Posted - March 2016

Outputs versus Outcomes: How Can Schools Promote Transformative Collaboration

By Michael Iannini, International School Management Consultant & CIS Affiliated Consultant

How do you define collaboration? Does the outcome of your collaborative work improve instructional and operational effectiveness? Many teachers and administrative staff members feel they collaborate effectively. Several will engage in common planning activities. Some engage with peers to present work and solicit feedback. A few even meet to analyze data and identify areas for improvement. All of this with the purpose of collecting data and finding ways to improve.

The activities I just described are what I consider to be part of the collaborative spectrum. This spectrum has two ends, “output ” and “outcome”. At the output end of the spectrum is the work we expect teams to complete and be evaluated on. I refer to this as Transactional Collaboration. On the outcome end of the spectrum we engage in activities that are results-oriented and demonstrate impact. Many theorists call this Transformative Collaboration

Outcomes-based education is not new to educators. However, challenging educators to apply the principles and practices to their own work, and that of their teams, is something I do not see often in International Schools. Some educators claim that their teams are high functioning, collaborative and outcome-focused, but in my opinion these team seem more efficient and effective at the output end of the spectrum. They plan and coordinate with zeal and show a high degree of trust in each other’s performance, but the discussions often end there.

This is the first of a series of articles intended to:

  1. Make the argument for why International Schools need Transformative Collaboration;
  2. Answer why teams are complacent and satisfied with Transactional Collaboration;
  3. Define a high-functioning team; and
  4. Provide guidance on how to promote Transformative Collaboration.

Firstly, why do International Schools need to be hot beds of Transformative Collaboration? Parents have chosen to send their children to these schools with the expectation that their children will be safer, better-educated and will be introduced to opportunities and experiences that national-system and other schools are unable to provide. In return, International Schools can charge a premium to meet these expectations. The tuition fees alone are often the greatest pain point and what drives parents to expect more.

To meet these expectations, International Schools enrich their curriculum to the fullest extent and employ a variety of strategies to engage their community. The result of this approach is that it places a heavy burden on the school’s human resources. A dilemma that arises, though, is that each school’s ability to deliver is directly proportional to its organizational capability and capacity. In most cases the activities stretch the schools capacity, leaving no room for measuring outcomes. This is a high activity driven model that requires recruiting staff and educators very effective at planning and execution. Performance is judged based on outputs. The result is a culture of Transactional Collaboration where schools establish goals that are output-focused. To foster a culture of Transformative Collaboration schools should channel their human resources to harness their strengths and reserve time to evaluate outcomes.

Speaking as a parent and educator, and based on my work with educators, I don’t believe that a large quantity of extracurricular activities and excellent facilities are “meaningful” differentiators. I don’t believe International Schools should try to be everything to everyone. Historically, they were founded to meet the needs of specific communities, often associated with a national curriculum or special needs. The curriculum, extracurricular activities, holidays and other elements of a high-functioning school replicated that of the predominant nationality, and in many cases, children from other countries were also admitted. These schools have evolved, and now most celebrate the virtues of developing global citizens. 

Another problem I have observed, especially in schools that have ample capacity, is that their organizational structure is strictly vertical. They have very few connections across departments or between grade levels. Larger schools fall more prone to this problem than smaller schools. This is mainly due to the traditional top-down management structure of a school, and when that school grows, the separation between departments and other teams becomes much larger. The problem that prevents Transformative Collaboration in this case is that growing disconnect between collegial peers and their respective duties. An example of what can be achieved with an organizational structure that promotes relationships across the school would be the ability to create truly functional interdisciplinary units of instruction.

One benefit for international educators is the significant investment made for them to participate in large conferences and workshops. Many conferences and workshops are intended to help educators return to their schools with new ideas, strategies and tools to address these problems. Unfortunately, the culture of some schools do not provide the time or setting necessary to yield the desired results. As a result, these investments in professional development are not leading to school improvements. In this way, the lack of a system for peers to share what they have learned, devise strategies to use this knowledge, be observed and receive feedback is the main barrier to innovation and transformation, regardless of the positive benefits on the individual participants.

The three problems identified above (Capacity; Organizational Structure; Knowledge Sharing) impede Transformative Collaboration because:

  • Peer interaction is output focused;
  • Performance is evaluated based on outputs;
  • There is no time for substantive debrief and knowledge sharing;
  • Peer trust is based on ability, not on sharing beliefs and values; and
  • Transformative Collaboration cannot exist without value and belief based peer trust.

The result of not being able to achieve Transformative Collaboration, and ultimately my belief why international schools need to assess where they fall on the collaboration spectrum, is:

  • They are unable to meaningfully differentiate from other schools;
  • They lose opportunities to leverage the knowledge and experience of staff;
  • Staff become disillusioned;
  • Staff don’t feel empowered to lead, let alone participate in, transformative activities; and
  • Staff turnover increases.

International Baccalaureate (IB) Curricula as well as an expanding market, has changed the perception of schools. Upon examination, I often find it very difficult to determine how one IB school differs from another, especially with just a cursory review of their communications and marketing materials. It is a challenge to understand the culture and core values of a school unless you work in it or have close friends working in it. The importance of differentiation in this case directly relates to finding the best educators and staff. To begin the process of differentiation we need to determine what kind of school we want to be? Curriculum, student trajectory, admissions criteria, experiential learning, facilities and budget as well as several other factors should be clearly defined. These criteria also need to be evaluated to ensure there are no conflicts. When you have these answers, will your community support the school you want to be? Meaningful differentiation sets the stage for Transformative Collaboration.

The point about turnover is simple. It is about staff satisfaction with their school. The following questions are often found in staff engagement surveys. These questions are often thought about, but seldom discussed:

  • Does your current position support your career goals?
  • Do your peers share ideas, introduce new knowledge and provide opportunities for growth?
  • How often do you share your success stories and new ideas?
  • How often do you incorporate peer feedback into your work?
  • Do you have a best friend at work?

When the questions above are rewritten as open questions, and facilitated directly between peers, we can further assess where a school falls on the Collaborative Spectrum. The objective of the questions, when addressed as open questions, is to identify needs and pain points. A very important indicator of a Transformational Collaborative culture is when staff members professionally respect and share common beliefs with their peers. Trust amongst peers is largely based on mutual respect and shared beliefs. The more peers trust each other the more open they will be to ideas and feedback related to their own performance, which creates an interdependence that Transformative Collaboration thrives on.

The argument for reevaluating our ability to collaborate is not just about student learning. Identifying where we are on the Collaborative Spectrum should be about enriching our work environment, focusing on what we as a school want to excel at and making the time to ensure our outcomes achieve our vision for learning. The knowledge and experience that will surface from a Transformational Collaborative culture will also be incredibly valuable to improving our operations; for example identifying opportunities for distributed leadership to flourish.  

Schools need to assess where they are on the Collaborative Spectrum. As discussed, this can be accomplished with survey tools, as well as the evaluation of team goals. There is an abundance of literature regarding team goals, output or outcome-focused. If there is a clear argument that our teams need to rethink how they work together, then we can begin the process of developing truly collaborative teams. In my next article I will identify the organizational structure changes that are needed to support these teams and how to develop a pilot study so as not to disrupt or alarm our community. Throughout this process, not all members of our community will feel comfortable with these changes, but we will ensure everyone’s’ buy-in as well as plan for ‘healthy turnover’.

Michael Iannini is based in Hong Kong. You can view Michael’s biography by visiting the Council of International Schools website, You can learn more about the work Michael does by visiting or following him on Twitter @PdAcademia or on LinkedIn, 

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