Dedicated school leaders who have a basic understanding of systems theory (or are simply trying to do the right thing) are in a perpetual state of quilting together the pieces, working in every possible way to cultivate a school with unwavering identity and unification.
We are incessantly analysing, problem solving and strategising in an effort to improve our schools, yearning for boundless learning to flow in a culture of positivity. We have all the best intentions, and we never stop venturing to develop utopia and fulfill our missions and visions, but it’s rare to meet one of us who feels that they have fully accomplished this. We make progress and good things happen, but the panacea of the perfectly cohesive school still remains elusive. We juggle and run, we fret and toil, we coax and cajole, and we smile and serve, but the cycle never stops and the pieces often do not coalesce. But what if there were a way to bring all the pieces together and finish stitching the quilt?
Fostering balance is absolutely fundamental to creating a culture that is focused on learning and collaboration in schools. Every condition of the educational experience affects the other aspects in the system, and each relationship has an impact on the culture of the school. If school systems are too tight or dogmatic, they squelch individual passion and creativity and become feudalistic institutions that exalt their hierarchies. Archaic, ineffective industrial-model schools are the result, and student learning is the casualty.
If school systems are too loose or laissez faire, there is no drive toward a unifying vision that inspires and motivates educators and students. Teachers carry around their preferred “suitcase curriculum” that they implement in their classrooms, they work in silos, and the power of collaborative learning is lost.
School leaders are constantly tinkering toward utopia, balancing and rebalancing myriad levers in their organisations in order to nurture a culture of collaboration, realise balance and maximise learning.
How do we actualise and sustain coherence and balance? A good place to start is by defining learning. It sounds simple, but the truth is, most people, even career international educators, have different definitions of learning. A school that embraces a shared definition of learning can in turn develop a common language through which to talk about learning, understand how it works at a deeper level, share approaches and personal experiences from the classroom, and ultimately enhance learning for everyone in authentic and powerful ways.
A shared language for learning — for everyone, including parents, and especially students — allows for meaningful learning principles to be created, and these principles can shape the key systems for teaching and learning in a school.
In addition, a common pedagogical approach, guided inquiry, is an integral element.
The definition, the shared language, the principles, pedagogy and the systems can become a unifying framework for a school. Frameworks centered around learning, not scripted programmes or prescriptive curricula, can promote balance, facilitate collaboration, provide clarity, empower educators and students and lead to deeper learning.
These approaches are at the core of an organisation called the Common Ground Collaborative that is transforming schools across the globe. Kevin Bartlett and Gordon Eldridge, founders of the Collaborative, have dedicated their lives to learning and leadership, have spent decades working in high-quality schools, and have amalgamated their experiences and insights into a collaborative organisation that seeks to work with schools in their search for clarity and quest to enhance learning.
After finally subjugating my skepticism, I listened intently for more than a year, met with Kevin Bartlett, and engaged in extended dialogue with our school’s leadership team. We decided to collaborate with Kevin and the Common Ground Collaborative. At this point, Kevin has been to Cayman International School twice, will be here again in the spring, and we have had countless discussions that acutely focus on learning. We collaborate on artifacts, writings and frameworks, and he shares tool kits, approaches, modules and systems.
He works with our learning coaches, teachers and stakeholders, he inspires schools to do less by avoiding “energy vampires,” and he is a believer in the gradual release of responsibility. There is a time in the near future when our school will be living a deeper culture of learning and he won’t need to be here.
The Common Ground Collaborative is not a top-down structure or bureaucratic scheme; there are no requirements and it is “program agnostic.” Instead, the concept is to meet schools where they are, provide them with tools and insights and collaborate with educators on their journey.
Additionally, our teachers are connected to a new network of like-minded Common Ground Collaborative schools that share a similar journey and are keenly interested in learning and collaboration. We work together to make the pieces fit.
While we may never reach perfection in our schools, clarity, coherence and balance are achieved through collaboration and a deliberate limelight on what matters most: learning.
Jeremy Moore is the director of Cayman International School.