Within the field of education, collaboration comes in many guises: teacher collaboration in the classroom (peer teaching/team teaching), collaborative learning among learners themselves, collaborative research, and collaborative curriculum development, to name some of the most common. Whatever its particular form, collaboration involves deciding goals together with others, sharing responsibilities, and working together to achieve more than could be achieved by an individual on their own. Collaborative learning can be seen to occur through dialogue, social interaction, and joint decision-making with others, and these shared processes contribute greatly to individual and collective growth, as well as to co-constructed understanding and knowledge ( Vygotsky 1978 ). Indeed, one of the major benefits of collaborative teacher development — the mode of collaboration that will be focused on in the remainder of this piece—is that it lets teachers move beyond their own individual viewpoints by working with peers, and thus at the same time lessens their dependency on outside experts ‘to a point where teachers can learn from each other, sharing and developing their expertise together’ ( Hargreaves 1994 : 186).
Collaborative teacher development is founded on dialogue, questioning, and discussion in working together towards educational change and improvement ( Medgyes and Malderez 1996 ). It is at its most effective when it emerges voluntarily and spontaneously from teachers’ own beliefs that ‘working together is productive and enjoyable’ ( Datnow 2011 : 155). To these ends, many different collaborative arrangements are possible, involving face-to-face interaction, digital mediation, or a blended combination; and within the same school or institution, inter-institutionally in the same district, or across wider, more dispersed teacher networks at a local, regional, national, or international level. Such interactions between teachers may be either informal or formal ( Hargreaves and Fullan 2012 ). On the informal side, small actions and episodes such as talking with colleagues between classes, sharing experiences and stories in breaks, and exchanging materials and activities help build open, trusting collegial relationships. This sense of trust and collegiality is fundamental to the authenticity and success of collaboration. More formalized collaborative practices may develop over time, and can include an open-ended variety of practices: collaborative peer groups and critical friendships ( Farrell 2001 ); topic-based groups, school-based groups, reading groups, writing groups, research groups, virtual groups, and teacher networks ( Richards and Farrell 2005 ); exploratory practice groups ( Allwright and Hanks 2009 ); or practitioner research for local book projects ( Barfield 2014 ). In all of these types of collaboration, varying combinations of pair, small-group, and large-group arrangements are possible.
Even in formally constituted entities (for example Special Interest Groups) within teacher associations, relative flexibility and informality of interaction may continue to work well for collaborative teacher learning ( Burns 1999 ; Lamb 2012 ; Barfield ibid.) as they allow for differentiated spontaneous participation, enable different voices to be heard and included, and can nurture involvement across a particular group or network within an association. Importantly, whatever form it takes, such joint learning can foster ‘greater readiness to experiment and take risks’ (Hargreaves op.cit.: 186). Thus, collaboration has the potential to act as a core driver of grassroots educational change.
One central challenge facing teachers interested in collaboration is to find space and time for initiatives to grow in inclusive, local arrangements voluntarily determined by those involved. It is the quality of willing interaction, the openness and honesty of dialogue, and the degree of shared decision-making among participants that open up or constrain the possibilities for collaboration to take deeper root or not (Hargreaves op.cit.). Conversely, if a group is unable to share its decision-making or negotiate its goals among its members, it is unlikely to sustain a sense of mutual and reciprocal benefit. For teachers to remain committed to collaboration, they also need to feel safe in talking openly and honestly about their own practices and concerns to do with their work (op.cit.). A readiness to understand others’ positions, interests, and views, as well as to question their own deeply held beliefs, interests, engrained views, and practices can help teachers engage in the critical reflection necessary for changing and improving their own practices ( Kelchtermans 2006 ). Such considerations are key in the development of collaboration between peers, as is the readiness to acknowledge resistance and to work through potentially divisive issues of conflict in a constructive way. Thus, compromise, articulation of diverse perspectives, and negotiation of different interests are also part and parcel of developing collaborative practices together ( Achinstein 2002 ).
Other important questions include: Who initiates the collaboration? To what degree is the collaboration determined by teachers themselves or imposed from outside? And, in a world where those working in education are being increasingly required to deliver quantifiable results and follow centrally imposed reforms, is the collaboration directed towards teachers’ own longer-term development or the short-term execution of external reforms and agendas ( Hargreaves 1991 ; Hargreaves and Fullan op.cit.)? Addressing such issues together can help teachers navigate some of the wider political tensions surrounding collaboration, as well as find ways to protect their right to develop their professional knowledge and practice for themselves in partnership with others. Finally, a further, more critical approach to teacher collaboration involves raising questions about power relations in language education, and collectively organizing to change these for the benefit of teachers and learners, as well as the local communities that they are part of ( Smyth 2011 ).