Collaboration: Focus on a common needs-based goal that requires you to learn and improve

In education, the most effective collaboration for solving problems is that focused on a common goal that has the purposes of learning and improvement (Annan, 2007; Head, 2003; Katz, Earl and Jafaar, 2009; Timperley and Parr, 2010; Timperley, Wilson, Barrar and Fung, 2007; Timperley, McNaughton, Lai, Hohepa, Parr and Dingle, 2009; and Wenger, 1998). Enough references for ya?!

To move beyond sharing, an effective network should identify learning and improvement needs using evidence about students, teachers and leaders. I mean "evidence" in the widest possible sense and I mean "needs" in the most empowering sense - I don't see students or others as "needy" people who need fixing, but the word "needs" for me implies an area of strength to be built on or an area where gaps can be addressed. 

Network members should set a common goal related to identified needs and aim to learn and improve in this area. If a network identifies a common goal based on limited analysis of evidence and aims to share planning and professional learning resources, they would not be practising the most effective collaboration.

A deeper analysis of need is required when determining network goals. Annan’s (2007) research found that results were achieved if schools came together in the first place for a needs-based reason, whereas Wenger’s notion of “joint enterprise” (1998, p. 77) requires community members to define and agree on a shared goal. Either way, the vision or goal should be preceded by careful consideration of evidence, as emphasised by Annan (2007), Katz et al. (2009) and Timperley et al. (2009). The work that I do with clusters responds to either scenario, focusing on the evidence first in order to find or redefine the common needs. A good needs analysis will involve the use of a wide range of evidence related to the student achievement challenge including data about student, teacher and leader practices. I also challenge network leaders to gather many perspectives about the current situation and to involve many others in network activities from the outset. Kids can provide their perspectives about their learning and take responsibility for network/cluster goals. My next post will talk more about ways to do this.

A detailed description of good needs analysis based on inquiry is provided in Practitioner Research for Educators: A Guide to Improving Classrooms and Schools by Robinson and Lai (2006). They discuss ways in which inquiry, or “the critical examination of practice” can be strengthened through the use of Problem Based Methodology. Robinson’s Problem Based Methodology acknowledges the contextual issues of collaboration and encourages inquiry into these problems to find solutions. According to Robinson and Lai, the use of Problem Based Methodology allows issues of context to be addressed, ideas to be challenged and the effectiveness of collaborative work to be checked.
Timperley and Earl (2012) discuss Situation Analysis which, like Robinson’s Problem Based Methodology, is a process that encourages inquiry into practices to fully understand a student achievement problem or challenge. They acknowledge that it is difficult to identify what practices are leading to achievement challenges, and propose that Situation Analysis that involves the perspectives of family, whānau and community can help. 

A situation analysis (J.Annan, 2005; B. Annan, Wootton, & Timperley, unpublished) is a facilitated process to help those wanting to improve outcomes for students to identify how they might need to change their thinking and actions in order to achieve ongoing improvement. It is most helpful when networks have experienced initial improvement in student learner outcomes, but then experience a plateau. One place to fit it in the network cycle of inquiry, learning and action is when developing a hunch about what is leading to what. Another time might be after checking if enough of a difference has been made to outcomes for learners, particularly if the impact is less than hoped for. At this point, the situation analysis can be used to identify the focus of the next cycle of inquiry … It frequently means identifying what is not happening e.g. an absence of collegial critique. This process can take up to two days. The change agenda is identified through leaders completing complementary problem-practice and capability templates in relation to their priority student learning problem. The problem-practice template identifies what needs to change and new actions to change it. The capability template helps leaders work out which new actions they can take on their own, and which will require new professional learning.
(Timperley and Earl, 2012, pp. 40-41)
While I've been a huge fan of problem based methodologies, I prefer to use situation analysis with networks. Annan, Annan, Wootton and Timperley have developed a process that includes an appreciative, strengths-based lens which allows the network members to build on positives while also addressing problems. Working through a good situation analysis isn't easy and requires people to stick with looking at their practices for much longer periods than they are used to. I remember back in 2006 when Brian Annan first pointed out to me that kiwi educators love the "number 8 wire" approach - jumping to solution without looking properly at the current situation. This certainly rings true in the work that I do with school leaders. I like to talk to networks about the "macro inquiry process". I can't remember whether I made that phrase up or if it came from somewhere but essentially, it means "slow down and look a bit more". While your students and teachers are engaging in cycles or spirals of inquiry in the classroom and leaders are engaging in their leadership inquiries attached to that, the network can be engaging in a "macro inquiry" into how the schools collaborate and what evidence the schools are using and sharing to determine new or refined network goals. These macro inquiries (the big one at the top) can be operating over a whole year to inform the following year's goals. Some clusters have me work with them on the macro inquiry over two terms which also seems to be working (I'll keep you posted on that). 

(the picture I often draw to explain macro inquiry to cluster leaders - spiral design comes from Halbert & Kaser, Spirals of Inquiry article, 2013)

Once needs are established and goals are set, Robinson, Hohepa and Lloyd (2009) emphasise that leaders need to establish the importance of the goals, so that goals are clear and that network members are committed to them (p. 40). Involving teachers and students in the process of needs analysis will ensure that leaders are helping these groups to commit to and make clear links between goals and how they are to be achieved. Communication during this process should emphasise links between goals and teaching and learning to ensure consensus on goals. When I work with clusters, I emphasise the need to involve these other groups all the way through the macro inquiry process so that the goals are not only understood by them but are set by them in partnership with all other network members.

Practices schools should and should not use to foster deep needs analysis and effective goal setting
Provide opportunities for teachers to plan and negotiate the meaning of new knowledge and skills.

Have a common needs-based focus.

Have a joint enterprise that is negotiated and agreed between schools, that is defined by all people in all schools (including the kids), that is a stated goal and that enables mutual accountability for outcomes.

Involve teachers and students in negotiating the meaning of new knowledge through using data that indicates their progress towards desired goals.

Have a shared understanding of what the collaborative group is doing and why.
Assume commitment or agreement to goals without checking for group consent.

Rush into setting goals without spending considerable time analysing data and facilitating dialogue to ascertain the needs of students, teachers and communities.

Set goals at leadership level without involving teachers and students (and whānau/community) in the process.

Because inquiry is so damn important, next week's post is going to focus on "inquiring using evidence" at any time in your collaborative work - not just for goal setting. I'll also start to bring in some thinking about being future focused.

Shout out this week for Mr Boon who blogged about where he is at - reflecting, thinking about evidence - focusing and learning aspects of inquiry if you refer to the Kaser & Halbert article. At his school they are focusing on whole school PD about Teaching as Inquiry. I hope that my posts can support his school and other schools to ensure they are building coherent collaborative cultures. While I am writing to support clusters and networks, this stuff applies just as well to an individual school's community of practice.

Reference List:

Annan, B. (2007). A Theory for Schooling Improvement; Consistency and Connectivity to Improve Instructional Practice. Unpublished PhD thesis, The University of Auckland Faculty of Education, Auckland, New Zealand.

Head, G. (2003). Effective Collaboration: deep collaboration as an essential element of the learning process. Journal of Educational Inquiry, 4, 2, 47-61.

Katz, S., Earl, L., and Jaafar, S. B. (2009). Building and Connecting Learning Communities: The Power of Networks for School Improvement. Ontario: Corwin Press.

Robinson, V., Hohepa, M., and Lloyd, C. (2009). School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying What Works and Why: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration (BES). Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Robinson, V., and Lai, M.K., (2006). Practitioner Research for Educators: A Guide to Improving Classrooms and Schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Sweeney, R. (2011). An exploration of the collaborative practices within learning networks of New Zealand schools. Unpublished Master of Education thesis. Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

Timperley, H., and Earl, L. (2012). Learning and Change Networks: A Background Paper on Designing Networks to Make a Difference: University of Auckland; Ministry of Education

Timperley, H., and Parr, J. (Eds.) (2010). Weaving Evidence, Inquiry and Standards to Build Better Schools. Wellington: NZCER Press.

Timperley, H., Wilson, A., Barrar, H., and Fung, I. (2007). Teacher Professional Learning and Development: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration (BES). Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Timperley, H., McNaughton, S., Lai, M., Hohepa, M., Parr, J., and Dingle, R. (2009). Towards an Optimal Model for Schooling Improvement. (Position Paper 1). University of Auckland: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Unknown said…
A great post that details the importance of common needs based goals. I just wanted to get clarification around the evidence one should be gathering. When you say student evidence I assume you mean achievement data and perhaps cognitive and behavioural engagement observations? What sort of data would you be collecting for teacher and leadership? Do you mean observational data and looking at what the research says is best practice?
Becc said…
Kia ora Paula! Thanks for reading :)
The reason I used the word evidence in the widest possible sense is that in my experience it is definitely good to start with a priority achievement problem but then to quickly move beyond achievement data to data about practices attached to that - everyone's practices including kids and their families. Depending on the results of an initial situation or practice analysis I think it is a good idea to then go down some different rabbit holes to find out more, so if engagement comes up - then sure - go and look at engagement. Observation data about teacher and leader practices is ideal if schools have systems up and running around observations with clear purpose. As you engage in situation analysis or the "scanning" and "focussing" parts of inquiry you would need to continually look at ways to narrow your focus that the things that are of highest priority - there is always way more going on than what we can possibly focus on at one time - so that is where you can look to research and other evidence about what is going to have the most impact and prioritise your focus in that way. In my next post I will be sharing a bit more about the types of evidence you can gather and ways to gather it.
Unknown said…
Brilliant, thanks Becc.
Unknown said…
Great post Rebbecca. I look forward to reading more - Inquiry is my new thang!
Becc said…
Hehe! Inquiry is my Thang too Boony! :)