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Collaboration in teaching and learning: Insights from TULIP (Tertiary Undergraduate Literacy Integration Program)

Patricia Cartwright
Aquinas Campus, Australian Catholic University
Lynne Noone
Mt Helen Campus, University of Ballarat
This paper explores the notion and practice of collaboration as it occurred in a CUTSD (Committee for University Teaching and Staff Development) funded project called TULIP (Tertiary Undergraduate Literacy Integration Program). A particular feature of the Project involved us in working collaboratively with lecturers from different disciplines and different tertiary institutions around the issue of first year student literacy. One of the insights from the Project is that the notion and practice of collaboration is problematic. Collaboration, we found, needs to be flexible, critical, and practical - central to the processes of changing the social and discursive practices and understandings of participating teachers. But it is this very centrality, we believe, that problematises what is generally understood by the term 'collaboration'. We find it useful to think of collaboration as a process of involvement in social meaning-practice and interactions that are relational and hybrid. When we collaboratively discussed our actions and judgements, along with our nagging doubts and glimmers of insights, the conversation gradually became more inclusive. We developed a process of flexible collaboration that enabled us to articulate divergent practices and that confronted multiple realities in education. In doing so, we were led to examine the social functions and effects of the meanings we made; the politics of our texts.


We have been engaged in a CUTSD funded program called TULIP (Tertiary Undergraduate Literacy Integration Program) which, as the name suggests, foregrounds the integration or embeddedness of tertiary literacy within content teaching as a means of enhancing student literacy. A particular feature of the CUTSD Project involved us in working collaboratively with lecturers from different disciplines and different tertiary institutions around the issue of first year student literacy. This was a process of staff development that recognised teaching as an active process of meaning making by the teacher, and improvement in teaching as a collaborative practice best undertaken with others through a critical action research process.

The definition of action research we used as a starting point was that of Kemmis and McTaggart (1989). They describe it as a collaborative process which begins from participants' exploration of their current ways of understanding their circumstances in order to define the problem and their values, moves to planning and implementation of possible strategies, and culminates in evaluation and re-planning through participatory modes of learning and working. According to the literature on critical theory and the critical theoretical approach to action research, it is possible for action research projects to contribute to institutional change (Hall, 1996). In fact, according to Carr and Kemmis (1986), who draw on Habermas (1982), organisational and cultural change is an ultimate purpose of action research.

We found that 'flexible collaboration' was integral to changing the practices and understandings of participating lecturers so that they could enhance students' literacy within their classrooms. Our definition of 'flexible collaboration' draws on Lather's (1991) view of reciprocity, which 'implies give and take, a mutual negotiation of meaning and power' (p. 57). We also saw our collaboration as being shaped by emancipatory aspirations that offered a powerful opportunity for praxis in that it enabled people to change by encouraging self-reflection and a deeper understanding of their particular situation. Drawing on the process of reflexivity (Richardson, 1994), we interrogated the ways in which meaning and power were negotiated in our collaborative endeavours, keeping in mind, of course, that meaning and power will always remain problematical (Grundy & Hatton, 1995). We were thus led to problematise the process of collaboration, formulating instead a notion of 'flexible collaboration', that enabled all of us involved in the project to move towards socially critical outcomes. This paper explores the flexible collaboration that was integral to the TULIP Project.

TULIP Project Activities

Through action research, five lecturers and approximately two hundred students from the disciplines of Education, Social Science, Environmental Science and Nursing at the University of Ballarat, and Australian Catholic University (Aquinas Campus), developed, trialed, and refined a series of literacy learning and teaching strategies for use within the usual tutorial sessions as the content of each subject was taught. There were two phases to the Project: Phase One involved Education lecturers and students from Australian Catholic University and the University of Ballarat; Phase Two involved lecturers and students from the discipline areas of Social Science, Environmental Science, and Nursing from both institutions. Each lecturer engaged in an action learning process with her/his particular group of students, centred on using literacy teaching strategies. The students were thus assisted in learning their discipline knowledge as the teacher made explicit to them, and encouraged them to practise, the component skills and conventions of the discipline language. Students learned about their discipline through the language and literacy of that discipline.


In recent years, notions of collegiality and collaboration have been frequently articulated in the literature as a range of initiatives has endeavoured to promote more collaborative forms of professional development in the academic community. In relation to these initiatives, Fullan and Hargreaves (1992) note that 'Attractive concepts like collegiality and collaboration are often imbued with a global sense of virtue' (p.63). Hargreaves and Daw (1990), however, challenge this 'sense of virtue', commenting on the paradox of teachers being urged to collaborate more when there is less for them to collaborate about. They draw attention to the contrasting notions of collaborative cultures and 'contrived collegiality', the latter being characterized by Fullan and Hargreaves (1992) as a 'set of formal, specific, bureaucratic procedures to increase the attention being given to joint teacher planning, consultation and other forms of working together' (p. 78). In contrast, Fullan and Hargreaves (1992) offer the term 'collaborative cultures', which are not seen to be established for specific projects; rather, they 'consist of pervasive qualities, attitudes and behaviours...[with] a commitment to valuing people as individuals and valuing the group to which people belong' (p. 66).

It is our belief that a 'true' collaborative culture, as distinct from Fullan and Hargreaves' contrived collegiality, is one that begins from the recognition that the language and ideologies of collegiality and collaboration are often used to sell to teachers the contradictory notion of increasingly centralised authority alongside a divesting of central responsibility to schools (Smyth, 1995). While Smyth is talking about schools, we would make the same argument for tertiary teachers and tertiary management.

The TULIP project was not part of a management strategy, and therefore had a degree of autonomy from managerialist imperatives; but, we were aware that versions of 'contrived collegiality' are commonly associated with external funding of any project, implying a top-down model of change (Johnston & Proudford, 1994). We were mindful, too, of the comment by Blackmore (1999) that 'action research and teacher/academic partnerships have now been adopted as management strategies to implement government policy, often neutralising their political, critical and democratic intent' (p. ii). The key structural feature that seemed to us to allow some empowerment was that we ourselves were in the same structural position as the people we were inviting to be participants. Therefore, their calculus of the 'cost benefits of collaboration' (Smyth, et al 2000, p. 91) in regard to their participation did not have to include that this was management trying to sell them something, or putting them under scrutiny.

Teacher narrative

In our work, teacher narrative (Jalongo et al, 1995); Connelly & Clandinin, 1986, 1990; Elbaz, 1991) is an important part of the collaborative process. They acknowledge teaching as an uncertain business; one whose character results from the sense which teachers make of the immediate and broader contexts in which they act. The teachers' stories about what happened in the classroom when using the literacy teaching strategies constitute both data for the project and the means by which practitioners give meaning to their activities. The stories are constructed from the teachers' judgements about their own practices, their perceptions of the literacy outcomes in students' discipline work, and of the students' experiences of focusing more directly on literacy learning.

Process of flexible collaboration

For the purposes of this paper, we can outline only some of the material that was generated as we collaborated with our colleagues on the project. We saw collaboration as a process that evolved during the time we worked together, hence our seeing it as 'flexible collaboration'. This notion of collaboration enabled us to acknowledge different kinds of work practices and knowledge-practices, but it also enabled us to work collectively to reshape and rethink our pedagogical practices. Although we have identified our collaboration as flexible, it needs to be made clear that this identification was a reflexive process through which emerged the need to be adaptable in our collaboration to the changing circumstances of our project and of the participants involved.

Our meetings with the participating lecturers took place on a weekly basis, and, initially, we directed and shaped our colleagues' ideas regarding what constitutes literacy in a tertiary classroom. We acknowledge the unequal power relations suggested at this early stage of the project, with the control of the power lying with the initiators of the project (Gore, 1991). However, we felt comparatively comfortable with this initial direction, as lecturers had chosen to participate in the project, because of their concerns regarding student literacy, and their desire to be part of a research project that was designed to address this concern. Then, as the project progressed, we engaged with our colleagues in devising ways of countering the occasional student hostility that sometimes resulted from ways of teaching and learning that were unexpected in their particular disciplines. This disruption to their teaching called on us to be flexible in our approach to collaboration. Sometimes, we would be supportive, providing a sympathetic ear to stories from the classroom. At other times, we would be somewhat confrontational, as we asked them to articulate their understandings clearly to the group, who would also question their pedagogical approaches. Ultimately, we found that our flexible collaboration was very much a reciprocal process, as we learned from each other's experiences, shared beliefs and values, and felt collectively empowered in our teaching.

Engaging in flexible collaboration

What follows are some examples of the way that flexible collaboration was realised in our Project. We have focused on four particular areas that seemed significant in the shaping and direction of the project, and in the collaborative endeavours of the participants. These areas are (1) Literacy in the tertiary classroom; (2) Strategies for literacy learning, or Just follow the recipe; (3) Confrontation with students in the classroom; (4) Collaboration resulting in divergent practices. In each of these areas, we will indicate how particular aspects of flexible collaboration occurred in our working with the participating lecturers.

1. Literacy in the tertiary classroom - Collaboration that directs and shapes

It is our belief that to understand the discipline is to be able to engage in the discourse of that discipline. Hence, 'literacy' is not something that can be remediated in isolated tool sessions, but is integral to the teaching and learning of the discipline material. It follows from this view of literacy as a social construct that the language conventions (or 'literacy) which need to be fostered will be in many ways specific to each discourse community (Baynham et al, 1994). But insights from the field of literacy theory and pedagogy suggest that there may be generic teaching strategies which can be used to foster the learning of different discipline languages, without recourse to a discourse of student deficit. TULIP explored that possibility.

The literacy strategies that our participating lecturers trialled emerged from our version of what counts as literacy teaching. So, one of our major priorities was the need to create a shared language in order to be able to talk across disciplines. For example, while we saw literacy as a 'dynamic, evolving social and historical construction...constructed by individuals and groups as part of everyday life' (Luke, 1993, p. 4) the lecturers generally had a deficit view of literacy, seeing it as being able to read and write, which they decided, most students couldn't do to a standard required for tertiary learning.

At one of our first meetings, the following comments were made:

Social Science Lecturer: They can't read or write. They can't pronounce the words in the readings, much less work out what they might mean from the context.

Nursing Lecturer: I'm really looking forward to getting started on some of your strategies, but I can't see, at this stage, quite how it's going to work, because the students' own reading and writing is so bad, usually.

Our response: It seems to us that you are seeing literacy in quite narrow terms, as being able to read and write. Being 'literate' in the academy entails much more than reading and writing; it involves understanding the culture, and discourses, of the academy, as well as understanding how to access the particular language of the discipline.

One of the early difficulties we noted in our collaboration was that we have particular ways of looking at and approaching literacy learning that were generated through our own understandings, experiences, and reading of the literature. We were mindful of Grundy's (1982) comment which saw one aspect of action research as one in which the project 'would be instigated by a particular person or group of persons, who, by reason of their greater experience or qualifications, would be regarded as 'experts' or 'authority figures' (Grundy, 1982, p. 24). We acknowledge this perspective, and, as the next section will show, tried to find ways of being both 'experts', and 'co-learners' when collaborating with the participating lecturers.

2. Strategies for Literacy Learning; or 'Just follow the recipe' - Collaboration that is supportive

A particular dilemma we had was in presenting the strategies to the lecturers in ways that would be coherent, but that would not just mean they followed the steps in the strategy. At the same time we were aware that each of us in the project had our own 'different ways of knowing, acting and subjectivity, which are constructed differently by different knowledge communities' (Giroux, 1992, p. 43). We believed it was important that the particular context of their own classrooms was taken into consideration, with concomitant adjustments made in the way they implemented the strategies. At each of our sessions, we presented the lecturers with a new literacy strategy, together with suggested steps for implementation. This would be followed by a discussion regarding the ways the two Education lecturers had used the strategy in our classrooms, the modifications we might have made according to the particular dynamic of the classroom at the time, and how we incorporated particular content areas into the strategy. Lecturers would then apply the literacy strategy in their own classrooms in the following week.

The following comments indicate how the challenge of developing a shared language was realised during the course of the project.

Environmental Science Lecturer: Early on I was struck by coming from a different discipline. And that was why I was fascinated by the role play that you were talking about, and how could I change it to fit into a science context. I knew you were talking a different language, but I didn't necessarily understand the language all the time. It was intriguing.

Nursing Lecturer: I felt a bit isolated by it, but that was no problem. I tried to get as much out of it as I could, but I just accepted that it was a different discipline, different language, and I obviously had large gaps in my knowledge.

Social Science Lecturer: I think it's because it's within your language that the recipes have been developed. It's not natural for us, or expected that we do these things as part of our discipline, and therefore you need a starting point because it is just not natural to do that in that discipline.

Our response: The strategies are to provide you with a guide for use in the classroom. We have presented each step to be followed, but we really would suggest you modify this to suit your particular situation. Above all, don't be worried if the steps don't seem to work out for you, or even if the strategy does not seem to go as planned. Part of our work together is to evaluate what works, how it works, and why it works, in each discipline. So, don't be worried about deviating from our 'plan'.

One of the early aspects of this process was that the lecturers, generally, followed each of the steps provided for implementation of the strategy, even though, both during the tutorial/lecture itself and on later reflection, they could see it would have been more effective to have modified the steps to suit their particular classroom situation. As the above response makes clear, we were at pains to suggest that they did not have to follow the steps as written.

3. Confrontation with students in the classroom - Collaboration that engages and supports

Theoretically, we hold to the view that in teaching one must transgress (hooks, 1994) the boundaries, which will 'take them [students] beyond their current horizons to consider perspectives and issues that they would not normally entertain' (Zeichner & Liston, 1991, p. 193). We see ourselves engaging in a pedagogy that is both within and against the academy, and that encourages students to become deep learners (Gibbs, 1994). For many students, however, thinking through writing is not part of their understanding of how tertiary learning should occur. Indeed, many students experienced a sense of cognitive dissonance when they were confronted with our literacy strategies that were different from what they expected tertiary learning to be - that is, finding the 'right answer' from a text book.

We were, in a sense, directing the lecturers to teach in ways they had not considered before. The following is a discussion that focuses on this issue:

Environmental Science Lecturer: I think TULIP activities exposed some things the students were not good at - ie writing, analysing written material, sharing opinions, sharing their writing skills - and they therefore came to resent the fact that their frailties were visible to everyone else in the class. I suspect that focussing on communication skills in science is almost unheard of - at least in these students' minds. I suspect that if communication and literacy issues were pushed in other science units, those units might get a reputation for being difficult and students might avoid enrolling in them.

Our Response: So, is your concern more to do with the student hostility, or with the possible threat to your teaching load if this particular unit got a 'bad' reputation for being difficult?

Social Science Lecturer: I don't think it's an either/or situation. One of my students said she thought she was back in primary school.

Environmental Science Lecturer: In the last two or three weeks I've found it hard going. I think they're reacting to being pushed. I've been leaning on them pretty hard to try and encourage them to be involved in discussing the issues, but also to be involved in TULIP activities and thinking about issues, thinking critically about anything. And they just don't want to. On Monday, one of the two women who refused to be involved directed some quite serious hostility towards me when I asked her a direct question about information. She was very sullen, and that was directed at me personally.

During the part of the project, when this hostility began to emerge, we were reminded of Ellsworth's (1989) writing on the problems of 'empowerment' and her criticisms of critical pedagogy. We noted Ellsworth's charge that critical pedagogy can become positivist itself, stressing who we 'should be' and what 'should be' happening in our classrooms (p. 299). Furthermore, the concepts of 'empowerment' and 'voice' can be fraught with difficulty once they are extended beyond the level of rhetoric. Nevertheless, what struck us in particular was the way that lecturers spoke so freely of their classroom dilemmas, denoting a sense of trust in the collaborative process and the support of their peers.

4. Collaboration resulting in divergent practices - Collaboration as a reciprocal process

In one of our final sessions, we asked the lecturers to share what had been successful, or otherwise, in their involvement in TULIP and in implementing the literacy strategies with the students. The reciprocity in collaboration came about, we believe, because we had included lecturers from a range of disciplines, which opened up to us all other ways of working in our classrooms. The following are a few of their responses:

Environmental Science Lecturer: I think that's something I've picked up, that what works for one person may not be the best means, so diversity is a good thing. Science, I know there's controversy within science, but basically it tends to be pretty 'factual', and that dictates how you approach the subject. But, at the same time, it stimulated me to say, well, does my subject area have to be so didactic, so black and white.

Social Science Lecturer: The TULIP activities assisted greatly in showing students the processes of reflection and consolidation of lecture material and in some deep reading of certain chapter segments or articles. My teaching had to change in that I had to be organised before a tutorial, something I did not always do before. I also changed my teaching of some lectures by trying to integrate breaks to write and think about things in the lectures.

Nursing Lecturer: I believe my involvement with TULIP has enhanced students' understanding of the unit content. I believe this occurred because TULIP encouraged me to explore and use a range of teaching styles I might not have otherwise used. TULIP has given me the freedom, or perhaps the permission, to experiment with my teaching. TULIP has aroused within me a passion for my teaching.


How then, have we found our process of flexible collaboration? Throughout our time with the lecturers, we endeavoured to take a position of equal membership within the group. Thus, we shared our own successes and failures in our teaching, and through our teacher narrative, placed under scrutiny our own dilemmas in implementing a critical literacy pedagogy in our own classrooms. McTaggart (1992) has argued that a 'deliberate mix of people from different work contexts' forming a participatory, democratic group is 'one way of problematising the work of all parties and of diversifying the value commitments people must attend to, justify, implement and problematise' (p. 8). Obviously, such as position, as we have articulated is far from tension free. Nevertheless, the building of trust, and the development of a collaboration that is flexible and responsive to changing contexts ensures that tensions and critique can occur in a positive way that does not detract from the participants' own experiences within the project. It was also clear that the lecturers appreciated being given the opportunity to talk to others, share concerns about teaching, and discover more effective of shaping the teaching/learning context. As can be seem from their comments, they engaged in reflective practice, a 'dialogue of thinking and doing' (Schon 1987, p. 31) that became a powerful form of ongoing professional development.

It is our belief that when collaboration is undertaken by colleagues who experience similar constraints and possibilities within a power structure, the result can be educative, empowering, energising, critical, affirming, and flexible in a way that no managerialist contrived collegiality can be. Further, we believe that collaboration and collegiality can be re-appropriated from the managerialist discourse in a way which renews their links with the emancipatory discourse from which they came.


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Contact details: Dr Patricia Cartwright, Australian Catholic University, Aquinas Campus
Phone (03) 5336 5390 Fax (03) 5336 5325 Email

Please cite as: Cartwright, P. and Noone, L. (2001). Collaboration in teaching and learning: Insights from TULIP (Tertiary Undergraduate Literacy Integration Program). In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 124-132. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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