Authors: Gregory A. Hedger and Michael Simpson
Ensuring high quality instruction is a challenge in any school. In international schools, the challenge is even greater. This is the result of the transient nature of faculty working in overseas schools. In a recent study of headship transitions in international schools and U.S. independent schools, it was stated the average international school head stayed in the job an average 3.7 years, compared to 12 years for U.S. independent schools heads (Kane & Barbaro, 2015). It can be assumed differences in longevity of teaching faculty between the U.S. and international schools would be similar, or greater. This type of transience creates a whole host of problems in ensuring instructional quality. Many teachers travel from school to school carrying with them what is referred to as a suitcase curriculum, a collection of lessons, projects, and activities they have found to be previously successful at other locations and may, or may not, relate to the stated standards in their new school. Similarly, upon arriving at a new school, these teachers feel a lack of ownership over curriculum they’ve had no previous interaction with. Traditionally, teachers have a tendency to withdraw into their own classroom worlds. This type of transience contributes to a greater tendency for this to happen. If left alone, this situation means the quality of instruction a student receives is completely dependent on the individual teacher and there is no guarantee that a student in one fourth grade class will get the same quality of learning experience as the student in the classroom next door.
Escuela Campo Alegre (ECA) is an example of one of these international schools. It was established in 1937 to serve students whose parents work for multinational corporations or diplomatic missions located in Caracas, Venezuela. The student population comes from all over the world, currently comprising 30 nationalities, in nursery through grade 12. Instruction is based on a U.S. model, and is taught in English, with the majority of students who graduate from ECA going on to colleges and universities in the U.S., and occasionally Europe. The average student stays at ECA for three years before moving on to another location. Just as the students come and go, so do the faculty. The average stay of a teacher is four years. ECA is no different than other international schools, with the same challenges. What sets ECA apart is the manner in which it has chosen to approach these challenges to ensure every student receives the quality of instruction they are entitled to, no matter who the teacher is or how new they are to ECA.
ECA has chosen to make collaboration the centerpiece for managing the relatively high faculty turnover rates in international schools and ensuring high quality instruction is maintained in every classroom. This decision followed an introduction to collaborative work at Adaptive Schools workshops led by Dr. Robert Garmston. According to Dr. Garmston, the goal of Adaptive Schools is “to develop our collective identity and capacity as collaborators and inquirers” (Garmston, Wellman, Dolcemascolo, & McKanders, 2013).
The key to success with collaboration was to develop the language and understanding in a way that it was accessible to everyone, and would continue to be accessible as faculty came and left the school. In their book, The OIQ factor: raising your school’s organizational intelligence, William Powell and Ochan Kusuma-Powell state that “collaboration norms and skills need to be taught explicitly and practiced self-consciously.” (2013) The first step included shared professional development. Dr. Garmston was invited to work with the ECA faculty two years in a row, for four days each year, and half the faculty each year. This ensured a common basis from which to begin the collaborative work. From these two presentations a handful of faculty were identified who found themselves excited about what they were hearing. These faculty were sent for further training in the Adaptive Schools model. The idea behind this was to begin to have a core group of people who would not only drive the collaborative work during the school year, but also provide initial training to all new faculty during the annual orientation. Each summer, additional people were identified, so there would continue to be a core of collaborative leaders even as previous leaders moved on to other schools around the globe. From this core group, one person was tapped in the role of the school’s Collaborative Practices Facilitator, in an effort to institutionalize the practice of collaboration and have one person responsible for driving the practice. The entire core group became the Collaboration Committee, responsible for helping teachers work collaboratively by modeling collaborative practices and brainstorming new ideas. Finally, through the Collaborative Practices Facilitator, an online Innovation Through Collaboration Schoology group was established permitting teachers to begin to share ideas, ask questions, and have collaborative discussions from any place, any time. Finally, at the conclusion of the second Adaptive Schools workshop, participants decided upon the four most important ideas or principles they would like to introduce or develop within their professional teams. The four principles were overwhelmingly decided to be a collaborative culture, cognitive conflict, the seven norms of collaboration and purposeful interactions. These four ideas or principles were then incorporated into the following vision statement:
We will foster a collaborative culture that engages in cognitive conflict by focusing on the seven norms of collaboration and developing purposeful interactions.
Through this vision statement, a common language around collaboration was introduced that could be understood and used by everyone. From there, the structures were developed to use collaboration as a means to ensure quality instruction.
A common language through shared professional development was only the first step. As Powell and Kusuma-Powell state, “Collaboration takes place when members of a learning community work together as equals towards a common goal.” (2013) It became important to provide teachers with opportunities for collaborative and purposeful interactions. Many schools fall into the practice of planning schedules so collaborative meeting time is built in, but then leave it to faculty to make this happen. While this reflects a certain level of trust in faculty, it ignores the fact that most people are unclear what collaboration looks like, and assume it simply means getting together in a group. “Group work, as often practiced, does little to enhance collaborative skills.” (Quinn, 2013) To overcome this hurdle, ECA adopted the three focusing questions of Adaptive Schools. These questions ask,
“Who are we?
Why are we doing this?
Why are we doing this, this way? (Garmston et al. 2013)
These three questions were designed into an Innovation Through Collaboration matrix that became available to all faculty. To provide purposeful interactions, these questions became the starting point for all collaborative planning, committee meetings, parent meetings, and task force sessions. An example of the use of these questions is apparent in a homework task force. This group began by looking at defining the demographics and expectations of the community in answering the question, “who are we?” It then went on to explore the reasons homework is given at ECA – from the perspective of faculty, parents, and students, in looking at why are we doing this? Finally, the next stage will be to look at the various ways and types of homework given in an effort to make a match with who we are and the reasons we give homework. These three questions become a powerful force for creating purposeful collaborative interactions and a means of ensuring faculty conversations promoted instructional quality.
A natural next step in the development of collaborative work is the development of collaborative meetings, especially if collaborative time has already been built into the schedule. These meetings become a means for faculty to share ideas and practices, explore assessment tools, and begin learning from each other. It is really through these meetings collaboration begins to become personal. Michael Fullan says “the goal of collaboration is that teachers become collectively engaged in work that is meaningful to them.” (Fullan, 2011) To facilitate this process at ECA, collaborative agendas were developed using Google Docs. This meant teachers could contribute to agenda building any time an idea or thought occurred to them. These items were then identified as information items, items contributed to promote understanding, or items that required discussion and / or decision making (I,U,D). This identification process on the agenda permitted meetings to be organized around the actions and be more meaningful, yet also more expedient. Teachers are constantly busy, and any meeting seen as wasting time is not appreciated. This type of meeting agenda ensures the topics most important to teachers are focused on and time is not wasted. In addition, ECA adopted the Seven Norms of Collaboration (Garmston et al. 2013) for all meetings – between faculty, with parents, with students, and with administration. These seven norms clearly spell out certain behaviors that contribute to effective meetings such as presuming positive intentions, paying attention to self and others, and posing questions. When practiced and used in meetings, these norms become a powerful tool for ensuring all ideas are encouraged and given credence.
Teaching teams developing core curriculum essential agreements are an example of collaborative meetings. These agreements are developed by a team and provide the basis for discussion and the collaborative development of instructional strategies. Consistency of instruction is achieved through ‘non-negotiables’ that the team has agreed upon at the beginning of the year and cannot be amended without the consensus of the team. These ‘non-negotiables’ usually stem from the observance of school wide practices, the use of Understanding by Design planning and differentiated reading and math groups are two good examples of ‘non-negotiables’ that all teachers must adhere to. The intention of these agreements is not to create a ‘cookie cutter’ curriculum in the way a particular reading or math program would. The intention is to encourage teachers to use their expertise and proven instructional strategies with the confidence of knowing they are doing what is expected of them. New teachers can jump straight into doing what they have been chosen to do without necessarily having to relearn a new math program. Existing teachers benefit from the ideas of the new teachers and vice versa. In an age of standards-based curriculum, the collaborative development of effective instructional strategies is best served through adaptable curriculum agreements, Rigid programs force teachers to teach a certain way regardless of whether a teacher has a better way of meeting particular student needs.
Effective instructional strategies are the natural evolution from the work teachers have been doing together. Just as there is a common language for interactions and meetings, there becomes common strategies in the classroom. The collaborative development of the strategies inevitably influences the way they are introduced to the students. Collaboration is a skill that is now being explicitly taught to students as instructional strategies are being implemented. As teachers become more collaborative in their professional teams, students are being given more opportunities to collaborate in the classroom. This permits students to also develop collaborative practices as a skill set they carry with them from class to class, and from grade to grade. It becomes a way of thinking school wide, and the automatic fall back position for learning. It should also be mentioned collaborative practices prepare students for the world they are growing into. Everywhere one turns, collaboration is mentioned as a must need skill. “Enhance collaboration may be exactly what we need to solve the world’s problems” (Quinn, 2013). When collaboration becomes the tool used to help students develop greater understanding of the curriculum, we are not just teaching content, but preparing them for the world.
One of the great joys of international education is the ability to get up and move every few years and explore a new part of the world. During the career of any given teacher, they might work in Romania for a period of time, followed by such countries as Indonesia, the Cayman Island, Qatar, Venezuela, or a host of any other countries. It really is a fascinating lifestyle. The downside of this continual movement is a lack of consistency in in instruction and curriculum delivery. Collaboration is one model of practice to ensure high quality teaching is maintained in these schools. Through collaborative and purposeful interactions, collaborative meetings, and collaborative classroom instruction, it is possible to make sure a common language and practices occurs throughout the school, no matter which classroom a child is in.
Fullan, M. (2011). Change leader. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass.
Garmston, R., Wellman, B., Dolcemascolo, M., & McKanders, C. (2013). Adaptive schools foundation seminar learning guide. Highlands Ranch, CO: Adaptive Schools Seminars.
Gruenert, S., & Whitaker, T. (2015). School culture rewired: How to define, assess, and transform it. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Kane, P. R., & Barbaro, J. (2015). Headship transitions in international schools and US independent schools. In Focus, (1), 2-5. Retrieved November 13, 2015, from http://issuu.com/ecischools/docs/infocus_ecis
Powell, W., & Kusuma-Powell, O. (2013). The OIQ factor: Raising your school’s organizational intelligence. United Kingdom: John Catt Educational.
Quinn, T. (2013). G-R-O-U-P W-O-R-K doesn’t spell collaboration. Phi Delta Kappan, 94(4), 46-48. Retrieved October 18, 2015.