Is staff collaboration in sharing practices deemed beneficial?

By Sobia Ellahee

    Is staff collaboration in sharing practices deemed beneficial?

    About the Practitioner-Researcher

    Sobia Ellahee
    Educator
    Dubai, AE
    Sobia Ellahee

    I am an educator, whose passion for challenging the current education status quo was ignited on moving to the Middle East in 2014. Originally a dentist by profession, my exposure had been limited to teaching dental undergraduate students at university, for 10 years. Through my children I was introduced to the international schooling system, along with its associated attitudes, mentality and assumptions. Over a short period of time, I came to the realisation that the system needed extensive modification, to produce learners that are proud of who they are, embracing their culture and heritage, and keen to help their communities prosper. On the flip side, I observed that educators need to deliver a culturally conducive program, learning about the culture themselves, to allow the learners to fully benefit from their education. This change can only start with leadership.

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    Project Summary

    The project goal was to establish the need for staff collaboration, with subsequent regular staff meetings to address identified issues. In education, staff collaboration has been demonstrated as helping with practices, self-development, and improving and increasing the student experience and learning (Bassey, 1992; Griffin, 1987; Little, 1990; Hendricks-Lee, Soled, & Yinger, 1995; Warwick, 2007). Action Research (Anderson, Herr, & Nihlen, 2007) was deemed a sound methodological approach to achieving the goal. The project took place at an educational centre in Dubai. An initial staff meeting was conducted to obtain ideas about collaboration and identify attitudes of colleagues towards staff collaboration. The analysis of data suggested that cultural and other issues may have influenced the staff’s limited contributions in the staff meeting. It was concluded that extended efforts to strengthen communication among staff at the centre are needed to obtain a truer sense of whether staff collaboration is wanted and/or is seen as beneficial. A critical reflection of my practitioner-research was discussed.

    Project Context

    My research took place in an education centre in Dubai, an establishment primarily for educational support and licensed by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA). The centre provides additional assistance for full-time school children in most academic subjects. It also provides full-time support for ‘home-schoolers’ during the day. The centre is comprised of five teaching rooms and a reception area, with no staff amenities at the time when my research took place. Therefore, staff members come and go when their lessons are scheduled. The education director owns and manages the centre, which includes 10 full-time teaching staff who work at the centre during the day and a number of tutors, who work in the evening after working as full-time teachers in schools during the day. At the time of the project, the centre consisted of staff with diverse nationalities and professional preparation experiences. Due to the diversities of staff background, it was also deemed important to understand how their cultural and educational backgrounds might have influenced their practices.

    Research Goal, Method, and Outcome

    Background and Aims

    My research interest initially focused on the behaviour of a student with additional needs in my class. My efforts to address this student’s issues led me to inquire as to how other staff members dealt with this student. Taking this initiative was not easy, as I rarely came into contact with my colleagues, with a simple hello and goodbye in passing being our major form of interaction. The need to consult my peers, paired with the research evidence favouring collaboration amongst teachers as a key element leading to increased student learning (Bassey, 1992; Hendricks-Lee et al, 1995; Warwick, 2007), led me to the larger question of how other staff in the centre viewed staff collaboration. In particular, did they feel they could benefit from sharing their highs and lows, voicing their reflections and therefore sharing practices?

    Given the observed absence of staff collaboration, I chose to organize an exploratory project to establish whether there was an acknowledged need to implement staff collaboration and why or why not. The hope was that the staff could see the value in coming together regularly and sharing practices. I also hoped to examine how staff collaboration might positively affect students’ learning. According to Griffin (1987), having a purpose, fostering continuous participation and collaboration, and maintaining reflective and analytical discussion all contribute to successful self-development of staff members, in turn leading to institutional success. This should give the staff a boost and provide a much needed incentive for them to do well in their practice, if not to continuously do better (Little, 1990). As a result, the following research aims were established:

    • To assess the need for staff collaboration to help with strengthening practices at the centre, with the expectation that in the long term this would benefit student experience.
    • To introduce the idea and practice of staff collaboration and to highlight the benefits for all (at first, namely self-development).
    • To get an idea of the teachers’ mindsets and backgrounds and how these might influence their approaches to practice, thus to better understand the existing status quo, namely no staff collaboration.

    Research Design

    Participants

    A total of 8 staff members (80%) participated in the study. There were 6 women and 2 men; 5 were from United Kingdom, 2 from the Philippines and 1 from Turkey; 3 were Math teachers, 3 English, 1 Science and 1 taught primary level. Five participants had completed a Bachelor’s degree, of which 4 were undergoing further postgraduate training, and 3 had a Masters’ degree. Six participants had been previously employed as teachers, 1 was a Dentist, and 1 had worked in an industrial setting.

    Action Research as a Primary Method

    Action research (AR) was chosen as the most appropriate methodology for this project. The AR process of querying a practice within a context (with an initial phase of observation/ reconnaissance), devising a plan to help improve the practice, implementing the plan, documenting the plan’s impact through the collection of data and reflecting on the evidence, and then devising further implementation efforts was the best fit with the given situation at the centre (Anderson et al, 2007). AR integrates research and the initiation of action with use of the well-recognized research pattern of collecting data, and analysing and interpreting it. AR incorporates an action strategy to bring positive change, which is then further evaluated through the collection of more data (Somekh, 2006). Figure 1 (Slide 2) shows the elements or ‘moments’ (McNiff, 1988, p.44) that make up the cycle of AR. In the present project, should staff collaboration occur and continue via the action-reflection spiral shown in Figure 2 (Slide 3), it was expected that a new context would emerge that could lend itself to asking the question of whether there is improved student learning. Overall, the flexible cycles of AR can directly impact on practice, where challenges faced in practice are not seen as negative or a sign of weakness or incompetency, but as opportunities for progress (Townsend, 2013).

    In the present project, it was envisioned that the initial effort to establish some form of staff collaboration (the plan), would be pursued via a staff meeting (the initial action), the results (the observations and data) of which would be reflected upon, and would lead to the development of a newer plan, which would be further acted upon. The development of an updated plan would be dependent on the findings and questions arising from the reflection at the end of each cycle. Theoretically, this cycle could continue to spiral until the objective of obtaining high student outcomes and high levels of teaching as a result of successful and continued staff collaboration was achieved, with the possible development of a new research question arising along the way. 

    Data Collection

              Background of staff members. Working in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) entails working with a diverse group of people from around the world. Staff background data would provide information that would be used along with other forms of data in the study, contributing to the analysis and reflection moments in the AR cycles. An electronic questionnaire (Slides 4 to 8), administered via Survey Monkey, was created to capture the following:

    • Relevant ethnographic details (namely, nationality, education and employment history).
    • A few questions to ascertain opinions on self-development, namely, existing professional development practices (“continued professional development” or CPD) and potential staff meeting topics for the centre’s staff. A mobile friendly format was used to encourage completion of the questionnaire, with a multiple-choice tick list chosen to further minimise effort, with an option to elaborate on items if a respondent desired.
    • One open-ended question regarding why staff meetings were desired to assess the foundation of interest for the initial action (Anderson & Arsenault, 2000; Bell, 2014). This data would be related with the evaluation of the staff meeting, where the potential benefits of staff collaboration would be discussed.

    Anonymity was also guaranteed by a project website and promised to the participants, with password control measures. 

              Audio recording and minutes. A voice recording of the staff meeting, accompanied by written observations by the researcher, was made, with the audio transcribed.  Observations of note were analysed for research purposes. In addition, a modified minuted version of the transcription was subsequently given to the staff members as a point of note to hopefully reference at the next meeting. It was hoped that collaboratively the staff could analyze and interpret the transcribed meeting data and unanimously find a way forward. 

    Procedure

    The viability of the research was discussed with the educational director of the centre, without whose consent the research project could not have been conducted. The director was very forthcoming with ideas and suggestions and was open to the project’s intention to contribute to the centre’s improvement. The partnership with the director led to the following agreements: 

    1. To send an email invite to staff to attend a lunch meeting. An attached Information Sheet detailed the nature of the meeting. This would allow adequate time and opportunity for staff to process the information relating to the research project, with reassurance and an option to opt out at any time (BERA, 2011).
    2. At the meeting, to reiterate confidentiality, anonymity, data protection and the right to leave; to obtain informed consent; to discuss in more detail the essence of the research project , and the group’s feelings and thoughts on the topic of collaboration. The discussion would include existing insights into the use of reflection, critical friendship and collaboration. These procedures would be minuted and voice-recorded only.
    3. To email the questionnaire link to the staff members.
    4. A qualitative analysis of the data would come from the resulting transcript of the meeting.
    5. The analysis also would be made in reference to the individual questionnaires, which may qualify why certain statements, attitudes or practices are generated.
    6. If there was inadequate staff participation initially, to send gentle reminders via email or WhatsApp to fill in the questionnaires.
    7. Time, place and content for a second meeting would be formulated, based on the response and outcome of the first meeting, in collaboration with the education director.

    Results and Discussion

    The initial reconnaissance phase went according to the plan. The meeting was organized with an 80% turnout (n = 8). The questionnaire (APPENDIX A, Slides 4 to 8) was sent to all the attendees with a 100% completion rate. A transcript of the meeting was drawn up, with staff members identifiable through initials only (APPENDIX B, Slides 9 to 16). The non-parametric data generated from the questionnaire was analyzed and results are presented below and in graphic form (APPENDIX C, Slides 17 to 21).  

    How often did staff members pursue Continued Professional Development (CPD)?

    Four staff members pursued CPD weekly; 3 annually and 1 daily, 1 bi-annually and 1 monthly.

    What format did the CPD take?

    The participants were able to choose more than one format applicable. The common specified format was by reading subscriptions (3) and by attending lectures (3), followed by attending workshops (2). However, ‘Other’ was chosen by 5 staff members, but the format was not specified.

    Which aspects of work did the staff want to discuss in staff meetings?

    The staff had the choice of choosing more than one option. Discussing about students (80%), pedagogy (70%) and support (60%) were the 3 most popular aspects selected. Other aspects chosen were CPD (30%), advice (20%), research (10%) and social (10%).

    Interest in CPD workshops?

    All but 1 person stated that they were interested in CPD workshops.

    Would the staff like to have regular timetables for staff meetings and what aspects of work would they discuss?

    Seven staff members stated that they would like regular timetabled meetings. When asked why, the reasons included a range of views (Slide 19). One of the 2 members stated that they wouldn’t like a regular staff meeting, suggesting that they didn’t want to feel any pressure.

    In summary, the results indicated that the staff would appreciate meetings to discuss matters related to their work, with the vast majority agreeing to regular meetings. These meetings would also be open to being CPD opportunities, which each staff member also performed outside of work. Despite this finding, there was little actual open discussion during the lunch meeting. The findings seem to indicate that cultural and other background issues may have influenced the staff’s limited contributions in the staff meeting convened for the project. Importantly, the candor and transparency experienced by the researcher in an unofficial and personal setting were not replicated in the more formal setting of a staff meeting. Thus, the findings do not represent rich and candid dialog among staff members. One of the reasons could be the presence of the education director in the meeting, indicating the need for consideration for future research. Given both the lack of the staff’s active engagement with the intended further action of convening regular staff meetings and the absence of initiative by the education director following the meeting, no further action was taken.

    Learning Action Research as a Practitioner-Researcher: A Critical Reflection

    As a practitioner-researcher who adopted AR as a research approach, and finding out and understanding what is entailed in doing action research as a part of conducting an actual project, I provide a reflection on the AR process and the learning that I experienced throughout the research. AR is a continuous and flexible process where, upon reflection, the research may change direction dramatically. Action research sometimes runs into barriers that simply cannot be overcome. Did that happen in this project? The answer to this question depends a lot on what was learned and by whom.

           Was action research a suitable method of enquiry?  Three points stand out for consideration:

    (1) The researcher was not adequately trained to carry out a full action research project (Barlett and Burton, 2006).

    (2) Action research is context-specific and generalization is not an expected attribute of this research.

    (3) Influential changes may occur as a result of politically informed research that seeks change in practices (Anderson et al, 2007; Capobianca & Feldman, 2006), and this can pose insurmountable obstacles for a practitioner-researcher, in particular a novice practitioner-researcher.

    Regarding the first point, although the cycles of action research seem to be clear, in practice the process is quite non-linear. Conducting a research project while also meeting one’s daily duties as a staff member was exceptionally difficult. This relates to the second point. Although contributions of action research have been established, it can be discouraging to apply such great effort towards a project in the face of the realization that because some may view that ‘the results are not generalizable’ means the work lacks any significance, the researcher’s effort counts for very little. It was important to remind myself repeatedly of the important role of action research. Regarding the third point, because action research implies ‘action’ based on observations and existing research work, those who are heavily invested in maintaining the status quo may be resistant to action research from the start.

           Nature of the Data Collected. The focus of the research relied upon a single staff meeting to obtain ideas and attitudes from colleagues regarding making changes in a work setting. Because the meeting was structured more as an information session than a group data collection session or an organizing session, the meeting was a more problematic element than anticipated. Researchers should use open-ended questions to provide opportunity for participants to contribute their perspectives. Questions should start with words like ‘who, what, where, when, why, and how’ (Chenail, 2011, p.256), and be followed up with questions based on the responses. This then poses the question, is the data from the meeting reliable and valid? The validity of qualitative research requires ‘meticulous records…detailed transcripts…of all communication’ (Anderson & Arsenault, 2000, p.134) and requires the researcher to admit any bias. Overall, these conditions were only partially met (Appendix B).  

    The need for ‘introspective and self-critical reflection’ of researchers to encourage ‘self-discovery and explore cultural influences such as gender, age, ethnicity, and social class and their intersections’ has been stressed (Arthur et al, 2017, p.1397). Valuing the input of the staff members, giving them a voice and advising them that the analysis and reflection from their own personal experiences as educators would be at the center of identifying, as a group, relevant future topics for discussion was the core of the present project. Such group interactions may have allowed the staff to assess their own ideas and beliefs, more deeply and distinctly, than when alone (Hedges, 1985). However, these opportunities were not necessarily tied to the hoped for outcome of the first cycle, namely, the establishment of strong support and actions to further develop collaboration at the site.

             Challenge of the education director as participant. The education director actively participated in the meeting, despite not leading it. Appendix B shows that the director, after the researcher, dominated the discussion at the meeting. The fact that the majority of the other participants were not as vocal as anticipated was perhaps because they were afraid of speaking up in front of their employer or could not be honest and did not want to offend. This may be further explained by another noticeable aspect of the setting. The UAE is well known for its workplace diversity (Aldhaheri, 2017) and understanding Hofstede’s (2001) five cultural dimensions (power-distance, individualism vs collectivism, masculinity vs femininity, uncertainty avoidance, and time orientation) points to the challenges of facilitating ‘shared learning of any group’ (Ellahee, 2018, p. 6). Transcript analysis revealed that those that contributed the least, were from cultures (Polish, Turkish and Philippino) where there is a moderate to high power-distance relationship, with the emotional relationship between the leader and the workers referred to as the power-distance (Hofstede, 1984, 2001) (APPENDIX C). Those from Eastern Europe and Turkey fall into the moderate power-distance relationship, where there is a leaning towards the authority making the decisions and the status differences shaping the social interactions (Livermore, 2013). The Philippines culture portrays a high power-distance relationship where status matters and the authority makes the decisions. The remaining participants were British, amongst who a low power-distance relationship is noted, where the status differences are of little concern and empowered decision making is expected (ibid.). In an internationalized staff context, Hofstede’s five cultural dimensions may be highly relevant, suggesting that these dimensions add significant meaning to participant interactions in culturally-diverse groups.

           Official versus private meetings. Many participant-staff were not open to voicing their opinions or discussing their personal stories in the meeting, despite portraying openness in one-to-one interactions with the researcher prior to the meeting. It seems likely that staff collaboration would require friendships at work for self-development to be a genuine component of group collaboration. Such cross-cultural friendship can be a very sensitive issue for some. Cultural assumptions and stereotypes need to be recognised, questioned and ideally avoided (Swaffield & MacBeath, 2005). The experience of sharing and friendship also varies between the sexes (ibid.). This seemed evident during the meeting. The two males in the group were the least vocal. Friendship takes times and it is vital to develop and nurture this relationship to avoid tensions, ambivalence and distrust. (op. cit.). 

    Conclusions

    The present project simply lacked many of the conditions needed to foster the kind of relationships that could lend themselves to meaningful collaboration among the staff. Action research incorporates steps for trustworthiness, transparency and triangulation, which help bolster the provision of ‘evidence of the value of the changes in their practice and their understanding of it’ (Capobianca & Feldman, 2006, p. 508). Although the confounding elements and conflicting directions in the present study led the researcher in various directions, the key learning associated with the project may be in the identification of the challenges associated with practitioner research. Through this research, I have learned more than what the research findings offer. Learning is a process that continues throughout life, and this is no different for educators who are required to continually develop themselves as professionals. Dewey’s (1933) emphasis on the importance of the learning environment in professional development is a relevant consideration.

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    To cite this work, please use the following reference:

    Ellahee, S. (2020). Is staff collaboration in sharing practices deemed beneficial? Retrieved from https://www.socialpublishersfoundation.org/knowledge_base/is-staff-collaboration-in-sharing-practices-deemed-beneficial/

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