By Betsy Corcoran
How good are schools at learning? Can they get better?
As a culture, we worry a lot about student learning. But students don’t learn in a vacuum: Most are part of organizations (namely schools) that involve adults who also are engaged in learning, both individually and collectively. So what could help them learn?
Here’s the one of the biggest quiet buzzwords in education: Networks. They can happen in any community—among educators, among schools or districts themselves and, of course, among students. And so emphasizing learning networks nudges educators to think about learning in different ways.
Three recent books explore the power of learning networks. This past spring, EdSurge caught up with the authors at the Personalized Learning Summit, sponsored by Education Elements.
Ed Elements CEO Anthony Kim, who works with hundreds of educations throughout the U.S., wrote “The New School Rules: 6 Vital Practices for Thriving and Responsive Schools” with Alexis Gonzales-Black. As Kim worked with school leaders, he realized that what typically drives success or failure of efforts to improve school is not the educational approach but instead “the culture of our schools, organizational structures and methods of communication and decision making.” He consequently identified what he sees as six “domains of school organization” and explores how schools can learn from one another in these areas.
Lydia Dobyns, CEO of New Tech Network, along with co-author and long-time education pundit, Tom Vander Ark, believes deeply that school systems need to learn collectively. In “Better Together: How to Leverage School Networks for Smarter Personalized and Project Based Learning,” they write: “Networks offer the best path to avoid every school attempting to reinvent the wheel.” Dobyns’ experience, both as an executive in the private sector and now as head of the New Tech Network, which involves about 200 schools across the U.S., takes readers through a tour of how schools can work together in both formal and informal networks to better support student learning.
Julia Freeland Fisher, who directs education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute, similarly believes in the power of learning from peers, but her focus is on students themselves. In “Who You Know: Unlocking Innovation that Expand Students’ Networks,” she writes about how students build their own networks of relationships. “Whom you know turns out to matter across all sorts of industries and institutions,” she writes. But by design, schools have wound up “limit[ing] their students’ access to people beyond their embroyic community.” This isn’t just about giving students access to social networks. Instead it’s about how educators can purposefully help students create relationships inside of schools that will widen their opportunities when they go beyond the school walls.
Here are a few snippets (edited and condensed for clarity) from the lively conversation that we had with Kim, Dobyns and Fisher. Plug into the full dialogue on the EdSurge On Air podcast on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher).
EdSurge: Anthony: Why did you write this book?
Kim: Over the course of the last 20 years, I’ve been in education. I’ve noticed that we spend so much money trying to implement programs and always wondered why we couldn’t actually move the needle in many of the cases or implement them well. So with my co-author, Alexis Gonzalez Black, who works at IDEO in organizational design, I started trying to understand how people work and what prevents us from getting the work done. One of the key aspects is how teams function and how teams meet and how teams work together to achieve goals.
Lydia, how about you? Why write this book now?
Dobyns: The hardest aspect of innovating is not the starting—it’s sustaining. It’s getting better at getting better. We have a tendency to want overnight success. We want to transform teaching and learning and we want it overnight and we want instant results and know that we’re getting it done. The act of innovating is really hard work and I would say it’s almost impossible to succeed in a silo or even within a school or a single district. And so we really see networks and school networks as a path to help start and sustain innovation by helping both individuals in schools, schools themselves and districts apply good network design to help the innovation start and sustain.
Julia, you looked at a different class of networks—the ones around students. Why?
Freeland Fisher: Our education systems have, for so long, focused on students’ human capital or what they know and can do and largely ignored students’ stock of social capital: [namely] whom they know and the access to opportunity that networks tend to open up.
So I wanted to understand: What does the data tell us about that? And what are the innovation opportunities? At the Christensen Institute, we’ve spent about 10 years looking at all the wonderful ways we can use technology to improve instruction and to deliver content and to assess students. But we haven’t looked as much at using technology to connect students to relationships that might otherwise be out of reach.
Anthony, you write about three different classes of networks that you’ve seen. Tell us a little bit about what the differences are.
Kim: We find learning happens when three networks exist: an expert network, a peer network and a transfer network. [Imagine creating a graph of learning]: It’s like a sloped upward line, and a plateau. Then another slope and a plateau. An expert network helps you accelerate the consumption of learning and content. It helps change the slope of your learning. The peer network allows you to shorten the plateaus: Sometimes when you hit a plateau, you might fall off or need just a little bit of encouragement to continue. The transfer network is what deepens the line. When I can teach somebody else how to learn content or transfer that knowledge to somebody, it allows me to deepen my understanding of it.
Does that description or construct of networks work for you, Lydia and Julia?
Dobyns: Those are three excellent examples of networking behaviors. I think Anthony is right: If you have one of the three or two of the three, you’re probably not going to be able to build and sustain a network. Roles also matter. if you’re a classroom teacher then what you want and need from a network is different than being a school leader or a district.
Freeland Fisher: When we studied this among students, we took an individual lens. If you think of an individual in a social context or a social network, similar to what Anthony and Lydia were saying, different relationships in different parts of that network serve different purposes. But we look at it through the lens of sociology research, which says we have typically a cluster of strong ties with those people that we trust and rely on the most, and then web of weak ties.
“Strong” and “weak” ties can sound like value judgements but both can be very valuable. For instance, students can [benefit from weak ties when they] benefit from people who they don’t know well but can give them new information and access to new opportunities. At the same time, our strong ties are the folks that we can rely upon.
It sounds like the concepts of “trust” and trust-building plays an important role in creating networks. Could you share examples of how people build that trust?
Kim: Trust usually occurs when there’s some sense of predictability. Take a protocol in a meeting like the one we’re having now. You’re facilitating a conversation and so there’s a very predictable way for us to communicate. But in many organizations, meetings don’t have that kind of predictability. Someone can take over the meeting. Creating an agenda is an attempt to make it predictable but often we don’t follow the agenda. So how you create predictability between humans is how you build trust?
Dobyns: I would answer your question little differently. I think networks play an important role because schools by themselves don’t know how to learn. It’s kind of an irony that schools are in the business of delivering education, but as an entity, schools themselves don’t know how to get better.
That’s a pretty provocative statement. Schools don’t know how to learn. So why would a network then help solve that problem? Why would that be a way that schools might start to learn?
Dobyns: Well, let’s assume that a school might not take that as a throw-down comment, but as an invitation to think about how we can do a better job of meeting the needs of every student.
And that means I need to think differently about how we, as a collective entity, a school itself, are going to get better at that business. That can create a desire to learn from others. To be connected to others who are engaged in the same desire to get better and create a climate in which, instead of personal blame, there’s the sense that we are all going to learn how to learn together to better serve students.
It is meant to shock—that the idea that schools, as entities, don’t know how to get better. But it’s also meant to open up a different conversation and to think differently about how would I, exercising agency as a school, figure out how to do it. I think that’s an opening to consider being part of multiple networks as a way of helping that learning occur.
That’s fascinating. And do you, Anthony and Julia, also see schools struggling to learn?
Kim: I do. The reason is because any time I’ve tried to learn anything, I didn’t get it right most of the time. In fact, it’s an indication that learning if I don’t get it right. But school systems [act] like you need to get it right the first time. So we have to justify everything and predict everything…. By the the time [a plan is created] it’s actually a plan for failure, not a plan for learning.
Freeland Fisher: I’ll up the ante on Lydia’s provocative statement: I think schools are perhaps poor at learning and they are equally poor at connecting. The great John Dewey himself said that we should have schools that were modeled after embryonic communities. Given that 50 percent of jobs come through personal connections, we cannot afford to isolate our students. Given the way that the future of work is shaping up, networks are going to be even more crucial to go in and out of different jobs more flexibly. So we need to figure out how to both connect our schools to other schools and also connect our students to relationships beyond the four walls.