Literacy For Young Learners Development And Future Education Essay

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Introduction

Research and practice have increasingly stressed the importance of literacy for young learner's development and future academic achievement. Indeed, it could be said that success with the various forms of literacies is important not only academically but impacts on many aspects of the child's development, including self esteem and emotional confidence. For the purpose of this essay, literacy is defined within the broad curriculum requirements of reading, writing, listening and speaking. Its means of application range widely from explicit literacy such as formal handwriting to multimedia and cross curricula connections. However, it appears that many education systems struggle with raising literacy levels and, for the UK, Ofsted reports continue to highlight the '…need for schools to improve the literacy and numeracy skills of pupils who enter year 7' (Ofsted 2005, p. 38). The connections between high school drop out rates and early literacy have led to identification of pedagogical concerns such as various forms of '… misalignment between educational practices' (Gonzalez 2009, p. 171) and the realities and needs of today's students. This has in turn impacted considerably upon the formats for leadership in relation to literacy.

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It is in the area of pedagogical practice that collaborative planning finds most resonance and it is here that the essay focuses. This extends the area of leadership into provision and facilitation of an effective, assessable and applicable socio-cultural philosophy that reflects the schools vision and capacity. As such, the components of this vision may find definition through support systems such as working policies and collaborative planning time. This is not to say there are not other methodologies that may have equal benefits, but to allow space for a good inspection of the positives and negatives of collaborative planning based on the hypothesis that working on a shared plan towards a common goal will motivate and support staff towards provision of quality education and a rich curriculum experience for students. It also surmises that effective collegiality and continuing professional development (CPD) raises knowledge and confidence within teaching practice and encourages ongoing self-assessment and reflection.

The essay starts with the introduction of an example drawn from personal experience and whilst this is not a case study, this example provides a useful introduction to the study of outcomes orientated collaborative planning. The essay then gives a short overview of changes in how leadership has been defined within school settings. This section reviews some of the literature and contextualises this within change management, motivation and collaborative planning. The essay then looks more closely at collaborative planning from a teambuilding perspective and then from a literacy perspective. This allows for an exploration of collaborative planning both as a specific and generic teambuilding concept. As such, it also allows for an exploration of what is to be gained in creating practice based upon a shared, strategically aligned and reviewed vision within a junior primary setting. It also looks at the importance of a working policy including the necessity for ongoing inbuilt review processes.

It goes without saying that the points raised in the essay deserve more attention than space allows here. However, with the help of available literature, each section seeks to provide a basic understanding of the issues surrounding effective leadership for quality education.

The Site

The junior primary used in this example consists of 6 Reception to year 2 classes within a 480 student primary school. The building is separate from the middle and upper primary and has only one class with a mixed year group, all the rest being straight year classes. The school lies within a mixed socio-economic area with a high percentage of English as a Second Language (ESL) students. Despite the obvious commitment and dedication of the teaching staff, the junior schools literacy levels have been rated as significantly below those of comparative schools with a considerable percentage of the Reception, 1's and 2's failing to achieve the required benchmark levels for each year level. In accordance with the schools inclusive practice, each class has a small percentage of students with Special Educational Needs (SEN). These students are well supported with learning assistants and individual learning plans (ILP's). There is limited and somewhat ad hoc collaborative planning within the JP and each classroom teacher applies and interprets the curriculum in the manner they see fit. Each follows or adapts a phonics program of their choice and decides the order of progression accordingly. Some teach explicit functional grammar within their literacy programs whilst others do not. It is evident that the JP classes do not demonstrate what has been referred to a 'de-privatisation' (e.g. Louis & Kruze p. 242) of the classroom in that they tend to operate independently of each other.

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It is appreciated that, where this a larger study, several other factors ought to be taken into consideration such as socio-economic and population within the schools catchment area. However, for the purpose of this essay, the correlation of leadership with literacy outcomes provides the focus.

Leadership: Changes in Theory and Practice

During the 90's research began to increasingly emphasise a need to move away from a view of head teachers as defined by exclusive roles that impose practical and pedagogical requirements upon staff (e.g. Lance & Cliff 1996, p. 38). At about the same time the UK's emphasis on collaborative planning began to expect teachers to act more as practitioner/researchers and provide the evidence upon which their practice and decisions were based (Webb, p. 268). Meanwhile, the influence of political discourse on educational organisations has been labelled as putting 'leadership over management' (Hoyle & Wallace 2005, p. 129). Within this paradigm Hoyle and Wallace also note that the research shows:

…most head teachers actually work with and steer the cultural, learning and collaborative resources of teachers with only a few adopting and aggressively instrumental stance.

Hoyle & Wallace 2005, p. 112

Much as inclusive pedagogical practices became essential in the classroom, inclusion of staff in planning for change was increasingly valued for its motivational impact. The creation of a shared vision and involvement of staff in designing means of introducing and applying change was identified by some as one of the key elements of effective leadership. As those such as Riley and MacBeath put it:

Good school leaders are those who are able to maximise the diverse leadership qualities of others, enabling them to take on leadership within their area of expertise.

Riley & MacBeath 1998, p.148

Indeed they go on to argue that:

…teachers are more likely to become engaged in making changes within their own schools when more collaborative leadership models are the norm.

Riley & MacBeath 1998, p.148

An example of effective collaboration is perhaps seen best through a schools approach to planning. For example, whilst the QCA now provides formats and examples for long, medium and short term planning, it is how the school undertakes these activities that may highlight the level of collaboration. Cohen et al. (2004) argue that all levels of planning must display 'logical coherence' (p. 127) and cross curricula connections (p. 128). Clearly, this takes good communication across the staff and the better the level of teamwork, the clearer this communication should be. These ideals of collaborative planning are clearly based upon an integrative practise with a basis in motivation and the next section takes a closer look at these.

Leadership, Collaborative Planning and Teambuilding

Figure 1 exemplifies the ideals upon which collaborative planning are based. It asserts that all teachers can be effective teachers and all students can be effective learners given the right support, situation and time. It also stresses the need for teachers to act as lifelong learners and in particular be able to relate theory to their practice as a means of explaining why they find certain approaches work or fail.

From the perspective of leadership, the research shows that effective collaborative teamwork is not a loose structure but one that requires considerable thought and well-considered action (e.g. Foster 2008, p. 21). For example, most formats advocate the establishment of a specific policy document based upon observation, assessment and evaluation of what is happening in the classroom. The importance of understanding individual teaching styles within this process should not detract from the ideal of collaboration, but allow for an inclusive and supportive approach that each individual will correspondingly understand and ideally respond to positively. Naturally, people can often respond defensively if they feel they are being criticised, especially if their methods are questioned or they feel their professionalism is challenged. The successful introduction of written policies based upon these judgements, their collection and expression clearly takes sound negotiation skills that involve people in the process and encourage staff to:

…have involvement and therefore ownership which will lead to a greater sense of responsibility for the implementation of such a document

Tyrrell & Gill 2000, p. 110

Involving staff in the change for improvement process should also avoid becoming a static process and the ideals of shared leadership often find resonance in current research. For example, Southworth (2004) sees effective collaborative principals as both team builders and team players (p. 45) who base their approaches on creating teams who demonstrate and encourage:

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…professional openness, unity of purpose, shared goals and educational values, consistency in teaching and planning, continuity in the curriculum and agreed and implemented classroom practices.

Southworth 2004, p. 46

These ideals encapsulate the heart of collaborative teamwork and along with inbuilt flexibility should allow for role changes whereby each person can share their skills and learn from others. Therefore individuals may move from being the 'mentor, advisor or specialist' (p. 31) in one are to student in another. Through playing to the strengths and weaknesses of the group, this model of a professional community involves itself in an ongoing action research cycle of application, observation, review, reflection and re-application. As will be seen later, this needs to encompass a series of stages that help define actual actions and ensure 'continuity and progression' (Burnett & Myers 2004, p. 252). Also, the defined roles within the system should be able to change according to the experiences of the individual and the requirements of the planning. For example, the expert on phonics may not have the same understanding of narrative exploration or the expressive language teacher of science literacy.

Autonomy

However, as mentioned previously, there may be issues with what teachers regard as an invasion of or challenge to their autonomy. This is perhaps one of the most important factors when planning for collaborative teamwork and the interaction of staff collaboration with teachers' autonomy has come under considerable research scrutiny. For example, those such as Hoyle and Wallace (2005) define collaboration as the generic term to encompass '…participation, collegiality, empowerment, delegation, teamwork' (p. 123). In their critique of collaboration for school improvement, they identify a variety of levels at which staff work together, from simply chatting to active helping (p. 124) and they warn against the imposed nature of contrived collaboration. Within this lies the danger of overly competitive and insistent perspectives that may dominate the choice of pathways rather than negotiate plans that compliment the schools culture and teaching approaches (p. 127). One example might be the adoption of a particular phonics program that, whilst having been shown to be very effective, is new to many of the staff. Confusion and de-motivation may follow if the necessary training time for teachers to become confident with the new system is not provided.

Collaboration and the Wider Community

Collaborative planning has also been seen as introducing pathways to involve the wider community in the education process. For example Barnes (1997), is one of many to identify the 'home-school partnership' (p. 136) whereby students take books home and are encouraged to read with their parents of carers. This and other forms of extension encourage a learning community approach that can become part of the learning cycle by both introducing expertise and support for schools from other stakeholders and by extending educational strategies homewards. It has to be said that a considerable amount of the research concerning working in partnerships with parents has been generated through behavioural issues (e.g. Miller 2003, p. 70). Whilst most teacher training texts will have sections on working with parents, it is perhaps when things go wrong that the process of collaborative leadership comes to the fore. Interventions designed collaboratively highlight the importance of home support for practices begun in schools and, as those such as Tomlinson (2001, p. 41) point out, parents may need as much help to understand the processes and purposes within in a specific classroom as the child.

SEN

One area in particular shows particularly positive results both from and for collaborative teamwork. As mentioned briefly, the increased emphasis on inclusive education has seen more SENco's in classes working with SEN students and better inter-agency communication formats (e.g. DfES 2006b). It has also seen more individualised planning and planning involving the school, other professionals and parents. Frey and Fisher (2004, p. 235) are two of many researchers to identify the potential for a '…powerful collaborative model between special educators and general educators' when it comes to planning for inclusion of diverse children. Introducing other professionals into the classroom, including those such as literacy coordinators, may bring in both a supportive and a mentoring aspect to collaboration - something that will be looked at later.

As with any policy, its efficacy depends both on its workability and its alignment with both educational needs and official requirements. The following section exemplifies this through the use of literacy.

Collaborative Planning and Literacy: the pragmatics

Juxtaposed against required changes in educational leadership styles are the official requirements defined in the current National Curriculum and associated guidance documents. In keeping with the Boudieuian (1973) theories of education reflecting society, the format and content of the National Curriculum has also adapted to reflect socio-economic and cultural change. It also reflects the current political imperatives and is expressed through the agendas that define these.

Collaborative planning as a part of transformational leadership has gradually developed more closely defined pathways and goals for strategic planning. These previously lay within the schools domain as did the methods of achieving these. For example, the National Primary Strategies have placed an emphasis on collaborative professional development (DCSF 2010) as a means of attaining school improvement (see Appendix 1). These define an action cycle for literacy (pp.6-7) that depends on a 'single plan' (p. 6) from which is drawn the strengths and weaknesses that require collaborative professional development. This is integrated with a class-room based ongoing process of self-analysis that requires teachers to plan, teach, apply, assess and review (p. 6). The ongoing tracking and benchmarking are also integrated into this plan and as Appendix 1 shows, these processes are supported through a sharing of resources and support systems and these two areas will be looked at in more depth later.

To take a step back, the following figure relates to the work of Hill and Crevola (1998) and aims to contextualise the processes that collaborative teamwork can apply to literacy planning. It starts with questioning the current situation, perhaps through examining a pre-existing policy or by looking at some evidence of students working levels and results. This is designed to raise a common awareness but not to de-motivate and also provides an opportunity to assess levels of expertise through individuals' contribution and previously carried out classroom observations. The second element introduces the ideals of the shared vision and allows for the underlying philosophy and the unique situation of each school to define their goals as well as their knowledge of official requirements. The examples used here are simply two generic examples but in reality there should be more consideration given to this area, such as does the school want to support differentiated classrooms of more traditional pedagogies. The third section relates to the pragmatics of how to achieve these goals.

Resources

One of the important elements of creating a shared and collaborative approach relates to resources. Traditionally, teachers adapt or make resources to fit their own teaching style. However, sharing of resources can be seen as a means of integrating new staff and breaking down barriers that isolate teachers within their classrooms. There is also considerable suggestion that resources and their results can provide a far better means of tracking student progress and aligning staff with common goals if used collaboratively. The advent of the internet has led to an abundance of intranets, official resource websites and a multitude of other online teaching sites all providing boundless opportunities for structured resource sharing. Indeed, the Primary Framework resources are but one component of these shared resource systems. The DCSF states that:

The National Strategies have continued to build their support for teachers through developing materials and resources that complement the Framework for teaching literacy and mathematics in response to independent evaluation of what is working and of what is needed to support further improvement.

DfES 2006, p. 2

At another level, whilst all schools have a teacher's resource section, the benefits to be gained of CPD involving explanation of new materials that align with the schools planning are clear. For example, if a resource is poorly labelled or not understood it is unlikely to be used. The demonstration of resources can help to build up of a shared knowledge base for all relevant staff members and appears to be an effective means of aligning practice with the schools goals. For example the school used here has put in place collaborative planning time for science and maths where new resources are demonstrated by the coordinator. The resources are kept in a central location and are signed out when removed.

Benchmarking

The need to record and track students progress fits easily within models for collaborative teamwork in that it is an official requirement that benefits from a somewhat formulaic approach. For example, with regard to the testing of reading for JP, the use of reading tests such as running records involves a knowledge of how to undertake running records, ease of access to testing materials and coordination with other teachers who are testing. Team teaching enables students to be individually tested without interruption. This is just one means of assessing student's progress but the same strategies can be applied across a range of areas.

McNary et al. (2005) argued that teaching and assessment should be inter-related (p. 73) in such as way that the same 'accommodation' (p. 63) is made during lesson assessment as is made during more formal testing. Whilst this should not mean that teachers teach to the test, it is only fair to equip students with tools to analyse and answer test questions. Once again, the use of generic resources within lessons can allow for an easy tracking of students progress and an understanding of where they need more support.

Other Specialists

It would seem that a step towards integrated collaboration as accepted practice can be encouraged through the use of a range of specialists who are both involved in the collaborative planning and working in-class with the teacher in an instructional capacity. For example, Bean (2009, p. 41) defines an effective literacy coordinator as one who is organised, helpful, flexible but structured and clear in both time management and role expectations. In this area alone it has been suggested that nine different areas need to be discussed and continually reviewed between teacher and specialist (Bean 2009, p. 47) in order to build a constructive and effective situation. It is worth noting that collaboration is therefore a term that varies according to the desired outcome, such as a whole school approach or a classroom teaching session.

With regard to literacy, the teacher/librarian can provide an excellent source of knowledge as well as the potential to contribute hugely to 'shared efforts at promoting literacy' (Doiron & Davies 1998, p. 10). It is perhaps the measure of collaborative initiatives that is most visible through the use of the library and a teacher librarian. Taylor (2006) warns teacher librarians that, despite the obvious benefits of collaborative planning, they will never be able to convince all teachers to participate (p. 54). This is perhaps the point that leadership needs to

Cross Curricula Collaboration

The ideals of a rich curriculum include planning for all learning styles through provision of leaning in a wide variety of manners. For example, the learning of phonics for young children has been shown to work best when it caters for all aspects of aural, kinaesthetic and visual learning. Children benefit from hearing, seeing, feeling and doing/writing the sound. Within each of these categories are other parameters, such as feeling the sounds symbol as a sand letter, writing it on another child's back with a finger, drawing it in the air, making it with play dough and so on. With good collaborative planning, this extends beyond the literacy hour into other curriculum areas such as the music lesson, the PE, the language and so on. As Wyse and Jones (2001, p. 237) comment, this somewhat more holistic approach to literacy is not encompassed within the Literacy Hour yet shows good outcomes for children.

Working Collaboratively with Students

So far the focus of this essay has been how to justify the use of leadership to encourage collaborative teamwork. However an important aspect of a whole school approach involves the students. Whether this is planning for an older buddy class to work with younger children or to use collaborative work in class such as peer mentoring of small group projects, the aspect of social and emotional development comes to the fore. These skills are clearly as vital for students as they are for staff and aim to enable people to work together constructively, whatever their age. Although aimed at an older student body, Goodlad's (1998) exploration of mentoring and tutoring found these collaborations essentially positive (e.g. p. 5). For the teacher in a primary class, the benefits may vary anywhere from helping children who have not fully understood the first set of instructions not to fall behind to enhancing the confidence of a shy child. These collaborative peer systems may also extend into peer mediation of issues arising within the school and into resilience and anti-bullying campaigns. As with everything, it is easy to align this with a literacy focus if the planning involves the whole school.

Conclusion

Collaborative planning has shown itself to be a useful tool for aligning staff with a constructive shared vision and aligning leadership with the school culture. The factors that contribute to this orientate around the vast potential for improvements in professional practice, and therefore in student outcomes. These factors include:

continuous professional development that goes towards creating a knowledge base that is shared through the school community

a sense of community that aligns with a shared vision, outcomes and supports specific methodologies for achieving this

a sense of shared understanding that contributes towards good teamwork

time for working together

an understanding and sharing of the resources plus an understanding of their potential for use in tracking student development

a whole school strategy that supports the strategic use of specific learning areas and thereby engages the students at a wide range of levels and subjects

extension of collaborative teamwork into the schools student populace that supports:

social and emotion development such as resilience and self confidence

common learning themes

repeated themes that cater for all learning styles and cognitive capacities

However, it has also shown the pitfalls that may arise. These may include:

alienation or isolation through lack of supporting CPD

poor communication

de-motivation through perceived threats to autonomy

differences in approach that raise tension and lower effective collaboration

bullying, dominance or overly competitive behaviour that impacts upon planning

Finally, for the example school the value of better collaborative teamwork for literacy would appear to involve the construction of a well-defined curriculum plan that cohesively aligns all teaching staff and demonstrates real consistency and continuity. Around this can be constructed all the peripherals that would improve outcomes, such as the used of shared resources in order to allow for better ongoing assessment and tracking of students.

"One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done." -- Marie Curie

References

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Bean, R (2009) The Reading Specialist: Leadership for the classroom, school and community, 2nd Ed., New York: Guilford

Bourdieu, P (1973) 'Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction' in R Brown (Ed) Knowledge, Education and Cultural Change: Papers in the Sociology of Education, Tavistock: London. Pp. 71-112

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