Networks and School Change

Monday, 7 December 2009, 21:33 | Category : Education Technology
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William R Penuel, & Margaret Riel. (2007). The ‘New’ Science of Networks and The Challenge of School Change. Phi Delta Kappan, 88(8), 611. 

Sociologists often analyze social networks using mathematical models.  As an aspect of positive leadership within schools, social network analysis is a good way to get a feel for what is happening in a organization.  School activities, student stories, sharing best practices and tips for innovative uses of technology can all be observed through understanding the social networks that exist. Some key findings from this study include:

1. It’s not just how many people you talk to, but whom you talk to.  Proximity also plays a key role in your interactions within the school.  Time is a critical factor.

2. The attitudes and experience of those in your network greatly impact your attitudes toward teaching and learning.

3.  Taking advantage of the expertise outside of the subgroups of your social network can provide greater access to resources, thus increasing the “social capital” and allowing for greater opportunity to make changes within one’s own practice.

4.  “The goal of trying to make everyone an expert all at once does not strengthen the network; making effective expertise visible to all does work.” Traditional models of professional development and attempts to make all teachers “highly qualified” have stifled teachers abilities to engage in continuous learning.

5.  Short hand comments like “I do project-based learning” or “I engage in digital practices” aren’t specific enough to provide insight into the actual teaching practices that a teacher enacts in the classroom.  Other teachers may nod in agreement and believe they they too engage in similar practices, yet in fact the two practices may be quite different.  Making practices public and allowing time for collaborative reflection of teaching performance allows teachers to make tacit knowledge more explicit; “exploring teaching philosophies and strategies beyond the shorthand comments.”

6.  Allow teachers the opportunity to engage in a matrix type model of collaborative work where educators across disciplines interact and share view points, expanding their perspectives.

7.  Within all social networks experts emerge.  School leaders need to recognize the importance of these leaders and allow time for them to interact effectively within the network. “Identifying the true experts and enabling them to help others may be especially critical when dollars for formal professional development that is necessary is expensive and not always available…the informal network and informal leaders within it may be the most important resources for facilitating implementation of a reform.”

8.  Trust is a “core resource” for school reform.  Trust is constructed when those in the network establish relationships that allow information to move freely, help as often as possible and “muddle through difficult problems to reach a joint solution.”

What is the threshold for trust?  Unknown for sure.  Interesting to look at. What is it about the combination of people within the network that allows trust to grow?

This article particularly, (and in combination with my interview with Yong Zhao) started my thinking in the direction of social capital and the ability of social networks to increase or decrease the flow within organizations.  This ideas has helped me to bridge some of the gaps in my own thinking as to what personal learning networks can do for school reform (not broad based, systematic school reform, but simple, small, building based school reform).  Each teacher is viewed as a portal for information/experience sharing.  From an organizational viewpoint, what does this do to/for the network?  Does this flow of social capital differ in a rural or urban setting?  Do schools that have active participants in online social networks have an increase of social capital within their building?  I think the overlap of the local social network, maybe your building based community of practice with a similar community of practice that exists partially on the web can be a very energizing place, bringing in new ideas and affording teachers with a stage to display their own best practices, getting constructive criticism and often well deserved praise.

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