Collaborative Learning Communities – avoid being an educational tourist (pt 9 in a series)

Once you have put your own house in order by maximising your existing knowledge and you have filtered the external information you require, used your catalysts to energise it and blocked the worthless chatter, the next stage in your journey of improvement is to experience practice in other, preferably outstanding, schools. 

Finding schools to learn with and from

Some of the remote rural schools Richard Lockyer, the CEO of Olevi International, and I have worked with in Canada are extremely isolated and finding schools to collaborate with can be challenging for them. In situations such as these, finding schools in a similar context would make the search even more difficult, so it is best not to allow yourselves to be restricted by context.  We have found that by working with schools in different contexts, we focus on the generic and fundamental issues we all are trying to resolve rather than the parochial. The problems we are trying to resolve are the same. It is the solutions that vary and it is our colleagues’ justification for their variations that provides the insight we seek. 

The problems we are trying to resolve are the same. It is the solutions that vary.

Conversely, if you are in a densely populated urban area where you are in direct competition for students with your neighbouring boroughs, sharing your best practice with them is the last thing you feel like doing, select a school from outside of your geographical area.  There is nothing wrong with this. When we linked schools in the early days of the London Challenge, we accepted this as part of the context we were working in and matched schools from one side of the City with those on the other. It took many years before sufficient trust had developed between schools for them to work closely with their direct competitors and in many cases this has not been achieved even today, after fifteen years. 

If you are the host – be demanding

If yours is  the school hosting the visit, you should be vigorous in ensuring that you benefit as much as your visitors.  They have come not only to witness the action but also to experience the culture. Remember that peer judgement is some of the best feedback you can obtain.  I have known schools that will only permit visitors to view lessons if they are willing to provide constructive feedback. There is now a growing number of processes for doing this, including the Challenge Partners’ quality assured peer review  and the structured learning walks favoured by Olevi.  

Do not forget student feedback.  They can often provide the real insights into the value of a particular approach and are, after all, the very people we are trying to improve.  Peter Matthews, in reviewing Teaching Schools for the National College insisted that he spoke to students as well as staff. 

If you are the guest –  be professional

In your search for knowledge in other schools, do not become an educational tourist – someone who has come for the view but with no intention of learning anything.  You are not seeking a two-dimensional image to post on your Instagram page. Rather, you want a  three-dimensional experience which allows you to place information within the emotional, social and political context to allow you to make a judgement about how appropriate it is for your own work. Tell your host precisely before hand what it is you wish to experience and immerse yourself. Do not stand on the outside looking in. 

Remember that school improvement involves a web of dynamic, inter-related variables.  You might be looking for the key to the web rather than, as I often hear, the silver bullet.  You not only want to know how precisely something works but how it fits into the whole learning process. 

Having obtained this new insight, remember that the knowledge you have gained takes you just one step further along the Olevi Collaborative Learning Model.  There are a number of stages left to embed this new practice.  So, determine when, where and how you would use the knowledge you have gained to move you from A to B. Then map it into the appropriate part of your practice.  Set criteria to use when you evaluate its impact. If the evidence shows it has been successful, role model it for your peers and finally coach your peers in its use. 

And finally 

 I am sure you do not need reminding that it is a privilege for colleagues to let you into their world and whatever happens you should leave the school at least in the same condition as when you arrived.  At the end of your visit remember to thank them, and if you do find the information you have gleaned from your visit useful, write and tell them. It always was rewarding at Challenge Partners Senior Partners’ meetings or during an Olevi Outstanding Teacher Programme to hear colleagues thanking and discussing with their peers what they had learnt from each other and how they had adopted and adapted it to their own context.  This is collaborative learning at its best. 

George