The CoL 'commandments'

November 2017


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JUDE BARBACK talks to three Communities of Learning (CoL), all at different stages of their CoL journey, about what they’ve learned so far.

Col commandments
Meet our three Communities of Learning.

Waitakere College deputy principal Shona Smith was appointed leader of the Waitakere Community of Learners (Te Kahui Ako o Waitakere) in term 1 last year. She says while there has always been some connection between the schools, there wasn’t enough communication, and no actual talk of student transitions. The Waitakere CoL, now in its second year, is slowly changing that.

The Pukekohe CoL is at roughly the same stage. Across-schools pedagogical leader for the CoL, Martin Bennett, says the schools have always been collegial, but other than collaborating on things like Mathletics, they’ve had no real reason to work together on any shared projects.

Whiria Te Tangata CoL grew out of a “tight-knit group of principals” in northwest Auckland. But the pathways weren’t going to work for everyone, so their group splintered into three. CoL leader Heather Atkinson and principal of Riverhead School Kris Hughes count themselves fortunate to have two high schools in their CoL: Hobsonville Point Secondary School and Massey High School. Massey is actually part of two CoL; its funding is through the other but the school generously participates in both.

All three CoL are working out how to improve learning and transitions among their schools. It’s not a straightforward process. Each CoL journey presents different challenges and opportunities, but some common themes begin to emerge.

Don’t rush the early stages – get to grips with what collaborative practice really means first before diving headfirst into the achievement challenges.

With northwest Auckland undergoing a growth phase with new schools planned for the area, Heather Atkinson and Kris Hughes knew their CoL needed to be robust in order to absorb the growth of potential new members. They are even considering having a homeschooling school join their CoL.

“We want to be stable on our feet,” says Hughes. 

Establishing a strong trust model first – before any thought was given to the data – was a priority for the CoL.

“Our top criteria is developing and maintaining relational trust,” says Atkinson.

They even took this approach to the interview process for the across-schools team, which involved a collaborative exercise involving the candidates presenting in front of everyone and bringing their ideas to the table. The successful applicants then began co-constructing their role.

Hughes acknowledges that the early emphasis on collaborative practice and trust has meant progress has felt slow initially. It takes time to be sure that everyone is on board.

“We keep having to go back and revisit decisions. And new issues keep coming up,” she says, “But on the flip side everyone’s concepts are heard.”

They’re sure their approach will pay off. By the end of next year they’ll hope to have made some concrete progress with their goals.

Waitakere CoL leader Shona Smith agrees that it is a marathon not a sprint.

“Only in the last term there has been a real sense of momentum,” she says.

The CoL, one of the earlier ones to be established, essentially began with a bunch of principals and Smith. The across-schools team were next to come on board. Smith credits the “overseas holiday” on Waiheke Island as playing a big part in getting the across-schools team working closely together. Finally the within-school team was established.

“There is not yet a deep sense of ownership beyond those people, but it is slowly changing,” says Smith.

Martin Bennett agrees that it took a while for a couple of schools to come on board. He thinks people have generally been directed by their moral compass to supporting the schools.

Like the other CoL, he says it’s too soon to see any results. They’ve been working with five years of previous data collected in 2015, so it takes time to see a change in trends.

Involve your senior leadership teams (SLTs). CoLs work better at the individual school level if the deputy and assistant principals are on the same page as the across-schools and within-school teachers.

The structure of the CoL can challenge a school’s traditional hierarchy. It is only natural that teachers who have worked their way up to associate and deputy principal roles, might feel a bit unnerved or put out at the introduction of across-schools and within-school teachers.

Bennett says assistant principals and deputy principals are often the missing link in CoL. It can be tricky, he says – people who haven’t had leadership roles before are now effectively telling them what to do.

As a result, in the Pukekohe CoL, the schools have made a conscious effort to involve the SLTs, particularly in the professional learning.

Heather Atkinson agrees it makes a big difference having the SLTs involved. They had heard from other CoLs that not involving the deputy and associate principals led to problems. So in their CoL, the SLTs are included in all the decision-making.

Don’t let achievement challenges stand in the way of what your CoL is ultimately trying to achieve for your schools.

Bennett says collectively analysing the data was an eye-opening experience.

“It was the first time we’d all really looked at the data. And there it was, in black and white,” he reflects.

The data showed clearly that the CoL’s Māori, Pacific and male students were lagging behind in writing and numeracy.

“So we had to ask ourselves: what are we going to do? All these kids are going to end up in our community.”

Bennett says they quickly realised they wanted to look beyond the 85 per cent achievement goal.

“We interviewed current and ex-students to gather their thoughts on transition, diversity and growth. And they said: why isn’t the goal for everyone to achieve?”

The CoL then surveyed students and scoped all its schools, talking with principals and staff to build a clearer picture of what issues were falling out of the achievement challenges. These became the CoL’s main focus.

For the Waitakere CoL, at first all the attention went into their achievement challenges, which focused on culturally responsive pedagogies, literacy, numeracy and improving NCEA Level 2 pass rates. However, other goals grew out of these challenges. For example, they realised that retaining Māori at school has an impact on pass rates, so that became a goal.

Smith says the other area that began to emerge as a key area was transitions.

“As we’ve gone through that first year and dug deeper, we realised more and more that we needed to plan for those transitions,” says Smith.

One year before the end of their first round, they underwent self-review using matrices from both the Ministry of Education and Education Review Office. This process revealed that while they were ticking the boxes for the content areas (i.e. literacy, numeracy, culturally responsive pedagogy and NCEA) they needed a plan around community, transitions and data. This enabled the CoL to put in place a robust implementation plan for their next round of achievement goals, which will focus mainly on effective transitions. These goals are to be approved in April next year.

Whiria Te Tangata CoL took a similar approach, surveying parents, students and staff to get a sense of the story behind the data. 

This revealed five important drivers underlying good pedagogy: collaborative teacher efficacy, culturally responsive pedagogy, developing learner agency, powerful connections with whānau, and powerful community connections.

The CoL is more focused on these drivers than their achievement challenges. They had a planning meeting with principals and the Ministry to help build the drivers into schools’ annual plans. Every staff member from every school, every BOT member is on board, says Hughes. She also says the Ministry is hugely supportive of this approach.

“The Ministry is completely on board. They’ve been fantastic,” agrees Atkinson.

You don’t have to view your achievement challenges in isolation of each other.

Shona Smith says the achievement challenges and their underpinning issues are all interwoven.

“A lot of CoL have focused on one aspect, but we’re a big CoL and all these things are things we need to work on and they’re all interrelated.”

For example, the CoL’s approach to maths has been through a culturally responsive lens. One of their schools, Holy Cross Primary School, held a maths parents evening in which parents were told, “You’re the experts in your own children – tell us what they’re interested in.” They were soon integrating maths into cooking, sport and music.

Similarly, Pukekohe CoL wanted to get a sense of how students truly felt about learning and transition, so they surveyed 2,230 students from year 4 to year 10 about how they learned and how confident they felt about moving between schools.

“As a collection of schools we had some preconceived ideas about what the answers were to these things, but we followed the Bernhardt model, which is about not relying on one source.

“We felt it was important to not just accept the majority result. For example, if 80 per cent said that transition wasn’t an issue, then great – but what about the 20 per cent who did?”

About half the students who completed the survey commented on the open response section at the end.

“We’re conscious of following up on things raised from the survey, otherwise students won’t bother answering next time.”

These findings, combined with the data and school scoping, have led to across-schools work streams in the areas of cultural responsive pedagogy, literacy, numeracy, learning support and transition, which each have an impact on each other.

Realise that achieving consistency across schools doesn’t have to mean that schools have to give up their identities.

How does a CoL develop a coherent pedagogical language and ensure smooth transitional pathways between its schools, if everyone is using different systems and terms?

Bennett says achieving consistency across schools is a challenge. For example, some schools use PaCT, while others don’t. It isn’t about determining who does it best, he says.

“It’s about getting a shared understanding of how each school works. What works for my school may not necessarily be what works for others.”

Whiria Te Tangata CoL is about to embark on this challenge. 

“The schools are autonomous identities – and that is sacrosanct,” says Atkinson.

This is top of mind for the CoL as they start thinking about consistency around approaches and systems within the schools. It’s not an easy task. For instance, Hobsonville Point Secondary School doesn’t collect NCEA Level 1 data, but Massey does.

Shona Smith said certain areas were harder to find common ground on than others. For their CoL, it was literacy.

“We struggled to find our focus because we didn’t have a common tool to talk about writing.”

Nothing exists nationally to serve the purposes they needed; there were some excellent tools used by individual schools but no consistency among them.

With the help of Vision Education’s Dr Alison Davis, the CoL spliced the tools all together, alongside The New Zealand Curriculum and literacy learning progressions.

“We’re now in the process of translating them into kid-friendly language,” says Smith.

“Across the CoL, when we talk to each other about what good pedagogy is, we use the same language.

“We anticipate next year will be a transitional year, but the goal is that any time between year 0 and year 10 kids will understand the same language used around literacy.”

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to PLD – choose your provider and method to suit the needs of your CoL.

The Waitakere CoL took a three-layered approach to PLD: a ‘once-over-lightly’ conference once a term, which took a broad brush approach; seminars with specific areas of expertise; and schools could choose which area they wanted to explore in-depth. The majority chose culturally responsive pedagogies.

Last year Smith delivered the professional learning along with the across-schools team, but this year they’ve identified three providers for different areas: Cognition Education for culturally responsive pedagogies; Massey University’s Drs Bobbie and Jodie Hunter for maths; and Vision Education’s Alison Davis for literacy.

However, Whiria Te Tangata CoL takes a different approach. Hughes says they want to leverage the expertise within the CoL.

“Our schools have a lot of knowledge around the areas of numeracy and literacy, so we will tap into that knowledge.”

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