Fall 2019

Harnessing the Power of the Collective

School improvement efforts which aim to harness the power of professionals working together now take many forms including the development of professional learning communities, learning networks within and across schools, as well as collaborative inquiry processes. Impactful collaborative work creates deeper social and learning networks within a school but most importantly, this kind of focussed work can make a difference to student achievement. Positive collaborative experience also leads to more positive mindsets which links to the current interest in the notion of collective efficacy. Jenni Donohoo (2017) writes that collective efficacy involves shared beliefs among a staff that they can positively influence student outcomes including students who are disadvantaged in some way. Ken Leithwood’s recent work (2019) reinforces that the effects of collective efficacy are indirect through the persistence that highly efficacious schools are able to muster and apply to improvement efforts. In John Hattie’s work (2012), collective teacher efficacy is seen to have an effect size that can mitigate realities such as prior achievement difficulties or less than positive home environments. The messaging about collective efficacy is certainly hopeful, however, we know that beliefs about collective abilities are not sufficient. Harnessing the power of collaborative work requires specific actions and learning conditions. Six enabling conditions in schools which increase the likelihood that collective efficacy grows as a part of school improvement effort are briefly summarized in the following:

  • Advanced teacher influence in schools – impacted by teachers having decision making opportunities as well as learning to how to lead effectively
  • Goal consensus among a staff –determining clear goals which can be measured grows confidence as well as impacting progress
  • Teachers’ knowledge about one another’s work – impacts and strengthens learning relationships
  • Cohesive staff relationships – agreeing to shared commitments helps to sustain improvement efforts
  • Responsiveness of leadership – demonstrates respect and care for all stakeholders
  • Effective systems of intervention – addresses the need to differentiate support for students and staff (Adapted from Donohoo, 2017).

What can a school leader contribute to the growth of collaborative learning cultures and collective efficacy?  School leaders are key influencers and communicators.  Let’s consider the notion of influence through the following overlapping roles and opportunities to engage others:

The School Leader as a key leader

Reporting from a research meta-analysis from Leithwood and Sun, 2013 in Gail Prelli’s   2016 article, recognized transformational leadership as the most widely used model of leadership with proven positive effects on school stakeholders. Holding high expectations for staff, establishing common goals and nurturing a learning culture for both staff and students were some of the transforming behaviours noted. Still the influence of leaders is considered in the research as being as second to that of classroom teachers. Stephen Jacobson (2010) contends that while teacher quality has the greatest influence on student motivation and achievement, the quality of leadership matters in terms of the motivation of teachers and the quality of their teaching. High quality school leadership involves building the capacity of others which in terms creates a culture where collective efficacy can emerge and grow in its impact.  

The School Leader as the steward of collective effort

Helping a staff come to consensus on what school goals will be sustained during a school year is considered an enabling condition for the development of collective teacher efficacy. The school leader must also work to align district goals with school goals and engage staff in conversations about how collaborative efforts contribute to the achievement of collective goals. School leaders who steer a sustained course of improvement evolve as stewards of the process. Direction setting becomes an important first goal in beginning a new year of professional learning which involves the ability to analyze school, system and community data as an underpinning to goal consensus. Connecting school improvement efforts with community stakeholders is vital as well.  Improvement is contextually specific and culturally influenced. Ensuring safe spaces for learning is a contextual support that influences all involved in a school community.     

The School Leader as a key resource and effective manager

Practicalities are very important in school improvement efforts. School leaders need to   manage resources, distribute opportunities, manage conflicts and nurture relationships   with all stakeholders in a school setting. These demands require leadership but also management and dependable responsiveness. Protecting classroom learning time involves limiting distractions and maximizing limited timetables. Ensuring student time on task is purposeful involves both practical management skills as well as the vision of   what is possible. Finding time for teachers to see each other’s work to develop as co-learners taxes timetables and organizational supports. School leaders need to respond to school realities with a variety of skill sets including demonstrating fiscal responsibility, facilitating skills and managing complex stakeholder relationships. 

The School Leader as champion and co-leader

School leaders who are willing to share leadership help to create more leaders within a school. Motivated teacher leaders can be very influential when given the opportunity to make decisions, plan responses and mobilize collaborative work with leader support. Sustainability of efforts also depends on collaborative understanding of how to develop a shared commitment to the work at hand. It requires teacher leaders developing the knowledge, skills and practices which allow them to inquire with colleagues as to how to meet the needs of students in their school who are marginalized or disadvantaged in some way – willing to grapple with issues of poverty, discrimination and social justice through culturally responsive pedagogy. Growing understanding of what it means to develop equitable learning processes is a goal that school leaders must   champion and share with teaching colleagues. 

The School Leader as a model and a reflective co-learner

Modelling the dispositions of a learner who knows there is much to learn to achieve equitable school results is a key leadership stance today. The school leader as a co-learner would attend professional learning with teachers, would model instructional knowledge with a problem-solving approach and readily acknowledge with humility that there is much to learn from each other as professionals. Working to embed a culture of co-learning takes time and effort. As Lyn Sharratt and I found in our own research into    how to best lead collaborative learning (2016), an inquiry approach sets the stage for   deeper and more sustainable learning efforts. Clarifying learning intentions, co-  constructing what success will look like, establishing mid-term points for assessment of collective efforts and modelling the importance of feedback in learning are all aspects of collective effort where the school leader can be both a model and a reflective learner in action. Mid-course corrections are a needed reality if collective efforts are not achieving desired results. Interventions for students in difficulty require close on-going assessment and are key to overall improvement efforts. School leaders must model both reflective analysis and flexibility to adjust best laid plans for improvement. When school leaders are involved as learners with their staff, monitoring processes such as classroom walk-throughs can be enriched by establishing some common look-fors and questions for follow-up discussion.  When school leaders and school staff work in a manner that demonstrates that “we are in this together, a sense of efficacy – a belief that we can make a difference – grows for both individuals and a collective who are committed to the same goals. Beliefs in positive change must be mobilized and harnessed to become effective actions. A culminating role for the School Leader is that of Change coach which is pivotal to moving schools forward. Great coaches are keen observers, empathetic listeners, motivating facilitators and positive models who work relentlessly to support the growth of others. The contributions of effective school leaders are sometimes hard to quantify but immeasurable in terms of importance and potential. 

Dr. Beate Planche works as an instructional coach and educational consultant as well as an on-line sessional instructor for Western University’s Ed.D. program. She is a former principal and superintendent with the York Region District School Board in Ontario.
Donohoo, J. (2017). Collective efficacy: How educator beliefs impact student learning. Thousand Oaks: CA. Corwin Press.
Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York: NY. Routledge.
Jacobson, S. (2010). Leadership effects on student achievement and sustained school success. International Journal of Educational Management. 25(1). 33-44.
Leithwood, K. (2019). Leadership development on a large scale: Lessons for long-term success. Thousand Oaks: CA. Corwin Press.
Prelli, G.E. (2016). How school leaders might promote higher levels of collaborative teacher efficacy at the level of school and team. English Language Teaching. 9(3). 174-180.
Sharratt, L. & Planche, B. (2016). Leading collaborative learning: Empowering excellence. Thousand Oaks: CA. Corwin Press.

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