‘Collaboration’ as a tool for professional development: The perspectives of secondary school Mathematics teachers in Zambia.
The potential benefits of teacher collaboration within the CPD context wide world appear to be substantial. In Zambia in particular, collaboration is being championed, as it is an important aspect of School Based Continuing Professional Development (SBCPD) through lesson study. Teachers are expected to complete collaborative tasks: jointly plan lessons, peer observe the teaching of the planned lesson and conduct post-lesson discussions as a part of their SBCPD. This paper particularly focuses on understanding the views of secondary school mathematics teachers in a selected District of Central Zambia regarding ‘collaboration’ in the context of SBCPD through lesson study. It draws on findings from the main qualitative study on secondary school mathematics teachers’ perspectives of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) in Zambia. The findings show that despite being made to engage in the collaborative tasks, the teachers were not inclined to do so. The paper explores the reasons for the teachers’ reluctance to engage in the collaborative tasks, and also the implications this has for collaboration as a tool for professional development.
Key words: collaboration; continuing professional development
There is increased attention on Continuing Professional Development of teachers for the purpose of improving the quality of teachers’ practices and improving pupils’ learning experiences and achievement and overall quality of education (Goodall, Day, Lindsay, Muijs, & Harris, 2005; Gray, 2005; Moyer-Packenham, Bolyard, Oh, & Cerar, 2010). One important aspect of teachers’ CPD that is championed is ‘collaboration’. CPD through collaboration can be considered as an ‘intensive interaction that engages educators in opening up their beliefs and practices to investigation and debate’(Katz & Earl, 2010:30). ‘Collaborative CPD can cover a number of activities ranging from working together with colleagues in informal, unplanned ways to structured, more formalized ‘communities of enquiry’ or ‘learning communities’ (Kennedy, 2011:26). Among the potential benefits of Collaborative CPD are sharing knowledge, understanding and experiences and enhancing reflective practices to support professional development ( Birman, Desimone, Porter, & Garet, 2000; Cordingley et al., 2003; Darling-Hammond et al. 2009;Guskey & Yoon, 2009; Mokhele & Jita, 2010). One point is clear that teachers’ willingness to actively engage in or to collaborate for the purpose of their professional development is crucial for collaborative CPD. While there are several benefits that come with collaborative CPD, some teachers in the Zambian context are reluctant to collaborate. Why would teachers be reluctant to collaborate? This paper explores the reasons for the teachers’ reluctance to engage in the collaborative tasks, and also the implications this has for collaboration as a tool for professional development.
Mathematics teachers in Zambia experience difficult teaching conditions and environments including crowded classrooms and a lack of basic teaching/learning resources. This is compounded by critical shortage of mathematics teachers.
Poor pupil performance in mathematics at all levels is an issue of great concern in Zambia (ECZ, 2015; MOE, 1996). Even though there are several factors that can account for pupils’ poor performance, teacher factors are certainly among them. Teachers have a role to improve performance in Mathematics. While the relationship between teacher teaching/learning, and pupil learning and achievement is difficult to establish (Loucks-Horsley & Matsumoto, 1999; Muijs, Day, Harris, & Lindsay, 2004) CPD has the potential to initiate and or support changes in teachers’ teaching practices which can subsequently contribute to pupil achievement.
Zambia is in the process of implementing the new and revised curriculum which has specified, among other things, some changes in the mathematics content and in the way mathematics is to be taught (MOE, 2013). Teachers are at the centre of curriculum implementation and hence need the necessary support to do so through CPD.
The above illustrated situation and transformations cannot easily be managed or achieved on an individual effort basis, thus the rationale for collaborative CPD. The then Ministry of Education (Now Ministry of General Education) in Zambia envisaged that the current School-Based Continuing Professional Development (SBCPD) through lesson study would facilitate quality teacher professional development and cushion her efforts to implement the revised curriculum, improve teachers’ teaching practices, improve pupil performance and overall quality of Zambia’s education system. One key element of the SBCPD through lesson study is ‘collaboration’. Teachers are expected to complete collaborative tasks: jointly plan lessons, peer observe the teaching of the planned lesson and conduct post-lesson discussions as a part of their SBCPD through lesson study. However, teachers are not inclined to do so. Through this study reasons for this reluctance are explored.
This study was part of a qualitative PhD study on ‘secondary school mathematics teachers’ perspectives of CPD in Zambia’. It used a case study research approach with data collected using questionnaire, which comprised both closed and open-ended questions, face-to-face in-depth interviews and Focus Group Discussions. Eighty-three (83) secondary school mathematics teachers, from 14 public secondary schools in a selected district of Central Zambia, participated in the study. Data was collected in the period from April to August 2015.
The responses from the closed-ended questionnaire items were subjected to SPSS software and analysed using descriptive statistics. The interviews and discussions, which were tape-recorded, were transcribed. Responses gathered from the open-ended questionnaire items, interviews and discussions were recorded and manually coded leading to the identification of emerging themes and grouping the identified themes under categories and further into sub-categories in a way that the responses could easily be comprehended and used in providing answers to the research questions. Despite collecting qualitative data and some quantitative data for the PhD study itself, only qualitative data has been provided for this paper. Only qualitative data has been provided. The identity of all the respondents in this study remained anonymous.
Findings and Discussion
Teachers had a range of reasons for being reluctant to engage in the expected collaborative tasks: jointly plan lessons, peer observe the teaching of the planned lesson and conduct post-lesson discussions as a part of their SBCPD through lesson study. However, in many cases in their responses they did not identify these tasks individually and instead gave an overall picture leading to explaining why they were not inclined to engage in the collaborative tasks. Their reasons have been broadly grouped under the following themes: relevance, power relations, school culture and personal reasons and circumstances.
Teachers’ responses stated that they did not comprehend the relevance of engaging in the collaborative tasks. One teacher stated:
It is not clear to me why we have to do these collective tasks. No one has taken it upon themselves to explain the need or significance to me a teacher of mathematics struggling with my work… How can I commit to something I do not fully understand the vision or the goal…?
This typical reaction of teachers could be based on the notion that they viewed the SBCPD through lesson study simply as a directive from government to which they needed to comply without fail. Another teacher commented that:
I don’t see how this will work for us or benefit us here in Zambia. These are ideas that our government just get from other countries without fully understanding how they work in those countries the ideas are from and whether they can work here in the Zambian system... It is going to fail like the other strategies before…why should I be a part of it?
It is not surprising that teachers expressed uncertainty about the positive effects of ways of working that are ‘borrowed’ from other countries and being adopted in their work context. Neither is it surprising that they expressed negative feelings toward imposed top-down directives. With such sentiments it is highly likely that some teachers ignore the directives and carry on with their work as before. Fullan (2002) has shown that there are ways of reducing resistance to implementation of reforms from external sources such as: informing teachers of the change, giving teachers some degree of control or say and input in the planning for and actual implementation process of the changes. Such can contribute toward teachers starting to view change positively and embrace the new ideas as their own even though coming from an external source.
Some teachers’ responses referred to power relations as one of the reasons for being reluctant to engage in collaborative tasks. Comments illustrative of this view include what one teacher said:
I see collaboration in the context of expert/novice or experienced/not-so-experienced to be very complex and actually a non-starter in our case.
Another teacher had this to say:
It feels like I have to pass judgment or criticize…I am not good at this judgment making business. - it is not my role but the supervisor’s role. To make matters worse I am young, new to the system how can I even get to engage in discussions and even interrogate other teachers who are older than me and with more experience . It is not my thing…
Teachers responses confirm that power relations have profound effects on the role of collaboration in teachers’ learning as shared by Cordingley & Bell (2012) in the CPD context. They too bring to light the different power relations and struggles that, even though may be context specific, are worth considering for the success of collaborative CPD.
For some teachers it was the work or school culture that contributed to their being reluctant to engage in collaborative tasks:
Such things only work where the working culture allows for it. There is no teamwork spirit among us in the mathematics department and in the school general…
Another teacher added:
It is like we compete against each other-those with higher qualifications trying to show off that they are better teachers than the rest...those trained at this university thinking they are better than those trained at the other University and try to prove it…there is tension of some kind which is not healthy for a school department…you can’t work as team like that.
Such comments suggest that work or teaching culture can hinder or facilitate the teacher engagement in collaborative tasks for the purpose of teachers’ professional development. With reference to lesson study in particular, culture or the differences in cultures affects its implementation (Stigler & Hiebert, 2009).
Personal reasons and circumstances
Among the reasons that have been classified under this subheading include as illustrated in the following:
I have too many things to do: I have a heavy workload (more than 30 40minutes-teaching periods in a week), teaching more than 55 pupils per class plus I need time to check pupils’ work and prepare lessons to teach these pupils,,,where would I get the time and energy to engage in these collaborative tasks…?
Such teaching contexts are typical in the Zambian case owing to the critical shortage of secondary school mathematics teachers and large overcrowded class sizes, which teachers are to handle. They point to the need for additional support that teachers may need to enhance their professional development and also cope with the work demands and expectations. Other reasons that teachers presented include the following:
I think that collaboration requires an element of trust –I don’t easily trust. It is not easy to trust people simply for the purpose of getting some work done.
For other teacher teachers it was lack of what they considered skills relevant for collaboration or carrying out collaborative task:
My social skills are poor. Because I can teach, doesn’t mean that it is easy for me to communicate or engage in dialogue with fellow teachers on mathematics-related issues. I find it hard to engage in discussions on professional matters especially in the way it is expected of me through SBCPD through lesson study. Besides I wouldn’t want to expose my ignorance and inadequacies to teachers who consider themselves more knowledgeable and whom I know are going to criticise and judge me…the best is to stay away.
The concept of lesson observation and post-lesson discussions as judgment appears to be a matter of concern for teachers. The other concerns stem from teachers’ beliefs and attitude about self, their work as teachers, their engagement in professional development activities or social context of instruction and learning. Teachers’ attitude, negative or positive, can have an impact on teachers’ engagement in CPD activities ( Guskey, 2003). Therefore, there may be need for fundamental changes in the way individual teachers’ view and their beliefs and attitude to learning from others through collaborative CPD.