A ‘collective belief’ in a group’s ability to make a difference is essential for transformational change. This idea of ‘Collective Efficacy’ is an underlying principle of the Stronger Smarter Approach, and is currently gaining momentum in discussions around school improvement[i][ii].
Research has shown that high levels of Collective Efficacy at the beginning of an academic year correlate with high levels of academic achievement at the end of the year. [iii] When school staff believe that together they can make a difference to learning outcomes, they are more likely to use teaching strategies and behaviours that support that belief[iv].
In our 2022 Alumni Survey[v], respondents were clear that transformative change requires everyone working together towards the same visions and goals. In our field note interviews, one teacher in a remote school told us:
‘We work together and once you’ve got that, then we build on everything else. And I feel like the whole school was a lot more cohesive and, personally enjoyable to work at and I think the wellbeing of the students was at front and centre because of that philosophy.’
Teacher, QLD [SSI Field Note Interviews]
However, Collective Efficacy is more than just collaboration: it is having the mindset that you can make a difference. At the individual level, we describe this as a personal ‘Responsibility for Change.’ At the collective level, this is something that must be deliberately cultivated in a school.
The role of collective efficacy in school reform
The models of school reform that incorporate Collective Efficacy align with the Stronger Smarter Approach in several ways.
- Reform should take a strength-based approach, viewing teachers as professional experts.
- Effective education starts from the expertise that already exists in the school and builds from that. With this view, there is no need to import ‘off the shelf’ programs.
- The reform process itself is important. It has to be a developmental process that will produce outcomes that work in the local context.
- Leadership is more important than leaders[vi]. Our alumni tell us that giving staff more input into decisions leads to greater buy-in for changes and improvements.
Now that collaborative processes are part of how we operate and how we think, staff feel supported in their work and there is always an enthusiasm, an eagerness, to pursue the next piece of work.
Principal, NSW [SS Census 2022]
Building collective efficacy
The strategies generally considered to build Collective Efficacy align closely with the Stronger Smarter Approach where we describe High-Expectations Relationships [vii] and perceptual positioning to look at ‘How are we together?
Leadership of self
As we described above, individual ‘Responsibility for Change and developing individual attributes contribute to building collective efficacy.
Leadership of others
Leadership to build Collective Efficacy means High-Expectations Relationships with a facilitative leadership style that is open to ideas and listening to others. This builds the culture of trust and a collective mindset for ongoing improvement[viii].
Some SSLP alumni in leadership positions describe changing their leadership styles after attending the SSLP. These changes often involve building relationships to ensure that any difficult conversations come from a place of support.
I work to build knowledge with a bigger team, so there is no team that holds all information and ability to decide directions and strategies. I work to give voice to all members of the team.
Principle, NSW [SS Census 2022]
Leadership of systems
When the shared narrative and language of high expectations is in place, internal systems need an accountability focus with resources aligned to support those goals. A culture of trust opens up spaces for wider dialogue about transformative change in the school. The leadership of systems ensures collective inquiry and dialogue about the data with creative thinking to explore solutions together. This has to include the hard conversations: how can we do better?
Our research shows that the tools and strategies of High-Expectations Relationships work as a framework to bring staff together as a more cohesive team with a belief that together they can make a difference. As one Project Officer observed, greater collaboration from staff can lead to improved student outcomes.
More collaboration and making connections with staff have enabled a wider dialogue for us to be able to connect at meetings and speak about what needs to happen differently and how. This has brought on outcomes of better attendance in students, better student behaviour and community wanting to be more involved in schools.
Project Officer – AECG, NSW [SS Census 2022]
The ACER report states that nurturing Collective Efficacy in schools is not a simple task. Our alumni surveys and interviews show that the strategies of High-Expectations Relationships and the Stronger Smarter Approach can help school leaders to examine leadership styles and build a shared belief that, by working together, staff can improve learning outcomes for all their students.
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