Evolution of the Collaborative Conversation

When staff working in schools first begin to talk constructively about students, focusing on their learning and supports that can be put in place to help them succeed, it is not unusual for this conversation to lack depth, focus or avoid the essential question “so what can WE do to support this student?”  When first beginning to engage in Collaborative Team Meetings, where students, not teaching, is the focus, it takes time and continued experience in communicating in this forum for the conversation to meaningfully evolve.

In an RTI framework that values collaboration and conversation, such as the Collaborative Response Model, we often encounter the following when teams (involving teachers, support staff, learning coaches and administration) first begin talking about students:

  1. Focus on a limited amount of students – when discussing individual students, team members generally have a lot of history and experiences to share.  When first engaging in Collaborative Team Meetings, conversations can go on tangents, as various team members share their countless observations and narratives related to the student.  We have witnessed initial meetings that lasted an hour and focused on the needs of 6-8 students, as people around the table took turns sharing their individual “war stories”.  As teams become more accustomed to the format of the meetings and the need for efficiency, it is quite possible to discuss the needs and supports of twenty or more students in the same time frame.  As the collective team gains experience working together, conversations become more focused and efficient.
  2. Focus on blame rather than action – consider this: assessments flag a student for discussion and the conversation turns to a litany of reasons (outside of the school) why the student is not experiencing success.  If only the student was reading at night.  If only the student arrived at school on time.  If only the student had more support at their last school.  And on it goes, focusing blame on the reasons the student is not experiencing success rather than what we can do to better ensure success.  As team conversation evolves, the emphasis is placed on what can we do during the time the student is at school to provide support and increased time for appropriate interventions.  Although there is a time when outside supports are needing to be considered, generally the focus of the team needs to shift to things within the school’s locus of control.
  3. Focus on deficits rather than strengths -when first beginning to talk about students, often the conversation quickly leads to everything the student can’t do rather than putting attention to what they can do.  Although it is important to focus on areas in need of improvement to ensure the appropriate types and levels of support, framing it in a strengths-based mindset takes time and an intentional priority placed upon it.  Two steps to help in this shift is using the start of the meeting conversation to focus on celebrations experienced (as noted in the collaborative team meeting record) and having leaders within the conversation ask explicitly about the student strengths when determining interventions, to ensure appropriate supports that consider the strengths of the child.
  4. Focus on programs not professionalism – in Hargreaves and Fullan’s text Professional Capital (2012), the authors value the collective professional knowledge of teachers and argue that schools need to develop processes and collaborative structures that allow professional judgment to thrive.  In the early stages of talking about students, it is sometimes easy to place focus on the programs to provide the “fix”.  Professional dialogue is limited.  In time, it is important to recognize the professional experience and knowledge that is at the heart of a Collaborative Response Model and allow the collective capacity of the team to determine what is best for students.  We have often said in Collaborative Team Meetings that “teachers’ gut trumps all”, meaning that professional intuition and experience is the best tool we have to collaboratively determine what is best for students.

We have found that it is common for conversations to evolve as schools grow more comfortable with Collaborative Team Meetings and high levels of sophisticated, efficient dialogue become more commonplace.  The most important element of this phenomena is that in order for evolution to occur, schools must start talking about kids, establishing formalized processes and structures for this conversation and professional problem-solving to occur.  Implementing a “Ready, Fire, Aim” mindset is critical, engaging in collaborative conversations and constantly refining the framework within which these meetings occur.  In time, schools can utilize and further develop their professional capital to really make a difference responding to the needs of students.


Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (2012). Professional capital: Transforming teaching in every school. New York: Teachers College Press.

Consider a Four-Tier RTI Model

A few weeks ago, we posted a Four Tier Intervention Model overview, sharing the fundamentals of the model, the tiers of intervention articulated to respond to students and considerations when developing a response to intervention model in schools.  In addition, we also posted an Intervention Description Template, as well as a behavioral sample intervention description.

Four Tier Intervention Pyramid from Jigsaw Learning

So why consider a four-tier intervention model, when most conventional RTI models are built upon a three-tier model of intervention?  For us, the answer is in the power of collaboration for teachers in developing the school-wide pyramid of interventions.

Essentially, tier 3 and 4 of our model resembles tier 2 and 3 of a traditional RTI model, where students are involved in supports beyond the classroom, with supports at the upper tier of the model highly individualized and intensive.  In our Four Tier model, supports at the tier 1 and 2 level resemble the instructional typically defined in tier 1 of the standard three-tier RTI model.  Essentially, we subscribe to the power of articulating differentiation school-wide.

In our four-tier model, teachers work together to define the tenets of sound classroom practice (tier 1).  This does not involve all educators committing to a specific instructional approach or program in their classrooms but rather agreeing to what effective instruction should look like at the classroom level.  If the pyramid of interventions developed is specific to literacy, the school staff work together to articulate what effective literacy instruction looks like at the classroom level.  This is powerful conversation and commitment for the school community and becomes tier 1, the instruction that is in place for all students to succeed in each classroom.

In workshops, we have defined tier 2 as the place where teachers publicly open up their “instructional toolkit” to share the differentiated approaches they take to support struggling students in the classroom.  For instance, it may involve more regular involvement in guided reading groups (at one school where we’ve worked, a tier 2 intervention was “daily guided reading”, where the student was involved in a daily guided reading experience in the classroom, where other classmates had guided reading 2-3 times weekly) or individual fluency passages in a literacy pyramid of interventions.  It may involve a classroom behavior plan or checklist system for behavior-related pyramids.  It may involve basic fact practice pages for home for numeracy-focused interventions.  Whatever the focus of the interventions, this model pushes teachers to share the differentiated approaches that they deem most effective to develop a school-wide repository of tier 2 interventions.  Over time, tier 2 interventions are monitored for effectiveness and added to as other strategies and approaches are considered.  The school ensures the interventions are articulated (using a tool such as the Intervention Description template) and teachers work together to help each other implement them effectively in their classrooms.

By having tier 2 in place, there is always the discussion (in a Collaborative Team Meeting) of what tier 2 interventions have been tried/implemented without success prior to considering tier 3 interventions for students.  It ensures that we are doing all we can at the classroom level to support students and teachers are supported with a flexible list of interventions to consider implementing in the classroom for their students.  Without a solid tier 1 and 2 established in schools (through collaborative conversation and professional sharing), tier 3 and 4 interventions will be overrun with students in need of support, leading to an intervention model that will not be able to be sustained in schools.  If we can collectively work together in schools to ensure effectiveness at the foundational levels of our Response to Intervention models, we can ensure that supports at the upper tiers are most effective for the students most in need of them.

Four Tier Intervention Pyramid

An explanation of the four tier intervention pyramid, central to how collaborative teams respond to the needs of students in a Collaborative Response Model.  Follow this blog to receive further blog postings in the near future related to the creation and implementation of the four tier intervention pyramid in schools.

This explanation has been added to our Resources section, as well as found on our Slideshare site.  Please email us at jigsawlearning@shaw.ca to receive a Word version of the document.

Four Tier Intervention Pyramid from Jigsaw Learning

Honoring the Implementation Dip

Leaders exploring or operating within a Collaborative Response Model (or any PLC framework for staff collaboration) need to have a solid understanding of Change Theory.  What can we expect to be on the horizon for our schools and teams engaging in meaningful change, change that ultimately shifts the culture of how we approach our work of ensuring student success?

One aspect of Change Theory that often can be the death knell for establishing a new model for how we work collaboratively in a school in the phenomenon of the Implementation Dip.  As described by Fullan (2011),

“For a long time, we have been finding that when organizations try something new, even if there has been some preimplementation preparation, the first few months are bumpy.  How could it be otherwise?  New skills and understanding have a learning curve.  Once we brought this out in the open, a lot of people immediately felt better knowing that it is normal and everyone goes through it.  This finding led to the realization that we needed to focus on capacity building in this critical stage.” (p. 71)

It is not uncommon for schools (and other organizations) to abandon new initiatives and the development of new school-wide frameworks for addressing the needs of students when they encounter this dip.  Despite initial excitement, the honeymoon wears off – this is harder than we thought.  As the school culture shifts and even more difficult questions are being asked (including ones that will confront some long-standing practices), the dip sets in and energies can wane.

So how do leaders prepare for, deal with and overcome the Implementation Dip?

  1. Create awareness – let teacher teams know that an Implementation Dip is inevitable – change theory tells us that we will experience it if we are truly engaging in meaningful change and cultural shifts.  Make it a discussion at staff meetings or team collaborative times. Knowing that we will dip and then talking about how to deal with that can build the resiliency needed to continue forward with the work.
  2. Pause to reflect – when “The Dip” hits and staff are feeling overwhelmed, use it as a time to pause and reflect.  Identify celebrations that have come as a result of the work.  Reflect upon what has been accomplished, taking stock of the great work done thus far.  Ask what further refinements could be done to the frameworks and processes.  Basically, take some time to reflect and regroup.  Letting teams know it’s okay to take a break to recharge can also function to further build trust for the leader, recognizing and responding to the needs of the staff rather than “powering through it”.
  3. Support – as leaders, this is the time we also need to take an active role within teams, saying “what can I do to help” and rolling up the sleeves to go through the mud with our teams.  Whether joining teams for meetings, providing additional resources or being that perennial cheerleader, school leaders play a crucial role when teams encounter the Implementation Dip.  Without recognition and support, teams can either 1) give up, or 2) see giving up as not an option and foster resentment for the leaders in continuing to pursue the initiative.  Support for teams is never more critical than during this phase.

The good news is that by preparing and responding proactively to the Implementation Dip, leaders can ensure the bumps teams encounter are not impassable barriers.  It is the normal part of the learning process we expect students to engage in and natural in the evolution of a collaborative culture within a school.  Engaging “The Dip” with eyes open and responses prepared can ensure that it doesn’t mean the end for engaging in collaborative frameworks.

Fullan, M. (2011). Change leader: Learning to do what matters most. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Reflecting on Next Steps – School-wide Responses

Whether first starting out or refining practices related to responding to the literacy needs of students, it is important to take stock and determine next steps to take school-wide.  Do we need to focus on establishing embedded planning times for teams (such as Collaborative Team Meetings)? Do we need to address the assessments we have in place and how we use them? Is our next step developing a pyramid of interventions to respond to literacy needs?

No matter where you are in developing a Collaborative Response Model to respond to the literacy needs of students, we have developed a template to help staff teams in determining next steps.

Next Steps to Respond to Students’ Literacy Needs from Jigsaw Learning
Individual staff (or teams) complete the survey, indicating areas they feel the school:
  • Already has (Yes)
  • Already has but needs further refinement (Yes but…)
  • Does not have (No)

They can also indicate which area(s) they feel are of greatest priority, by ranking the next steps (1-8), as well as submit comments related to each next step identified.  A compilation of these surveys can provide a leadership team a strong sense of where their school is currently at and some collective next steps to pursue.  As always, if you would like a Word version of this template, please email us at jigsawlearning@shaw.ca.

10 Observables of a Collaborative Culture

Last week, we had the wonderful opportunity to work with professionals at Ecole Good Shepherd School in Okotoks as they continue along their collective journey of supporting the needs of all learners in their K-6 school.  Throughout the morning, it served as a great reminder of the outstanding work happening in schools related to developing response to intervention structures and practices within a professional learning communities framework.  It also led to reflections regarding how collaborative cultures approach their complex work of supporting students and what becomes observable to an outsider immersed into their work (even if for just a morning).  Here is a list of ten “observables” of a high-functioning collaborative culture that came to the forefront:

  1. Leadership is distributed – the work in the morning was with the school’s “leadership team”, which included administration, learning support teachers and grade-level leaders from all grade levels, including the French Immersion program.  In total, nearly 25 people were involved in the conversation (a little more than half of the teachers in the building), with varying educational backgrounds, experience and strengths.  Staff members were committed to school improvement and working together for the betterment of students, with change being generated from the classroom level.
  2. Administration support the work of teachers – throughout the morning, administrative response indicated high levels of support and trust in the professional judgment of teachers.  The collective response from administration was “what can we do to support your work with kids in classrooms?”  Whether it meant timetable adjustments, resource allocations or shuffling of staff to support their work, the general feel was that teachers were and, more importantly, felt supported by their administrators.
  3. Administration know what is happening in classrooms – even when meeting with just the administration and learning support teachers prior to the larger leadership team meeting, it was apparent that administration knew what was happening in classrooms.  They not only knew the work happening in the various grade-level teams, but also knew directions that the teams were hoping to embark on.  Working as part of the intervention support structure, administrators knew very clearly what was happening in classrooms, what was working well and areas that their teachers were struggling with (and would want further support).
  4. Teachers empowerment – in discussing how best to structure their school’s support framework, teachers saw themselves as central in determining what’s best to support their students.  In discussions throughout the morning, teachers were empowered as discussions revolved around “what can we do to support students?”, seeing their role as the primary factor when addressing student success. Teachers were driving the change they wanted to see for students!
  5. Teachers speak a common vocabulary – in this school (and other collaborative schools we’ve interacted with), staff were speaking a common language of instruction and response.  Whether it was discussing word attack skills of students, fluency interventions, or assessments being used across classrooms, teachers were speaking in a professional language that was commonly shared and understood, regardless of the classroom or role of the staff member.
  6. Professional development is aimed at teams – when looking at opportunities for professional development, it was approached from a team perspective, rather than PD aimed at the whole staff or each individual staff member looking at different PD opportunities.  Teams were focusing on their own areas to work on together and the school culture (observable through discussion and administrative support) aimed at teams learning together.
  7. Staff eager to share celebrations and struggles – Team leaders were not only quick to share what was working for them and their students (their celebrations) but also to share what they were struggling with or potential next steps for learning.  These discussions were framed in an inquiry perspective, wishing to collectively pose questions and seek out directions to pursue next.  In a school culture characterized by isolation and independence, the high levels of trust needed to share areas of current shortcomings are not present.  In these situations, we’ve observed limited teacher “openness” to sharing their struggles (although typically quick to share successes and what is working well).  As observed at Ecole Good Shepherd School, staff were comfortable to share successes as well as struggles and counted on their colleagues to be outstanding sources of support and collaborative problem-solving.
  8. Looking for potential next steps, not silver bullets – it is not unusual to join a staff team as the “outside consultant” and be expected to bring with you “the answers” – the silver bullet that will solve all instructional woes.  However, it was immediately observable that the staff viewed themselves as the ones with the solutions, seeking potential next steps or perspectives that had not yet been considered.  Questions helped re-frame their approaches and side-conversations within grade-level teams were the norm throughout the morning, as teams processed and shared thoughts of how to apply other ideas to their current practices.
  9. Risk-taking is evident – accompanying the previous two points was an observable capacity for risk-taking, with staff eager to pose ideas and jump in to try them, knowing that successes could be joined by failures.  Although it was informed risk-taking, it was clear that the learning they wished to see in their students was being modeled by the professionals in the building (as well as supported by the administration).  When conversations started with “Well, we could try…”, it was evident that risk-taking was the professional norm.
  10. Focus on kids and learning – perhaps most importantly, it was clear (through the language used and the directions proposed) that the focus was on kids and learning.  It was not a building that existed for the comfort of adults.  Although never explicitly stated, it was clear that the overriding mantra for the adults in the building was “we’ll do whatever it takes for kids”.

When engaging in work in PLCs and investigating response models, a collaborative culture is key.  In our experience, it is developed through changing behaviors when beginning to work as a professional learning community (as supported by Michael Fullan in his investigation of change theory), leading to essential cultural shifts.  Are these 10 “observables” something someone else would see if they spent a morning in your building?  Something to think about at the outset of a new school year!  All the best putting the pieces together!

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