Monday, May 28, 2012

collaboration models

Currently, our school uses an altered weekly schedule to free up time for voluntary staff collaboration. We've taken about 40 minutes off of most Wednesdays (providing an early dismissal) and added the minutes elsewhere in the year. The process by which we arrived at this model is explained in part on p. 22-26 of our 2010 School Plan for Student Success.

At the time, we were informed that a model for collaboration time would be coming, and given a choice between two models. We commited to the current model with a positive plan and desire to see what would come of it, and have been at it for two school years.

Many of the staff have used this "common time" for project work, school improvement (e.g. a Social Responsibility group), department discussions, and staff presentations (Drug & Alcohol, Demographic Change at our school, Autism Spectrum), some ed philosophy conversations, offsite pro-d, and even a couple of union meetings. Because it is voluntary, staff have also used it to catch up on marking, gripe & complain with others, spend time with their kids, or book appointments at places that shut down by 4 pm.  A few have harboured "contraband" students who were not ushered out of the school -- for tutorial, missed work, projects, etc.

This year's teacher job action and response to the B.C. government's Bill 22 has put a strain on collaborative systems at all schools, and complicates our position as we re-evaluate how we manipulate our schedule to create benefits for student learning and staff practice.

Our school staff was recently informed that one of the results of Bill 22 is that decisions altering the length of working days must now go through a process involving local boards and local District Teacher Asssociations. This may jeopardize our school's current collabaration model, and begs the question of what we might do next if our model is removed.

For some perspective, I've asked about 14 teachers about the status of collaboration models at other SD57 high schools, and gathered input from our own staffroom table:

  • no model this year 
  • previous years, variants on the scheduled tutorial/collab block model 
  • last year was each Wednesday before lunch, half staff in collab, half staff with Gr. 8-10 students (Gr. 11-12 given extended lunch) 
  • original model started with some staff input, same time as they discussed Attendance program, later changes were made directly by admin 
  • problems around students and staff utilizing it well, led to frustration over the "TAG" effect (failed attempt in the 90s to have groups of students "check-in" with teachers each day) 
  • these problems resulted in students not taking it seriously (skip, waste time, chaos) 
  • attendance headaches or sense that attendance issues are being ignored 
  • saw value in the idea of collaboration but weren't sure that was the best way to do it
  • an organizational reality is that teachers that don't normally get along can't be expected to form functioning groups with common goals
  • good for seniors (tutorial is needs-based, drop-in), bad for juniors (assigned, low expectations)
  • no discussions for a model next year, just suggestions that the administration is considering a Wednesday early dismissal model 
College Heights Secondary
  • no model this year 
  • previous years used a scheduled tutorial/collab block model 
  • previous model had major attendance problems or a sense that attendance issues are being ignored 
  • each morning, mandatory for Gr. 8-9 students, 10-12s could be assigned but otherwise started later around 9:15 
  • many staff preoccupied with upcoming lessons, might have been better placed at end of day 
  • department groupings, week on, week off with collab worked for some, not for others
  • challenges with incompatible goals within groups meant that groups fizzled
  • highlighted the fundamental problem that just because teachers share a space or subject doesn't mean they will collaborate well 
  • no discussions for a model next year, looks to be going back to a simple block rotation 
Duchess Park Secondary
  • Wednesday early dismissal model this year 
  • minutes added elsewhere in exchange for shortened days 
  • voluntary participation, no tutorial blocks 
  • difference in use often related to enthusiam within departments 
  • many teachers would rather spend their time at work teaching students 
  • collaboration is a form of Pro-D that they do on their own time anyways 
Kelly Road Secondary
  • minutes are shuffled around to provide for a late start on Wednesdays (paid time, though) 
  • one of the first schools to try a collab model (2005?), at the time related more closely to other PLC concepts than now 
  • in the past staff "owned" the process and set its own goals and topics 
  • currently get more direction on how the time is used, leading to intense frustration and lack of uptake 
  • productivity is limited and colleagues have lost interest in the value of collaboration because of the prescriptive structure 
  • no discussion yet as to the model next year 
D.P. Todd Secondary (my school)
  • Wednesday early dismissal model for the last 2 years 
  • time is voluntary (unpaid), so use of this time is highly varied 
  • no direct value for students, value for staff depends on willingness to give up personal time
  • leaving total instructional time unaffected has a high appeal for staff, as does the autonomous quality of contributions
  • groups that have met express value in the results due to high level of participation when they have personally chosen to be there
  • near consensus that no model would be better than an scheduled collab model with random tutorial & dismissal of senior students
  • unsure of the value that any model can have if not designed and developed by staff, want a choice between a model and no model
  • wondering about what tutorial could like if we could actually dial students into the help they've asked for or clearly need
Valemount Secondary
  • same model for more than 7 years, voluntary PLC time
  • monthly half wednesday model, adding minutes to other days
  • problem with PLC not that is asks too much but tries to create too much conformity
  • ed change as a focus for collaboration is fine, but then don't restrict access to technology
  • less controlled collaboration might make it more about creativity than following trends
The anecdotal data from these schools leads me to believe that the local secondary tutorial/collab models are not working at other schools as intended and are creating confusion and attendance issues that outweigh the hypothetical benefit to students and teachers. If it takes using our own school as another test case to prove or disprove this, so be it, but I don't think it is necessary or productive without more work on design. The local evidence suggests that the various shades of "PLC" timetable changes have run their course with some pros and cons and now we need to rethink how and why we alter our schedule.

My personal preference would be to drop all models for three years and build a schedule around an hour-long lunch. I believe it would create natural opportunities for student help and informal tutorial, supervised formal tutorial that leaves time for students to recharge, school activities and student leadership, staff conversation and dialogue, SBT and department meetings, compensation for inconsistent prep-time, collaboration and discussion time, and simply a more relaxed, healthy, and enjoyable lunch. I think it would also provide a "cooling off" period as schools and districts figure out how to adapt to a shifting labour climate and changes in the education system. There a few ways to build such a schedule; I'd be happy to share if there is interest. There are also some supervision issues that would have to be acknowledged and dealt with.

More than tweaking a schedule, I think the larger issue is that there are competing and often incompatable visions of what scheduled collaboration time or tutorial models are meant to accomplish. The communication and discussion of these philosophies has also been problematic at the school and district level. For example, is a collab/tutorial model supposed to bring about a PLC? better teachers? closer alignment to goals? increased use of formative assessment? Dylan Wiliam, (who with Paul Black is known as a "father of AFL") spoke in December 2011 about how making a real difference involves something more personalized than a PLC, that PLC is not an effective way to improve teacher quality and support AFL even if it benefits in other ways. His research also claims that teachers sharing best practices in short sessions actually distracts us from the task of improving teaching; what we need is something more sustained and individual. Within this milieu (and Wiliam's thinking), the value of collaborative groupings would be to provide the collective responsibility for change while insisting on individual accountability -- interdependence and a means to consolidate and embed what teachers already know. Do teachers see this as a purpose behind a collaboration model? Would some argue that the groupings mask individual accountability? Are some indifferent because the they do not associate the model with their own development?  I chose to reference Wiliam's ideas because they highlights the need for further discussion and because Black & Wiliam's work are popular among district leaders.

So what do we want collaboration for? With no regular, legitimate, agreed-upon means of reviewing designs and goals, it is obvious that the level of support for collaboration models will dissipate among staff, and thus among students when teacher-led tutorial is involved. In this way the question of collaborative models is similar to the consideration of how to engage 21st century education, blended learning, problem-based learning, focused inquiry models, and other ideas that come and go in education. There are ways to achieve collective support for new programs and models, but this requires a dialogue-based culture that is largely absent from our school system as we experience it locally. I think this is a long-term trend that pre-dates job action and will only improve when both teachers and 
management put a higher value on dialogue.

It has been fascinating to see how schools in other districts have managed to embrace change and work with leadership despite the labour situation. I've followed the twitter conversation of about 100 teachers, administrators, and district staff around the province and it seems quite clear that there is a "dialogue spectrum" at play. The exchange on the purpose of education is vibrant (though not always congruent) and takes place with very few strings attached between educational leaders from teaching and management and many on the side (e.g. parents, ministry staff, business). We could learn great deal from other districts; ours has been very slow to join this conversation! Being slow isn't a crime, but we're missing out on what I see happening in other districts via twitter (and elsewhere) -- teachers and leaders at all levels holding each other accountable on educational issues and praxis. West Van superintendent Chris Kennedy often writes about how twitter is a powerful pro-d tool that flattens hierarchies and focuses on teaching & learning and the need for change. Other educators use social media to share, provoke, question all expressions of relevance, self-promote, define contexts, and delve into the politics and possibilities of education. In common, they share a feeling of importance (for both the work they do and the impact on students). Maybe if we had the same sense of urgency, not just for change but for meaningful dialogue, solving a collaboration problem would not be so wearisome.

The issue of student tutorials raises additional questions, the most sensitive of which appears to be the cynicism and regret expressed at other schools about how this time is often wasted. Knowing these issues in spring of 2010 was one of the factors that tipped staff towards our collaboration-only model. This fit with our perception of the school's strengths -- I think one of the things that has made our school appealing to parents in the past is the no-nonsense approach to scheduling and student responsibility. We shied away from a tutorial model (for better or worse) in large part because we thought it would not be a good use of students time and it would lead students to think of tutorial as a filler block where they could disengage with learning unless something was pressing upon them. My own department had a functioning tutorial program running for one year (in lieu of other supervision) but this was yanked in favour of a "classroom support program" that appears to have died.

I think a creative and caring staff could make tutorial something more than a chance to "catch-up" and erase mistakes, and might start to integrate cross-curricular learning, student-owned research and school-wide project work, or true subject and task-oriented tutorial personalized to each student's academic needs.  We might also use this time to advance a social agenda or develop study skills or employment profiles. Again, this creativity requires a culture and process for dialogue that is quite foreign to our school and district at the moment, but I suppose we have to start somewhere, and that somewhere would be the very basic conversation about what kind of collaboration and/or tutorial model we want for ourselves and our students.

What are the pros/cons of the collaboration or tutorial models used at your schools? Feel free to comment!