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MSPnet Blog: “Only Connect”

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posted July 17, 2014 – by Brian Drayton

Valerie Strauss’s blog (the “Answer Sheet”) this week tells you something you probably know already, but in a way that you may find useful, owing to the research it describes:  Education reform is something that happens to people in relationships, and it’s those networks that shape what happens  to the innovation.  If you can work with the relationships to build capacity for wise response, then the innovation has a much better chance of delivering its potential benefits (if there are any).  

Strauss’s guest bloggers, Kara Finnegan and Alan Daly, describe research they conducted using Social Network Analysis  (alas, their actual research paper is behind a paywall), which compares two different cases, in one of which communication patterns shifted to better enable the sharing of expertise within the system, in the other of which communications started and stayed ineffectual and even counterproductive of communication and sharing.  

A nice feature of their work, which is based on several years of research, is that it suggests that when districts (or any other organization) study the patterns of communication within the system (perhaps using a network diagram), people can see unproductive features and work to fix them — have more meetings, allow for more bi-directional exchanges, etc.  Capacity building;  collaboration; conversation;  shared learning. As Huxley said of natural selection, “How very stupid not to have thought of it oneself.”  This is also a good illustration of how SNA can help focus researchers’ work to examine what’s behind the patterns. 

(Note:  Such work is going forward in some of the MSPs, which you might like to check out, starting here.)

I am less interested in how research like this can further the implementation of “reforms” than I am in how schools and districts can really take seriously the power of teachers as mutual “professional developers” — fostering authentic and substantive exchange in a spirit of pedagogical improvement.   Of course, people like Cuban, Cohen, and  Sarason wrote cogently years ago about how the culture of schools shapes or distorts or resists innovation. It’s one of the lessons of educational research that most gets overlooked by educational policy.