Teachers And Professional Collaboration: How Sweden Has Become The ABBA Of Educational Change

Our guest author today is Andy Hargreaves, the Brennan Chair in Education at Boston College. He is the coauthor of Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, which won the 2015 Grawemeyer Award for the idea in education most likely to have the most effect on practice worldwide. He is also the 2016 recipient of the Horace Mann League’s Outstanding Friend of Public Education Award. An extended version of this column originally appeared in Pedagogiska Magasinet, the Swedish teachers’ magazine in February 2016.

In the 1960s and 70s, Sweden’s economic productivity and social engineering were the envy of democrats all over the world. The nation’s comprehensive schools were an inspiration for public education reformers in the United Kingdom and many other nations too. In Sweden, market prosperity and the collective good went side by side. It was a country where, like the nations’ classic pop group, Abba, people banded and bonded together really well.

In the 90s, however, Sweden entered an age of what political scientists call free-market neo-liberalism, and educational reform was at the leading edge of it. In some ways moving ahead of the US trend, Sweden introduced large numbers of competitive “free schools”, funded with public money but no longer regulated by their school districts. Hedge fund companies were the largest single group of owners of these schools. Sweden’s society and its schools were, in the titles of two of Abba’s songs, now driven by a “Winner Takes it All” culture of “Money, Money, Money!” Between 2003 and 2012, Sweden experienced the greatest deterioration in PISA scores out of all OECD countries who were performing above average in 2003. Despite the country's proud and internationally admired egalitarian tradition, its achievement gaps have been widening faster than in any other country.

Competing reasons have been advanced for Sweden’s educational decline – see here and here. Most have targeted the country’s for-profit free schools and the promotion of divisive parental choice. Opponents blame poor classroom management and failure to control students’ use of mobile phones. But among the most worrying explanations have been those that refer to statistics associated with poor teacher quality. But how do we interpret these data?  

In OECD’s 2013 TALIS study of lower secondary school teachers, only 5% of the teachers in Sweden felt teaching was a valued profession in society (compared to almost 60% in neighboring and higher performing Finland). OECD’s data showed that school principals concentrate their time so heavily on administrative tasks, they devote less attention than the average in OECD countries to activities such as observing teaching and learning, supporting cooperation among teachers, and collaborating with them to solve discipline problems. OECD’s subsequent review of Improving Schools in Sweden in 2015, concluded that “many Swedish teachers work alone and are not benefiting from potential feedback and peer-learning opportunities that their colleagues can provide to improve and innovate their teaching practices”.

In response to this report, a range of policy proposals have been advanced by the OECD, including raising teachers’ salaries, streamlining the number of institutions of teacher training, creating more national coherence in professional development and support, reversing the trends towards market competition and decentralization which had been discouraging teachers from sharing their expertise, and providing better coaching and mentoring throughout teachers’ careers.  

Running across and beyond these measures, there has also been a movement to stimulate and support professional collaboration. Huge programs have been instituted for collaborative learning and teacher leadership teams in reading and mathematics. At the end of 2015, I had the opportunity to interact with over 1,000 teachers in Stockholm who were working in these teams. The initiatives are understandably popular with many teachers who are finally feeling that their voice is being valued and that they now have time to enjoy the aspects of the job that engage them with other adults as well as those that concern their students. More emphasis on professional collaboration, teacher teams and teacher leadership is a positive, evidence-informed direction. Yet, well intentioned as these government policy measures are, there are also concerns that they may be happening too fast.

At this defining moment in Swedish reform, teacher collaboration and teacher leadership can become great starters and accelerators of positive change, or a disappointing let down for teachers and an easy target for critics. What has the research and our own experience in professional and policy development found that can be helpful at this time?

Overall, the research on collaboration and on the benefits of building social capital among teachers is well established. In our book, Professional Capital, Michael Fullan and I review many of the results from the 1990s until today. On average, when teachers collaborate rather than work entirely alone, they show greater confidence and competence in teaching and stronger commitment to their profession. This is because they have access to their colleagues’ ideas, become more aware of and less guilty about their problems, are able to find morale-boosting support when things go wrong, get feedback on how to improve, and develop stronger beliefs that, together, they can have a positive impact on their students’ learning. Secondly, my colleagues and I have studied high performing countries and systems and professional collaboration is an integral feature of all of them.

  • In very high achieving Alberta, Canada, for example, teachers score far above the OECD TALIS average on participation in collaborative research and commitments to teacher professionalism; one result of long-term partnerships between the government and teacher’s union on collaborative professional inquiry.  
  • Singapore teachers believe in giving away their best ideas to other teachers because that stimulates them to keep inventing new ones of their own.
  • In the London, England, boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Hackney, which attracted international attention by moving from being the lowest achieving municipalities in England to performing well above the national average, schools and their teachers took collective responsibility for every school’s success by helping their neighbors when they were struggling to improve.

But professional collaboration isn’t a magic or automatic answer to every problem that faces our schools. Collaboration can be weak, unfocused, confusing and ineffective – and therefore also costly and timewasting. For instance, in an OECD review of Wales to which I contributed in 2013, we found that a national initiative to train teachers in how to work in professional learning communities failed because there was no funding or follow up beyond the initial training, and because there was no focus on what teachers might collaborate about. In a similar review of Scotland last year, my OECD colleagues and I learned that although there was strong collaboration within many of the 32 local authorities or school districts, schools didn’t network much with other schools beyond their own authorities and this may have helped contribute to inequalities between them.

Another problem with professional collaboration is that it can also be forced, artificial and imposed from the top. This is what I have called contrived collegiality. It is a danger that Andreas Schleicher, OECD’s director for education and skills, has reiterated in his paper for the 2016 International Summit on the Teaching Profession.

So after two decades of decline in the status of the teaching profession in Sweden, when many schools have been forcibly divided from and even opposed to each other rather than united for the common good, what can Swedes and others in the US and elsewhere learn from this international research and experience to ensure that professional collaboration delivers on its promise and potential? Here are 8 suggestions from my own research and policy advisory work.

  1. Identify, acknowledge and build on the ways that educators already collaborate.
  2. Establish the expectation that teaching is a collaborative profession, not an individual one. Teachers’ judgments must often be made alone but the basis of those judgments should be established by how teachers work together.
  3. Ensure that learning teams commit to doing some things early together rather than just talking about things. Action gives focus and purpose and it is through doing things together that ideas get developed and refined.
  4. Establish a norm of collective responsibility for participation and results. Move forward from a culture of “my class” and “my students” to “our school”, “our community” and “our students”.
  5. Identify and value the varying strengths of the team. Don’t expect everyone to be good at everything or collaborate in the same way. Some members will be “ideas” people; others will be better at organization and follow through. Some will be good at working with people; others at creating a virtual platform for colleagues to communicate. Some will be loud and “bubbly”; others will be quieter and more restrained. Find a way for all participants to contribute something of value.
  6. After taking time to build relationships, set a clear direction, and develop some indicators so you will able to see if you are making progress towards your goal.
  7. Make the learning teams into professional learning events, not just a series of meetings. Good meetings should be like good classes – actively engaging people in different ways. Design innovative and effective learning processes, bring tasty food, stretch and relax, and celebrate when you achieve your goals.
  8. Don’t be afraid to use protocols like Japanese Lesson Study, or acting as a critical friend with warm and cool feedback sometimes that structure the interaction so everyone can participate properly and so that active listening occurs.

These issues and ideas apply to many systems not just Sweden. In the US we are starting to see some movement in a similar direction. For instance, professional collaboration, face-to-face and online, is essential in isolated rural and poor communities in places like Vermont and in the Pacific Northwest where our Boston College team is supporting the development of networks of rural teachers to design lessons and curriculum together.

The world is finally starting to realize that we cannot create societies of highly skilled and successful learners, unless we have professionally run schools and school systems where well qualified and highly valued teachers are able, encouraged and expected to collaborate for the benefit of all students. It’s time for teachers everywhere not to say the equivalent of another Abba song – “Take a Chance on Me” – but to proclaim “invest in us as a strong and growing profession”.