School improvement efforts have shown us that leadership is possible at every level of an education system. However, leaders need strong facilitation and communication skills for leading learning communities where collaborative learning can thrive. The word facilitate means “to make easier”. A facilitator tries to make it easier for a group to do its work and be effective in reaching articulated goals. Facilitative skills in themselves are very cross-disciplinary.
Increasingly, in group and co-learning situations, it appears that coaching and facilitation skills can be blended to complement each other. Both processes benefit from the establishment of working norms. While facilitation helps a group move forward by using structures such as protocols as discussion guides, coaching can help individuals within a group experience move forward. One distinction that stands out is that a facilitator usually takes a neutral stance and is substantially process centered while a coach may be more content and “individual” centered, helping others make better sense of specific learning. Peer coaching is an interactive process between two or more teaching professionals that is used to share successful practice through collaboration and reflection.
The good news is that both kinds of helping stances make a difference in many learning situations. One can learn to be a facilitative leader, a facilitative coach, a facilitative consultant and a facilitative teacher. Both stances are built on establishing a safe environment for learning and strong relationship skills.
Join us at Learning Forward Ontario’s one day institute in Stratford, Ontario on Monday, August 27th to consider these helping stances as they apply to both our own learning and learning within specific areas such as mathematics and literacy professional learning. Register at the following site: www.learningforwardontario.ca
“Studying leadership is an empty experience without reflection “(Campbell & Jones, 2016, p.184)
Recently, in preparing for conversations with my students in higher ed, I was really struck by the quote above. We study leadership to increase our own capacity as well as support of growth of others. What are we hoping to develop in leaders? Campbell and Jones offered some thoughts on the characteristics of good leaders – originally thinking about leadership needed in post secondary environments such as community colleges. I consider some of their thoughts from my own lens, now having worked in both K-12 and higher education environments:
1. Good leaders must understand what they know and can do, and in what areas are their deficits.
This reminds me that we are always in a state of evolution and must consider growing as a life long process. Knowing ourselves – our strengths and weaknesses is not only a sign of maturity but a leadership disposition. Good leaders are interested in growing both emotionally and intellectually.
2. A good leader listens to the voices from all sectors and is able to filter wisdom from the rhetoric.
As a teacher, principal and/or as a superintendent there certainly have been times when it seemed many voices were trying to get my attention at the same time. Being a parent offers the same challenge at times. Filtering through which voices needed to be prioritized and for what purpose is both important and challenging. Developing strong listening skills is a certainly key leadership attribute that helps us to sort through things. Filtering through what people share to what is insightful and important advice becomes an instinct with experience. We learn to trust our own inner voice as a guiding frame at the same time as we listen carefully to others.
3. A good leader can back away from the fray and find a calm place in her brain and in her heart from which to make wise decisions.
This thought really resonated with me as an individual I can’t be around people without some reflection time when difficult decisions need to be made. I need to step away, find a quiet place to think before I jump into declaring or recommending a next step or a decision. I know I make better decisions if I give myself the gift of a little quiet time to examine all the variables included and also listen to my gut.
4. A good leader is capable of acknowledging mistakes and learning from those experiences.
We don’t always get it right. Not acknowledging a mistake often ends more badly than acknowledging it. Learn from your experience is a perennial piece of advice we give our children. We must give ourselves the same sage advice.
5. Good leaders identify their core ethical principles and live by them.
This thought is key. Maturity as a leader involves knowing oneself – the ethics and values that are a part of you of who you are and which guide you through good times and not so good times. Before accepting a leadership position, it is always important to ask oneself what am I really trying to accomplish and what is truly important to me as an individual. Once articulated and understood, this knowledge helps to ground us and to find our balance in rockier moments.
A grounded leader is one who can learn to handle the complexities of leadership and who is ultimately able to serve the needs of others well because they also know themselves well. Can we teach leaders core ethical principles or are they a part of us – our essential self? Perhaps the answer is yes and yes. I hope so.
In considering what the influences have been on my own understanding of sound assessment practice, I think first of my experiences years ago with YRDSB’s assessment literacy project. As a team, with members across areas and schools, we put our understandings on the table – and supported each other’s thinking as we questioned long standing practices which were heavily influenced by percentages, grades, evaluation and school standings. We moved forward quickly and Assessment for Learning quickly became our collective learning goal and the underpinning of changed practice. It took us a while to truly unpack what Assessment as Learning really meant and there was no getting away, especially at report card time, that the pressure to have documentation for Assessment of Learning remained a sleeping giant in our lives as educators.
Here are some of my discoveries:
(1) Structure drives behavior:
The way we organize ourselves makes a difference to our professional behavior. System leaders who model a co-learning stance build credibility and commitment (Sharratt & Planche, 2016, p. 67). This was really driven home for me as principals, teachers, curriculum consultants and SO’s sat together to unpack classroom assessment practice.
Good assessment practice takes time and it becomes dynamic when we can learn together or what now call co-learn. Making time for educators to work together is not a simple thing but a crucial ingredient to building capacity across classrooms and schools.
(2) Some structures can drive learning:
Learning communities or learning networks can be effective when there is a clear goal that is understood and everyone is involved in defining what the criteria of success should be. The “what” needs to be followed by the “how” and the “ when”. It is the actions of the learning structure that make the difference for building capacity and improving instruction and assessment practice. Without accountable actions and monitoring, we might have wonderful professional conversations and not make a difference at all.
What is hopeful is that using protocols for learning can focus the learning and mitigate the tendency of groups to spend a lot of time talking with not enough focused decision making and action.
(3)There are pitfalls to consider:
We always have to consider the impact of any practice – instructional or assessment-based through the eyes of those who will be impacted by it. Students need to be a part of norm setting, creating success criteria and reinforcing goals if we want them to have ownership of their learning. As educators, we often control a great deal of the learning process to the detriment of student empowerment. We have to discuss more often what assessment looks like in an environment where we are gradually but intentionally trying to release responsibility.
(4) A case management approach can be highly effective for students who struggle (Sharratt & Fullan, 2012). It can make personalization very relevant for all the staff who are engaging with a student or group of students. This is not just a strategy for special education or ESL students. Assessment is a first step but the next steps are the most important ones. What will we feedback to the student is important and what will we feed forward for instructional purposes? A case management approach builds a team approach to serving students if everyone takes responsibility for their part of the “case”.
(5) Moderation of student work is one of the best ways to build trust and professionalism if it is facilitated well. There are skills sets involved in moderation that we need time to develop and practice. But this is so worth it! This is one of the foundations of collaborative learning that can make a significant difference.
Here is what I am still wondering about! Teaching through strengths is in its infancy in assessment practice from my experience. We assess children and find out their gaps. Do we talk enough about teaching through their strengths? Do we value strengths enough to build assessments around them so that students can be as successful as possible or are there still underlying issues of what “fairness” looks like? If a child has a modification to allow an area of strength to lead, is this truly seen as levelling the playing field? There is still lots to think about! And thus, at this stage of my career where I have moved from full time public education to consulting and graduate education, I am left with one enduring truth. Learning is the work! Effective assessment practice is primarily about learning - the student's and mine!.
Beate Planche Ed.D.
What do we need to pay attention to in designing collaborative learning for students? (Thoughts from Beate Planche and Lyn Sharratt)
Leaders create the conditions for effective learning. In the classroom, the teacher is the leader supported by school leadership. Teachers effectively become the stewards of collaborative learning once the right conditions are in place. They play a vital role as instructors, guides and facilitators of collaborative learning as well as modelling a co-learning stance. Project-based learning or other inquiry processes are increasingly used as the frame for collaborative learning. What follows are many of the vital steps to consider in the inquiry journey.
Attend to the learning culture – Collaboration needs an underpinning of safety, trust and strong relationships. We also believe strongly in what we call “Parameter No. 1” (Sharratt & Fullan, 2009, 2012) which reinforces that all students can learn given the right time and support. Such a positive belief also students to build a growth mindset. Teachers as co-learners model a curious nature and the assurance it is important to risk-take in learning. It is also important to avoid difficulties by being proactive. Developing working norms for collaborative learning is an important part of the preparation as well as plans to support students who have focusing, learning or behavioral challenges.
Attend to learning processes – Teachers need to be skilled in both understanding collaborative learning processes and in assessing the impact of their teaching on student learning. Attending to learning processes means that teachers have considered the scaffolds and supports students will need to be successful. The need for personalization and differentiation are realities to be integrated. Teachers who understand the importance of creating deeper learning conditions prepare students to work together so that they can:
For further information on collaborative learning for students and staff, consider –
“Leading Collaborative Learning: Empowering Excellence” by Lyn Sharratt & Beate Planche
(Corwin Press, 2016).
Blog for Larry Ferlazzo by Beate Planche and Lyn Sharratt, Corwin Authors.
What a difference an exciting learning day makes! When we have had a chance to engage with our peers in dynamic interaction and co-learning as opposed to unsatisfying 'PD', we come to understand the importance of what I will call a sense of a learning legacy. The legacy of opportunities to learn together collaboratively reinforces our sense of purpose. It can remind us of why we become educators! It can model what we must do for our students as well as ourselves.
Energizing learning experiences touch our hearts, hands and minds. What might we see, hear and feel as a part of a collaborative process such as inquiry? Leadership is at the heart of a successful experience:
2. Clear focus
Collaborators who work as co-investigators become focussed especially when clear parameters for collective work have been established. Collective learning goals are intentional and determined through the analysis and assessment of student data and actual work on our table. The needs of all learners are considered and success for each student and staff member is our inclusive goal.
3. Shared responsibility
As the work unfolds, leaders help to distribute the responsibility of the collaborative project or inquiry to increase the feeling of shared ownership. Goals are clear and subsequent actions are well defined and purposeful. Diverse opinions are seen as a strength of the collaboration but consensus is built through working together. Collective co-learning helps to build relational trust and stronger learning relationships (Planche, 2004). Monitoring of our collective work is built into the process and discussed as we progress and move forward. Success is shared as is any challenge. Continuous improvement of our practice on the success of our students is an understood and common goal.
A learning culture where collaborative work can thrive is built through the work of challenging and strategic work of insightful leadership. In such a culture, as co-learners, we feel accepted and challenged which reinforces a strong sense of shared purpose. What a difference a learning day in such an environment can make! The best thing about a truly collaborative culture is that it does not take a leader with a formal title to impact the learning environment. Informal and formal leaders can all have significant influence and the opportunity to make a difference. However, formal leaders hold the reigns of time and resources and are ultimately responsible for creating the conditions for collaborative growth. Collaborative efforts wither without the legacy of strong learning leadership. So leaders....this is a call to make all days learning days to remember!
Planche, B. (2004). Probing the complexities of collaboration and collaborative processes. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Sharratt, L. & Planche, B. (2016). Leading Collaborative Learning-Enpowering Excellence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
I am excited to begin a new personal project to deepen my own knowledge base of how our instruction can effectively integrate strategies that help students and staff grow their “understanding” – using the word as it applies to holistic learning -strategically involving student hearts, heads and hands in their learning experiences. We use the noun “understanding” as a synonym for comprehension much of the time. Developing content understanding is very valuable part of success in school and in the workplace. As well, the adjective “understanding” has such importance for us as we work to graduate students who will benefit from have strong character and becoming responsible citizen. Developing empathetic understanding for others is the basis of a strong learning culture and healthy communities. The “hands- on” aspect of learning refers to active, collaborative, learner-centered experiences which offer opportunities to spark and further emotional, social and academic learning.
We know that SEAL – Social, Emotional and Academic Learning recognizes the importance of emotion, cognition and rigorous learning. My starting point will be seeking school programs where SEAL – is gaining ground or well embedded and talking to leaders who are intentional in integrating a heads, heart and hands approach. There is much literature to review to gain a broader view of this approach.
Working in schools as a coach and consultant, I look forward to getting the insights from those working directly with students as to what a balanced head, hearts and hands-on approach looks like, feels like and sounds like in their setting. What does professional learning that integrates “heart, head and hands” on look like, feel like and sound like and is this more impactful for the participants?
Finally, I know the greatest insights will come from students,teachers and leaders reflecting on the daily work of schools.
January, 2017 – I am excited about the New Year and continuing to grow my personal area of study. Empathetic understanding is crucial to the development of trust, safety and strong relationships (Sharratt & Planche, 2016). This area links very authentically for me to my continued interest and study of the complexities of collaboration in staff as well as student learning.
Have a happy new learning year!
As leaders in the classroom or in the school office, we recognize the need for the following collaborative skills:
▪ analyzing information and/or data to be used in decision making;
▪ articulating the problem of practice in a way that develops clarity;
▪ facilitating conversations regarding next steps for instruction;
▪ summarizing and communicating plans clearly as well as
▪ determining effective actions or next steps and
▪ monitoring progress.
These are all important skills sets which help to move improvement processes forward. While the ability to employ these skills varies a little from person to person, these important leadership skills can be learned and honed over time.
There is another level of collaborative skills that are just as important if not more as we model them on a daily basis in our classrooms, offices and schools for both staff and students. These skills include:
▪ listening to many voices;
▪ asking for help;
▪ giving and accepting advice;
▪ probing through questions;
▪ clarifying key points;
▪ expressing that the opinions of those who disagree with us are important;
▪ taking responsibility for difficulties in the collaborative process;
▪ letting others take the lead;
▪ listening intently and encouraging others to express themselves;
▪ responding calmly to frustration or anger if it erupts;
▪ redirecting when needed;
▪ finding ways to help groups reach consensus,
▪ moving from words expressing good intentions to purposeful action and ongoing reflection.
For me, this second set represent a deeper level of collaborative skills which integrate important norms and key values. These skills underpin essential concepts about trust, safety and the importance of relationships in leading collaborative learning (Sharratt & Planche, 2016). Leaders must recognize that influencing others, be they students or staff to become engaged in collaborative work, begins with modelling the values that help to empower others through what is said and demonstrated in behavior and disposition. What do these skill sets mean to you? How do think we best help leaders in schools develop these skills? Do they represent an approach or better still – a philosophy of living and learning?
“Am I good enough, can I contribute enough, will my ideas be accepted?”
This candid reflection by a teacher leader remains with me years after the conversation (Planche, 2004). The comments offered were somewhat surprising to me as I knew the great reputation of the teacher who was questioning her own credibility as an educator. Having recently been given the role of “Literacy Coach”, and anxious about her new role, the teacher’s questions underscored the importance of confidence and trust in working with peers. As our schools shift to a more deprivatized form of teaching, where the notion of learning together and from each other has gained considerable ground, we must be cognizant of the kind of support teacher leaders need as those who have been deemed as ‘knowledgeable others’ in our schools. Teacher leaders often carry a significant teaching load along with mentoring/coaching responsibilities to assist their peers. Increasingly, systemic leadership is recognizing that teacher leaders are now central to school change and are equally important as those with more formal leadership positions.
Drago-Severson (2009) suggests that the time has come for educators to consider how we shape schools as ‘mentoring communities’ or ‘learning centers’. Learning centers as Drago-Severson defines them “are schools and school systems that nurture and support the growth and learning of children, youth and adults” (p. 6). A ‘mentoring community’ sets the stage for collaborative learning and where educators support and challenge each other to grow (p. 7). As teacher leadership steps to the foreground, the role of the principal is certainly impacted. Kohn and Nance (2009) suggest that to nurture a positive change in a school, school administrators need to foster a climate of working together. In a collaborative culture, the principal’s role is able to shift to from being the person who sets the goals to being the person who sets up the conditions that allow others to establish collective goals (p. 69). Pivotal to moving school goals beyond rhetoric to action and focussed work together as a school staff, principals, vice principals and teacher leaders need to work together in effective and collaborative ways (Sharratt & Planche, 2016). .
The power of the collective is key, suggests Michael Fullan (in Crow, 2009) and that the ingredients for sustainable professional learning are multi-faceted including “developing effective leaders, identifying high yield strategies, focussing on every child, emphasizing collaborative learning and leveraging the entire system towards learning for all” (p. 13). The leadership of public school systems know much more today about what to do, and why mobilizing learning for adults as well as students is critical. As an adjunct to “what to do”, systemic leadership also needs to become clear on the supports that nurture key individuals in every school who are perceived to be or will become the leaders, the lead learners, catalysts and supporters of the growth of others – in other words those who become the ‘knowledgeable others’ in our reform processes.“
How does your system support those aspiring to become the catalysts and supporters of the growth of others?
Crow, T. (Dec. 2009). Proof Positive – a Conversation with Michael Fullan. Journal of Staff Development. 30(5).
Drago-Severson, E. (2009). Leading Adult Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA. Corwin Press/NDSC
Kohn, B. & Nance, B. (Oct. 2009). Creating Collaborative Cultures, Educational Leadership, 67(2)..ASCD,
Planche, B. (2004). Probing the complexities of collaboration and collaborative processes. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Toronto, Ontario. Canada.
Sharratt, L. & Planche, B. (2016). Leading Collaborative Learning: Empowering Excellence.Corwin Press.
My area of sustained interest is understanding the complexities of collaboration and their impact on learning in the classroom and in the workplace. The growing interest in pedagogies which promote an inquiry stance or more constructivist engagement also really resonates for me.