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February 26, 2012

Diving Into the Mess of Real Collaboration

by Chris Lindholm

Establishing structures and processes for meaningful collaboration focused on delivering better results is a research supported component of nearly every kind of effective organization.  Published in the research describing the correlates of effective schools in the 1970s and 80s, we educators have largely struggled to close the “knowing doing gap” to implement focused, meaningful collaboration due to the assembly line structure of our system and an unwillingness to embrace change as a necessary positive.  Our more recent focus on implementing Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) has moved collaboration efforts forward considerably, yet the literature and constant conversations about being a PLC continues to make clear just how much we struggle to change our system to facilitate this kind of work.  At the end of the day, real collaboration requires protected routine time for teachers to focus on the student achievement results created in their classrooms.  The time needs to be led by effective teacher leaders, and a disciplined culture that doesn’t tolerate the all too common tangent or distraction must be cultivated.  15 – 20 hours each week focused on collaborative analysis of specific lessons, student work, and common assessment results is taking place in other advanced countries and the results are beginning to show.  That laser like focus on results, increasing our collective capacity, and whole system alignment ultimately develops higher morale, an intense focus on what matters, and a collaborative spirit that creates innovation, excellence, and achievement results.  The shift from assembly line structures, working in isolation, and “sit and get” professional development to meaningful collaboration, owning our responsibility to produce results, and tight feedback loops driving continuous change and improvement sounds great in research and on paper, but it is not an easy shift.  It is however, a shift we must make.

Perhaps one of the most descriptive books I’ve read about making the shift to being a Professional Learning Community in a large school district is Eaker and Keating’s new book, Every School, Every Team, Every Classroom (2012).  We introduced this book to our principals and teacher leaders this year after reading Learning By Doing and Aligning School Districts as PLCs.  Following Keating’s example in White River, we have implemented administrative collaborative teams during two of our four principal meetings each month and begun to create transparent structures that cultivate the reciprocal accountability outlined in Learning By Doing.  Our district professional development time for teachers has been shifted from a focus on bringing in outside experts to engaging in the work of collaborative teams focused on the 4 questions of a PLC.  The shifts have not been comfortable for many people in our district, and I expect the natural, predictable tensions of collaborative team work to get worse before they get better.  It is after all, much more difficult to align our work with others than to work in isolation and much more threatening to look deeply at our results than to talk about what outside experts are telling us.  Our discussions lead to discoveries about inequities in our system, to decisions requiring compromise, and to passionate disagreements about how to move forward.  Keating and Eaker not only understand the difficulty of this kind of shift in our work, they offer approaches and wisdom for leaders regarding how to handle the tension and conflict that is certain to develop.  On pg. 104 of Every School, Every Team, Every Classroom they outline a “pyramid of interventions for collaborative teams” illustrating how principals must address teams that are dysfunctional or unable to produce the results expected.  As we clarify and tighten up our expectations for the work being done in collaborative teams, our principals must prepare to address these kind of issues in a manner that creates better results in the long run.  This is the hard, tension-ridden work that we have learned to avoid over time by shutting our classroom doors and working in isolation.  Unfortunately for those who haven’t learned to handle and lead through conflict, this is the hard work necessary for great results – and our students deserve nothing less.

Our plans to more deeply embrace the work of effective professional learning communities in 2012-13 include asking building leadership teams to publish their school improvement plans and aligned professional development plans online for everyone in the district to see.  We will expect the work of collaborative teams to be aligned to these plans and to be published and maintained online to cultivate an environment of transparent, reciprocal accountability for the learning of all students in our district.  We intend to focus much of our district collaborative team time on developing common assessments for Essential Learning Outcomes and on using those feedback loops to drive lesson planning.  We have to move away from waiting for MCA test data or NWEA MAP test data to make changes to our instructional strategies and learn from organizations that develop feedback loops as tight as monthly, weekly, and even daily.  Imagine an elementary school that embraced strategic and fluid flexible grouping in math, reading, and writing and through doing so, erased the false barriers of grade level or age or size to receiving targeted instruction.  Our colleagues in Eastern Carver County Schools are striving for this goal across all elementary sites as we speak.  Imagine the focus on individual needs if those groups were adjusted for every unit of instruction – every two or three weeks…  The question isn’t can it be done.  The question is – why not?  We have the ability, with some courage and hard work, to establish systemic feedback loops that drive strategic changes to our inputs and our processes that deliver better results.  Great organizations tighten up that loop so it becomes very small intervals of time between each adjustment to the point of constant “tweaking” and constant change.  Good teachers have always done this in their own classrooms – but what if whole schools and entire districts embraced this way of doing business?  In my mind, that is the real work of a team, school, or district functioning as a true Professional Learning Community focused on the 3 Big Ideas: Results, Collaboration, and Learning.  That is an organization structured to survive and thrive in the 21st century, and that is an organization designed to prepare students for the challenges of the hyper-connected years ahead.

If you haven’t yet, take a moment to check out the 2020 Forecast to glean some insight about what’s ahead for public education and society as a whole.  I believe the big mess of real, meaningful collaboration is a key driver for success in the decades ahead and it is not only something we need to embrace as an organization, but a critical skill set we must teach to our students.  Focusing on results, collaboration, and learning are not only the big ideas of a true Professional Learning Community, they are the big ideas behind all organizations that will achieve greatness in the ever-moving waters of the 21st century world.  So gear up #ISD191 team, for the hard, tension filled work of true collaborative teams and dive into our work focused on results, collaboration, and learning.  It’s messy and there are no magic bullets.  Shiny objects must not be allowed to distract us from the real work.  It comes down to a constant focus on the practices that deliver better results and a tenacious drive to keep moving the needle – as a team.  Our students deserve nothing less.  Link arms and let’s dive…

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