The power of pop-up improvement groups

Collaborative learning environments are by their nature designed to provide continuous improvement for all. They also create a culture which allows smaller practitioner groups to ‘pop-up’ and work together on  particular challenges, says Peter Matthews in our first guest post.

Usually the start of a new academic year is a time of excitement: new students, some new staff, a new timetable, some new approaches, a new beginning – and an opportunity to do the old things better. But the beginning of the new calendar year 2020, following the general election, brings its own hopes and challenges. Hopes that perhaps school funding will improve, that schools will regain a measure of curriculum autonomy, that government will review the accountability mechanisms for education and that schools will not be tasked with solving all of society’s ills.

Faced with such systemic challenges, it is important that schools do not respond – as some besieged industries do – by cutting back on ‘R and D’. Retrenchment is no way to remain effective. The best schools know that standing still is not the key to remaining outstanding. Challenge Partner hubs, lead schools in multi-academy trusts and teaching schools know this. Moreover, they are all in a position of influence. The greatest asset of system-leading schools is the set of principles – from moral purpose to empowering leadership – which spurs ambition, shares knowledge, builds trust and social capital, and provides an organisational framework within which they and their partners can flourish.

Sir George Berwick has articulated this philosophy in his conception of hubs as collaborative learning communities (CLCs) in which the virtues of research, best practice and innovation are harnessed to deliver upwards convergence with the aim of continuous improvement for all. When collaborative learning is embedded across school or multi-school communities, it brings trust, openness and a willingness to share. It allows practitioners to work with others having the same principles and mindsets.

When collaborative learning is embedded, it brings trust, openness and a willingness to share.

Crucially, this clinical learning environment provides a culture within which smaller practitioner groupings can form and cooperate productively to solve particular challenges. These ‘pop-up’ groups may exist for only so long as they are needed. They are focused and can be highly productive. Since members are used to learning collaboratively, little time is wasted in determining protocols and rules of engagement. Trust is established from the outset. Pop-up improvement groups (PIGs) can prove adept at bringing new knowledge, research evidence and shared experience to intractable problems.

At their simplest, PIGs – typically comprising ‘learning threes’ – are widely used in schools to explore aspects of teaching and learning through lesson study approaches. In his pioneering work at Ravens Wood School, George also used the approach to mobilise knowledge across an inexperienced and changing workforce and to solve challenges such as those presented by ‘hard to teach’ individuals or groups of students. In the latter case, the PIG comprised three staff who compared knowledge of those students in different contexts or subjects and adapted their approaches accordingly.

An example of a high-level collaborative learning approach (super-PIGs?!) was described recently by Dr Josephine Valentine, senior partner in Challenge Partners and CEO of the Danes Academies Trust who, with Dame Sue John, initiated the ‘Growing the Top’ programme for highly effective schools.

“It is a hallmark of the participants that they are committed to Challenge Partners’ culture of collaboration and challenge. The network’s headteachers and school leaders tell us they are hungry to learn from the public sector, business and academia too. They want to be stretched and invigorated, to visualise what is possible. School leaders work in groups of three and visit each other’s schools. The visiting leaders can question, learn and take away interesting ideas for their own schools. But as every school still has systemic challenges, such as underachievement by boys, it’s also important that our cohort develops the trust to discuss these too, so colleagues can share experiences from their own schools to help to find solutions. Expert facilitators join the leaders on visits to help the process. Feedback has been stunning and leaders have left buzzing with new plans.”

All the 21 schools involved in this pilot programme adopted some of the things they had learned, often very quickly. The pop-up trios of schools did not necessarily have a continued life beyond the pilot year. But many of the schools forged further links through staff exchanges or pop-up trios at middle leader level to take particular innovations forward. Independent expert facilitation of the high-level trio visits by school system leaders added to the efficiency and effectiveness of the visits and relieved host school leaders of that responsibility. Evaluation of the pilot programme indicated a strong link between this approach to collaborative learning and the adoption of new school improvement strategies.