What would happen in education if the phrase “many hands make light work” was a living, breathing way of work for ISDs and schools? In Southwest Michigan and surrounding areas we are witnessing a renaissance in how we maximize collaboration to benefit all stakeholders in the educational environment. In chapter seven of Facilitation Strategies for Interdependent Thinking, Lipton and Wellman focus on creating communities of thought. The Reading Now Network and ISDs in Southwest Michigan are benefiting from the interdependence created through their joint work based on the concepts presented by Lipton and Wellman. Because of the shared belief that “collective thinking draws on the resources of individuals to produce ideas and insights, and to support the production of ideas and insights of others” (p. 62), our schools are experiencing greater impact on student success.
It might be cumbersome and challenging to develop interdependent networks that cross district and county lines, however Lipton and Wellman suggest three specific reasons why it works to our benefit: “the lone genius is a myth, the most interesting mysteries lie at the intersection of minds, and accountability grows out of co-creation”. So, how do a bunch of people who want to make schools better for the adults and children who go there every day come together in a loosely organized and organic structure to support improved literacy practice? Of course, it is simultaneously simple and difficult.
By beginning with strengths-based models of appreciation for the amazing work teachers and administrators do in schools, a foundation of genuine admiration for all the good work going on in education was laid. Region III superintendents gave a charge to their ISD to figure what is working well with literacy instruction in their schools and figure out how to capitalize on that good work. Out of that charge the Reading Now Network (RNN) was born. From that deep appreciation of educators grew a network of individuals committed to interdependent communities of thought about effective literacy practices. Soon Region VII and Region V began to participate in moving that work forward in their own schools, and an organic and loosely formed network emerged. Networks, as described by Anthony Bryk, result in maximum benefit to the participants. Subsequently, a group of individuals across counties established a network hub, a common place where ideas and communication would be exchanged in semi-regular meetings of ISD personnel. By building the work as equals, with no one having greater or lesser value, the network hub capitalized on effective communication and acceleration of learning became obvious.
One of the many benefits to this network is that a large task becomes more manageable when it is distributed into small tasks through which individuals can enter the work, building on their strengths. For example, one member of the network was talented at creating and editing video podcasts. His contribution was a helpful video explaining the process and benefits of Instructional Rounds, the first step in assessing the state of literacy practices in a building. Another member of the network was talented with electronic communication and digital supports, therefore, a variety of project management and communication apps and tools were implemented to help manage the work conducted across many counties. Diversity of tasks means that individuals will likely find a place to contribute that aligns with their talents.” (Bryk, 2010) This factor recognizes that people have busy lives and will benefit from contributing in small but meaningful ways, increasing motivation and success.
This model of interdependent networking taps into previously untapped energy sources and assists in refraining from overwhelming individuals who might be “in charge” of a large initiative. When we work together, we come to know and trust the expertise colleagues have to share. In that circumstance, adoption of new innovations is more likely to occur and the risk factor is reduced to a manageable level. What becomes important in effective networks is a shared framework, common language, and a feedback loop that allows the successful innovations attempted across the network to be shared and refined, allowing us to learn from positive deviance. It is true that the non-linear nature of this type of organic network can be messy and experience predictable barriers; however, by keeping the spotlight on the “user (teachers), we bring dignity and respect to those working in schools each day” Bryk (2010).
We are witnessing this revolution of interdependent thought communities throughout our shared regions and reaping the benefits of breaking down silos and boundaries. When we share our expertise and knowledge, each of us gains strength and feels supported by the extensive network of committed individuals. When we pick up the phone or send an email or text asking for support, knowing that expert help will be forthcoming from our peers who are steeped in the same work, ISDs save time, money, resources and the strength of their employees. This shift allows ISDs to shine a laser focus on literacy for the teachers, principals and students it serves. Yes, many hands make light work, but in Southwest Michigan many, many hands make exciting, collaborative, beneficial work that helps kids grow and educators feel respected. A win-win for all.
Please reach out to the following with any questions:
, Ottawa Area ISD, Assistant Superintendent
, Schoolcraft Community Schools, Superintendent