Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Developing a principal learning network

I am starting a series of posts based on my conversations with Christine Waler, principal in the Niagara District School Board and an active participant in Leading School Achievement (LSA) in Ontario.

I am writing these posts because principals need to be actively involved in learning from their peers. We challenge our students and teachers to become immersed in the inquiry method, but we have not taken on this challenge for ourselves.

From the Capacity Building Series, August, 2014


To start with, there is a good deal of research from Katz, Leithwood, Fullan and other authors mentioned in the August 2014 Capacity Building Series that supports the importance of collaborative inquiry for education leaders.

The McKinsey Report: How the world's most improved keep getting better clearly states that jurisdictions that are moving from Good to Great must focus on promoting professional inquiry and collaboration for teachers and school leaders. (pg. 28)  Throughout the report, the authors clearly outline that to go to great teachers and educational leaders need to develop their own inquiries and collaborate effectively to produce new learning.

"The power of collective capacity is that it enables ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things – for two reasons. One is that knowledge about effective practice becomes more widely available and accessible on a daily basis. The second reason is more powerful still – working together generates commitment. Moral purpose, when it stares you in the face through students and your peers working together to make lives and society better, is palpable, indeed virtually irresistible. The collective motivational well seems bottomless. The speed of effective change increases exponentially …” (Fullan 2010)

In the Niagara District, educational leaders meet regularly along with a superintendent.  Members are required to come prepared with an inquiry along with an action plan.  Group members are also expected to focus on teacher practice and bring examples of teacher work with them to these meetings.  Most meetings last at least three hours and the other members of the group are expected to act as 'critical partners' whose role is to crystalize the nature of the inquiry.

The inquiries need to connect to teacher ALPs, school improvement plans, board improvement plans and the provincial School Effectiveness Framework.  Inquiry groups can be formed based on demographics, school size, location or even comfort level of working together as a group.

Niagara District has developed a collection of documents that guide the inquiry process.  One statement from Katz and Dack summarizes what the networks are expected to achieve:

"Members of a network learning community engage together in challenges (problems) of practice so that understanding of those challenges grows deeper and is more unified.  Through investigations, proposed solutions emerge that are then tested to see if they help… Through such a repeated process, practice grows more sophisticated and powerful…"  (Katz & Dack, 2013, adapted from
Supovitz, 2006)
Katz and Dack have provided a number of other documents and templates, including success criteria that have guided the practice of the networks in Niagara.

For such a system to work and eventually prosper there needs to be a champion who will allow this collaboration to flourish.  In the case of Niagara, Stephen Katz played a key role in developing the system.

This networked learning system offers some very exciting opportunities for educational leaders. Time will tell how extensively these systems will be implemented.

It would be great to hear about other principal collaborative learning networks out there and I certainly look forward to learning more about what goes on in the Niagara District!

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