To establish a network of schools in Canada and Norway committed to improving student learning in mathematics informed by a commitment of excellence through equity. The focal research question for this international partnership is: How can an international network of schools and educators committed to mindful leadership help to identify obstacles to students’ mathematics learning and develop strategies for attaining success?
A growing body of evidence illustrates how educational development is most effectively achieved through innovations undertaken by networks of schools committed to building the capacity of teachers, rather than by system edicts or policy directives (Hargreaves and Fullan, 2012; Hargreaves and Shirley, 2012). Buoyed by this evidence, the Finland–Alberta partnership (FINAL) was established in 2011 on the principle that school improvement could be advanced by supporting three domains of leadership: students, teachers, and principals.
A strategic leadership framework (Booz and Company, 2012), developed in consultation with Pasi Sahlberg, was used to support networks of teacher, principal and student leadership through three transformational strategies at the school level:
- Thinking ahead: Being bold, visionary and forward-thinking in aspiring to create a great school for all students.
- Delivering within: Materially supporting and committing to the goals one sets while avoiding the distractions of “doing business as usual.”
- Leading across: Principals, teachers and students cross school and jurisdictional boundaries to learn from each other
The key partners in the NORCAN initiative bring to the table proven research capacity and experience in educational development 1. These include the Union of Education, Norway, the Alberta Teachers’ Association, the Ontario Teachers Federation and the Ontario Ministry of Education. In the Norway-Canada partnership, action research 2 in mathematics instruction will inform the work of school teams and the external research team while thinking ahead, delivering within and leading across as catalysts for improving the partner schools. These three leadership strategies, further outlined below, will bring students, teachers and principals together to address locally identified challenges in improving student learning in mathematics.
1. Developing Teacher Leadership
While the research literature affirms that teacher leadership plays an important role in advancing innovation and excellence in learning, more needs to be known about the social and institutional factors that foster and sustain the emergence of teachers as leaders in their schools and communities. When teachers experience collective autonomy and efficacy in supportive milieus that enable them to inquire as professionals into core issues of teaching and learning, the learning potential of the entire school is optimized. After examining the formal and informal ways that teachers are drawn into leadership positions and advocacy roles in their schools and communities, Naylor, Alexandrou,
Garsed and O’Brien (2008) offer the following conclusions:
- Leadership roles often evolve naturally and are not planned.
- Leadership evolves when teachers feel passionately about issues they believe must be addressed.
- Leadership is often assumed rather than proclaimed.
- Credibility among peers is crucial in taking on leadership roles.
2. Supporting Principals as Instructional Leaders
In addition to these realities, we also hear internationally a growing chorus calling for school principals to take on the role of instructional leaders (Darling-Hammond, LaPointe, & Meyerson, 2007; Seashore, Leithwood, Wahlstrom, & Anderson, 2010). While instructional leadership is an aspiration of school leaders, the realities of day-to-day school leadership make this very challenging. A recent Canadian study on the current trends influencing the work of school principals reinforces this conclusion.
Unfortunately too often the life of a school principal is often based on speed, multitasking and decisiveness rather than reflection, focus and collaborative professional conversation. The "Pause Principle" is one effort to offer an alternative view of the principalship - one that provides a process for instilling a culture of reflection in school leaders who work with teachers in analyzing research and practice (Cashman, 2012) through
...the conscious, intentional process of stepping back, within ourselves and outside of ourselves, to lead forward with greater authenticity, purpose and contribution. Pause points provide a way to instill a consistent, intentional manner for reflection by building self-awareness and clarity of purpose, exploring new ideas, risking experimentation, questioning, listening and synthesizing and challenging the status quo, within and around us.
3. Encouraging Student Leadership
While student engagement has risen to prominence in the literature, much work remains to be done to insure that students are meaningful partners in their learning. Just as importantly, student engagement remains a rather ephemeral term with little consensus as to how to define it (Chapman, 2007). While in its infancy, the focus on encouraging students to become more active participants in their learning by providing collaborative opportunities for refection and school development (Fletcher, 2007). Certainly the lessons learned from FINAL partnership might inform the Norway-Canada partnership in this regard.
Project Overview: Mindful Leadership Supporting Reflective Practice
In their comparative analysis, Mascall, Leithwood, Straus and Sacks (2008, 215–16) argue that current approaches to school leadership fall into four categories: “planful alignment, spontaneous alignment, spontaneous misalignment and anarchistic misalignment.” These four categories suggest that sustained effort and research is needed to understand the complex variables that contribute to the systematic development of school leaders.
More recently, Education International published a comprehensive study that illustrates the urgency of enhancing teacher efficacy by enabling teachers to exercise more autonomy in their professional practice in order to sustain school development in the context of the increasingly complex work of teaching (Bangs & Frost, 2012). However, calls for increasing teacher efficacy should move beyond traditional notions of individual teacher professional autonomy to focus on building the professional capital of teachers through collaborative professional autonomy (Hargreaves and Fullan, 2012). This seemingly paradoxical notion was enacted in the past three years in the FINAL partnership as teachers and school leaders, worked alongside students to address difficult issues focussed on creating a great school for all.
As previously outlined, the animating question guiding NORCAN is: How can an international network of schools and educators committed to mindful leadership help to identify obstacles to students’ mathematics learning and develop strategies for attaining success?
This over-arching question and related school-based sub-questions will be developed by NORCAN collaborators through a process of collective inquiry supported by action research processes and the external researchers. The educators and students involved will consist of a focal group in grades 8-10 in Canada and Lower Secondary Schools in Norway.
Sahlberg (2011), a FINAL collaborator who has studied schools around the world, concludes that high-performing jurisdictions share three characteristics:
- They have internal conditions of practice that respect the professional intuition of teachers, which allows them to build the knowledge and skills they need to craft the best learning environments for their students.
- They exist in communities that have the social capital to provide encouraging and supportive conditions for all students.
- They encourage teachers to engage in reflective practice and to undertake research to improve student learning for all.
This project will focus on improving student learning in mathematics by developing a more coherent and systematic approach to supporting teacher leadership in its schools and communities. Higher education faculty will be engaged on an as-needed basis as consultants and advisers to NORCAN.
Excellence through Equity
A particular focus will be on equity, a particularly nettlesome challenge in mathematics given its long standing history of being a viewed as a mechanism for sorting and ranking students in both developed and developing countries.
For this project, the focus on mathematics is desirable on two fronts. First, it is practical in terms of project management and logistics to focus on one particular subject area. More importantly, performance in mathematics continues to grow in prominence in educational policy circles such as the OECD and domestically in our respective countries. Included in this public policy mix are issues around the impact of gender and socio-economic status on performance in mathematics, to name just two.
The focus on achieving high performance through a focus on equity will be the imperative that drives this project. In this respect, leadership development will be a key component of the project. Murgatroyd and Couture (2012) observe that the attributes of school leadership needed to support the creation of great schools are the very same qualities that one would expect all leaders across multiple sectors from the community to the national and international level. These are some of the challenges all leaders share:
- how to ensure equity for all learners, no matter what their home conditions, physical or mental challenges, or levels of community support;
- how to provide learning pathways that meet the needs of different learners while also ensuring that all learning taking place in the school is of a high quality;
- how to leverage the assets of a community to enable all to learn in a school;
- how to leverage technology to support engaged and inclusive learning for all;
- how to enable schools to design learning pathways for all students so that their ambitions, hopes and opportunities are realized (Murgatroyd and Couture 2012, 7).
Mindfulness is a proven strategy for school development that is emerging as an invitation for sustained action that focuses on improving outcomes for students (Shirley and Macdonald, 2009). The variety of ways in which teachers engage in community building illustrates what social philosopher Albert Borgmann (1992) calls “focal practice”—the art of being not only deep engaged in one’s professional responsibilities and day-to-day labours but also propelled by the moral imperative to make a positive difference in the life of someone else. Borgmann notes that the word focus derives from the Latin word for hearth—a place where people gather in a convivial way for a common cause. In such places, according to Borgmann, “reality and community conspire” (p. 135). The image of “conspiring communities” evokes the kind of warmth and professional responsibility that school leaders need and that students will benefit from.
Central to the emerging NORCAN network is the activation of the leadership and ownership of students, teachers, and principals as joint learners in a collective and dynamic spirit of inquiry.
All of these considerations in terms of underlying values and strategies can be considered ways of responding to the rise of a Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) that threatens to eviscerate public education and the welfare state.
Initial school teams of teachers and school administrators from Norway and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Ontario will focus on student learning in mathematics through the strategies developed in The Mindful Teacher (Shirley and Macdonald, 2009).
- Identify patterns of defensiveness and isolation that prevent educators from addressing shared problems together;
- Develop an engaging repertoire of strategies for eliciting the most pressing and important problems of practice;
- Assist students with learning issues that might be most on the periphery of their awareness;
- Use formative and summative data wisely and with precision to improve pupil learning;
- Cultivate mindful teacher networks where educators embed inquiry, reflection, and adaptation into all of their ongoing professional activities.
- Following the approval on principle of the partnership by the partners, the following project plan and timelines will be put in place.
Project Plan and Key Timelines
An agreement in principle among key partners (Alberta, Ontario and Norway) finalized at planning meeting in StavangerNorway, November 27-28, 2014. This agreement was the result of a number of consultation meetings and online exchanges over the past year that established the following understandings:
- NORCAN is a partnership between schools, ministry and teacher federation officials from Alberta, Norway and Ontario focused on enhancing excellence through equity in the subject area of mathematics.
- While each jurisdiction will use common criteria to select and support schools that will participate in the partnership, jurisdictional and cultural differences must inform flexibility and adaptation to address local circumstances.
- The partnership will begin with schools from Alberta, Norway and Ontario. (It is anticipated that up to three schools will be involved in each jurisdiction as the project rolls out.)
- As the project evolves over time, each school team will consist of students, teachers, and a principal that have identified a particular set of questions related to mathematics and learning in their schools. For example, “How do students ask for and receive help in mathematics classes in our school?” (The particular focus of inquiry for each school will need to be adapted in order to address the priorities of the participants).
- A three year timeline is anticipated in order to provide time to initiate, develop and implement the collaborative action research projects to be undertaken.
- Depending on the number of schools involved, the annual financial commitment from each of the three key partners (Norway, Alberta and Ontario) will be in the range of $25,000 to $30,000. This commitment will vary depending on the in-kind support from schools (as in the Alberta case) or the phased-in contribution of the ministry in the Ontario case.
- Two external researchers will be contracted to work in this project. Dennis Shirley from Boston College and Mona Røsselanda a Norwegian researcher will provide facilitation and support in these processes.
- Only principals, teachers and federation/ministry officials will participate in the first year of the project which begins March, 2015. Students will join the trips for years 2 and 3.
- The initial launch of NORCAN will be in Banff, Alberta, March 1-14, 2015 as part of a pre-conference workshop in advance of the international U-Lead conference
- There will be a report, documentation available after each summit, contributing to the final evaluation report.
Criteria to Consider for School Selection
The school’s cultures should exhibit
- an atmosphere of cooperation
- demonstrated leadership/ teacher leadership
- evidence of experimentation, risk taking
- a good capacity for math pedagogy
- a knowledge of action research
- some experience working with external researchers/critical friends
Starting in January, 2015, the members of the Working Group will arrange site meetings of the participating schools to provide an overview of the project and to review the plans for the initial workshop to be held March 13-14, 2015. This workshop will represent the formal launch of the NORCAN Research Partnership as part of a pre-conference workshop in advance of the international school leadership uLead conference (http://www.ulead.ca/uLead.html)