Friday / June 14

Leading Collaborative Learning: Empower Excellence!

The un-asked question is how to engage students in deeper learning, such as being innovative, creative, and entrepreneurial? The NCR report (2012, p. 13) uses the following six elements:

  • Using multiple and varied representations of concepts;
  • Encouraging elaboration, questioning and explanation;
  • Engaging learners in challenging tasks;
  • Teaching with examples and case studies;
  • Connecting topics to the personal lives and interests of students; and
  • Using assessments to continually monitor student progress with frequent feedback (2012, p. 3).

Our answer is through collaborative learning when used as a teaching technique in a classroom culture of safety, trust and support. The term deeper learning then really is the product of a quality process of those who have engaged in an inquiry stance or project based learning experiences versus those who have not.

These six elements align with the powerful, evolving Literate Graduate Profile (Sharratt & Harild, 2015, p.p. 131-135) which defines Literate Graduates who:

  • write with purpose and clarity;
  • communicate effectively using a variety of text forms;
  • read for purpose and pleasure;
  • think critically;
  • locate and access information from a variety of sources;
  • use oral communication appropriate to purpose and audience;
  • read and interpret multiple text forms;
  • articulate a point of view;
  • have innovation mindsets; and
  • are creative, collaborative and curious.

The Literate Graduate competencies listed above are seen as foundational and essential within individual disciplines and across interdisciplinary studies. In ideal terms, these competencies would be embedded in a cognitively demanding curriculum inquiry that requires students to seek out, research and acquire new knowledge, apply their learning, and build on existing knowledge to create new knowledge – in collaboration with teachers, peers and the broader community. To us, this defines deep and deeper learning.

Today, many authors write that deep learning aligns with notions of authentic learning and real world connections.  For years, we have read about the need for authentic learning that includes opportunities for students to express preferences for doing rather than listening (emphasis from Lombardi, 2007). When using new technologies, students build connections to create new forms of doing – often called authentic learning. Using real world, complex, compelling problems as the fuel for student inquiry and learning, it is very possible to employ a multi-disciplinary approach to program planning and yet this kind of integration is not often seen consistently across all schools in a system.

Research continues on assessment of deep learning, examining the learning conditions in relation to deep learning processes and the changing role of the teacher as the designer of impactful learning experiences. As Peter Hill and Michael Barber outline compellingly, “Assessment is the lagging factor in providing quality information about learning and teaching and in reflecting the educational needs of students living in the modern world (Hill & Barber, 2014, p. 40).”

The emphasis we would add is that the integration of efforts to deepen learning must develop in a very important social context – the third teacher – or the classroom and the school learning environment (Sharratt & Harild, 2015). The first teacher is, of course, a student’s parent(s) and the second teacher is the classroom practitioner. The learning environment is enhanced by teachers who are able to use a repertoire of strong teaching methodologies in open-to-learning spaces. In school and out-of-school settings, such as experiential learning programs, educators must consider a balance of individual, small and whole group work, shared and personal responsibilities, personalization, differentiation, and ongoing Descriptive Feedback to help students move forward. Teaching is complex work. Embedding a competency approach or specific learning expectations requires strategic planning, cooperation among educators and collaborative leadership to serve all students in a school system.

Success for all students must be our constant vision. The goal of a strong education system is to produce highly Literate Graduates who are able to reach their potential and be contributing citizens ready to participate in an increasingly complex world. This is our definition of the 21st Century learner!

So are we there yet? The short answer is no, deep learning is not everywhere, not all the time. The other critical question then is, how does a system “get there”? We must consider strategic leadership as key.

Those who can lead collaborative learning effectively are better positioned to revitalize and transform school programming and ensure multiple pathways to success (Sharratt and Harild, 2015) by engaging more students and activating deeper learning processes. Using learning processes which employ an inquiry stance assists learners in understanding the power of intentional integration across subject areas (Planche, 2013).

Our research found that Collaborative Learning adds the social and cultural dimension to the construction of individual meaning. It is situated in structures that are created by system leaders and are impacted by processes for which leaders are responsible. Our job as teachers and leaders is to ensure that opportunities for Collaborative Learning are powerful and meaningful to individual learners – be they students or staff members. Leading Collaborative Learning requires leaders to pay attention to cultural, structural and organizational issues as well as the instructional processes we employ.

Trying to build learning capacity without needed structural changes, such as designated time for co-learners to talk, is an exercise in frustration. And changing structures without specific efforts to build learners’ collective capacity leads to little change at the end of the day. Leading Collaborative Learning is dependent upon the development of important systemic values and specific norms for operating such as mutual respect, tolerance and empathy. At its core, it is an exercise in building trust and strong learning relationships (Planche, 2012). With so much at stake in terms of developing strong cultures and structures where collaborative learning can thrive, in our research we sought to better understand how collaboratively-led learning builds educator capacity in order to improve achievement for all FACES (Sharratt & Fullan, 2012).

In our forth-coming book, we discuss five principles of collaborative leadership which we feel are important understandings that leaders must cultivate to Lead Collaborative Learning and Empower Excellence (Corwin Press, 2016).     


Hill, P. & Barber, M. (2014). Preparing for a renaissance in assessment. Paper for Pearson ISBN 9780992422653.

Lombardi, M. (2007). Authentic learning for the 21st century: An overview. ELI Paper 1.
Retrieved from

National Research Council Report Brief, (July, 2012). Education for life and work – Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Retrieved from

Planche, B. (Winter, 2012). “The transformative power of co-learning”. In Leadership in Focus Journal for Australasian school leaders. (26), 2-7.

Planche, B. (March, 2013). “Today’s imperative – Integrated learning” Learning Forward- Ontario. (E-Newsletter) (4) 3.
Sharratt, L., & Fullan, M. (2012). Putting FACES on the data: What great leaders do! Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin

Sharratt, L. & Harild, G (2015). Good to Great to Innovate: Recalculating the route to career readiness, K-12). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Sharratt, L. & Planche, B. (2016, in Press). Leading collaborative learning: Empowering
excellence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin


Written by

Lyn Sharratt coordinates the doctoral internship program in Leadership and Policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. Lyn is the former Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction Services in the York Region District School Board, a large Canadian school district, where she and her curriculum team analyzed assessment data and developed a comprehensive literacy improvement program, which they launched with the cooperation of senior leadership, principals, and over 9000 teachers. The continuously improving 14 parameter program resulted in increased achievement for a diverse, multicultural, and multilingual population of over 120,000 students, and the district became the top performing district in Ontario. Lyn has been a school superintendent, curriculum consultant and administrator, and she has also taught all elementary grades and secondary-age students in inner-city and rural settings. Lyn has analyzed and commented on public policy for a provincial trustee organization, the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association; has taught pre-service education at York University; Masters’ and Doctoral students at University of Toronto and Nipissing University; and led in-service professional learning in a provincial teachers’ union head office. She is lead author, with Michael Fullan, of Realization: The Change Imperative for Increasing District-Wide Reform (Corwin, 2009) and Putting FACES on the Data: What Great Leaders Do! (Corwin, 2012, published in English, Spanish and Arabic). Lyn is lead author of Good to Great to Innovate: Recalculating the Route K-12, (Corwin, 2015) with Gale Harild and Empowering Excellence: Leading Collaborative Learning (Corwin, being launched in 2016) with Beate Planche. Currently, Lyn is an advisor for International School Leadership with the Ontario Principals’ Council, is an Author Consultant for Corwin Publishing and consults internationally, working with leaders, administrators, consultants, and teachers in Chile, Australia, the United States, Europe and Canada to systematically increase all students’ achievement by putting FACES on the data and taking intentional action. There are over 200 “Sharratt Schools” across the globe, representing thousands of students. Visit her website at or contact her on Twitter @LynSharratt and at Linked-In where Lyn owns the “Educational Leadership” LinkedIn group which has 51,000 members. View Lyn speaking in Ontario about leadership development and system and school improvement for ALL students at

Beate Planche is an educational practitioner, consultant and researcher. Beate is a sessional instructor in Graduate Education for the University of Western Ontario, Canada. Through her consulting work, Beate provides research, consulting and coaching for educators in the areas of literacy programming, collaborative inquiry, and inquiry-based learning for students. Beate is a former Superintendent of Curriculum and Instructional Services in the York Region District School Board as well as a former Superintendent supervising schools, a principal, vice principal and a co-director of a private school. During Beate’s tenure as Superintendent of Curriculum and Instructional Services, the department she led served over 200 schools and 9,000 teachers through their work with Area Superintendents, area Learning Networks and their work with new teachers, and teachers seeking individual support. In her 20 years in educational administration, Beate has led in-service professional learning and has supported and mentored many new administrators, as well as curriculum and teacher leaders. Beate taught elementary as well as secondary students, spending a large portion of her career in Special Education working with students identified with learning disabilities. Beate has been an adjunct professor supporting teacher candidates for York University, has worked on contract with Ontario’s Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat, and, is presently on the Boards of Learning Forward-Ontario and the Character Community Foundation of York Region. Beate is the author of over 20 published articles and reviewed papers. Visit Beate at LinkedIn , on Twitter @bmplanche , or on her website

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