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Communities of Learners: What are the Implications for Leadership Development?

Posted on
Tuesday, April 5, 2016 - 10:08

The current push to organise New Zealand schools into communities of learners reflects a policy trend that has close counterparts in England, Canada and Australia. I recently participated in a web-based “Global Dialogue Event” organized by the UK Education Development Trust in which panellists debated the implications of such networks for “system transformation” and took questions and comments from audiences in Toronto, London, Melbourne and other video conference centres. In addition to myself, the panel included Steve Munby (ex CEO of the National College of School Leadership and now CEO of the Education Development Trust), Michael Fullan and John Hattie.  In my presentation I made the following points about the conditions required for CoLs to transform their member schools, let alone the whole system.

  1. CoLs are a structural intervention intended to promote collaboration between schools that will deliver improved achievement on the student outcomes that the CoL has chosen as its achievement challenge.  Given the strong evidence that structural interventions (e.g. vertical grouping; modern learning environments; BYOD) do not, on average, improve student outcomes, it is particularly important to know how, exactly, membership in a CoL is intended to improve student outcomes. In short, a theory of improvement needs to be articulated and widely debated so we are all aware of the dozens of conditions that need to be created to bring about the intended outcomes. In addition, the theory of improvement needs to specify why membership of a CoL is more likely to produce improved outcomes in a given school, than the single-school interventions that are likely to have already been tried. If senior leaders in a given school have been unable to reduce longstanding achievement disparities, despite the initiatives and expertise they have already accessed, then how will their membership of a CoL make a difference?
  2. Without clear educational answers to those questions, principals will join for the wrong reasons (access to funding) and be externally rather than internally committed to their success. Without clear answers, a CoL will be a time consuming and expensive forum in which good stuff is supposed to happen.  We need to learn from evaluations of New Zealand’s past attempts at clusters and from the international research evidence to discern the conditions required to make them successful.
  3. The think piece that was the focus of the Global Dialogue debate provided a broad brush account of some of those conditions:
    1. The purpose of the collaboration must be to improve outcomes
    2. Every partnership must be founded on a clearly articulated moral purpose
    3. Transparency, trust and honesty are a professional obligation
    4. Effective peer review drives the improvement 
    5. Peer review is carried out within a long term relationship that is committed to cycles of  collaborative inquiry
    6. The partnership should evolve from collaboration to co-responsibility to shared professional accountability for results.
    7. Partnerships should embrace more stakeholders than just school leaders e.g. parents and business leaders
    8. Partnerships should welcome scrutiny from other partnerships and contribute to a connected local regional and national system.
  4. The report of the Ministry of Education and NZEI Joint Initiative Working Group (2015) and other international research outlines very similar broad conditions for the success of CoLs, emphasizing the need for collaboration that builds trust while pursuing an agreed clear purpose. 
  5. The CoL is a catalyst for change within member schools, not the location of change itself. The theory of improvement needs, therefore, to specify not only the conditions required to make the CoL a learning organisation, but, in addition, how the learning from CoL participation will be transferred to and pursued within participating schools. While the joint work happens in the CoL, the network doesn’t succeed unless its work makes a difference in every member school. This means we need to attend to the quality of leadership in the CoL and the quality of the leadership in every participating school.
  6. Effective leadership requires the ability to meet two goals: progressing the educational work while simultaneously building relationships of trust, even in situations of initial mistrust. Learning from each other requires risk taking – exposing difficulties, sharing data, not speaking disrespectfully of each other inside or outside the CoL. What do we know about the leadership capabilities required to meet these twin goals, and how are those leadership capabilities developed in a rich distributed sense?
    • Goal setting. Leaders need high capability in using data to forge agreed educational goals. The work needs to be highly motivating for people to engage deeply and to persist. There will be important debates in some CoLs about what goal is most important and which student outcomes are most valued.  It may be tempting for COL leaders to deal with such diverse views by agreeing to pursue multiple goals and a basket of outcomes but that strategy would violate a key finding in the school improvement literature – relentless and persistent focus is needed on a few clear and motivating improvement goals.  COL leaders and facilitators who are knowledgeable about how goal setting works and about why school improvement requires a relentless focus will be able to offer educational rather than compliance arguments for a more focused approach.How will CoL advisors and members get access to the educational arguments that support the conditions that need to be established for success? How will they learn deeply about why tightly focused joint work is an essential prerequisite for collaboration and community? 
    • Goal persistence. Maintaining goal focus in the face of multiple distractions is a far greater challenge than setting agreed goals. How will CoL leaders and advisors challenge and support those members who have long standing patterns of goal proliferation, or who make arguments for the uniqueness of their contexts? What training do CoL leaders and members need to quickly establish group norms of respectful challenge and support?                                                  
    • Transparency, trust and honesty. How is trust built? Not by social functions in the CoL though there may be good reasons for having them.  Trust is built by others seeing leaders as interpersonally respectful, holding personal regard for members, having integrity and displaying competence in the role. Trust is easy to build when everyone agrees, but it is the diversity of a CoL that is intended to be a major source of learning. What happens when people differ and disagree about the importance of student data, about whether and how it should be shared, and about the adequacy of progress? How is an initially low trust environment turned around by CoL leadership? What capabilities are needed?
      • The courage and ability to make the undiscussable discussable
      • Ability to tolerate and harness conflict
      • Ability to craft integrative and inclusive problem solutions after appropriate inquiry
    • Effective peer review. Challenging thinking and practice is a core feature of effective networks and this is a rare skill. Education is a contested terrain and relativist thinking abounds (“you do what works for you”). High level capability in this skill is needed as well as group norms and processes that authorize and expect critical evaluation.  Critical talk is more likely to be expressed and disagreement resolved if CoL members have access to relevant educational knowledge and are confident but not dogmatic in its expression. Without educational knowledge, people become uncertain and give low value feedback- attending only to the surface features of others’ work and to what has been done well.  There is little evidence of critical talk in the conversations of New Zealand school leaders.
    • Cycles of collaborative inquiry. There are many different versions of inquiry cycles but they all involve problem solving.   Once a CoL has agreed on its goal, each school leadership team will encounter numerous obstacles to success. These are the problems that need to be inquired into and resolved. We have considerable research on the capability of NZ and Australian leaders in problem solving, and this tells us a lot about the type of professional learning that is needed to create effective cycles of inquiry. Leaders are likely to need help with:
      • Moving from indirect to respectful, direct discussions of problems. Indirectness is particularly evident in conversations in which leaders are attempting to address variable teaching quality.
      • Stages of inquiry are typically skipped – particularly the rigorous analysis of the problem as leaders rush to implement a solution – “to do something”. The school based causes of the problem are also not thoroughly investigated due to the difficulties described in the bullet point above.
    • Shared professional accountability. How are high expectations established in a culture which may have been content with low expectations?  How do CoL members hold each other accountable if they have not met agreed deadlines, or are speaking in ways that diminish rather than increase trust?

There are professional development providers in New Zealand, including UACEL, who have the resources and experience to offer a leadership development curriculum to CoLs to develop some or all of the above leadership capabilities. There are, however, major challenges in making them available to all COLs so that the intended system lift is achieved. The establishment phase of the CoLs involves a strong voluntary ethic with little guidance given, as yet, about the requisite expertise for CoL leadership or for the development of leadership capability. As reported by Paula Rawiri of the Ministry of Education “The important messages for providers of professional learning and development is that CoL very much need to be in the driving seat when seeking their services and decisions will be made locally consistent with the Achievement Challenges of each CoL. Of course COLs need to be making final decisions, but in the absence of a clear and widely debated theory of improvement and its associated leadership requirements, CoLs may not know what they don’t know. System transformation does not happen through structural change unless it is informed by a widely shared educational theory of improvement and the systematic development of the requisite leadership capabilities. Whose job is it to take a system-wide approach to those two challenges?


UACEL offers professional development that enhances and builds leadership capabilities. CoLs will require skilled facilitation and leadership to thrive.  Visit our website for more information and to register.


Viviane Robinson, Academic Director, 
The University of Auckland Centre for Educational Leadership


1. https://www.educationdevelopmenttrust.com/

3. http://www.education.govt.nz/assets/Documents/Ministry/Investing-in-Educational-Success/Joint-Initiative-Governance-Group-Report-29-May-2015.pdf

4. Earl, L., Katz, S., Algie, S., Jaafar, S. B., & Foster, L. (2006). How networked learning communities work: Volume 1-The report. Retrieved from Toronto, Canada.

5. Murphy, J. (2013). The architecture of school improvement. Journal of Educational Administration, 51(3), 252-263.            

6. Bryk, A. S., & Schneider, B. L. (2002). Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation Publications.

7. Robinson, V. M. J., Sinnema, C. E., & Le Fevre, D. (2014). From persuasion to learning: An intervention to improve leaders’ response to disagreement. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 13(3), 260-296.

8. Le Fevre, D. M., & Robinson, V. M. J. (2015). The interpersonal challenges of instructional leadership: Principals’ effectiveness in conversations about performance issues. Educational Administration Quarterly, 51(1), 58-95.

9. Sinnema, C. E. L., Le Fevre, D., Robinson, V. M. J., & Pope, D. (2013). When others’ performance just isn't good enough: Educational leaders’    framing of concerns in private and public. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 12(4), 301-336.