Communities of Learning through four lenses

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We live in a rapidly changing context in education that is becoming increasingly complex. To meet these challenges policy has focused on the ability of institutions to work together for the benefits of their clients. In this essay, I will review the Communities of Learning in Aotearoa policy for improvement in education at the local level through the four lenses of policy, social capital, learning and leadership. The Communities of Learning policy in Aotearoa, was announced in December, 2014. My interest in this policy is for Catholic Schools to work in partnership to address educational challenges to student learning, better than by working in isolation. I am the Education Adviser for the Christchurch Diocese. My role is to support Catholic Primary and Secondary schools in their delivery of the mandated Religious Education programme and to support their Catholic Special Character development. Our Catholic school community is 35 Primary and Secondary schools, totaling 8,000 students. Strong social ties are present through our Catholic faith and we focus on developing children in the way of Christ. The Community of Learning policy is an opportunity for schools to work together in partnership to achieve better educational outcomes to the challenges that currently face our communities.

This essay will discuss collaboration as a policy agenda, analysing why we need to collaborate and who is driving this within Aotearoa.  Secondly I will explore the concept of social capital and how this is developed, then investigate the capacity for learning and innovation and  close with how we will lead and from where for a Community of Learning to be effective. Throughout this analysis, I will reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of this policy and where I sit and what changes I need to make in my practice based on the literature. The education system of Aotearoa is in a climate of change where we must shift from a 20th century model to meet the needs of our 21st century learners. Communities of Learning could be the shift in practice that we need in order to deliver this.


Collaboration as a policy agenda


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Collaboration as a policy agenda has become increasingly prominent in global policy narratives due to globalisation, which has fragmented the tidy lines of national identities. Globalisation is a seismic shift in our society. Economically, it has increased stateless trade, politically reduced sovereignty in economic and social conditions (Linder, 2011) and brought great benefits and challenges. The focus is now on collaboration as being a vehicle for operating in “multi-organisational arrangements to solve problems that cannot be solved by single organisations” (O’Reilly & Reed, 2011, p. 1095). Collaboration in this sense is dynamic and emergent, rather than a static process (Jansen, Cammock & Conner, 2011) and can lead to greater innovation with partnerships of public, private and voluntary agencies better equipped to address issues (Glatter, 2003, p.43).

Collaboration as a policy agenda in Aotearoa draws its genesis from its OECD partners, the United Kingdom, United States of America and Australia. Importance is placed on the clientele of the policy as well as how their future population will compete for work opportunities. In the United Kingdom the collaborative policy approach was adopted in the 1980’s and 1990’s, with collaborative discourse in social policy, particularly in education increasing in recent years with a strategic approach to sharing improved educational outcomes and responsibility with schools clustered together, rather than operating independently (Glatter, 2003). Within the United Kingdom, the “Government has focused on a personalised education for every child so that their needs can be properly met” (Tomlinson, 2003, as cited in Glatter, 2003). Our trans-Tasman neighbor, Australia has focused on multi agency partnerships promoted by “policy agencies and governments since the 1980’s” (Seddon & Ferguson, 2009 p, 92 as cited in Hayes, 2011). Partnerships through collaboration have become an increasingly common means by which complex problems requiring a coordinated response. We see this at a local level where “rather than things being done to people in a community” (Smyth, 2008 as cited in Hayes, 2011), policy is focused on empowering local people through partnerships and communication.

The challenges around collaboration as a policy agenda are that the policy does not always identify the “issues with successful collaboration and overestimates the future and practical outcomes that it will produce” (Hudson, 1999 as cited in Higham & Yeomans, 2010). For example, those institutions already operating successfully work with those who will have no direct benefit to them or their outcomes. Relationships such as this cannot be “forced to work and will do so when there is a collective will amongst the participants” (Lowndes & Skelcher, 1998 as cited in Glatter, 2003), to move away from a model of market competition. This sees the emergence in our globalised society, of the importance of social capital in our policies.  Hargreaves (2003) notes social capital is the investment in social relations with expected returns.  As a result, the information between individuals and groups increases, as those in strategic positions will provide the collective group with useful information (McCormick, Fox, Carmichael & Proctor, 2011).

We are encouraged to collaborate in education, due to the benefits seen in the United Kingdom and Australia. Schools made “more than expected or expected progress and in collaboration with a partnership with multiple institutions involved” (Higham & Yeomans, 2010, p.385). This has seen the creation of Communities of Learning policy from the Ministry of Education. Early childhood centres, primary and secondary schools form a Community of learning and develop shared achievement challenges around specific curriculum areas to increase and enhance student achievement. The policy is a significant shift away from the competitive Tomorrow Schools model of the late 1980’s to a model where schools share effective leaders, teachers and pedagogy. Locally in Christchurch, 132 educational institutions are in Communities of Learning (Ministry of Education, personal communication, September 6, 2017).  Early signs in my local Community of Learning are positive with growing levels of trust, accountability and sharing of expertise (A. T. Shaw, personal communication, September 20, 2017).  Collaboration as a policy agenda is within the discourse of social policy due to globalisation, the growing complexity of our society and the positive impact that organisations working together can achieve. This lens of collaboration is analysed with the recent Communities of Learning policy released by the Ministry of Education to address the equity of education in Aotearoa.



The limits and possibilities of this policy agenda


Policy: The joined up driver


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The Community of Learning policy genesis comes from a focus on improving outcomes for all students measured through the New Zealand Curriculum and student achievement (Ministry of Education, 2014). The Ministry of Education reviewed evidence of what makes the biggest difference to student achievement, current strengths and weaknesses and what other nations were doing to address achievement challenges (Parata, 2014). Investing in education through targeted funding and teaching and leadership opportunities to share good practice across educational institutions were identified as features for raising educational achievement. It is an example of “joined up thinking, by placing clients at the centre of social provision” (Higham & Yeomans, 2010, p.389), in order for schools and services to meet the needs of students through this type of thinking schools will engage in collaboration for the benefits it creates for students and teachers (Higham & Yeomans, 2010). Here a strategic approach is taken to sharing responsibility for raising achievement across schools who work together in partnership. Although this is not explicit, the policy is drawn from educational policy changes in the United Kingdom. In 2003, David Miliband, the Minister of School Standards stated the Government was aiming for a, “genuinely personalised education for every child so that needs are properly met” (Glatter, 2003, p.16). The student will be at the centre – the tensions “between individual institutions have got to be faced and resolved” (Tomlinson, 2003 as cited in Glatter, 2003). For partnership to be successful there must committed intent by CoL members to set clear aims, values and surrender some institutional authority; rather than merely focusing on taking advantage of additional funding streams. Through collaboration, virtually “all schools reported that they had made more than expected or expected progress” (Higham & Yeomans, 2010, p.387).

The Community of Learning policy does not present what types of connections are going to support collaboration in keeping what is working and what areas to development through collaborative practice. Accountability for Cross School and Lead Principal positions is based on increases in achievement data (Parata, 2014). There is no mention of what year levels are important for achievement challenges and how to create these for those who have schools from different socioeconomic backgrounds, if not in a geographical Community of Learning.

Actor network theory could provide an understanding as to how organisations operate in collaboration. Actor network theory is used to question, “the organisational means that allows these formations to function in this way” (Hayes, 2011, p.249). This theory asks why collaboration and effective partnerships are necessary and how the materials we have available are ordered and organised to benefit the people living in our communities (McCormick, Fox, Carmichael & Proctor, 2011). Importance is placed on “relationships and associations on dynamic patterns of action and coordination, rather than on structures and institutions” (Latour, 2005 as cited in Hayes, 2011). Through the application of this theory, policy is able to investigate how our current education sector can be reformed to address the needs of New Zealand society today.



Social Capital in enhancing and sharing knowledge

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Social capital cannot be limited to one single theory or description.  It is a theory of how an individual or group accesses resources embedded in a network and how they mobilise this for action (Field, 2009, Bourdieu, 1986, Coleman, 1998).  It functions by working within social structures to promote actions that are “productive making possible achievement that would not be possible without its functioning” (Coleman, 1988, p.98) and is based on the size of their network of strong and weak ties (Bourdieu, 1986). Network models have strong ties, where actors are tightly bonded to one another communicating regularly and knowing similar information (Granovetter, 1973, Granovetter, 1983, Dhillon, 2009, Lawrence, 2007). Weak ties in a network operate when an actor is a member of many networks, connecting and linking strong tie networks together (Granovetter, 1973, Granovetter, 1983, Lawrence, 2007, Coleman, 1988) and can often be called a ‘bridge’ within a network.

Partnerships are framed as allowing individuals and organisations to achieve more than if they remain in isolated silos, through shared learning and knowledge creation. The strength of ties amongst “key individuals are important in the early development of partnerships” (Dhillon, 2009, p.697), in the networking stage where trust is fundamental for effective partnership to work (Granovetter, 1973). An example of this is in the research of Dhillon (2009), and the Midlands Urban Partnership. In interviews “70% of members affirmed trust as being fundamental to success” (Dhillon, 2009, p.699). The trust, norms and values within this partnership develop social capital and sustain a successful partnership. Drivers for partnership in Community of Learning policy are, shared interests around learners and needs that can be addressed by working together for mutual benefit.  Aspects of social capital that can support partnership are through, “networks, high levels of trust and shared norms amongst key participants” (Dhillon, 2009, p. 687). This is important for Communities of Learning and how they can work together to pool their resources together for good practice in order to raise student achievement across their community.

Schools play an important role in the development of social capital in a network, when forming connections beyond their immediate school for students and teachers.  A challenge to this are the, “powerful hierarchies who tend to hide the network assets” (Field, 2009, p.28), and is a shift required for schools entering into a Community of Learning. The policy will also develop the ability of schools with limited weak ties who currently do not have access to information from their wider social learning system (Granovetter, 1983). Currently, schools have strong stores of social capital through strong ties. This is present in professional learning groups where teachers are learning from one another through a system of reciprocity and sharing of practice. However, within this strong tie community “everyone roughly knows the same things, compared to the potential of weak ties” (Lawrence, 2007, p.13), which could offer more teaching practice development. Weak ties through Cross School Leaders become important in Communities of Learning through the adoption of innovative practice to raise achievement where Cross School Leaders move in circles that have different information from a strong tie network (Granovetter, 1983). The development of weak tie relationships could lead to more sharing of classroom practice and the transfer of effective practice across the Community of Schools when, “substantially modified before it can have relevance in the new context” (Lawrence, 2007, p.18). Community of Learning policy has the potential to develop social capital although; it is not clear because of the complex system Communities of Learning will take. What is important is forming strong relationships around common goals in a network of strong and weak ties.


Capacity for learning and innovation


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Social learning systems are characterised by, “structure, complex relationships, self organisation, dynamic boundaries and ongoing negotiation of identity”. (Wenger, 2010, p.179). Learning within the social learning system is different to professional development, where it is “more than gaining skills and knowledge but becoming a certain person” (Wenger, 2010, p.181) within the structures of the community that members agree to. Social learning can occur in a range of manners, which has seen the development of new ‘hybrid’ learning spaces (Solomon, Boud & Rooney, 2006), where an “individual is working and socialising” (Solomon, Boud & Rooney, 2006, p.5). This form of learning enhances our professional capital, allowing teachers to work effectively together to bring about effective change in school improvement (Rincón-Gallardo & Fullan, 2016).  This is evident in the research by Chapman & Mujis (2014), where federated schools in partnership were compared to non-federated schools of similar performance. Two years after joining the federation, schools involved in a federation were performing better than their non-federated institutions. Reasons for this improvement could be the role of teachers being change agents in practice through opportunities to teach each other best practice; share their learning and engage in research and critique (Lieberman & Wood, 2004). Social learning systems could be the potential bridge between teachers professional learning and student learning (measured achievements in an educational system), where “teachers learn how to be members of a community that values their thoughts and ideas, their knowledge and growth as a professional” (Lieberman & Wood, 2004 p.72).

Within our Catholic Community of Practice, we have the ability to develop social learning through our shared Catholic foundations, based on engagement, imagination and alignment. Our engagement is focused on, “activities, talking and creating shared artifacts” (Wenger, 2010, p.184), for schools to participate in and we can harness our professional identity as Catholic educators to frame our position within the community. By engaging in new learning opportunities, we can solidify our identification and how we act (Wenger, 2010).

An important shift will be the movement away from learning in their school and towards learning as Catholic educators across schools towards achieveing goals for the benefit of all students. Trust in the learning capability of the community will be fundamental for contributions that are relevant to the communities practice. This is achieved through, “having clear disciplines of meaning” (Wenger, 2010, p.194), and is present in the achievement goals within Community of Learning policy, ensuring the purpose and focus for improved student outcomes is always at the forefront of their learning. Each mode of belonging discussed helps the formation of a social learning system and the different forms of work required within them. The manner of accountability shifts from vertical accountability, common in our current hierarchical model in education, to horizontal accountability across a community through, “activities, standards of practice and commitment to collective learning” (Wenger, 2010, p.195).  A challenge for a Community of Learnings social learning system will be that they are not “cleanly encompassed in organisations” (Wenger, 2000, p, 243), challenging the traditional process of management as they cannot explicitly control them (Wenger, 2000). This is the important work of leadership, to come up with new ideas and find a way of implementing to shift teaching practices for increased student achievement and outcomes.


How and where to lead from within a Community of Learning


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In the Community of Learning policy, leadership is conceptualized through distributed leadership. This is evident in policy where, schools and staff members commit to a new manners of collaboration (Hatcher, 2005, Storey 2004 as cited in Lumby, 2013), carefully balanced with increasing the workload of teachers (Lumby, 2013, Greany, 2017, Hill, Hawk & Taylor, 2001). Within the policy, high performing teachers and leaders are mobilised horizontally throughout the organization to build capacity for improved learning outcomes, which in the United Kingdom has shown positive impacts on student achievement and organisational capacity (Leithwood & Mascall, 2008, as cited in O’ Reilly & Reed).  The positions of Lead Principal, Cross-and In school teachers and how they will operate are not defined explicitly, due to the innovative nature of the policy, which has never been applied to the New Zealand context. As such, the early implementation phase will require significant work and a balancing of tensions around trust and the professional boundaries of influence with and across schools (O’Reilly & Reid, 2011, Ball, 2003 and Lumby, 2013). An interesting challenge is the delivery of effective practice from one school environment to another whilst still respecting the professional autonomy of teachers and issues of sustainability over and above current teaching workloads.

This model of lateral networks in the Community of Learning led by system leaders can offer “more sustainable and effective ways of addressing underperformance and developing and distributing innovation between schools” (Greany, 2017 ,p.58), with support from serving leaders for credibility (Matthews & Hill, 2010 in Greany, 2017, p.60). It places value on teachers, schools and the best school leaders sharing their practice for greater effect (Greany 2017, Vangen, 2017). This creates a shift to empower consumers of education in more active ways than under previous policy (O’Reilly & Reid, 2011), where Stewardship as a model leadership could become an emerging phenomenon. Stewardship leadership is a shift away from the focus on an institution and towards serving the community and empowering teaching staff to enhance student achievement outcomes (Masewickz & Vogel, 2014). The stewardship model can be used to “guide who leads and how they lead” (Masewickz &Vogel, 2014, p. 1095), so that all young people reach their potential. However, research over the last thirty years concludes, “collaboration is complex and prone to failure” (Vangen, 2017, p.263). To overcome this partners need to have “clear organizational goals that they agree on if collaboration is to be successful” (Vangen, 2017, p.265); these are provided for in the creation of a Community of Learning achievement targets.  Leaders in the Community of Learning need to be aware of sustaining the meaningful work of teaching, while focusing on measuring performance based on achievement goals (Ball, 2003), otherwise the pressures on teachers becomes untenable. Partnership members must bring together their different “resources, expertise, culture and identity” (Vangen, 2017, p.266), focused around achievement goals and the benefit of the learners in their community. Through balancing tensions in distributed leadership, setting and managing explicit goals and the focus on students through a stewardship leadership lens achievement goals can be achieved.



In this blog, I have completed a critical analysis of Community of Learning policy through the four lenses of policy, social capital, learning and leadership and how they operate within a collaborative agenda. On the basis of this, community of learning policy develops and enhances social capital by increasing collaboration between schools and the resources they have available. Social learning systems have the opportunity to develop through innovation funds and inquiry time on achievement challenges and the sharing of good practice across schools. However, the policy does remain silent that for social capital and learning to occur this requires shared trust, norms, values and time in a climate of competition that exists in our education system. Measures to record and report on achievement are provided although there is no explicit method of how schools will do this across a primary or secondary sector or the reasons why they should collaborate and share practice is not explicit. Part of this is due to the innovative nature of the policy, which has never been applied to the New Zealand context. What the policy does do is create the conditions for this to occur.  Community of Learning policy cannot know in advance if this will increase student achievement, although case studies from the United States and the United Kingdom demonstrate improvements in learning through partnership. The policy is also silent on what form of leadership will successfully operate in a collaborative learning system. It does focus on new roles and pathways but does not identify measures to determine who or what makes a good leader in a community of learning and how to appropriately identify them. I have thought about this and it is because each community with different cultures, ethnicities and socio economic backgrounds may require different forms of leadership. It is a process that will become understood through the balance of tensions and complexities across communities of learning. I have learnt that collaboration as a policy agenda has potential in the New Zealand education system. Through creating shared norms, trust, values and explicit achievement goals we have the collective wisdom, skills and knowledge  across our sector to address equity issues and achievement challenges. I am encouraged by this shift from competition and the movement away from in ward looking institutions. As educators we joined the vocation of teaching to help all students to reach their dreams and aspirations. The community of learning policy allows us to do this not on our own, but as a collective.




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