Networking and collaboration in education

Daniel Muijs

Dr. Daniel Muijs

Daniel Muijs, Head of Research and Deputy Head of the School of Education at the University of Southampton, recently visited the National Institute of Education to provide consultancy services on scaling efforts of educational innovations, funded by the eduLab programme. Professor Muijs, editor of School Effectiveness and School Improvement, has published widely in the areas of educational effectiveness, school network and teacher leadership, among others.

Prof Muijs prefaced the workshop by sharing the recent trends with respect to school networks and collaboration. Networking and collaboration in education have become increasingly popular in the recent years; there are large numbers of such programs in the UK and internationally. In the UK, there is a proliferation of school federations and academy chains. Internationally, schools are configured into network and cluster arrangements such as in New York City and Singapore respectively.

He then clarified some of the key ideas used in the workshop through differentiating between the concepts of network and collaboration in education in that a network in education is defined as at least two organizations working together for a common purpose for at least some of the time. Collaboration in education, on the other hand, refers to the joint activities between actors from different organizations within the network. So, network is the umbrella concept within which collaboration takes place.

To account for the recent increase in the number of network and collaboration programs in education, one could examine the potential benefits that such networks and collaboration could bring to the table. For instance, it has been found that there is clear evidence that network and collaboration can broaden student learning opportunities, as well as increase teacher capacity. But, can it improve student outcomes? To answer the latter question, it is unfortunate that there is currently little strong causal evidence of the relationship between network and collaboration, and increase in student outcomes. However, there is evidence that specific forms of collaboration having specific impacts. Overall, Prof Muijs opined that there is a need for more quantitative studies on the causal relationship between networks and collaboration, and student outcomes.

When collaboration between schools is successful in bringing about the benefits, it can normally be attributed to a few factors such as the following: 1) trust; 2) clear focus and goals; 3) strong support and brokerage; and 4) clear wins for all.   Whilst trust could be facilitated by prior relationships, it can also be carefully developed in a step-by-step fashion. Having a clear focus, as well as shared ownership of goals can help too in promoting collaboration between schools. A strategy that could be fairly easily implemented to create the shared ownership of goals and build trust is to create a dialogue amongst the network schools to identify common problems facing the schools for them to collaboratively solve. Another factor that has been found to be important for the promotion of collaboration is the strong support provided by the leadership of the schools in the network. To further promote collaboration, external brokerage may be required too; the external brokerage being a neutral party can serve to develop trust amongst the schools. Finally, there is a need for clear wins for all in the sense of “what’s in it for me?”; every party in the network must perceive that they will benefit from the collaboration in the network.

However, when collaboration between schools fails to live up to its purported benefits, it is normally due to factors such as the lack of time set aside for collaboration and when there is a lack of clear goals for collaborating and when there is a lack of shared perspective and understanding of the goals of the collaboration. Collaboration will also fail if there are no clear wins for all in the network and when there is a lack of capacity on the part of the schools to leverage on the opportunities afforded by the collaborative set-up.

Finally, Prof Muijs touched on the role that leadership plays in successful school networks. According to the empirical evidence, one role of leadership is to provide active management support, for example, establishment of clear direction at the start as well as the provision of time for collaboration, and a clear management structure in the network like a clear professional development structures. Leadership roles such as distributed leadership might emerge and these should be duly recognized. The latter scenario calls for the need for principals to adjust and re-adjust their perspectives and leadership as the contexts evolve. Additionally, encouragement of distributed leadership in the network can aid in the promotion of collaboration between schools, and can be aided by it.

This summary was provided by IEN Contributing Editor Paul Chua.

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