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The collaborative practitioner
Chris James and Allyson Jule
University of Glamorgan, Wales, UK
Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual
Conference, University of Glamorgan, 14-17 September 2005
Address for correspondence:
Professor Chris James
Head of the Educational Leadership and Management Research Unit
School of Humanities, Law and Social Science
Forest Hall
University of Glamorgan
Pontypridd, Wales, UK
CF37 1DL
+44(0) 1443-482352
+44(0) 1443-482380
[email protected]
The collaborative practitioner
Chris James and Allyson Jule
University of Glamorgan, Wales, UK
Research in Wales UK into the nature of primary schools where pupil attainment in
national test scores is high despite the pupils experiencing high levels of socioeconomic disadvantage has indicated the importance of:
collaboration - joint working by all the teaching staff
reflective practice amongst all the teaching staff to ensure that practice is
optimally appropriate and continually improving
a focus by all the teaching staff on the primary task of ensuring effective and
enriched teaching for learning for all pupils and improving and enriching teaching
for learning for all pupils.
This way of working has been termed ‘collaborative practice’ and collaboration,
reflective practice and a focus on the primary task, all of which overlap in the work of
the teachers in the schools studied, must all be present if collaborative practice is to be
successful. Collaboration should dominate in the descriptive title of this way of
working because collaborative practice is in essence joint working in a reflective way
on a primary task
In this paper, we review and explain the key components of the collaborative practice
model, develop the model further, explore how the model may be applied to other
settings and examine some of the important characteristics of collaborative
practitioners. We argue for the development of the model and for its application to
other educational and non-educational contexts in order to analyse practice in those
settings. We call for a further exploration of the characteristics of collaborative
practitioners in order that they may be the focus for development.
The collaborative practitioner
Chris James and Allyson Jule
A study in Wales, UK into the nature of primary schools where the level of student
attainment in national test scores is high despite the students experiencing
considerable socio-economic disadvantage has revealed a range of important
characteristics (James, Connolly, Dunning, and Elliot 2004a, 2004b, submitted for
publication, in preparation). One of the important features of these schools was the
importance they gave to highly inclusive and intensive team working. All the teaching
staff were highly collaborative in the ways they worked. The staff of the schools were
also highly reflective in their overall approach. They were keen to ensure that their
practice was optimally appropriate and continually improving. The staff in the schools
also had a clear focus on the task of ensuring effective and enriched teaching for
learning for all pupils and improving and enriching teaching for learning for all
pupils. This task is the primary task of the teaching team (Turquet, 1974; James and
Connolly 2000). We call this way of working collaboratively, in a reflective way on a
primary task, ‘collaborative practice’.
Our intention in this paper is to explain the key components of the collaborative
practice model, to develop the model further, to explore how the model may be
applied to other settings and to examine some of the important characteristics of
collaborative practitioners. We call for a further exploration of the characteristics of
collaborative practitioners in order that they may be the focus for development.
The elements of collaborative practice
The idea of schools, groups of teachers or individual teachers working together
collaboratively has come to the fore explicitly as mode of working relatively recently.
This joint working takes a number of forms, for example in the UK, as partnership
(Bennett, Harvey and Anderson 2004), federation (DfES 2003) and collaboration
itself (Glatter 2003). Our interest is in collaboration because of its original
etymological link with ‘joint working’ (Harper 2001) and principally in collaboration
at the level of educational practice - between individuals and small groups in the same
school – intra-organisational collaboration. The model we develop in this paper
however could be applied to inter-organisational collaboration between institutions.
Inter-institutional collaboration is seen variously as bringing: mutual benefit,
(Huxham 1996); synergy (Roberts et al 1995); a net gain of resources (Weiss 1987);
and the possibility of exchange and thereby gain (Peters 1996). In education, such
collaboration can: counter competitive pressures (Wallace 1998); planning joint
activities between schools (Sullivan 1995); ensure the survival of small rural schools
(Bridges and Husbands 1996); and share the costs of professional development
activities (Lomax and Darley 1995). In all parts of the UK, but particularly in
England, UK, joint working is central to government policy (Glatter 2003).
Collaboration is an important aspect of professional practice in schools and colleges
(Nias, Southworth and Yeomans 1989, Lieberman 1990, Smyth 1991, Wallace and
Hall 1994, Lomax and Darley 1995, Bridges and Husbands 1996). It has been used to
explain the nature of professional practice in education (Quicke 2000) and in other
professional settings, for example, nursing (Clarke, James and Kelly 1996). The idea
of schools as ‘professional communities’ (Louis, Kruse and Bryk 1995, Halverson
2003) or ‘professional learning communities’ (Dufour and Baker 1998, Roberts and
Pruitt 2003) is grounded in the notion of collaboration.
Practice as a collective activity has been brought to the fore as ‘communities of
practice’ by Lave and Wenger (Lave 1991, Lave and Wenger 1991, Wenger 1998,). A
community of practice is “a set of relations among persons, activity and world over
time and in relation with each other” (Lave and Wenger 1991: 98). It can be
described along three dimensions (1) what it is about, (2) how it functions, and (3)
what capability is produced. The production of capability is significant and Lave and
Wenger (1991) argue that “learning is an integral part of generative social practice
in the lived in world” and that “engagement in a social practice entails learning as an
essential constituent” (p34). Reflection on action, an action in itself in a community
of practice, plays a significant part in this learning. The analytical dimension of ‘What
it is about’ (Wenger 1998) raises the status of the primary task in collaborative
communities but perhaps insufficiently. We argue below that a focus on the primary
task is crucial. The primary task has particular status in work groups and a group’s
relationship with it will influence what is learned (Rice 196, Miller and Rice 1963).
The value of collaborative or collective working has also recently been given impetus
by Surowiecki (2004), who in arguing for the wisdom of crowds seeks to counter an
opposite and possibly orthodox view of the ‘stupidity of crowds’. We would argue
that crowds can act both wisely and stupidly, and that leadership and/or the lack of it
may play a part in engendering both characteristics.
One aspect of collaboration in educational settings that is not given prominence,
which we discuss further below, is reflection. If individual professional practice can
be conceptualised as reflective practice, then joint professional working –
collaboration – must also be a reflective practice. If collaboration in education is to be
successful the collaborating partners need to be reflective practitioners who capable of
adjusting their collaborative actions to ensure their actions are optimally appropriate
and to be able to learn from their experience of collaboration and improve it.
Reflective practice
The origins of reflective practice. The notion of reflection in professional practice
came to the fore in the 1980s when Donald Schon used it to explain how professional
practitioners think and act (Schon 1983, 1987). Schon’s concept of reflective practice,
together with David Kolb’s explanation of experiential learning (Kolb, 1984), has
profoundly affected understandings of professional practice especially in education
(see for example, Handal and Lauvas (1987), Calderhead (1989), Sparks-Langer and
Colton (1991), Irwin (1996), Zeichner and Liston (1996), and Reagan, Case and
Brubacher (2000)).
Schon explained that professional practitioners contend with the difficulties of
working in varied contexts by reflecting in action during which they interact with the
context and simultaneously act, ideally with optimal appropriateness. Schon also
argued that professional practitioners reflect on their actions and their reflections in
action in order to learn from them, thereby improving their practice. Reflective
practice thus both optimises and improves professional actions. There are thus two
interlinked dimensions to professional work.
Over the last 20 years, the reflective practitioner concept has been extended,
embellished and critiqued (see for example Killion and Todnem (1991), Van Manen
(1991), Moon (1999), Eraut (1995), Clarke, James and Kelly (1996), Sparks-Langer
and Colton (1991). The work of Habermas (1971), and in particular his concept of
technical, practical and emancipatory knowledge interests, has been used to
understand different levels of reflective practice (Van Manen 1977), each of which
has a different purpose (Zeichner and Gore 1995, Clarke, James and Kelly 1996,
Leitch and Day 2000). At the technical level, the purpose of reflection is to improve
the efficiency and effectiveness of practical skill. At the practical level, its function is
to improve practice in relation to the immediate context. Outcomes of reflection at
this level may enhance the practitioners’ capacity to exercise practical and moral
judgments, to identify problems and to enhance their capacity to self-evaluate (Leitch
and Day 2000). Reflection at the emancipatory level has the purpose of enhancing
understandings of the social, economic and political influences on practice and may
result in enhanced practitioner empowerment and authority.
Since the mid-eighties, the notion of what is meant by the terms ‘profession’ and
‘professional’ have become increasingly blurred and the occupational groups to which
reflective practice may apply has broadened (Freidson 2004). Deciding unequivocally
on profession status is difficult and increasingly so. The conception of professional
work has changed and its meaning widened. The boundaries between some
professional/occupational groupings have shifted, in education for example through
workforce re-modelling (DfES 2003). The term ‘profession’ can now be applied to a
wide range of occupations and may be a ‘spent concept’ with some authors arguing
the end the term ‘profession’ as an occupational definition. (Dietrich and Roberts
1997). Nonetheless, Freidson’s (1991) argument is still valid: “It is not just any kind
of work that professionals do. The kind of work they do is esoteric, complex, and
discretionary in character: it requires theoretical knowledge, skill and judgement”
(p194). Professionals undertake “Good Work” (his use of upper case) . . . . the work
they do is believed to be especially important for the well being of individuals and
society at large” (p194). Such a description broadens the range of ‘professional’
occupations and arguably all those who engage in professional should ideally practice
reflectively in order to optimise and improve their work.
Reflective practice is open to critique on a number of grounds. Firstly, it is generally
viewed as operating at the level of the individual practitioner. This emphasis is
understandable given that autonomy is considered essential in professional practice so
that the practitioners can exercise individual discretion and judgement in complex and
uncertain settings (Hoyle 1980, Freidson 1984, 1991, Hoyle and John 1995). Indeed,
reflective practice has been justified as a way of enhancing the autonomy of
individual practitioners in teaching (Calderhead 1989) although it is accepted that this
professional autonomy is constrained (Hoyle and John 1995). Nonetheless, the role of
others is insufficiently stressed in reflective practice and clearly, other individuals can
have a key role in individual reflective practice. They can assist in realising the full
potential of reflection on action; it is difficult for teachers to reflect on their practice
in isolation (Day 1999). In a variety of designated roles, others can enable reflection
on action. Moreover, if the others themselves work reflectively in the process of
enabling reflection on action, they too can learn and develop. The content and process
of the prevailing organisational discourse may facilitate an individual’s refection on
action and has the potential for creativity and generation. Dialogue with others in a
spirit of reflection and inquiry (Bohm 1965) can develop original ideas that are within
or in some way extend the bounds of what is acceptable within communal and shared
norms. This co-reflection can be particularly creative because of the different
perspectives that are available from others (Bohm 1965). Individual teachers’
experience of the practice of others is also likely to shape their reflections. Joint
working with teaching colleagues within and outwith the classroom and observing
them formally and informally at work can give opportunities for refection and
learning. The practice of those who do not have formal teaching roles, such as
administrative staff and teaching assistants, will inform and be informed by
colleagues – those with similar roles and those with designated teaching roles. The
actions of colleagues, shaped by their own reflective practice, also affect the context
for an individual’s practice and therefore influence an individual’s reflections in and
on action. Thus, the influence of others significantly affects an individual’s reflection
in and on action and vice versa. The others and the individual through their interrelations jointly develop a process of ‘reflective structuration’ that contributes to
constraining and limiting her/his professional autonomy and also gives opportunities
for development, creativity and improved practice. Whilst the individual
concentration on reflection in and on practice has continued in teaching, see for
example, Loughran (1996) and Farrell (2003) and in educational leadership
(Sergiovanni 2000), the notion of reflection has recently started to broaden into more
collective forms, for example, Yorke-Barr, Sommers, Ghere and Montie (2001).
A further criticism of reflective practice is that there is insufficient attention paid to
the purpose of reflective practice. A key question is ‘What are reflective practitioners
in education trying to optimise and improve?’ It is here that the notion of the primary
task is of particular value.
The primary task
The primary task is a concept which is especially significant in the workings of
individuals and groups. The notion of the primary task was first developed by Rice
(1963) who described it as the task an organisation must perform to survive. Although
that definition may seem overly simple, especially given the complexities faced by
many institutions, including schools, the primary task is a valuable heuristic device
“which allows us to explore the ordering of multiple activities . . . . and to construct
and compare different organisational models of an enterprise based on different
definitions of its primary task” (Miller and Rice 1967:62).
There are three kinds of primary task: the normative primary task, (the defined,
formal or official task); the existential primary task (the task the work group members
believe they are undertaking) and the phenomenal primary task, (the task that can be
inferred from work group members’ behaviour) (Lawrence 1977). Although these
may be different, arguably a group should actively consider how it optimises the
appropriateness its work on the normative primary task, so that there is no dissonance
between the normative and existential primary tasks and that the normative primary
task and the phenomenal primary task are the same.
Work groups have a tendency to avoid work on the primary task (Obholzer and
Roberts 1994) and may adopt basic assumption mentalities (Bion 1961) where instead
they work on meeting the unconscious needs of group members. This may be
particularly significant if the primary task carries a high level of anxiety and emotion.
Understanding a group’s relationship with the primary task is therefore important in
sustaining purpose and application by the group, enabling it to avoid basic assumption
working and even anti-task activities (Turquet 1974) and in shaping what is learned.
James and Connolly (2000) point to the crucial significance of working on the
primary task in the transformation of ineffective schools.
Collaborative practice
The different elements and their contribution are as follows.
Collaboration is joint working with others. From a systemic standpoint all
professional work is collaborative and there is no such thing as individual practice.
All practice is learned in some way, it has a history and a grounding. It shapes and is
therefore shaped by others. In that sense, professional practice is continual, and not a
series of individual episodes.
Collaboration can:
establish shared norms, rules and values
optimise the use expertise and other resources with in the collaborating group
in its work
enhance legitimacy
act as a containing device where emotions can be surfaced, reflected upon and
worked with.
If it is inclusive can help to avoid splitting and projection within the
collaborating group and the potentially dangerous consequences.
Places of collaboration - collaborative locales – require:
physical and temporal space are required
a managed boundary.
Individuals in collaborating groups require:
the capacity to sacrifice some individual autonomy in the interests of
appropriate interpersonal collaboration skills and qualities
the collective capability to bestow equal valuing and parity of esteem
according to roles and responsibilities in relation to the collaborative focus.
Inclusive collaborative working can demonstrate this equal valuing.
the capacity to hold in view the focus of the joint working (the primary task)
in order to sustain a work group mentality and avoid tendencies towards basic
assumption mentalities
individual and collective reflective capacity in order to ensure optimal practice
and improvement capacity on the work task and to ensure optimal practice in
the practice of joint working and its improvement.
Reflective practice
Reflective practice is a way of practicing that enables optimal practice in a range of
varied contexts through reflection in action, and continually improving practice
through reflection on action. It develops a dynamic epistemology of practice.
Reflective practice is a way of working where contexts for practice are uncertain and
complex and where there is an imperative to continually improve and to adapt to
changing micro and macro contexts.
Reflective practice can:
ensure optimal and improving practice in a particular activity
develop practical knowledge of joint working that bears directly on the
primary task.
The reflective practitioner requires:
the desires to enhance effectiveness and efficiency in a particular practice,
enhance the nature and quality of work, understand the full nature and
significance of work – its social economic and political significance and those
influences upon it
physical and temporal space
ways of working should allow both creativity and changes in practice to bring
about improvement.
A reflective orientation requires:
the ability to actively consider an aspect of professional knowledge
the capability to support and enhance the reflections of others
the capacity to adapt practice in relation to knowledge.
A focus on the primary task
A focus on the primary task is the members of the group, individually and
collectively, undertaking work on the task the group needs to carry out if it is to
survive. The focus has to be on the normative primary task, which is the defined,
formal or official task; the existential primary task which is the task the work group
members believe they are undertaking and the phenomenal primary task, which is the
task that can be inferred from work group members’ behaviour in order to ensure they
are the same. Work on the primary task is always accompanied by anxiety (Obholzer
and Roberts 1994) because working on the primary task carries a risk of failure,
which can feel threatening, the task may have been assigned in some way and those
working on it may be called to account for their work on it and working on the
primary task requires a commitment to agency which can be a source of anxiety. A
focus on the primary task is needed where the primary task may not be self-evident or
where the task may be multi-faceted or where the task carries especially high levels of
emotion and anxiety and where withdrawal from the primary task may be used as a
social defence.
Defining the primary task of the system is important but also difficult (Roberts 1994).
If the definition is too narrow, or is only in terms of the members’ needs, the system’s
survival may be threatened. If it is too broad the group members will not know what
to do for the best. The work group might seek to avoid conflict inherent in defining
the primary task concentrating on methods rather than task definition and by defining
it in such a way that fails to give priority to one set of activities over another.
Inadequate definition of the primary task can give rise to a number of problems
Roberts (1994): the primary task may not relate to the (perhaps changing) needs of the
environment, organisational boundaries come to serve defensive functions instead of
facilitating work on the primary task, and task avoidance strategies may develop.
Concentrating on the primary task can:
be used to focus the activity of a work group
provide a purpose for reflective practice.
Clarifying the primary task and then focussing on it requires:
the desires to enhance effectiveness and efficiency of work on it, to enhance
the nature and quality of work, and to understand the full nature and
significance of a work task and the influences upon it
requires physical and temporal space to undertake work clarifying the primary
On the part of group members, primary task-related work requires:
a willingness to commit to clarifying the primary task
a readiness to face up to the conflicts that may arise in that work
an ability to forego some aspects of the present focus of work and perhaps to
give up basic assumption mentalities
a readiness to take risks.
How are the three components enhanced in collaborative practice?
Collaboration is enhanced in collaborative practice by:
those collaborating engaging in the work reflectively
having a task which is a focus for joint work.
synergies in the collaborating group, there may be ‘added value’ which
enhances the contributions of individual collaborators.
The scope and capacity for reflection may be enhanced in collaborative practice there
set norms to shape reflection
reference points for reflection
a contained environment which enables more potential for creativity through
a concentration on the primary task – especially a reflective primary task,
provides a focal point for reflective practice.
The focus on the primary task enhanced in collaborative practice by
the engagement with others on the task and the difficult work that may be
associated with it
the primary task becoming an explicit reflective primary task with two
dimensions – ensuring optimal practice and improving optimal practice
refection enables the coherence between the normative primary task, the
existential primary task and the phenomenal primary task.
What are the consequences of different components being omitted?
No collaboration. With reflective practice and a focus on the primary task without
collaboration, the scope and capacity for reflection will be limited. There will be no
institutionally set norms to shape reflection, no reference points for reflection, the
controls and limits will be restricted and there will be less potential for creativity.
No reflective practice. If there is collaboration and a focus on the primary task with
no reflection, practice both in relation to the primary task and to the practice of
collaboration may not be appropriate and will not improve.
No focus on the primary task. Reflective practice and collaboration without a focus
on the primary task may result in anti-task behaviour (Turquet 1977), through which
work on the primary task is avoided or even actively undermined, and the
collaborators adopt basic assumption tendencies (Bion 1961).
It is clearly important that all three elements are present in collaborative practice and
one important outcome then is the potentially highly motivating nature of
collaborative practice. It can become ‘undertaking Good Work, collectively, to the
best of one’s abilities and then seeking to do even better’, which represents a
compelling shared vision (Senge 1990) that becomes “a force in people’s hearts, a
force of impressive power” (p206) in practice.
We have portrayed the necessity to have all three elements present and the synergy
between them in Figure 1 as a Borromean knot (Lacan 1975:112). In a Borromean
knot, interlocking rings are arranged in such a way that when any one of the rings is
cut or not present, the rest fall away. The three circles signify reflective practice,
collaboration and a focus on the primary task. The central section where they all
overlap represents collaborative practice. The way the circles are arranged in the knot
conveys both the sense of overlapping ‘sets’ and the importance of all three elements
being present.
Figure 1 A Borromean knot diagram showing the three elements of collaborative
practice, Collaboration, Reflective practice and a focus on the primary task.
Issues for further consideration
The development of the model
Clearly the model could be developed in a range of different ways. For example:
What are the systemic influences on collaborative practice?
What unconscious forces come into play in collaborative practice?
How do ‘collaboratives’ - instances of intense collaboration - change over
The application of the model to other educational and non-educational contexts
Although the idea for the model developed during the study of high attainment
schools in disadvantaged settings, arguably the model could be applied to other
settings – especially complex professional settings such as social work, medicine or
nursing – and inter-professional contexts such as palliative care, and used to analyse
and understand practice.
The characteristics of collaborative practitioners
We have outlined a model of practice. Interesting questions arise from a consideration
of those who participate in this way of working, for example:
What are the qualities of successful collaborative practitioners?
Mow might the characteristics of collaborative practitioners best be
What do collaborative practitioners do that ensure successful collaborative
Given that collaborative practice appears to bring about substantial benefits in terms
of student attainment in schools, arguably, it is important that the characteristics of
collaborative practitioners be explored further so that they can be specifically
Other issues
We are aware that the idea of collaborative practice gives rise to a number of issues
and questions for further consideration. For example:
Does collaborative practice require particular forms of leadership and if so
what are they?
Is there a ‘hierarchy’ to collaborative practice as there is to the different forms
of reflective practice and if so how might such a hierarchy be characterised?
Does collaborative practice take on different forms in different settings and if
so what are they and how might they be characterised?
We are also conscious that we have not explored the politics of collaborative practice.
Clearly, the development of collaborative practice, the way it is sustained and the
barriers to it are also significant organisational, and therefore political, issues.
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