As a Connected Science Learning reader, you already know that collaboration is what this journal is all about. We strive to publish articles that highlight ways different organizations come together to connect in-school STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning to the world outside the classroom.
How many of you, at some point in your professional experience, have been involved in an effort referred to as a “collaboration” that in reality, well, just wasn’t? I know I have. More often, though, I’ve been part of collective work that was more impactful than anything the collaborating parties could have done on their own. Collaboration done well opens the doors for new possibilities and amplified impact. This is what is meant by the concept of emergence—the idea that parts of a system working together in a unified way take on properties that the parts don’t have on their own. Maybe there are some things that can only be accomplished if we work together.
In today’s world, though, collaboration has become a term both overused and used out of context—it’s a buzzword. Thankfully, there are lots of tools out there to stimulate deeper thinking about collaborative work. For starters, check out the surveys below from Build Initiative and the Wilder Foundation (see Resources).
So, what does collaboration really mean, and what does effective collaboration actually look like?
Whether a simple partnership or a complex collective impact effort, collaboration done well takes time and no small amount of effort. Because of this, making the effort had better be worthwhile. Shared vision—meaning a common understanding of the problem to be solved and what constitutes success—is essential. There must be a reason for the parties involved to come together. Often, this reason is that combining expertise and resources makes a project more feasible and success more likely. Effective collaboration has purpose.
Arriving at a shared vision is much easier if the partnership cultivates a culture of honesty, trust, flexibility, and respect. This is apparent when all involved parties are willing to ask and answer questions (especially the tough ones), say what they think and hear what others have to say, change their minds in light of new information or alternate perspectives, and together use what is learned to guide the work. Effective collaboration requires communication and compromise.
Participating in collaborative work can be messy and confusing—and, frankly, sometimes even frustrating. It also can be fun and satisfying. It helps when there’s little ambiguity regarding the roles played by each organization and every individual involved, and when there’s a process for making decisions, taking action, and measuring success. Effective collaboration requires clarity about how power, responsibility, and accountability are distributed and shared.
Here are my two cents: Collaboration isn’t easy, and it’s not something to be done just for the sake of doing it. Under the right circumstances, though, it is surely the way to go. To paraphrase Aristotle (or perhaps some other philosopher): The whole truly can be greater than the sum of its parts.
Beth Murphy, PhD (email@example.com) is field editor for Connected Science Learning and an independent STEM education consultant with expertise in fostering collaboration between organizations and schools, providing professional learning experiences for educators, and implementing program evaluation that supports practitioners to do their best work.