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Three Reasons Why Professional Teams Don’t Always Work and What to Do About Them (micro level)

February 12, 2010

In a recent post, I noted some reasons why the formation and organization of professional learning teams sometimes prevents them from being successful. In this entry I will address problems at the team level that prevent successful team collaboration.

1. Lack of clarity. Many teams are formed without a sense of purpose or desired outcome. This is especially true given that team collaboration has become somewhat of a fad. Leaders hear that teams are a good idea, so they mandate teams.

             Solutions. Be clear about purposes, outcomes, and roles of professional learning teams.


                        Why are we here?

                        What outcome are we aiming for?

                        What roles do we serve? Who is responsible for leading the team, and what does that


2. Inability to cope with differences among members. Professional learning teams often skate along smoothly so long as everyone agrees, but when differences crop up, team members get nervous, avoid interacting, or quickly change the subject. It is essential that teams learn how to manage differences. In fact, learning requires it. Note the metaphor I used a few sentences ago, of skating when everyone agrees. Teams that focus on agreement only typically skate along the surface. If they want to go deeper and explore the difficult questions and big challenges facing them and their work, they need to look at multiple perspectives, competing experiences, and opposing ideas. This is hard work but it yields greater learning.

             Solutions. Learn to address differences that arise during collaboration. Consider:

                       How can we move beyond nervousness when someone disagrees?

                       Can we find and opportunities rather than or opportunities – in other words, can we

                                            hold competing perspectives and learn from both?

                      What large goals and key values do we hold in common that we can remember

                                            when we navigate the difficult terrain of disagreement about details?

                      If team members have different experiences, can we assume that they are reporting

                                            their experiences accurately and then seek to learn from the complexity

                                            of this work?

3. Lack of engagement. Teams sometimes falter because participants don’t feel like they matter, or like the work matters.

           Solutions. Aim for team meetings in which all feel welcome and everyone feels like they will

           miss something important if they fail to attend. Seek to:

                       Learn about each individual; this requires listening.

                       Share roles and responsibilities.

                       Honor all perspectives, even those that are surprising or different from the majority


                      Make the purpose of each meeting clear.

                      Honor agendas yet record new concerns or ideas for future consideration.

                      Plan the next meeting’s agenda and purpose before the current meeting ends.

                      Check in with members to ensure that the team’s stated purpose is being


Effective learning teams don’t just happen, they evolve. A fascinating study by Pamela Grossman, Sam Wineburg, and Stephen Woolworth delineates aspects of this evolution. I have described this study and provided a citation at Click on “For Professional Learning Teams” and then “Resources.”

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