By Amy Jenkins
For many, being an innovator conjures a vision of being the one out in front, alone, and it can certainly feel that way at times. All at once it seems like a big adventure and a scary proposition with uncertain rewards, but known risks. You may have a lot of questions to ask about your path but worry no one else is on it. It feels like something you kind of want to tell everybody about, but also don’t want anybody to know. The teacher who is trying something new may purposely close his door and not talk about it in case it fails. The school leader who is working on new strategies may keep quiet about them in a meeting with others, in case her peers try to dissuade her. The superintendent who wants to make her district radically different may feel like she is the only one trying to do this big thing or if she isn’t the only one, not know how to find others who think like her. So at a time when the support and ideas of others would help the most, we often are the least likely to receive them.
Research shows that connecting to others is a powerful way to learn and that networks can support us and help us grow. Networks for teachers have been on the rise, as has been a steady push to encourage teachers to both get outside of their own classrooms and invite others in. Leaders have found more ways to connect with others – through cohorts like the LELA fellowship, AASA cohorts (over 20 to choose from!) and others. And districts join groups like the League of Innovative Schools, and even smaller networks within that larger network, to learn from each other.
In their new book, Better Together: How to Leverage School Networks For Smarter Personalized and Project Based Learning, Tom Vander Ark and Lydia Dobbins reflect on both the power of networks as well as the functions they can play. “Networks are proving to be an engine for innovation as well as a powerful scaling strategy that, for the kids that need it most, can boost access to quality,” Vander Ark writes. Our CEO, Anthony Kim, also addresses the power of networks in his new book The NEW School Rules. He writes that there are three types of networks needed for learning – an expert network, a peer network and a transfer network – whether you are talking about the students in the system or the adults. But just because networks are important doesn’t mean seeking them out, and sustaining them, is something most districts do. With so many competing priorities and such long to-do lists, building or joining a network often gets overlooked or feels too overwhelming.
Given the incredible potential of networks, as well as the challenge many leaders face in finding the right ones, one of the most valuable benefits an organization working with school districts can offer is access to their own network. It is one of the (many!) reasons district leaders often choose to work with Education Elements – we work hard to create meaningful connections, and there are several ways partner organizations can do so:
- Invite you into their own network. Organizations are networks unto themselves. When you partner with one, you should have strategic access to the expertise of the entire team. For example, when our consultants are problem-solving for a district, we don’t do it in isolation; instead, we often reach out to the whole team, crowdsourcing to get the best and more comprehensive set of potential solutions. You don’t just get one of us, you get all of us. Although each district we support is assigned a team of consultants, we flex who supports districts by bringing in the right expertise whenever it is needed.
- Find your people outside of your district. It’s helpful to match up people with similar roles in similar districts (e.g the CTOs in districts of 50-75K students, two middle school PE teachers in low incomes schools across the country, two principals struggling with buy-in) so that they can learn from each other. A helpful partner will connect you to content providers, thought leaders (Michael Horn has visited several of our districts) and to hardware providers. We’ve supported teachers working together and even bringing their classes together. We work with over 20% of the League of Innovative Schools and have been known to help with the writing of an application or two. All you have to do is ask.
- Align the partners in your district to develop networks. Districts are often working on multiple initiatives at the same time, and trying to make sure the ideas and people fit together. Bring the people who are supporting you together so they can all support you better as a team. For example, in Loudoun we partner with 2Revolutions and the Buck Institute; in Charleston, we do monthly calls and periodic workshops with New Tech Network. We believe that in making those connections with each other we can serve districts better.
- Help to create stronger networks within your district. Through workshops which bring people together, hashtags and Twitter chats which increase idea sharing, and working groups that solve problems together, for example, partners can help districts create the processes and structures that build powerful networks within their own district, in addition to those connections to the outside. Partners should be thinking about how to make the networks you already have stronger and how to create new ones. When we bring school districts together to personalize learning in cohorts, we build and solidify relationships across school buildings as well as within them.
- Bring people together. Partner organizations have the resources and connections to bring together like-minded people at a scale that school districts alone often can’t. An effective strategy is to bring leaders and change-makers together for dedicated learning and collaboration time – both with industry experts and thought leaders, and with each other. Our annual Personalized Learning Summit is an example of this type of learning event, and last year, the Summit brought together 750 people from across the country who shared a passion for personalized learning but who brought their own ideas (and questions) to the event, creating a rich learning environment. We structure the event so attendees do not only walk away with more knowledge but also with more of a network they can access over the course of the year.
There are no prizes given out for doing the hard work of district transformation by yourself, but the benefits of doing it with others are endless. Finding a network, building one, contributing to one or sustaining one is nearly always time well spent. As you make your network bigger and increase the people you can learn from, your district will get stronger.
For a great opportunity to expand your network and collaborate with learners and leaders from across the country, join us at the Personalized Learning Summit 2019. Registration launches soon, so join our email list to get updates and be one of the first to know.