Collaboration for improved student learning

Collaboration for improved student learning

Recently my school welcomed Dr. Ben Jensen from the Grattan Institute. Dr. Jensen presented a summary of his findings into top tier Asian schools, based on his 2012 report. One of the more revealing aspects of Dr. Jensen’s report (and a little reported on aspect) are the collaboration strategies employed by educators in these settings, which have been shown to be directly linked to the outstanding results in these systems.

In his presentation, Jensen highlighted the OECD’s definition of the two forms of collaboration in schools: Exchange and Coordination, and Active Professional Collaboration.

So what do the two types of collaboration mean and how are they different? Exchange and Coordination tends to involve the “Exchange and Coordination of teaching material, discussion individual students’ development, attendance at team conferences, ensuring common standards.” In other words, teachers operating in coordination and management roles, attending meetings and discussing student progress. Active Professional Collaboration on the other hand involves “Team teaching, peer observation and feedback, coordinating activities across classes, effective group professional learning.” In other words, structured professional collaborations that are all centred on improving student learning. To quote the report directly, these education systems promote “Active professional collaboration that has a direct impact on learning and teaching. Key elements include classroom observations, team teaching and constructive feedback.” (1)

While necessary to keep a school running effectively Exchange and Coordination type collaboration has no real impact on student learning. You just need to think back to your last staff meeting or year level meeting. Did you become a better teacher because of it? Were you able to spend time practicing a classroom teaching skill with a colleague and give each other feedback? Most people would say no. There was the Information Night to prepare, the excursion to coordinate, the booklist to debate and so on ad-infinitum.

The second type of collaboration, Active Professional Collaboration has been directly linked to high performance of students in top tier Asian school systems. It should be noted that these forms of collaboration are not dissimilar to the high leverage strategies outlined in Paul Bambrick Santoyo’s excellent book Leverage Leadership (outlined here).

This raises quite a few questions for school leaders. Active Professional Collaboration as described in the report is certainly what most of my colleagues would describe as the ideal and how they would like to be collaborating with each other… in a perfect world. But many would say that the existing pressures of being an educator and leader prevent them from doing so. After all, there’s so much Exchange and Coordination to be done in meetings, that student learning and Active Professional Collaboration can quickly be forgotten.

So how do we as leaders make sure that we are collaborating effectively? How do you make sure that administrivia and the meeting schedule doesn’t rule our teacher’s lives?

Well, I certainly don’t have all the answers. But here are a set of ideas that we use to help achieve stronger professional collaboration at our school:

Protect staff time – The allocation of staff working time is one of the most important roles of school leadership. Devote staff meeting time to active collaboration activities, remove admin style meetings from your calendar, and minimise obligatory staff and year level meetings which encourage ‘war stories’ and unfocused debate.
Be purposeful – Ensure that designated staff collaboration time, whether it be formal meetings, professional learning, observations etc. all have a clear purpose. A good rule of thumb for meetings is that they should to be focused on one of the following: professional learning, data analysis or collaborative lesson planning. Everything else can be done by email.
Use learning protocols – Wherever possible, use protocols that ensure that everyone contributes, learns and gets something meaningful out of the collaboration. Make sure that these protocols are used to support student learning, and that teachers can use the learning in their classes in a timely manner.
Model active professional collaboration – In your own meetings, follow the above guidelines. Ensure that you participate in classroom observations, planning and feedback sessions. It’s a change that’s really hard to sell if you don’t model it yourself.

In conclusion, by holding staff meetings and putting people in a room to work together, we are not necessarily collaborating. Leaders need to be thoughtful in identifying how they should develop collaboration (and when to let people work alone), and in selecting the forms of collaboration which will create better teachers and learning outcomes.

Further Reading:

For more on the Grattan Institute’s report into top tier Asian schools go to: http://grattan.edu.au/publications/reports/post/catching-up-learning-from-the-best-school-systems-in-east-asia/

For more on collaboration:
The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team – Patrick Lencioni
Death by Meeting – Patrick Lencioni
Collaboration – Morton Hansen

For school specific collaboration strategies, check out:
Leverage Leadership – Paul Bambrick Santoyo
Practice Perfect – Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, Katie Yezzi

(1) Catching up: Learning from the best school systems in East Asia – Ben Jensen, February 2012 Page 16

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