flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

This post was originally posted on Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground blog on the 17th of May.

In a recent post, Peter DeWitt reflected on why faculty meetings can often be a waste of time. He provided three reasons:

  • The information could have been provided through an email
  • Staff not involved in constructing the meeting
  • A lack of a focus on learning.

In conclusion, he described how when he was principal he came to the realisation that what was needed was to “co-construct meetings together and focus on learning.” This focus on learning reminded me of a comment from Viviane Robinson’s book Student-Centered Leadership that, “the more leaders focus their relationships, their work, and their learning on the core business of teacher and learning, the greater will be their influence on student outcomes.”

My school has made a significant change this year in regards this, with a focus on co-constructing meetings and learning through the introduction of Disciplined Collaboration.Led by the work of Professor Alma Harris and Dr. Michelle Jones, Disciplined Collaboration in Professional Learning(DCPL) is a model for empowering teachers to own the process of learning.

Many educational initiatives often start out with a clear set of practises in mind. Disciplined Collaboration instead provides a structure for staff to enquire into student learning through the analysis of data, diagnosing teaching and learning issues that students actually face, working collaboratively to build teacher efficacy and then returning to data to measure the impact.

The model is best understood by considering it as three clear stages: collaboration, innovationand impact. Overall, it is designed with the dual role of improving student outcomes and moving professional learning away from the mere acquisition of knowledge and skills, to a more active role of construction and co-construction of professional knowledge.

One of the challenges associated with Disciplined Collaboration is creating the right conditions to support collective inquiry in order to determine success. A part of this is having a clear theory of action, providing staff with the appropriate skills to support collaborative learning, as well as fostering a culture of trust in which accountability for impact is shared. This is all connected with the notion of distributive leadership and the mobilisation of expertise across the board. According to Harris and Jones, the place of formal leadership is to provide meaningful opportunities for informal leadership to prosper.

There are many similarities to other models, such as Professional Learning Communities andCommunities of Practise. However, Harris states, “it does not matter what you call it, what matters is that the collaboration is ‘disciplined’.” If we truly want to make change then we need to be disciplined.

A New Way of Collaborating

Previously, the focus had been on developing a guaranteed and viable curriculum, where students had the opportunity to learn and the time to do it. However, it was found that within this map there was not necessarily enough differentiation in what was being taught. One of the reasons for this is that curriculum and content was set during one day long planning session and then elaborated on throughout the term. The issue was that this presumed that, as teachers, we know what bait fish will be biting in ten weeks time, which is not always the case. So the focus was turned to working in teams to clearly identify both the needs of the cohort, as well as the particular needs of the class.

For example, starting with Fontas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System, the group I am a part of enquired into the results and it was identified that a particular area of need was fluency. So to start with, teachers built focused content knowledge around fluency. It was identified that there are characteristics associated with reading fluency, something that had largely been overlooked up unto that point. With this new knowledge, the challenge then was to take this into the classroom. So a check-list was developed to ascertain where the specific problem lay and go deeper in regards to supporting student growth. Instead of supporting students with every aspect, teachers are then able to pull out particular groups of students for more focused attention.

This change has not meant moving away from the guaranteed and viable curriculum, but to make sure that what is being taught is at the point of need. So although the focus may still be on poetry, this focus was made specific to needs of the students in class. In addition to this, Disciplined Collaboration brings with it an increase in teacher capacity and deeper knowledge of learning taken back into the classroom.

In the End

Clearly, this is a new approach and has a long way to go to being fully unpacked and implemented. However, there are already some discernible changes, in particular, the professional conversations amongst staff, a focus on learning during meeting times and the trust from leadership. Whereas meetings in the past were facilitated by curriculum leaders, teams are now left to enquire themselves, with leaders touching base to check if any support is needed, if not they move onto the next group.

I think that it is important to remember, no one tries to be a poor teacher. A point George Couros made recently. The question then is what disciplined structures are in place to support and empower every teacher to grow professionally? Surely working collaboratively is at the heart of this.

For those interested, here are some additional resources for getting started:

Evidence Based Learning Cycle (Big and Small Media): A great collection of links and resources

Disciplined Collaboration in Professional Learning: An AITSL site dedicated to the project, with a great introduction to the model.

Adapted from the work of Harris and Jones with AITSL. Used with permission from St. Pauls School.

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Disciplined Collaboration: Allowing Freedom Within Form (Finding Common Ground) by Aaron Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

38 thoughts on “Disciplined Collaboration: Allowing Freedom Within Form (Finding Common Ground)

  1. Gill, I really enjoyed your summary of Four Corner’s Digi Kids. Like you, my first thoughts were that it lacked any sense of thread. However, maybe this assemblage of people, perspectives and practices captured some of the contributing factors that influence literacy development. However, it felt like one of those summaries of a PhD thesis that strips out much of the nuance, even if everything just seemed obvious to Dan Tehan.
    Your point about going beyond the phonics debate is important. One of the best things that I have been a part of is disciplined collaboration. Although the intent was to improve aspects of literacy, the prime focus was to work collaboratively to identify strategies for the context at hand. I sometimes feel that those who jump to THE solution, whichever it maybe, are unwilling to allocate the time and resources to build the capacity of those in the classroom.
    In regards to your closing question:

    Are literacy levels actually dropping or is what being literate looks like changing in our modern, digital world?

    I am reminded of something that Clive Thompson said in Smarter Than You Think:

    Before the Internet came along, most people rarely wrote anything at all for pleasure or intellectual satisfaction after graduating from high school or college. This is something that’s particularly hard to grasp for professionals whose jobs require incessant writing, like academics, journalists, lawyers, or marketers. For them, the act of writing and hashing out your ideas seems commonplace. But until the late 1990s, this simply wasn’t true of the average nonliterary person. The one exception was the white-collar workplace, where jobs in the twentieth century increasingly required more memo and report writing. But personal expression outside the workplace—in the curious genres and epic volume we now see routinely online—was exceedingly rare. For the average person there were few vehicles for publication.
    What about the glorious age of letter writing? The reality doesn’t match our fond nostalgia for it. Research suggests that even in the United Kingdom’s peak letter-writing years—the late nineteenth century, before the telephone became common—the average citizen received barely one letter every two weeks, and that’s even if we generously include a lot of distinctly unliterary business missives of the “hey, you owe us money” type. (Even the ultraliterate elites weren’t pouring out epistles. They received on average two letters per week.) In the United States, the writing of letters greatly expanded after 1845, when the postal service began slashing its rates on personal letters and an increasingly mobile population needed to communicate across distances. Cheap mail was a powerful new mode of expression—though as with online writing, it was unevenly distributed, with probably only a minority of the public taking part fully, including some city dwellers who’d write and receive mail every day. But taken in aggregate, the amount of writing was remarkably small by today’s standards. As the historian David Henkin notes in The Postal Age , the per capita volume of letters in the United States in 1860 was only 5.15 per year. “That was a huge change at the time—it was important,” Henkin tells me. “But today it’s the exceptional person who doesn’t write five messages a day. I think a hundred years from now scholars will be swimming in a bewildering excess of life writing.”

  2. There has been so much discussion about the ‘new normal’, however where your post differs Tom is that it breaks down different ways of imagining this. Personally speaking, I think we are always in a state of flux, but instead choose to hold onto the regular habits as if they always mean the same thing. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb suggests in The Black Swans:

    Reality is not Mediocristan, so we should learn to live with it.

    My thoughts have been around restarting. I think that I inherit this from Will Richardson and his mantra to do things ‘different, not better‘. However, even when I think about Richardson’s work, much of it is about reframing education around learning. However, the more I think about it, such approaches as disciplined collaboration seem to be as much about recasting the materials that we already have in a new light.
    I think that this will be one of those provocations that I will come back to regularly as it helps in making sense of the change at hand.

    Also on:

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