheduled. When you consider the amount of time American teachers spend in a classroom compared with other nations (you know, the nations who consistently out-score American students on the PISA exam) it becomes clear that American teachers are not afforded enough time for professional development. Despite some recent improvements in professional-training opportunities, “we’re way behind other countries that are high-achieving in terms of the time and intensive opportunity for deep learning they provide,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University education professor.[1]

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a proponent of collaborative professional learning communities and I believe schools should implement these models and do everything possible to nurture the potential relationships teachers are sure to develop.  Furthermore, it is important to state that potential collaboration exists for teachers beyond the classroom and the school building.  Teachers need to take advantage of the opportunities available to collaborate with others using sites such as the Educator’s PLN, Twitter, Wiggio, etc.  But to suggest that this is the silver bullet and the collaborative paradigm will fix everything is simply naïve.

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  1. Randy Bailey

    Nice piece, Todd. You’re hitting close to home with “even the most driven teacher must battle complacency and can become static, even cynical”. I yearn, yearn, YEARN to learn from (& share with) talented, passionate colleagues, because I KNOW that’s what I need to move forward and get better in this profession — but the best I seem to manage is absolutely inadequate: 10 seconds while passing in the hall, maybe a few minutes with colleagues after work on Fridays, a short email exchange about some issue-of-the-moment. To do ANY serious collaboration requires repeated, ongoing blocks of uninterrupted time, and those just do not exist within our hyper-scheduled teaching day. My alleged “duty day” is already overflowing with the basic teaching tasks — planning lessons, helping kids, responding to parents — and then I’m still checking work email at home at night, just so I don’t fall behind TOO far. Your suggestions for online collaboration are well and good, but are no substitute for face-to-face communication — not to mention the issue of WHEN a teacher is supposed to find the time to log on! Evenings? Weekends? I’m growing to realize — and resent — that doing this job properly (much less well) seems to require a selflessness that I find harder and harder to rationalize. This way lies insanity.

  2. Todd Beach

    Thanks for your thoughts Randy…I’m convinced that to do this work properly we should teach less and collaborate and think more. If afforded that opportunity, I know I would be better at my practice. I think we all would. Until that day comes, I’m thankful for my colleagues who understand these challenges, frustrations, and emotions.

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