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The Many Shapes of Collaboration (Part 5 of 5)

When applied to education, the interdisciplinary act of teaching requires a different kind of deep knowledge and complexity. When students come from California and Korea, India and Idaho, New York and North Carolina, teachers must navigate enormous differences in academic experience and preparation.  How do we best welcome them?  How can we ensure they all have the opportunity to excel?  What makes up the essence of their shared experience?  These are questions of deep complexity—our own “wicked problems”—and they are questions no one teacher can answer.  Effective collaboration like the kind prompted by interdisciplinary work brings together disparate perspectives, moves us toward solutions, and inevitably brings us someplace new.

While writing a song may not address real-world problems in the same way, it too expresses something of deep complexity—and it highlights the personal risk of collaboration. The workings of the heart and mind are moved sometimes by incalculable forces. Collaborating over the songwriting process forces us, for the sake of a shared goal, to expose the heart and mind to revision, criticism, and rejection.  This can be difficult, and it’s a reminder that effective environments support this kind of vulnerability.

Sometimes the outcome of collaboration is public. Sometimes it is private. Some parts of the process are mechanical; most are interpersonal. In each case, the work is best when it is, as Newell says, interperspectival. When we integrate different perspectives, when we find the harmony in these contrary motions, we bring into being something bigger than ourselves. 

I think this is some of the best kind of work. And if we live and work in an environment that creates more opportunities for this kind of collaborative engagement, then we are lucky indeed.


In 1992, researchers at the Wilder Research Center assembled a literature review of factors influencing successful collaboration. Their work culled fields as diverse as health, social science, education, and more. By their update of the review in 2000, with rigorous standards for reliability and relevance, they had whittled 414 studies down to forty-two. From these forty-two, twenty factors for effective collaboration emerged.

Factors related to PURPOSE:
    • Concrete, attainable goals and objectives
    • Shared vision
    • Unique purpose
    • Mutual respect, understanding, and trust
    • Appropriate cross section of members
    • Members see collaboration as in their self-interest
    • Ability to compromise
Factors related to PROCESS AND STRUCTURE:
    • Members shake a stake in both process and outcome
    • Multiple layers of participation
    • Flexibility
    • Development of clear roles and policy guidelines
    • Adaptability
    • Appropriate pace of development
Factors related to COMMUNICATION:
    • Open and frequent communication
    • Established informal relationship and communication links
Factors related to ENVIRONMENT:
    • History of collaboration in the community
    • Collaborative group seen as a legitimate leader in the community
    • Favorable political and social climate
Factors related to RESOURCES:
    • Sufficient funds, staff, materials, and time
    • Skilled leadership
(from Mattessich, Murray-Close, & Monsey, Collaboration: What Makes It Work. Fieldstone Alliance, St. Paul, 2001)

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