“Hey, look at this… here’s a school that integrates curriculum across the disciplines.”
“This is a school that is totally project-based. Can we do that?”
“Our library space is outdated; wouldn’t that make a great learning space?”
The room was alive with energetic conversation as teachers, representing more than half the teaching staff, worked in collaborative groups to read, research and talk about promising practices to improve learning and teaching within the division. Teachers from all ten schools in Lakeshore School Division in Manitoba volunteered to work with their colleagues to imagine a different kind of classroom, with different ways to learn and to teach. Teachers generated idea after idea and no idea was rejected. The excitement was palpable as teachers realized that they were in the driver’s seat and they had a say over how they could make their make ideas tangible.
In December 2012, Superintendent Janet Martell laid out a challenge to the school division. She told staff and board that “we were no longer meeting the needs of the students in our classrooms and we need to do something dramatically different.” Teachers were working hard and they wanted the best for the students, but we just weren’t having success. The teachers agreed and we embarked on the process of “Re-imagine Lakeshore.” The Re-imagine Lakeshore process was designed to examine current practice and imagine new ways to improve practice. The division collaborated with one of our co-authors, Dr. Sheila Giesbrecht of Manitoba Education, who laid out a design-based school improvement process to help guide Lakeshore’s work. Teachers listened with extreme interest as the design process unfolded.
Phase 1: Understand (December 2012 – January 2013)
To begin this work, teachers came together to understand their divisional context. Teachers worked through their school and catchment area data, graduation rates, Tell Them From Me (TTFM)1 survey data, provincial assessment data, etc. Teachers also examined aspects of their own school culture and created lists of things that were unique to their school, such as social activities and ways teachers collaborated. Teachers responded to surveys about their ability to integrate technology into their lessons and provided data around the teaching strategies they regularly employed in their classrooms. They explored divisional successes and examined ways in which the teachers modeled exemplary practice. Finally, the community responded to a student success survey and helped to further define the “successful student” and the “successful school.” Teachers, administrators, students and the community collaborated to develop common understanding around the character of Lakeshore School Division.
Phase 2: Problemate (February – March 2013)
During the second phase, teachers worked to describe the specific challenges faced within their school. Using the narrative and quantitative data collected during the Understand Phase, schools created a “problemate statement” to define what they wanted to improve within their own school. For example, one school’s statement was: “To raise the bar and close the gap for every child.” The process of understanding and creating a problem statement was difficult. Developing a problem statement meant that both successes and challenges had to be faced head-on. Schools continued to dig deeper during this phase and were challenged to work with open mindsets. Each school worked to create a focused design challenge that they wished to address through this school improvement process.
Phase 3: Ideate (April – June 2013)
During the third phase teachers worked to develop new ways of approaching the design challenges they developed in the second phase. Working in cross-divisional cohorts, they identified 14 common themes and challenges based on the schools’ problem statements. These included technology integration, instructional strategies, whole student approaches, relationships, parental involvement, and facilities. Teachers gathered on their own time to conduct research, share ideas and look at ways to enhance their own and divisional practices. During this phase teachers worked to extend their professional knowledge base, skills and ideas. They also worked to explore new ideas and strategies.
During this time, Lakeshore School Division became part of Brandon University’s VOICES Project and with that came additional support and funding to expand Lakeshore’s school improvement work. Several teachers participated with learning tours and additional professional learning around the 14 themes. Teachers shared their new understandings both informally and formally across the division. Prior to this process, this level of research and conversation had been unseen. One teacher remarked, “I haven’t read so much educational research since I graduated from university years ago!” The cultural shift was deepening.
Phase 4: Experiment (September 2013 – June 2014)
During the fourth phase of the process, Lakeshore teachers and administrators focused on trying out some of the skills and strategies they had explored during the Ideate Phase. This involved enhancing existing practices and innovating and trying new approaches. Experiments included using class iPad sets within various settings, developing interdisciplinary classrooms, reimagining learning spaces, experimenting with flipped classrooms and developing project-based approaches. One of the most powerful moments in the process came when trustee Jim Cooper stood up in front of the teachers and said, “The board is behind you. We want you to try some things in your classrooms; if those don’t work, try some other things. It’s OK to fail.” This attitude of openness and acceptance allowed teachers to imagine, innovate and experiment with new educational strategies and ideas. The divisional culture shifted to allow teachers to adopt new mindsets around what it means to teach and learn.
Phase 5: Model (September 2014 and beyond)
After a year of experimentation, teachers have begun the process of evaluating their findings. Teachers are completing action research, re-evaluating their new practices and working to align their practices across the division. More concrete models of innovative practice are being developed. The models developed across the division will be quite different from one another, based on the design problem posed earlier in the process. One thing these new models of teaching and learning have in common, is that they all look quite different from the models of December 2012 – when Superintendent/CEO Janet Martell challenged the division with the words: “We need to do something dramatically different.”
A new culture
Walk into Lundar School and head to their library and there is a transformation. Gone are the rows of dusty shelving that dominated the space. These are replaced with comfortable, flexible seating and space to work collaboratively. The library has been transformed to a Learning Space that accommodates individual and small group work, and provides a place to meet and work with student support teachers. Visit Ashern Central School and there is a new model for supporting high needs students. A team of educators (counselor, support teacher, student success coach) works collaboratively to support students within the classroom. The high school has moved towards more inclusive and integrated approaches to supporting the academic and social needs of students. Observe Inwood School during the last hour of each day and you will see teachers and students moving freely throughout the school. Some teachers work with small groups of students while others work one-on-one with students who need extra support. Students work to complete classroom assignments or work collaboratively on learning outcomes. Each of these schools is experimenting with new policies and practices to better support student learning and engagement through the Re-imagine process.
There is a renewed energy in all of the schools across Lakeshore School Division. Since December 2012, 74 percent of the teaching staff has participated in the Re-imagine process. The levels of conversation around teaching and learning have increased across the schools. Teachers can be overheard in hallways quoting research and talking about ways to incorporate promising research-based practice within their classrooms. Teachers are talking about professional transformation and are articulate in the criteria needed for change to be successful. Exploring data, undertaking action research, engaging in educational experiments and embracing open and flexible mindsets has become common practice. Divisional data also provides evidence of success with increased credit acquisition, decreased behavioral interventions and dramatic increases in the graduation rate (from 50 percent in 2009 to 92 percent in 2013).
It is too early to fully understand the cultural and educational shift that has occurred as a result of the Re-imagine Lakeshore initiative, but initial results are promising. We have high hopes that the work that is happening in classrooms across the division will have a positive impact on the educational lives of students.
For more information on Re-imagine Lakeshore, please visit www.reimaginelakeshore.com.
EN BREF – Cet article examine l’emploi de principes de conception comme méthodologie de réforme scolaire, en se basant sur l’expérience de la Lakeshore School Division à Interlake, au Manitoba. Cette division utilise des principes de conception pour guider son processus d’amélioration scolaire. L’article explique les cinq étapes du processus de conception (comprendre, poser le problème, proposer des idées, expérimenter et modéliser) et en décrit l’instauration avec des enseignants de toute la division. Il porte aussi sur les répercussions du processus de conception, sur le travail de la division et sur la culture d’apprentissage professionnel dans les écoles.
Photo: Courtesy Lakeshore School Division, Manitoba
First published in Education Canada, November 2014
1 Tell Them From Me (TTFM) is an online survey that provides feedback to school divisions around school safety, climate and engagement.