This paper presents a case study of a secondary school involved in an innovative change process that has at its focus the enhancement of student learning outcomes. The process of change centres on the action of teachers in classrooms rather than change in organisational structures. The process is teacher centred, interdepartmental and focused on a shared understanding of the need to create new challenges and learning experiences for students. The change process has enabled the development of shared understanding within the teacher group that has at its focus a definition of authentic pedagogy. The study illustrates that the reconceptualising of their work and across-discipline sharing of new knowledge and new actions has changed significantly the way teachers work. This new learning has impacted on the teachers' classroom action and has generated new initiatives that have impacted on student learning outcomes particularly in middle school classrooms.
Whilst the study has recorded the history of a school revitalisation process, this paper relates, in particular, the history of the process that has built the professional community. It is a history told from the perspective of many voices and therefore relates the dynamics of the individual and group learning process. The study documents how, through a process of group learning, the individual's assumptions and beliefs about classroom practices and student learning have been challenged and changed. It has been this learning process that has resulted in teachers creating a new image of teacher and developing new relationships between the teacher and the student learner. The other voices related are those that exist outside the professional community. These voices relate their relationship with the group and the impact the group's work has had throughout the organisation.
The study also explores the developing relationship between administrative decision-making and teacher driven change. It illuminates the importance of aligning teacher and organisational decision-making and understandings if a school improvement process is to enhance student learning outcomes. This study has found that it is the alignment of these groups through a process of shared understandings that has resulted in school improvement where the improvement is in student learning outcomes
The study also illustrates new research partnerships. The researchers have gained valuable insights into individual, group and organisational learning while providing professional development opportunity for the participants. The individual interviews and the group interview were conducted in a manner to enable the researched to reflect on their experience and their practice. This has provided feedback that has enhanced professional understandings and provided the opportunity for further reflection. The insights gained by the researchers have also provided new knowledge and support for ongoing development within the organisation.
The main learnings from this study illustrate how an innovative process centred on classroom outcomes has created a professional community. The researchers found that shared understandings through professional learning can impact on action in the classroom. However, the sustainability of this community and action within the organisation will depend on the established professional community's ability to create a broader across-school understanding of these new relationships and new understandings about the image of teacher, student and their workplace. The development of this image underpins the process of creating a school for students of the 21st century.
IDEAS is based on four principles that distinguish it from most other school revitalisation approaches:
The latest Wisconsin research makes clear that when the professional community of the school engages collaboratively in school improvement, a value-addedness can be created that transposes into enhanced school identity and ultimately into enhanced student achievement. (Interview - December 1999)Underpinning the IDEAS Research-Based Framework are the concepts of professional community and shared leadership (King, 1996; Hord, 1997; Louis & Marks, 1996; Marks & Louis, 1999). It is a framework that requires the organisation to re-image itself (Morgan, 1997). This requires teachers to reconsider their role and relationships with each other and within the organisational structure in which they work. The new image of teacher that emerges relates to developing a professional community of collaborative individuals (Limerick et al., 1998), which is underpinned by the concepts of collaboration, deprivatisation, reflective dialogue, and taking a pedagogical leadership role. It also requires teachers to accept the proposition that development of a professional community can enhance student learning outcomes.
The question is how do you achieve a professional community where the group shares a common value and vision for enhancing student outcomes? Walker (1975) clearly demonstrates the process of developing a common understanding thorough the exposure of educational platforms, the development of a shared system of working principles and beliefs and through 'deliberation' which enables people to share assumptions, values, beliefs and mental images. In the case described by Walker, common understandings and a shared platform were developed through the process of deliberation. This came with a mixture of compromise, new knowledge and new ideas. He states:
Agreement on a platform principle...was only the starting point of a process of particularising, clarifying and extending shared knowledge and perceptions of the group's goals and standards (Walker, 1975, p108)Whilst common purpose is formulated, the development of professional community within the IDEAS process both views and values the individual. It adopts the concept of collaborative individualism (Limerick et al., 1997) where the individual maintains their preferred expertise in performance but meet group or organisational goals. In a loosely coupled system in a tightly coupled organisation (Handy & Aitekin, 1986) this concept is appealing to teachers - deprivatisation does not mean common practice.
Cooper (1998), reporting on the reasons for successful implementation of a project, noted that the most effective implementation occurred when both teachers and administrators took responsibility for the program and it was seen as "...a collective opportunity to improve educational experience of children". Cooper added:
Educators must be empowered prior to adoption of the program, as well as during the change process. Establishing a stable, committed cadre of teachers is the first step to successful program implementation (1998, p13)Cooper also found that a school site facilitator, with strong interpersonal, organisational and communication skills, was the linchpin that holds the implementation together.
The IDEAS implementation process (known as 4D) reported in this study is an organisational learning process where a school management team, with the assistance of an internal facilitator and an external facilitator (University), moves the learning group through a non-linear (4D) processes of discovery, dreaming, designing and destiny (refer Appendix 1). At White Rock the management group, once formed, commenced with the discovery phase using diagnostic inventory scanning developed from the planks of the Research-Based Framework (refer Appendix 2). The reporting of the process at White Rock SHS from discovery to designing captures the experience of teacher leaders within the professional community and the resultant perceptions of change on individual and group learning as they create a school for the 21st Century.
The study has captured multiple voices through retrospective interviews of participants in the process and focus group discussion. These qualitative data have enabled a story to be told from different perspectives both as an individual and group experience. These data have been supplemented with extensive documentation made available from a close monitoring of the process through the use of a school management team scribe and from the external facilitator's documentation of the process. This documentation has been used to enable the validation of events or incidents which the informants agreed provided defining moments, which enables the project to continue and develop.
Data were also collected on the initial impact of the work of the IDEAS group on the broader teacher community and of the subsequent impact then this group began to spread its learnings and understanding throughout the school. These data have been captured again through individual interview, observation, external researchers' field notes and documentation.
Our account in this paper may be seen as a chapter of THE STORY SO FAR providing glimpses of how events may continue to unfold. This paper focuses on one aspect of the story, that is, the development of a professional learning community. It is the story of a remarkable achievement, illustrating what can be achieved when a group of people work together to forge new professional understandings, to create a school for the 21st Century.
The actual receiving of the data was shocking... when we got the survey results back I was really shocked at how negative it was... I think we looked at the survey and thought well, if all these things are wrong what about all the other things that have haven't been asked about. There's probably a minefield of other things out there that we haven't addressed.The data indicated:
Brilliant, it's been best mix. Had we handpicked, we probably wouldn't have handpicked the group that got together so the fact that people voted with their feet and joined was excellent [internal facilitator]The younger teachers were valued by their more experienced colleagues for their up to date theoretical perspectives and for their "energy and enthusiasm and different view of the world" (HOD). The less experienced teachers valued the depth of professional knowledge of their senior colleagues, and their ability to articulate a vision for the school. One young group member suggested that the involvement of teachers with no positional power demonstrated that IDEAS was not a 'top-down' initiative, which helped to give the group credibility among the rest of the staff.
Having volunteered, the members of the group began a rich and rewarding professional journey. While everyone had initially had the option of volunteering, the fact that this window of opportunity had opened and then closed caused some disquiet. One teacher not involved referred to the group's 'secret meetings' and 'secret business' and another commented on the 'lack of consultation' in its formation. One IDEAS group member observed:
I think sometimes maybe there is even a little bit of resentment by people outside of that group because it's "that group" that works together. We really need to sell to them that it is not just a close-knit community with a secret handshake...why don't [they] just see the learning! [Paul]
We had this really productive whole staff meeting where people were talking enthusiastically and energetically about the school and I just kept thinking, we've captured something here, it's the hearts and minds stuff that I feel so strongly about.By the middle of 1999, the IDEAS group was working on a vision statement supported by a series of concepts and questions designed to guide practice (refer Appendix 3). The experiences related with its use capture the effect this process had on their learning.
For some, growth involved letting go. The internal facilitator (and deputy principal) acknowledged she had learned to go to meetings with no pre-determined ideas rather than with "the big picture" and "the road to get there" in mind. It is perhaps not coincidental that other leaders emerged. IDEAS group members reported that one young teacher whose leadership potential had not previously been recognised, "...came forward as a real leader right from the start" while the "enormous potential" and readiness for increased responsibility of another inexperienced teacher was recognised. The comments of one of these young teachers illustrates the positive nature of her increasing confidence:
I think I see myself as continuing to grow as a professional teacher in terms of critical discussion and also teaching and learning and developing my skills in that area and I see myself as really participating in the overall direction of the school and our role with the community which I think is changing. [Michelle]
The process was messy, and often the way forward was not clear. The group had to deal with ambiguity and uncertainly - there were times that they did not know where they were going. Progress came through professional dialogue, which was energising for the group. Being able to "talk about what [we] were doing in the classroom with absolute enthusiasm" helped to build the type of cohesiveness where all views were valued. The group operated in an environment where differences were explored and all contributions valued:
...we were very open to the fact that everybody had the right to say whatever they wanted to...it was good to see everybody's different point of view and... see where those differences were and why they were different. [John]
The following are examples of what various participants described they had learned as a group:
...all the stuff that I've read about for years I'm actually seeing enacted and the thing about professional learning communities - the dialogue, the shared dialogue, that was happening in that group. [It] was really quite significant [with]...people genuinely having to think and reflect and draw on the inner professionalism that they hadn't had to think about for a long time....we were happy to listen to each others ideology and belief systems and it even got to the point where we could argue and challenge what each other thought and felt and how that impacted on the school. [We]...had a really clear idea of what we stood for and, and what our common and shared beliefs and purposes were.
...because of that shared ownership of understanding...those concepts can underpin practice and whether it's about...evaluating a leadership camp or whether it's about planning a unit or assessing a unit, the shared belief in those concepts can be powerful in what you're doing [internal facilitator]Each of the IDEAS group members chose what they were going to do to trial what they had created. Some used the concepts and questions to plan units, some to inform their classroom practice in an explicit way, and some to evaluate units of work or specific projects.
The effects were very encouraging. The success felt by the group members is illustrated in the following extracts:
It has certainly changed my practice...using the concepts and questions to take a structured approach to changing my teaching - in order to be able teach in ways that allow disconnected kids to reconnect with school. [Anne]
I have recognised the need to change to a facilitator of learning but I've also learned that the more you ask kids, the more they'll do...I've just realised there is really probably not much limit to what they can do if you provide the right sort of support. [Margaret]
It's definitely changed my teaching - it's an awakening of stuff we should be doing but don't have time to...I've changed what I believe is important in terms of what kids can do and can't do...my focus has changed more to where I think the kids should be going...it has given me the confidence to say well now I know what is important rather than always doing what you have always done. [John]
I find that my teaching has improved, I find that I understand more about what I'm doing, why I'm doing things and I find that's been an improvement...and I think okay I'm not going to teach this unless I'm really sure it's what I want to teach or it's the right way that they want to teach it and I just think that it just justifies my position, I make sure I can justify my position before I walk into the room. [Jackie]
The questions like the enriching community concept and future direction really helped me direct and focus my attention...really opened up my mind...I think you get into a system where you are teaching to the assessment and you move on to the next assessment piece. I think with these concepts, we are still teaching and producing assessment pieces but I feel we are teaching more in terms of a whole package I don't know, I don't know how to verbalise it, but teaching them the skills that they will take on to the next grade, the next grade and then out into the community and to get a job and be worthwhile, participating members of the community. [Michelle]
Group 1: Busy with other things group: one of these informants noted:
I have been heavily involved in curriculum development in my area and have not had an interest or time to be involved. However, even though I am busy, I still have the right to be informed. [Andrew]Group 2: Don't know much about all of this group: commentary indicated that information was given out at staff meetings and workshops but this was disjointed.
You would hear something and then not hear about it again for quite a while. While it was mentioned quite a bit...unless you're directly involved in it, it doesn't affect you too much... and unless you use it frequently, you forget it. [Sandy]Group 3: I am doing a great job group: People in this group believe that they are "...already doing a great job and we should get on with teaching kids in classrooms" (not being away from classrooms) and would like to see "less 'innovation' and more energy consolidating what we have already got".
I know very little about it the 4D. I do know that it is related to effective learning and teaching but that is as far as I know. [Geoff]
Group 4: Checking up to see what is happening group: They are interested to know what is going on, and may confirm that it is "what I have been doing for years". People in this group are supportive of change but consider they are already doing what is being suggested and are "incredibly busy so I have not got time anyway to write programs that way".
I mean it's being able to put into practice things that I have thought for a long time that I have got to start letting students have more choice and more freedom in their actual curriculum to negotiate a lot more with how they do things. [Julia]Group 4: Feeling excluded from the inner club group: This perspective suggests confusion about how you actually got to be part of the inner group and, particularly in the initial stages, feelings of exclusion:
...until a pupil free day in June it seemed like secret business - after June I realised, it is no little secret business or anything like that, it is something practical and it is something we can all do and it is something to be involved in... in my opinion, there were definite barriers between the initial group, or the initial team, and the rest of the school, up until that point. [Penny]Group 5: those who appreciate the work and want to know more group: Interested in what has been produced as a way of viewing their own practice from a different perspective. Not necessarily linked to change in practice though.
[I've noticed a] gradual change in the culture of the school, more willingness to talk about change because people are out there trying different things - more of a culture of ...looking at doing something more to improve student outcomes. [Tony]
After the IDEAS group had trialed the concepts and questions, they shared their experiences, first with each other and then with their colleagues. The group reported back to the whole staff, explaining what they had done and how they believed it had made a difference to their teaching and learning. After that meeting, held towards the end of 1999, teachers were invited to participate in an extended trial. This involved members of the IDEAS group each working with one or two volunteers to trial the concepts and questions in a relationship described by the group as 'mentor/mentee'. A number of teachers volunteered to take part and indicated which of the group members they would like to work with. Some discussion did occur between then and the end of the school year, but looking back early in 2000, the IDEAS group agreed that little of substance had been achieved.
This was an important issue because it is the aim of the group that, in time, a majority of people on staff will actually use the concepts and questions to guide their practice.
...This is really how we are presenting it 'at this school, this is what guides our practice' and I would envisage...it will become part of what we do at this school and why we do it. [Anne]It was decided to continue the extended trial model in 2000 to test whether the IDEAS group's findings from the first trial held true with the broader teacher community. 'Mentor/mentee' relationships were re-established (some continuing from 1999, others beginning in 2000). After a relatively slow start, the process picked up pace during Term 2 and the experiences of the expanded group were reported to the whole staff in May. That reporting back session indicated that the mentoring had been successful in a number of ways. Twelve different teachers spoke about how they had successfully applied the concepts and questions and it was significant that no two uses were the same. The flexibility of the framework created by the IDEAS group was clearly illustrated as teachers variously described how they had used it to plan, assess, evaluate, guide practice, change teacher/student interaction, and generate deep discussion (in very different contexts). It was also clear that the intended 'ripple effect' was actually occurring with more teachers beginning to adopt the framework that had been developed by the IDEAS group. Many more teachers are still to be engaged but the aim that "...we're all pointing in the same direction and that we can all articulate the same set of beliefs about the school and what it represents and what we think is important to us here" [internal facilitator] appears to be gaining ground.
She variously refers to herself in this role as 'linchpin', 'referee' and 'sheepdog' and reflects: It was really important for me not to take over but to be the organiser, to facilitate them getting together, to ensure they got together, to ensure that the meetings had some direction... and then report back and it just kept the flow of information going...This meant I had to liaise and facilitate rather than tell. Every member of the IDEAS group recognised the importance of the contribution made by the external facilitator. They recognised: his ability to "build a non-threatening environment' where people felt able to express their thoughts; his skill in "keeping the group together" despite the range of personalities and "making people's contributions feel valued and worth while"; his high level of credibility with the staff which enabled them to cope with the 'fuzziness' of parts of the process; and his role as a critical friend offering a different (and inherently neutral) perspective. While the group felt that they owned the process and the statements they had developed, they acknowledged that the road would have been a lot more difficult had they not had the support of the external facilitator. The external facilitator from the University had forged a learning partnership with the school community.
The study also illustrates new research partnerships. The researchers have gained valuable insights into individual, group and organisational learning while providing a unique professional development opportunity for the participants. The individual interviews and the group interview were conducted in a manner to enable the researched to reflect on their experience and their practice. This has provided them with feedback that has enhanced their professional understandings, and has provided the opportunity for further reflection. The insights gained by the researchers have also provided new knowledge and support for ongoing development within the organisation.
|White Rock SHS: A school community for the 21st Century|
Together we Achieve:
This vision statement was supported by the following series of concepts and questions designed to guide practice:
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