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Change Driver Two: Grow a Culture of Collaboration & Team Work

April 18, 2012 | Tags: michael fullan, school reform, change drivers
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by Cathy Gassenheimer

Michael Fullan, one of the leading education researchers and thought-leaders of our time, has written about four major drivers for whole system reform. I'm writing a post about each driver. See my overview here and Driver One here.

Change Driver Two: Inspire Collaboration & Team Work
According to Michael Fullan, “no nation has ever got better by focusing on individual teachers as the driver.” He argues that countries like Finland and Singapore set their sites on developing the entire teaching profession by “raising the bar for all.” School culture drives change, he says, and that culture needs to support group effort. Good appraisals of effort reinforce the change process but they are not the primary drivers.
Collective or team work makes processes better. Fullan reminds us that focused collaborative activities drive change. He goes a step further: “the judicious mixture of high expectations, relentless but supportive leadership, good standards and assessment, investments in capacity, transparency of results and practice is what produces better results, and better accountability.” (p 12) Note that when he mentions transparency, he infers collective work.
Thomas Hatch, in his book Managing to Change: How Schools Can Survive (and Sometimes Thrive in Turbulent Times (2009), suggests that reaching this level of common understanding and coherence is difficult. He believes schools -- most of which are faced with the challenges of changing policies, changing demographics, and financial stress -- “need ways of recognizing when missions have drifted too far or common understandings have been lost, and they have to spend time and resources finding ways to bring the members of the organization back together.” (p. 59)
Hatch then shares an important concept about group focus:
“Schools that never establish a distinct focus or a sense of instructional coherence may have a harder time building up a public perception that something needs to be done because they have never experienced what it’s like to have a shared understanding to guide them.” (p. 62)
John Hattie, in his book Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning (2012) contends that teamwork is the only way for a school to become consistently high performing. Pointing to a study by Linda Darling-Hammond which found that countries with the greatest improvements in overall student learning invested 15-to-25 hours weekly on teacher collaborative learning and teamwork, Hattie says: “I want them [teachers] to spend such time working together to plan and critique lessons, interpret and deliberate in light of evidence about their impact on each student’s learning, in each other’s classes observing student learning, and continually evaluating the evidence about how ‘we as teachers in this school’ can optimize worthwhile outcomes for all students.” (p. 168).
Collaborative culture & social capital
A collaborative culture is a necessary component for continuous improvement in teaching and learning. In his paper, Fullan points to a study by Carrie Leana, a business professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Leana uncovered the importance of “social capital,” defined as interaction (focused on student learning) among teachers, and also between teachers and administrators. In an extensive study that followed more than 1,000 4th and 5th grade teachers in New York, her team found that “teachers who were more able (high human capital), and had stronger ties with their peers (high social capital) had the biggest gains in math achievement.” She also found something remarkable that reinforces the importance of teaming and a collaborative culture: In schools with strong social capital those teachers deemed to have “lower ability,” perform as well as teachers of average ability “if they have strong social capital in their school.”
So, how do we build a culture of continuous improvement that promotes effective teaching and learning? Richard Elmore and colleagues at the Harvard Graduate School of Education suggest a focus on coherence. Coherence, according to Elmore et al., “means that the adults agree on what they are trying to accomplish with students and that adults are consistent from classroom to classroom in their expectations for what students are expected to learn.” In short, “coherent learning environments cannot exist in incoherent organizations.” (Instructional Rounds, p. 8)
We’ve seen this in action through our ABPC networks. Districts in our Key Leaders Network are working on one-page instructional targets for their district and their schools, a concept promoted by Jim Knight in Unmistakable Impact. These targets focus on Knight’s “Big Four” teaching practices in content planning, formative assessment, powerful instruction, and community building. These clearly stated, one-page targets help schools and districts focus on continuous improvement and address the means to measure progress.
Continuous improvement through collaboration is particularly critical as teachers implement Alabama’s new college-and-career ready standards. Often when we refer to our new standards, we are asked by teachers, “How can I possibly do all that is required to implement these new standards?” Our answer is simple: “You can’t.” We then share our strong conviction that unless they work together with colleagues to understand, design, implement, evaluate, and fine-tune lessons that correspond with the new standards, they won’t get there.
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