How do we innovate together across a nation?

Bridge and the Communities of Practice

Innovators across the world know that coming up with a good way of doing things is just the first step. Spreading that practice to others is what really matters. Studies of methods for scaling educational innovations illustrate that a predominant model is for practices to ‘diffuse’ through a network. Similarly, even coming up with good ideas rarely happens in a vacuum. One common source of innovation is when existing ideas or practices are put together to form a new way of doing things – indeed, some might argue this is the only way innovation happens. This coming together typically happens when individuals work together across boundaries, bringing knowledge and practices from one organisation or field to another.

Despite this knowledge of how innovation happens and how it spreads, education institutions are often siloed: school-to-school collaboration is difficult if schools do not have the time or support to work together, and real interaction between educators working in different layers of a system is even rarer.

Bridge is an organisation that exists solely to overcome these difficulties. Its purpose is to network together individuals and organisations around the central challenges facing education in South Africa.

Bridge was founded in 2009 by a group of educators led by Barbara Dale-Jones. Barbara had experience in multiple areas of education, having been a university lecturer and head of an e-learning company. In its first year, Bridge held a convening of leaders government, business and the non-profit sector leaders of Education in South Africa. The event focussed on discussion of the ‘Dinokeng scenarios’: three narratives of possible futures for South Africa, produced through a national process over the preceding two years. The event proved to be a galvanising moment for all participants, as they recognised the potential to work collaboratively across sectors to bring about educational change under a united vision.

Building Communities of Practice

Since 2009, Bridge has been making connections, holding meetings and reaching out to partners. They are now linked to 650 organisations and have 3000 members, who are part of one of 12 ‘Communities of Practice’. The communities gather around specific topics and problems to share ideas, contribute to knowledge management efforts, and ultimately collaborate on strategies. Some of the communities are province-based, mainly in the Western Cape where Bridge started, working on specific concerns for the province. Others are national, linking ideas and knowledge across the provinces.

Barbara knows that to be effective these communities need to have spread both ‘horizontally’ – encompassing practitioners working across South Africa – and ‘vertically’ – with representatives from the local community level as well as central government. In this way, the communities aim to integrate policy and practice more closely.

As an example of what this approach can achieve, Barbara points to one of their earliest major collaborations, around post-school pathways. Almost 40 people formed a community of practice to systemically map the opportunities for young people have once they leave school, including both institutional and newly emerging routes. One of the participants was a senior figure in the Department of Education and Training, and took the map back to his colleagues. The system map has now influenced a major policy coming out next year. The Community of Practice is continuing to work together on how they can strengthen the various pathways and entry into them.

Bridge is currently developing a community of practice for education donors, including Foundations and high net worth individuals. Through their work across South Africa’s multiple systems, Barbara and her colleagues had realised that a lot of donors were replicating each others work, and so are starting to work with donors of different scales to create collaborations and find ways their work can complement each other.

The Extraordinary Schools Coalition

The central Community of Practice for Barbara is the Extraordinary Schools Coalition. This is a group of 18 schools, selected as those who are beating the odds in South Africa. Barbara describes how in South Africa many still perceive there to be a two-tier education system: where schools in richer, historically White areas, some of which are private and expensive, offer a better education than all other schools. The schools in the coalition were all selected because they disrupt this narrative: they are located in poor areas and provide education at a low or no cost, but their students are achieving great results.

The schools are from five different provinces in South Africa, but they are making deliberate efforts to collaborate with each other.  They are also working with several partner organisations, as well as Bridge, to enhance their teacher development and digital curriculum opportunities. These include South Africa-based organisations that are collaborating internationally, such as Edunova and Teach with Africa.

In forming a community of practice, these schools worked together to come up with what they call the ‘non-negotiables’ – the elements of schools they see as necessary to create student success. They now hold each other accountable for providing these elements for all their students.

To make real this accountability, the schools developed a peer review process, which Barbara is rightly proud of. The schools wanted to open themselves up for judgment from their peers, to get a sense of how they are doing and how they can improve. The peer reviewer looks at 4 domains: leadership and management, teaching and learning, culture and climate, school and community. Together, the schools have developed a protocol to ensure that this process is as helpful as possible: firstly, reviews have to give ‘precise praise’, and they have compiled examples together of what this looks like. Next, they highlight the ‘quick hits’: the things in the school that could be quickly sorted out to create improvement. Finally, the reviewer is meant to identify for the host school some ‘big rocks’: the big issues they see in the school which will need to be addressed for it to reach its fullest aspirations.

The peer review is an ongoing process: after the initial visit and feedback, the same reviewing team returns a year later to look at progress. Barbara commissioned an evaluation of the Peer Review process, and was interested to find out that the reviewer recorded feeling even greater benefit than the reviewed school.

The Peer Review process is only one of the new emerging from the collaborative work of the Extraordinary Schools coalition. Through their work with partners such as Teach with Africa’s Global Teachers Institute, the schools have together created several programmes to identify and develop teachers. Amongst other aims, these programs aim to target students within coalition schools who seem to have a ‘vocation’ for teaching. In this way, they are trying to secure the future strength of their own schools, as well as other schools in South Africa.