Adaptive Schools – Collaboration or Something Else?

I had started my fourth year at an international school in SE Asia. For the previous 3 years, I had deferred leadership of the Secondary School committee to an aspiring administrator we’ll call ‘Bryan.’ The first committee meeting commenced…

For more than an hour ‘Bryan’ explained, in great detail, his version of the 7 Norms of Collaboration, the cornerstone of Adaptive Schools. When I pointed out that leadership of the committee should rotate between individuals within the department, he replied that he  alone was the one who would set the agenda, because, as he put it, he had to “promote student learning.”

The Principal, new to the school, gave ‘Bryan’ authority over the entire Secondary School committee for the next 4 meetings, where he talked for hour upon hour about these Norms, and how this was going to become the basis for the entire school year.

What are the 7 Norms of Collaboration that fall under the umbrella of Adaptive Schools? And why do they require so many hours of explanation?

  • The 7 Norms of Collaboration
    1. Pausing before responding to others.
    2. Paraphrase what other people say to promote understanding.
    3. Ask questions to figure out what people are thinking.
    4. Put ideas on the table.
    5. Use data to create shared understandings.
    6. Pay attention to what you say, how it is perceived, and what others say.
    7. Assume that the intentions of other people are positive.

Are these not skills normal adults are expected to have? Listening, paying attention to others, asking questions…..why do educators need a framework for these things? Moreover, why are multi-day seminars and/or hours and hours used to discuss this dreck?

I understand needing programs related to curriculum or classroom management or other kinds of best practices. But this is nothing but behavior modification. It is based on the assumption teachers can’t hack it as professionals, and need to be told what to do and how to think, talk and act. It is also based upon the idea that behavioral modification will usher in a better era. This is the thinking of cults, not the open inquiry that true education requires.

Some may say, “Just go along to get along and stop making waves. Don’t take any of this too seriously.  It’s all just small requests.”  As for me, it’s not a small thing if you are treated like you’re incapable of functioning in a group. Also, consider it will suck the life out of you and hurt you as being a source of strength in the classroom, and in your life. Life is too short to be treated like a dorky automaton!

I welcome any defense of Adaptive Schools and/or the 7 Norms of Collaboration and I accept any criticism of the views expressed here. Open discussion is welcomed because that kind of discussion is almost impossible in a school environment where one is forced to toe the line with Adaptive Schools.

(Note: The views expressed in this Article are those of the guest author and not necessarily the views of ISR.)

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20 thoughts on “Adaptive Schools – Collaboration or Something Else?

  1. Final item to respond to here. This is what someone wrote earlier: “Maybe you are not an IB educator or maybe your school is not an IB school, but if it is, they really need to get you out to some in service training.”

    Well, this is the icing on the cake. The person who wrote this has no idea that for numerous years, I was deeply involved in an ongoing project that served a local school with basic needs. Both myself and my students raised thousands of dollars and made much needed contributions.

    I guess that is not good enough. I still need service training. It seems that all that service/work does not mean a wit if I am not sufficiently compliant with a program that is supposed to, as the creators of this program put it, “clarify my identity.”


  2. The details discussed at the beginning of my thread were only for context. I do not think new principals should seek transformational change by outsourcing the instruction of said change to another employee who is not an administrator. Nor do I think that individuals should be in charge of enforcing these so-called Norms of Collaboration if motivated by an unseemly power lust. Besides that, the circumstances of what occurred will fall quickly into oblivion.

    Someone wrote, ‘So, let me get this straight, an individual in a leadership position makes a decision to present how the group will run for the year, spends an hour presenting it, tells you he is fully in charge of the committee and you are not happy with the process and the tool he is using? From your first two paragraphs you are more upset at the person than the 7 norms, which neither of you seem to be using yet you state it is so much silliness.” Well, I am not happy when someone unilaterally declares themselves to be in charge even when leadership is supposed to rotate yearly. You can’t preach about norms if you are not following them and instead descend into an African dictator complex. But the point is well-taken: am I just upset with one person, or with the Adaptive Schools program.

    I read The Adaptive School: A Sourcebook for Developing Collaborative Groups by Garmston and Wellman. My concerns are deep enough so that I am compelled to warn others about this program. I do not do this lightly.

    What is so awful about “listening for understanding, putting ideas on the table, and assuming positive intentions?” Well, it’s a matter of degree. If one provides this list for 20 minutes to review, I can see a modest amount of value. But when one group of mammals is telling another group of mammals for hours about how to pause, or ask questions, or not to assume the worst, for hours and hours, there is an assumption of a lack of capability. The whole pretext of the Norms of Collaboration is that it assumes you’re dumb. Which is why you need such cult-like training.

    The norms and other kinds of groupthink may seem like a small thing, and just going along to get along may seem like a harmless thing to do. But it’s not. That’s because you are forced to abandon your own sovereignty when it comes to your conduct. Teachers need to be leaders inside the classroom and in their lives, not someone who is required to genuflect and jump through a hoop when told to do so.


  3. Maybe I’ve just worked for all the wrong schools or there’s also the chance that I’m just not cut out to be a Teacher, but I RARELY see these aspects executed well among adults. Before I’d agree with any stance saying they’re unnecessary, I’d like to see an environment where collaboration has been executed effectively: A coherent, stable, functioning, harmonious International School. As far as I know, they don’t really exist.

    I’m guessing that this was given so much time in meetings because it could be a weak point of the school that needs addressing. I’d guess the vast majority of International Schools could be much better in the areas discussed. Humans are, generally, not that great at those things IMO.


  4. “I hear what you’re saying……” blah blah blah…. Adaptive schools is just a great way for admin to pretend they are giving teachers a voice. When doing poorly it is just terrible!!


    1. yeah, right there. In every school, “some animals are more equal than other.” Some admin are afraid of loud teachers. Worked with a loud British-Bangladeshi who had a couple of screw loose, would walk off the job at the drop of a hat and get into screaming matches with admin., the weak administrator was cared to fire this negative nasty influence. DESPITE pretending to practice the norms of collaboration. Some schools never cease to amaze me – especially when they pay lip service to admin BS.


  5. Chris, I worked in a very dysfunctional school years ago and if it was not for Adaptive Schools I think there would not have been any civility at our staff meetings. Unfortuntaly, many people do not know how to run meetings or work with loving kindness and this is just one tool that can be helpful.


  6. I think many educators have a misunderstanding of respect and common courtesy. Respect is earned, whereas, common courtesy should be a given. Common courtesy allows us to work with others that we do not like or agree. I consider it akin to professionalism. However, respect is altogether another meaning.
    These norms are not bad and I was taught something similar called LEAPS (listen, empathize, ask questions, paraphrase, summarize).
    The rub is that he is refusing to share power nor should he be asked to do so. It appears he is attempting to affect change using a tool that is familiar to him. If you are doing your job, write the novel suggested or skip the meetings. I have worked in collaborative and non collaborative schools. Collaboration is can be positive, if your colleagues are professional. However, I do not find many to be so. I refer to them as Carmens, from South Park screaming, “Respect my authoriti”.


  7. they are just normal rules for interaction within groups. no PD necessary and certainly not hours of pontificating about them. we basically have them as shared agreements during all meetings. they are just reminders to not be douchebag.
    though it’s interesting that most of the time the teachers have no problem with following these norms; administrators often find them difficult.


  8. Build on some new skills and write books. In academic environments you have enough wasted time that you can write a decent novel or flesh out some new perspectives into a non fiction book.

    The biggest benefit is you are looking busy during these useless meetings. This is especially true in organizations that have teachers unions.

    Grading papers during these situations is too obvious. Writing a novel is a better idea as you can flesh out villains or subtle scumbag characters with real world details.


  9. I have also attended the Adaptive Schools seminars and will agree that they dragged on a bit, but the norms are a solid place to start group collaboration. As others have pointed out, the author of this piece is actually more upset with this ‘Bryan’ and how he is failing to live up to the norms himself. Norms are, by definition, meant to be a way of doing something or a fall back attitude and what is so awful about “listening for understanding, putting ideas on the table, and assuming positive intentions’?

    The real issue at your school is not Adaptive Schools, it is leadership who say they are collaborating when in reality they are dictating. Do we by any chance work together?


  10. Adaptive schools training, all six days of it, was the biggest waste of my time. That’s 4 days out of the classroom and two Saturdays that I will never get back.


    1. International schools love these kinds of initiatives because they make them look “woke”. Basically, I learned what I had known for decades: try not to be a jerk at work. What a shame that the people who send us for training do not practice what they preach, pick and choose what parts of the program work for them. In the vein of most meetings I’ve attended in the last ten year: sitting in these meetings has in no way improved my efficacy as a teacher or a member of a collaborative team.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. There are always a couple of teachers in the room who just can’t shut up. These teachers need a quiet word with someone in SLC.


  12. After 40 years of working life (I am not, per se, an educator), I see adults who should know better who fail to collaborate effectively. Much of that failure comes down to respect for others and from the assumption that one’s own personal perspective is ‘right’.

    By making ‘expected norms’ out of behaviours that we should all display in collaborative working, it seems that this Principal is explicitly setting standards. This is typically left to chance in my experience, with the result that ideas are lost to ‘natural’ group dynamics – the rule of dominant personality traits and emotion, or perhaps type 1 thinking as Daniel Kahneman might describe it.

    I had not seen this list of behaviours before, but it looks like a damn good starting point at the very least. Definitely not ‘dreck’. I am going to try to learn from it and reflect on where my own behaviours fall outside the norms.

    I have often found myself in leadership situations, and commonly experienced how difficult it is to communicate ideas to and elicit change from people what it requires an alteration to their modus operandi. Perhaps that explains the ‘overkill’ in the time devoted to this learning.

    Personally, I find that reflection on powerful emotional responses I have to things that make more sense under cold analysis usually reveal a habit from the past that I would best be without.


    1. Awesome points! We are asked to collaborate on teams all the time in our jobs but have no training in how to do so. Department heads are asked to run meetings and often don’t know how to set-up and stick to an agenda.

      Adaptive schools provides a framework, but as with all external consultants, their ideas should be filtered through the context of the school culture and the best parts should be adopted. When schools try and take the entire pre-packaged idea of an outside party, it is like teaching from someone else’s lesson plans; it always falls a little flat.

      Thanks Ian for your thoughtful post.


  13. I once attended an IB course on collaboration and those exact 7 points were taught.

    As an educator, surely you can get over being so infantile in your perception that these are behavior modification methods. As a grown up, should you not rather consider this: “How can I expect my learners to collaborate effectively, if I can’t do so with my own colleagues? ”

    Your whole spiel seems like sour grapes to me to be honest. Take these as tools for teaching consideration, cooperation, empathy and good manners and share them with your kids. I will not let a surgeon operate on me if he can’t collaborate with theother doctors and nurses in the operating theater.

    Maybe you are not an IB educator or maybe your school is not an IB school, but if it is, they really need to get you out to some in service training.


  14. So, let me get this straight, an individual in a leadership position makes a decision to present how the group will run for the year, spends an hour presenting it, tells you he is fully in charge of the committee and you are not happy with the process and the tool he is using? From your first two paragraphs you are more upset at the person than the 7 norms, which neither of you seem to be using yet you state it is so much silliness.

    I find that people like to assume that these norms are known across the school by everyone. I have worked in multiple schools and those that do not choose to set clear norms have far more difficulty running meetings than those that do. Of course, everyone feels that they have a right to be heard and that any of the described norms apply to others, not to them.

    I do agree that leadership should be shared among the group. That would be an effective practice. However, the other norms should be shared. For example, I far too often hear responses that use no data for support. Not to mention, far too many people assume you are out to get them rather than being positive.

    Now, I do agree that spending one hour on this, if that time is accurate, is far too long. This could have been done far faster.

    Maybe you need to ask your self why you are so upset at “Bryan” rather than the 7 norms. You see cults, as you describe it, are always run by people.


  15. I sympathize with the author of this article. It seems every year some new way of reorganizing what already exists becomes the new craze. In effect it gives people looking to make a few bucks and maybe even a name for themselves a chance to step into the limelight. For the rest of us it’s an exercise in patience and most certainly a time waster. I went and found some information on this group on YouTube. Could the speakers be any more boring? I couldn’t take any more of the dribble and shut it off. That’s my two cents.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Steven Covey has left the building…sensible man. Incredible how people can get away with marketing ideas to educators, essentially telling them how to think. Grandmothers sucking eggs, anyone? Thinking hats, mind maps, learning passports…whatever did we go to university for, I wonder?


  17. Sounds like another Flavor of the Month. Programs like this are crucial for people in positions of power to justify their place. Hate to say it, but this is part of working in international schools.

    You could fight it. If you must, make sure you have influential allies. But in my 15 years, I never saw such a coup go well for anyone. Insert here analogy of sticking out necks, rocking boats, Andy poison apples.

    Or you could accept that you’re stuck with this program and the self aggrandizing personalities who support it. But only for the next year, two years tops. These fads never last. Pick a different battle in the meantime. One you can win, one that lifts all masts.

    And who knows… maybe this program will teach you something new if you let it. Listen, I GET that this 7 Norms is 99% BS. Not because I personally studied it, but because I’m a veteran of programs like it (paging Steven Covey…). But even silly groupthinks like this contain pearls of wisdom. If nothing else, you’ll learn patience and temperance, arguably more relevant workplace skills than any of these collaboration norms.

    Liked by 2 people

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