Fundamental Shifts for Collaborative Response: Redefining Three Essential Components

At the age of 87, Michelangelo is said to have inscribed this latin phrase to the bottom of a sketch upon which he was working. It roughly translates to "I am still learning", a powerful message from one of the most brilliant minds of the Italian Renaissance period. For someone considered a master and nearing the end of his life, he understood that learning is a worthy life-long pursuit without an end destination.

It is with this understanding in mind that we share some fundamental redefining of Collaborative Response Model that we have made over the past number of years, most notably since the release of our 2015 text Envisioning a Collaborative Response Model. As we have engaged with numerous schools and districts establishing the work as their underlying approach for student and staff success, it has become clear that there are some subtle yet substantial shifts in language that need to be made when truly understanding collaborative response. We have learned some valuable lessons that have sharpened our understanding and have really resonated with educators across the province and beyond. In this blog post, we would like to provide an overview of these shifts, as they will impact the sharing of this work for us moving forward. We are excited about where our learning is taking us!

Redefining Collaborative Response - Moving Away from a Model

It has become clear that adopting Collaborative Response is not just establishing structures and processes to respond to the needs of students, but rather a way of thinking and doing in our educational systems. Although there are essential components (that we'll expand upon below) and key elements for consideration, the approach is highly contextual and the true power of the framework is the learning that ensues through its establishment and refinement for an organization. It is not a model - it is a process. It is a way of organizing what we do in schools that ensures student success serves as the intrinsic motivator for educators to reflect upon and make adjustments to their own practice. It involves layering collaborative structures and processes to address the needs of all students, with an explicit understanding that each layer has a different function. When described as a Collaborative Response Model, it is limiting in its scope and too easily is reduced to the acronym of CRM, often losing its overarching meaning. It becomes an event ("we have our CRM meeting tomorrow") that is an add-on to our current practices, rather than a way of thinking differently about how we organize ourselves to respond to the needs of students, starting at the universal level. We now refer to the work as Collaborative Response, a much more broadly applied way of thinking and doing in our schools and districts. When we engage in collaboratively responding, it is capturing the complex inter-weaving of multiple layers of structures, processes, protocols and elements. Together we establish a collaborative approach that uses the need for response as the driver for rethinking how we envision teaching and learning.

From "Collaborative Team Meetings" to "Collaborative Structures and Processes

We have definitely learned that the Collaborative Team Meeting is the most vital component of Collaborative Response, as it is the place where we begin pushing ourselves as a staff team to truly think differently about how we can best support our students. It also becomes an incubator for building capacity of everyone around the table throughout the deep conversations of strategies, accommodations and interventions, as well as a space to envision alternate ways to provide support for students. However, we have learned, although it is paramount particularly when first engaging in Collaborative Response, in time it becomes just one of the necessary collaborative structures in place. The collaborative time for teams outside the Collaborative Team Meeting becomes essential when digging into the work of looking at our classrooms differently, often as determined in the Collaborative Team Meeting when examining and discussing how best to support student success. If a "what if" mindset is so critically important in a Collaborative Team Meeting, then time is needed to engage in responding to those "what if" ideas collectively. The collaborative time for teams outside of the Collaborative Team Meeting is not just a luxury - it is critically important when going deeper into how we engage in our Collaborative Response framework.

In time, the layering of team meetings also becomes critical, as we understand that not all students are best served through a monthly Collaborative Team Meeting. Additional structures and processes, such as the layering of team meetings, is necessary to address the needs of students requiring supports beyond the classroom. This has become one of the greatest "a-has" for us over the years, understanding that the purpose of the Collaborative Team Meeting is to focus on universal and classroom supports...but there are still students who will require, at different points in their life, additional supports. We need teams, structures and processes for this as well in the school. The creation of these processes at the district level (a topic requiring much more time than this blog entry) becomes critical over time as well. We have learned that lesson from a number of our district partners engaging in parallel processes at the district level to not only support students, but to support schools as well. Describing the first essential component of Collaborative Response as solely "Collaborative Team Meeting" is too limiting in its scope. In time, as systems engage deeply in Collaborative Response, there emerges an understanding that "Collaborative Structures and Processes" encompasses a greater range of highly connected structures that require thoughtful infusion of process at multiple layers across the school and the district. Over time, the interconnectedness of the collaborative structures and processes become a well oiled machine, communicating supports for students fluidly back and forth while making best use of information already discovered that could be critical for student success.

Furthermore, the shift in our foundational graphic to having the first essential component larger than the other two illustrates the critical importance of the Collaborative Structures and Process to Collaborative Response. It is the most important component, as we have learned that without focused attention to firmly establishing and then continual tending to these structures and processes, the other components' impact is greatly restricted. We have learned that the focus on Assessments and Pyramid of Interventions (to also be shifted in this posting) actually help to deepen the conversations and responses in the various collaborative meetings. They serve to support the collaborative work that is happening across the school, as well as the system, and the enlarging of this component visually attends to it's critical role in the overall approach.

From "Assessments" to "Data and Evidence"

As we've engaged with a large number of schools over the past decade, it has become clear that although the idea of being data-informed is essential, describing it simply as "Assessments" does not attend to its full scope or purpose. Truly, the multiple forms of assessment we describe in Collaborative Response is really about seeking out and then focusing on the Data and Evidence that we have related to student success. This renaming also becomes critically important when looking at areas of focus, such as social-emotional factors, executive functioning, resiliency, student engagement and other areas (sometimes referred to as "soft skills") that are difficult to reduce to simple assessments. Our method of gathering data and evidence in these areas, and then using that data to flag students we should be focusing on is a learned organizational function. Additionally, when engaging in Collaborative Response at a district level, the label "assessments" also does not adequately describe the data and evidence we are collecting and then collectively examining to best determine how we support schools. The shift to Data and Evidence more effectively captures the intent of this essential component.

From "Pyramid of Interventions" to "Continuum of Supports"

When considering the breadth of our learning as we've engaged with educational leaders across our Alberta systems and beyond, the shift from Pyramid of Interventions to Continuum of Supports has resonated most clearly. Shortly after the publication of Envisioning a Collaborative Response Model, it became increasingly apparent that referring to this component as Pyramid of Interventions was very limiting and in some cases misleading. A shift to a Continuum of Supports is critically important for two key reasons.

First off, we have come to understand that interventions are only one of the kinds of support that we can consider when determining most effective responses for our students. However, we discuss that in addition to interventions (which have a very specific definition), we can also consider a number of accommodations and strategies when determining next steps for students. Referring to what we can consider as supports is much more broad and certainly more applicable than referring to every response we could take as an intervention (which further clouds the definition of what is an intervention). Referring to the myriad of responses as supports is a better way to approach the conversation.

Secondly, a pyramid suggests a hierarchy, moving up or down tiers. It can set rigid definitions between types of supports that students need to progress up. We have also found that its existence is so closely tied to Response to Intervention structures that it clouds some fundamental differences between RTI and Collaborative Response. A continuum is more fluid, suggesting that we consider supports across a continuum to best support a student, effectively organizing the supports rather than the students. This negates the mindset of a child needing to fail in order to "move up" to the next tier. Instead, we proactively determine which supports on the continuum that will best meet the needs of the child at that point in their learning, understanding all students benefit from universal supports and that all students, at different times, may need more intensive levels of support in different areas within their educational experience.

This also connects to our understand that within a Continuum of Supports, the supports are more accurately organized by levels rather than by tiers. Although this is simply a shift in language, it is an important one to understanding the scaffolding of supports for students that occur. The table below shows this shift in our understanding, still showing four organizational levels for how we articulate our school supports (or in time, the supports at a district level identified to support schools):

There is a tendency to quickly label students with a number from the pyramid. The shift to the language of support will ensure that we are not labeling students but rather considering supports consistent with their need. This shift is one that we will continue to explore and promote through future postings and publications, as well as engagements with school and district teams.

Shifting Takes Time

We definitely understand that we could have rested with our original understanding of Collaborative Response Model, seeing the impact that its current iteration is making for students and school teams. However, we recognize and honour the learning that we've done with our partners over the years and the refinement of our collective thinking can help educational organizations undertake the work with a higher degree of clarity and engagement. We recognize that adjusting our resources, templates and other documents to infuse these shifts will take time and another iteration of our foundational text will be needed. We definitely look forward to the work ahead to refine the Collaborative Response work to reflect these shifts, and the learning that is going to continue to emerge through collective engagement. If we are truly "still learning" as Michelangelo so aptly described, we are excited to see the continued evolution of Collaborative Response as we engage with our partners across the greater educational landscape!

View an interview with Kurtis Hewson, further explaining the fundamental shifts for Collaborative Response

Author: Kurtis Hewson