Network Literacy: Learning the New Language of Educational Change

 This week, IEN shares a post from Dr. Alan J. Daly, Professor in the Department of Education Studies at University of California, San Diego. Daly’s post explores scholarship on networks and the possibility of using networks to enact educational change. Daly’s post builds on ideas expressed in “Leading educational change in socially networked systems,” his chapter in the book Future Directions of Educational Change. This post is part of a series of posts from the book, including Jon Saphier’s post on Building a Strong Adult Professional Culture in Schools, Allison Skerrett’s post on Promoting Justice for Transnational Students, and an earlier discussion with the book’s editors Helen Janc Malone and Santiago Rincón-Gallardo.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly                                    

                                                                            Martin Luther King


In 1963 while sitting inside of a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King penned a powerful letter that at its core reminds us we are part of an interdependent and interconnected system. The idea that we all exist in an inescapable network of mutuality animates my recent contribution to the book, Future Directions for Educational Change (2018) suggesting the need to become more literate in the language of networks.

There is no shortage of ideas about how to bring about improvement in education. Many change agents draw on a variety of formal structures, processes, and accountability levers to improve performance.  However, while these more technical approaches at improving outcomes are important and have been well documented, what has been generally missing in the change equation, or at least neglected, are relational linkages between individuals through which change moves.

As we know, learning and leading is increasingly interactive, social, and at its best creates change in the learners, leaders, and the systems in which they operate.  We live in a social world and as such are deeply affected by others, sometimes in ways in which we are unaware.  In fact, a growing body of research suggests that even our happiness, health, weight, and wealth are influenced by the social networks in which we reside. On an educational side, networks are also related to student achievement outcomes and teacher access to knowledge. The ability to work well with others, tap into networks, and draw on collective intelligence is of critical importance for a variety of outcomes as we move more into a knowledge-network economy.

A knowledge-network society will be driven by collaboration, emotional intelligence, and the ability to effectively and efficiently connect to a variety of content and support networks. We live in an increasingly socially connected world in which people find and share information through and with others on a large variety of topics.  Likely at some point during your day you have connected to a social network to share or find information—maybe you sought advice from colleagues, checked in on friends on Facebook or tweeted out something of interest. In a real sense we live in a networked society and success in this space will require a host of new skills and proficiency in network literacy, which are rarely explicitly considered or taught.

Efforts at improving public education systems in support of better achievement for all students are commonplace across the globe with most countries experiencing policies targeted at improving their nation’s schools.  Many of these change efforts are enacted through a wide range of formal structures and processes with the direct intention of building the individual capacity or “human capital” of teachers to improve performance.  However, while these more formal, technical, and often top down approaches at improving education are important, and have been well documented, what has been less thoroughly explored in the change equation are the relational ties between people that may support or constrain the flow of expertise, knowledge, and practices related to improvement efforts.  The idea underlying this more social approach to change is grounded in the idea of networks.

Networks exist in almost all aspects of life from subways, to communication systems, to biological and brain-based networks.  As detailed in Social Network Theory And Educational Change, network science provides perspective and tools to enable us to understand and describe how different elements interact creating a larger patterned structure that is often hidden in plain sight. These networks can show up in face-to-face interactions within communities, districts, and schools. For instance, the figures below are from some work we have underway in the US and Europe. In this example I show two schools that experience different academic outcomes.  School 1 was able to diffuse expertise within the school by an intentional focus on developing learning communities (each node is a teacher colored by grade level) and use of coaches (green nodes). In contrast, School 2, which had significantly lower performance, relied almost completely on one coach (green node) for expertise rather than accessing other educators. In addition, as is evidenced by nodes on the upper left side of School 2’s network, a number of teachers were disconnected from others.  These sociograms allow us to have deeper insights into the social infrastructure.

School 1                                                                      School 2


These networks also exist in virtual space. Another example comes from the project #COMMONCORE in which we examined close to 200,000 people and nearly a million tweets related to the Common Core State Standards in the US(see figure below).  This work enabled us to identify groups and influential individuals in the larger conversation around the common core.




Social networks whether they be on-ground or on-line provide insights into how the social processes involved in change are stretched across individuals and levels within a system.  This perspective entails a shift from a primary focus on the individual and the attributes of that individual to understanding the more dynamic supports and constraints of the larger social network in which an individual operates.


Network scholarship in education focuses on how the constellation of relationships in networks and between organizations facilitate and constrain the flow of “relational resources” (attitudes, beliefs, information etc.) as well as provides insight into how individuals and groups gain access to, are influenced by, and leverage these resources.  The network perspective does not supplant the importance of individual attributes, but rather offers a complementary optic and set of methods for better understanding the dynamic influence of social processes involved in change.  Therefore, rather than trying solely to understand the process of change based on the attributes of an individual (gender, years of experience, training, education, beliefs, etc.), a network approach foregrounds the influence and outcome of an individual or organization’s ‘position’ vis–à-vis social ties with others, as well as the overall social structure of a network.  In many cases, results suggest that the underlying social structure determines the type, access, and flow of resources to actors in the network leading some to suggest that the old adage “It is not what you know, but who you know”, is more accurately, “Who you know defines what you know”.

Network scholarship has been taking off across the globe.  In addition to the work we have completed here in the US, we have collaborated with many international colleagues including: the Netherlands (see school level research by Nienke Moolenaar); Belgium (see work on mentorship in schools by Charlotte Struyve); Norway (see teacher level efforts by Esther Canrinus); Spain (see pre-service scholarship by Jordi Gibson and Twitter by Miguel Del Fresno); the UK (see multiple school comparison efforts by Chris Brown and data use by Chris Downey); Canada (see scholarship by Joelle Rodway); and Taiwan (see leadership and school research by Yi-Hwa Liou).  This is not an exhaustive list, but gives you a flavor of the breadth of the international work.  We are also expanding out to the Southern Hemisphere that comes from my recent Fulbright Global Scholarship in New Zealand and South Africa.

Understanding how to connect to and leverage this larger social infrastructure is critical in accessing information, judging quality, supporting decision-making, and connecting with others for discovery and community.  We also commit to sharing our work out to practitioner audiences to support reflection and consideration of the role of networks.  Last summer, The Trust Gap, was published by the American Federation of Teacher in their American Educator magazine on our work around trust and networks that many systems used to catalyze conversations around networks.  Despite the fact that we live in an inescapable network of mutuality we do not systematically and explicitly teach social network literacy skills. Learning this important language is often left to chance or assumed to be self-evident. However, given the ubiquity and importance of networks in our personal and professional lives we must become more intentional and mindful about increasing our network literacy particularly in its relationship to educational change.


— Alan Daly



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