Collaborative Space in South African Schools: A Comparative Perspective

By Abrahams, Mark A. | The Journal of Negro Education, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Collaborative Space in South African Schools: A Comparative Perspective


Abrahams, Mark A., The Journal of Negro Education


This article details a study that investigated both the nature and extent of the conceptual and physical space teachers, principals, and other administrators in South African schools devote to teacher collaboration. The schools selected for the study represented a cross-section of urban and rural, primary and secondary schools administered by several of the nation's previously historically racially divided education departments. Through data gathered from questionnaires, interviews, and observations, the findings generate important comparative information on how teacher collaboration in South Africa has been influenced by numerous historical and political factors, how it manifests within various school cultures, and how it differs across artificial and real organizational divides.

INTRODUCTION

Teacher collaboration has been identified as a basic characteristic of schools demonstrating improved student achievement (Lieberman, 1990; Little, 1982; Robinson & Collett, 1994), yet it has been conceptualized in numerous ways. According to Firestone and Pennel (1993), teacher collaboration has sociocognitive as well as affective dimensions and provides opportunities for teachers to learn and develop a sense of collegiality or shared endeavor. Little refers to teacher collaboration as a level of collegiality at which teachers in successful schools discuss, design, conduct, analyze, evaluate, and experiment with their teaching. She describes the dimensions of collegiality as "strong and weak ties among teachers" (p. 511), and places various interactions such as storytelling, sharing, assistance and joint work on a continuum between teacher independence and teacher interdependence. In her view, these interactions empower teachers and prepare them to engage in shared decision making, both of which are vital for school improvement. Smith (1987) points out that such collaboration must move beyond merely trading stories about problems with students into the arena of proactive exchange so that teachers can set school goals and oversee their own professional development. Morrison (1994) defines teacher collaboration as "teamwork" and promotes its use as a required strategy for planning and implementing cross-curricular themes for the following reasons:

* [it] promotes organizational health;

* [it] empowers teachers;

* [it] rationalizes workload;

* [it] builds democracy;

* [it provides] an effective strategy for curriculum development;

* [it brings into focus] a feature of human interaction; * [it fits] the cross-curricular nature of themes;

* [it establishes] that every teacher is affected by the development of the cross-curricular themes;

* [it] accords status to the cross-curricular themes. (p. 142)

As a strategy for school improvement teacher collaboration is widely accepted, even in the most conservative and authoritarian school settings. Whereas Little (1990a) posits that teacher collaboration can be legislated, she notes that the success or failure of such collaboration depends on the benefits teachers derive from it:

Specific forms of induced collaboration.. [include] coaching, mentoring, peer observation, peer support.... The prospects of their influence on individuals and organizations rest in part on their congruence with established norms of interaction and interpretation among colleagues, and with the degree to which they fit or conflict with the meaningful reference groups with which teachers align themselves. (p. 530)

A range of studies cite the benefits of teacher collaboration, including improved student behavior and achievement, increased teacher satisfaction and adaptability, increased teacher commitment, and the creation of learning opportunities for teachers. For example, a World Bank (1989) study linked school effectiveness to teacher cooperation in efforts to improve the school and classroom instruction. …

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