The best defence is a good offence, or why schools need internal coherence

How can schools make the most of all the compelling research and initiatives that are shown to improve classroom learning? A new book shows that principals who want to improve their schools should focus less on demonstrating general leadership traits, and more on how to help teachers improve their instruction. 

April 03, 2018 | Meghan Lockwood

Teacher and students at Mill Park Secondary College, Melbourne

In conversations with school principals in Australia and the United States over recent years, I have heard many variations of the following two questions:

  1. There is so much academic research out there; how can I process it all and apply it to my school?
  2. We are doing so many great initiatives and could be doing many more, but how can we do them all?

On the one hand, educators are lucky to have such a wide variety of research and compelling initiatives available as we work on improving our schools. On the other hand, if principals and teachers tried to act on every research article they read, or adopt every initiative suggested to them, they would be overwhelmed and pulled in a thousand directions.

What, then, can school leaders do to set up opportunities for teachers to learn and try new approaches, without overloading them to the point of burnout?

The answer will never be easy, but in their new book, The Internal Coherence Framework: Creating the Conditions for Continuous Improvement in Schools[1], authors Michelle Forman, Elizabeth Leisy Stosich, and Candice Bocala offer a compelling path forward for school leaders.

Forman, Leisy Stosich, and Bocala define internal coherence as “the collective capacity of the adults in a school building or an educational system to connect and align resources to carry out an improvement strategy.”[2]

The authors have pulled together decades of research on education and organisational behaviour into a simple, causal framework for school improvement. Its main planks are:

  • leadership practices (such as fostering psychological safety and designing meaningful professional learning opportunities), which support
  • organisational processes (teachers’ working in teams to implement a shared improvement strategy in their classrooms), which support
  • efficacy beliefs (teachers’ belief that as a faculty they have what it takes to improve student achievement), which, in turn, support
  • student achievement.

Above all, the authors say that improvement is a challenge of learning, not of implementation. Therefore, if principals want to improve their schools, their primary role is to create and support structures for teachers to learn how to improve instruction. Principals should focus less on demonstrating general leadership traits, and more on how they can support teachers in improving their instruction.

What does internal coherence look like in a school? Schools with high internal coherence are schools where all the adults in the building are engaged in collaborating on one improvement strategy, grounded in the instructional core: the relationship between student, teacher, and content, which is where learning occurs.

Imagine you’re a teacher walking into your year-level meeting and knowing that you and your colleagues were about to spend the next 40 minutes working on designing a common formative assessment to track your Grade 3 students’ progress in writing persuasive essays. Imagine that this rubric will make your work with your students both easier and more effective as soon as next week. You do have an excursion coming up, but instead of spending your whole meeting discussing logistics like you used to, you coordinate the excursion over email to preserve your meeting time to work together on improving instruction.  Imagine that your meeting’s task, designing this formative assessment, was not only a logical extension of every meeting you have had on your team this year, but also directly connected to the series of monthly professional learning sessions that you have had on teaching persuasive writing this year. Imagine the satisfaction of seeing your school’s collective focus on persuasive writing leading to marked improvements in your students’ writing, the pride you will feel sending such competent writers to Grade 4, and the confidence that this year’s Grade 2 students are being prepared to thrive as persuasive writers in your Grade 3 class. This is what internal coherence looks like.

You may be wondering: how could we focus on one thing when everything we teach is important? Teachers of course will continue to do their best to teach every standard in the curriculum, but if you focus on everything, you are focusing on nothing. Keeping in mind Forman, Leisy Stosich, and Bocala’s maxim that improvement is a challenge of learning, not implementation, it may be helpful to consider how we design learning experiences for students.

When we want our students to learn a new skill at a deep level of mastery, we expect they will need multiple learning experiences, each connected to the last, as they grapple with new concepts and practise a new skill.  Why, then, are so many professional learning experiences for teachers still in the form of one-off workshops that have nothing to do with the last workshop?  One-off professional development workshops are equivalent to telling your high school calculus students that you want them to learn to solve logarithmic equations, and then giving them one lesson on logarithmic equations, one lesson on fractions, and one lesson on the quadratic formula. If students shouldn’t be expected to learn in such a way, neither should teachers.

Having a laser-like focus on one goal is arguably even more important for teachers’ learning than it is for students’, because teachers’ learning time is limited. If schoolwide professional learning does not connect to and inform teams’ collaborative work and classroom instruction, it is unlikely to have anything like the impact it could have if it were part of a coherent strategy.

Turning back to the principals’ two questions from the start of this post, this book makes me wonder whether, as good as new initiatives and implications of research findings may be, unless they will directly contribute to the school’s improvement strategy, they should be avoided.

Perhaps the best defence is a good offence. If, as teaching staff, we know exactly what we are working on together, it becomes easier to explain to ourselves and to others why we cannot do every new initiative suggested to us. It’s much easier to say ‘no’ to a new initiative if you know exactly why you are saying ‘no’—that you have planned your schoolwide improvement strategy for the year, and this initiative does not contribute to it. Another way of looking at it is that you are not saying ‘no’ to a new initiative, but saying ‘yes’ to your improvement strategy and to the deep learning you need to engage in as adults in order to transform instruction and student learning.

The Internal Coherence Framework is a great read. It moves at a quick pace and summarises reams of research in a conversational tone. It also includes an assessment tool, a survey that school leaders could give to teachers to evaluate the internal coherence of their schools and consider how to increase it. We’d love to hear from principals and school leaders who are test-driving it in the field, and we hope that you will find it as useful in your work as we have in ours here at Learning First.

Dr Meghan Lockwood is a Manager at Learning First, where she focuses on designing and evaluating teacher professional learning programs. A former teacher, she is a certified coach in Harvard’s Data Wise Improvement Process.

Book reviewed: Forman, M. L., Stosich, E. L., & Bocala, C. (2017). The Internal Coherence Framework: Creating the conditions for continuous improvement in schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

[1] Full citation: Forman, M. L., Stosich, E. L., & Bocala, C. (2017). The Internal Coherence Framework: Creating the conditions for continuous improvement in schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

[2] Forman, Stosich, & Bocala, 2017, pp. 2-3

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