Successful collaborative learning takes direction

Evidence provided by the Research Schools Network demonstrates the importance of leadership in facilitating knowledge sharing.

It has always been our conviction that leadership plays a critical role in creating a collaborative learning environment within and between schools. Now we have more evidence to back this up.

This evidence relates to  the effectiveness of Research Schools in sharing their knowledge of evidence-based practice with other schools. Research Schools are state-funded English schools, selected because they have an aptitude for knowledge sharing. They are designated and funded by the Education Endowment Fund (EEF).  

Each school plays a regional role within a national network, which started with five Research Schools in 2016 and has grown to 22, 11 of which are in government priority areas. Our colleague Doctor James Richardson led the team responsible for  establishing them. Amongst the Research Schools is Kingsbridge Community College, a school we have worked with for many years. 

In terms of our theory of action, Research Schools are funded and charged to form collaborative learning communities (CLC). Schools are encouraged to join these networks but this is an informal arrangement and there is also no direct responsibility for the Research School to ensure that member schools change their practice.  Thus, they work through influence and use their systemic rather than system leadership skills to do this.

The focus of their collaborative learning is the knowledge transfer of relevant research and best practice. The relevant research covers activities that the EEF has identified as being effective in improving students’ outcomes and the best practice relates to how these activities are embedded effectively in a school’s practice. The focus is upon improving the quality of teaching and learning rather than leadership or collaborative learning. The learning activities they undertake to do this encompass all three phases of the Olevi Collaborative Learning Model – information, experience and coaching and mentoring. Of these, the predominant phase used is information transfer, which is achieved through newsletters, blogs and other materials, many of which are provided by the central team. However, staff from other schools are also encouraged to visit and experience the use of evidence-based practice first hand and the central team has developed high level training programmes which the Research Schools also offer. 

Key Research Findings

A team from the UCL Institute of Education, Centre of Educational Leadership undertook the research. It was led by the Director, Professor Qing Gu. The team’s overall conclusion was that Research Schools had been successful in engaging other schools in evidence-based practice. The essential ingredient for this was committed and strong leadership. 

They said: “A ‘good’ research-informed innovation can rarely travel into the day-to-day realities of classrooms on its own merits without school leadership that can help teachers discover the right direction.” (1) 

This assertion, along with the report’s findings, supports the contention that effective leadership of schools is critical in ensuring the adoption of evidence-based practice by schools. Research Schools had “developed a critical mass of professional expertise in schools (and groups of schools) that not only understands what works, but more importantly, knows how to make what works elsewhere work in their own context, and how to capture the evidence of impact on why it has worked ‘here’. (2)

However, the effects of their work was not felt in all schools, particularly those with different types, contexts and needs to their own. This was because the quality of the leadership of the schools they worked with played a critical role, and one upon which they could exert no influence.  They identified two factors which affected the leadership’s ability to do this. 

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Research Schools is not the first network designed to share knowledge in England. However, previous networks such as Olevi Docks, Challenge Partners hubs and Teaching Schools Alliances have tended to focus on sharing emerging effective innovation and best practice underpinned by relevant research rather than making relevant research the key focus for knowledge transfer.   

However, these significant research findings not only added credence to our assertion that leadership plays a critical role in organisational learning but it also identifies that not all school leaders currently have such skills.  Thus there is a need for school leaders to be trained in change management and organisational learning and that a focus for both should be how to introduce and support evidence-based practice.  Maybe in the future this might be something that the EEF decides to support. 

In our networks we consider leaders to be the key knowledge gatekeepers to effective collaborative learning. They either act as blockers, filters or catalysts.   The blockers often attend collaborative learning meetings but no information transfers from them to the rest of their organisation, while the filters let some information through. What we require is leaders who act as a catalyst. They know how to identify relevant knowledge, who should have it, how it can be integrated with existing practice and then they have the skills to ensure it is rapidly embedded in their school’s practice and in doing so they assist their teachers in transforming their students’ learning. 

If we think of it as a string of lights, for every light to function at its brightest requires every bulb to receive the full, uninterrupted current from the power source. This is no different to the information provided by the Research School. It is no good for some staff to be plugged into the collaborative information source at different junctures. The leader needs to make sure their serial connection is plugged in and all internal connections are engaged.

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For those of our readers who are unaware of the work of Research Schools and the EEF, it is worthwhile taking some time to look at their groundbreaking work in identifying through evidence what works and disseminating it.  You can see that at Olevi we follow their developments closely, as we do the work of the Educational Leadership Centre at the UCL Institute of Education. 

Take care and stay safe

George

The reference for the full report is Gu, Q., Rea, S., Seymour, K., Smethem, L., Bryant, B., Armstrong, P., Ahn, M., Hodgen, J., & Knight, R. (2020). The Research Schools Network: Supporting Schools to Develop Evidence-Informed Practice. Evaluation Report. London: Education Endowment Foundation. 

A summary is provided  Gu, Q. & Rea, S. To be transformed by research-informed practices, schools must have the right leaders.  IOE Blog, 11th February 2021.(1), (2), (3)