Sunday 7 June 2015

Joint Practice Development - How to avoid wasting the hours but saving the 'minutes'

Teaching School Alliances are encouraged - as part of the R&D strand of the Big 6 -  to take part in Joint Practice Development (JPD).  Unfortunately,  this may lead to teachers and senior leaders attending a series of well-intentioned but ultimately ineffective meetings. As senior leaders seek to make poorly designed collaborative activities - they end up wasting the hours but keeping the '(meeting) minutes'.  To help senior school leaders and teachers make the most of the opportunities that arise from collaborative activity this post will examine
  • What we mean by Joint Practice Development?
  • Collaboration traps and how collaboration goes wrong
  • Disciplined collaboration and possible solutions to those collaborative traps
  • High performance arising from decentralisation and collaboration
What is Joint Practice Development?

In a review of the evidence of effective approaches to JPD, Sebba et al (2012use Fielding et al's (2005) definition of  JPD, i.e. ... the process of learning new ways of working through mutual engagement that opens up and shares practices with others.  Fielding et al argue that because this involves development of new ways of working and exchanges of practices, this distinguishes it from 'vanilla' knowledge transfer - where knowledge exchange/transfer may or may not lead to subsequent use.   Sebba et al go onto identify ten processes associated with effective JPD.
  • Clearly articulated aims and improvement priorities
  • Developing trust
  • Building on existing networks and relationships
  • Developing effective networks
  • Recognition of respective roles and contributions
  • Multilevel (distributed) and multisite leadership
  • Challenge and support
  • Knowledge that meets local needs
  • Student participation in decision-making and governance
  • Addressing competing priorties
Sebba et al provide a useful 'road-map'  for what actions to take to create the conditions for effective JPD.  However, being successful isn't always about what you have done, it is often the decisions you have made which led to you not doing something.  The rest of this post will now look at the things to avoid and what strategies can be adopted to promote successful collaboration/JPD.

Collaboration traps

Hansen* (2009), argues that organisation (school) leaders often sabotage their own efforts by promoting more collaboration than is actually necessary, by falling into one or more of the following traps.
  • Collaborating in Hostile Territory - some clusters of schools are just not set up to collaborate, and JPD projects soon 'hit the dust'.  This is not surprising given that the current environment in which schools operates fosters competition and independence.
  • Overcollaborating - sharing good practice always provide a good excuse for a new meeting or the establishment of a new network for sharing good practice.  However, there is the danger that colleagues attend meeting after meeting, and with these meeting having little impact on pupil outcomes or professional learning.  
  • Overshooting the potential value - it's easy to believe that there are huge benefits for co-operating across a range of schools - yet the challenge is identify those areas where those benefits can be delivered.  There maybe potential for synergy but that synergy may not be of crucial importance to either pupil outcomes or colleagues's learning.
  • Underestimating the costs - collaborative projects may deliver outcomes of merit, though that does not mean the outcome has sufficient worth.  Any desired changes in outcomes must take into account the costs associated with bringing about those benefits.
  • Misdiagnosing the problem  - sometimes leaders misdiagnose the reasons why people don't collaborate or work together.  It might be assumed that people don't want to collaborate because the time commitment or level of knowledge required.  On the other hand, it may be the case that they just don't want to collaborate.
  • Implementing the wrong solution - there is a danger that to facilitate collaboration specific IT solutions are put in place to 'capture and share knowledge.'  This may be ok if colleagues know what they are looking for, but if they don't want to collaborate, it may require different solutions.
Disciplined collaboration

Given the challenges which need to be overcome to achieve effective collaboration, Hanson goes onto define 'disciplined collaboration' as : the leadership practice of properly assessing when to collaborate (and when not to) and instilling in people both the willingness and ability to collaborate when required. (p15).  

Hanson argues to achieve disciplined collaboration it is necessary to for leaders (headteachers, school research leads etc) to take three steps

Step 1 : Evaluate the opportunities for collaborations by asking:
  • Is there a substance and significant upside to working together?
  • Will the collaboration/JPD lead to better results for our pupils, staff and school?
In other words, collaboration/JPD is a means to achieve particular outcomes, it is not an end in itself.

Step 2 : Spot the barriers to collaboration - What are the barriers to people collaborating well

Hanson identifies four key barriers to collaboration and JPD.
  • The not invented here barrier - (school staff are unwilling to reach out to others).
  • The hoarding barriers (people are unwilling to provide help)
  • The search barrier (people are not able to find out what they are looking for)
  • The transfer barrier (people are not able to work with the people they don't know well
Step 3 : Tailor solutions to tear down the barriers

Having analysed the problem is then possible to begin to identify the solutions to each of the barriers.  Hanson argues that in tailoring the solutions three broad levers are available :
  • The Unification Lever - crafting compelling goals, which both value and promote collaborative work.
  • The People Lever - getting the right people to collaborate on the right JPD opportunities, and will require the development of what is described as T-shaped leadership and management.  School leaders will need to develop the skills to lead and support JPD opportunities both within a school and between schools.  Recruitment and reward systems need to emphasise the importance of collaborative work.
  • The Network Lever - facilitating networks both within, between and outside of the schools which provides access to knowledge and skills which can help deliver meaningful results for both pupils and staff.
Disciplined collaboration : High performance from decentralisation and collaboration

The work of both Sebba and Hanson indicate that effective JPD/collaboration requires distributed leadership, rather than a top-down model of hierarchical control.  Hanson has devised a useful framework to help headteachers and school leaders to locate their JPD/collaborative across two axes : performance from collaboration; performance from decentralised work (Figure 1)

Disciplined collaboration : High performance from decentralisation and collaboration


Effective collaboration between schools requires high-level leadership and management skills.  It is not something that is going to happen just because it's deemed to be intrinsically desirable.  A clear sense of purpose needs to be created, with clearly definable outputs and outcomes.  Staff involved will need to have the skills to allow them to operate effectively horizontally across schools, whilst at the same time still being able to deliver the 'day-job'.  Finally, many of the solutions to the problems emerging from collaboration may be found from networks.  However, it is not always the 'strong' networks which provide the solution, but rather it's through the loosely-coupled network from outside of the participating schools.

* although written primarily with internal collaboration in mind, the model is equally applicable to collaboration across schools and other organisations.


Hansen, M. (2009) Collaboration : How leaders avoid the traps, create unity, and reap big results.

Joint practice development (JPD) Schools and academies:  What does the evidence suggest are  effective approaches? Judy Sebba, Phillip Kent, Jo Tregenza, University of Sussex, School of Education and Social Work (2012)

Fielding, M, Sebba, J & Carnie, F, 2007, Portsmouth Learning Community, Falmer, University of Sussex


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