Tag Archives: Networks

The Power of Professional Learning Networks

What are professional learning networks? What do we know about them? This week, IEN features reflections from an international group of researchers on what they learned about Professional Learning Networks (PLN’s) through their work on a special issue of the Journal of Professional Capital and Community. Led by Special Issue Editors Cindy Poortman and Chris Brown, the post draws from the efforts of a network of researchers from the International Congress on School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI) and describes key points from the special issue and how work on PLN’s might develop in the future.

IEN: Why this focus on professional learning networks, why now? 

Chris Brown/Cindy Poortman: The focus on the power of collaborative learning of educators has been growing for years: both within and across schools. We call the variety of groups who engage in collaborative learning with others outside of their everyday community of practice to improve educational outcomes, Professional Learning Networks (PLNs (e.g. see Networks for Learning)). PLNs are associated with effective professional development and ultimately improved outcomes for students. At the same time, their success depends heavily on the way in which PLN processes are guided: with research reporting both promising and disappointing results. Moreover, research into PLN effectiveness is methodologically challenging. Many have studied networks and communities before us, and we aim to build further on their important work, having ourselves been involved in projects about Research Learning Communities and -Networks, Data Teams, Teacher Design Teams and cross-school Professional Learning Communities. We notice that schools in many different countries are motivated to participate in networks more than ever, while there is still much to learn in this area. Having mapped out what we think are the main areas that need further investigation, we are excited to work together with schools, partner organizations, and other scholars to further discover how PLNs can be most beneficial for educators and their students.

PLNs are associated with effective professional development and ultimately improved outcomes for students. At the same time, their success depends heavily on the way in which PLN processes are guided

IEN: What did you learn in working on this special issue that you didn’t know before?

CB/CP: Many factors influence PLN processes including collaboration, shared focus on student learning, reflective dialogue, and leadership. Even if PLN participants successfully collaborate and learn together within their group, they still need to successfully share and refine the knowledge developed within the PLN with other colleagues in their ‘home’ schools (as well as other institutions). Only then, will they be able to achieve the ambitious goals of school and system improvement. What’s more, they need to do this in such a way that their colleagues can incorporate this knowledge into their educational practice as experts. We call the process of creating, sharing and applying knowledge, knowledge mobilization (KMb). In our experience with schools, we noticed that PLN members often find it hard to communicate with colleagues outside their PLN about approaches and outcomes. At the same time, school leaders sometimes report they should have done more to support networking between PLNs and their member schools. This is why we were very happy to work with our ICSEI PLN network colleagues on this special issue.

And we have learned a lot. For instance, the paper from Livia Jesacher-Roessler addresses how and whether PLN-participants see themselves as knowledge mobilizers, but also explores how individual and organizational knowledge mobilization is linked to institutional change. It shows that much more is needed from the school as a whole than simply the participation of individuals in a PLN, who are sometimes not even aware of their role in mobilizing knowledge. The paper by Leyton Schnellert and Deborah Butler shows how inviting co-teaching partners into a PLN to engage in collaborative inquiry and engaging in cycles of inquiry with a co-teaching partner is helpful in this respect. The paper by Miriam Mason & David Galloway shows how evidence of student improvement can support further development of PLNs, while also emphasizing the value of a contextual approach. The findings of Joelle Rodway and her colleagues show the importance of both direct and indirect interactions for understanding knowledge brokerage, as well as the importance of different types of relationships (e.g., including both sharing information and giving advice). Those with formal roles are not always the ones most effectively brokering knowledge.

…much more is needed from the school as a whole than simply the participation of individuals in a PLN, who are sometimes not even aware of their role in mobilizing knowledge

Particularly significant post-pandemic, Pierre Tulowitzki’s paper addresses levers and barriers to success of a PLN that takes the form of a blended learning program, showing the importance of both informal and professional communication in this context. The combination of in-person with online meetings was essential. Although some of the other papers emphasized the importance of context, this paper shows how participants transferred models or concepts from other countries to their local context, after careful considerations of required adaptations and experimentation. And with a specific type of PLN, namely Research-Practice Partnerships (RPPs) on the rise, Stephen MacGregor’s paper discusses co-production: shifting the research paradigm so that researchers and stakeholders co-lead research activities, and collectively apply their expertise, knowledge and skills within a team. Design, implementation and reporting on measurement tools for evaluating co-production would benefit from researchers engaging more openly and critically with psychometric and pragmatic considerations for a better understanding of the impact of co-production. Finally, Amanda Datnow’s commentary highlights a number of interesting areas for further development. For example, the extent to which PLNs contribute to achieving social justice goals, and the emotional aspects of PLNs.

IEN: What’s happened since you completed the special issue and what’s next? 

CB/CP: It’s been busy for all of us! To provide just a few examples, first, both of us were invited to sit on the New South Wales (NSW) Curriculum Reform Teacher Engagement Advisory Group. We are advising on NSW’s teacher engagement model for teacher expert networks. We are also contributing to (video)lectures for the related blended learning program. Despite the distance, we truly enjoy being involved in this exciting and important work. In March a project run by Livia Jesacher-Roessler funded by the province of Tyrol started to unpack many of the issues she discusses in her paper: in particular, how different institutional logics of different professions impact on both PLNs and knowledge mobilization. Along with Stephen MacGregor we will also be working with What Works in Children’s Social Care to run a Research Learning Communities intervention for Looked After Children in England. With this iteration of the RLC programme, the team will be working with Subject Leads and Designated Teachers from at least 120 schools. The focus will be specific areas related to maths and English that virtual school heads and designated teachers feel are beneficial to improving key primary school outcomes for this vulnerable group. As series editors of the Emerald PLN book series, we are also looking forward to forthcoming books in the series, including a volume by Mason and Galloway on PLNs in Sub-Saharan Africa.

IEN: What’s your hope for the future and what do you hope your work on professional learning networks will contribute to it? 

CB/CP: Since we started collaborating within the ICSEI PLN network, we have developed a research agenda for areas we think would benefit from further work, with input from network members and building further on their studies. In the book Networks for Learning, Alan Daly and Louise Stoll’s chapter helped us identify conceptual, methodological and impact challenges which were starting points for this research agenda. After several conceptual pieces, such as a  systematic review on reflective professional inquiry, we are eager to advance to more empirical studies, also applying more innovative methodologies (e.g. using text mining and machine learning for analysis purposes and/or using data from blended learning PLNs). At the same time, we are looking forward to sharing practical guidelines with educators  in a forthcoming handbook based on what is already known about effective PLN work so far. Of perhaps most importance, however, is that while learning outcomes are key, students’ wellbeing and issues of equity should be central to all of our PLN work (as Leyton Schnellert and Sara Florence Davidson describe in this blog post). So we are pleased to see both educators and scholars, such as our special issue discussant Amanda Datnow, advancing the field towards impact for children in this area.

Change agents, advocates, allies or observers? Jennifer Karnopp reflects on the field of educational change

This months’ Lead the Change interview features Dr. Jennifer Karnopp discussing her work on how reform efforts are impacted by the socio-political context of the schools and communities in which they are implemented. Karnopp is a former teacher and school leader who will join the Department of Educational Leadership in the College of Education at San Diego State University in the Fall of 2021.

Lead the Change: The 2021 AERA theme is Accepting Educational Responsibility and invites those of us who teach in schools of education to accept greater responsibility for the inadequate preparation of educators for work in racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse P–12 schools and postsecondary institutions.

For example, when educators discipline African American students at disproportionately higher rates, misdiagnose them for special education, identify too few of them for advanced placement and international baccalaureate programs, deliver to them a culturally irrelevant curriculum, teach them in culturally disdaining ways, and stereotype their families as careless and hopeless, the schools of education that produced these professionals are just as responsible as the professionals themselves. Furthermore, if scholars who study and document these trends do too little to make our findings actionable, then we, too, are contributors to the cyclical reproduction of these educational inequities. Given the dire need for all of us to do more to dismantle oppressive systems in our own institutions and education more broadly, what specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call?

Jennifer Karnopp: Educational change means many different things to different people. Even among members of the Educational Change SIG, you will find many different opinions regarding the who, what, where, why and how of educational change. At the same time, we are now at a point in history where both the systemic nature of racism in the United States and throughout the world and its negative consequences are undeniable. Inequities in the educational system and the need for deep, systemic change is clear. This places scholars of educational change in a position of responsibility to focus attention on this pressing issue and support the change process through multiple avenues—through our scholarship, through advocacy efforts, and by working directly with schools and communities to realize change goals. I believe that faculty also have an obligation to address the issue of systemic racism and other forms of institutional oppression in their roles as teachers and mentors. This includes looking critically at course content and program structures to surface and address any issues of bias including across program, course, and content access; in the topics that are given primacy in the space; in the perspectives promoted through course readings; and in how discussion topics are framed and encouraged. My thinking in this area is influenced by the concept of rightful presence, as described by Calabrese, Barton and Tan (2020).

“Inequities in the educational system and the need for deep, systemic change is clear. This places scholars of educational change in a position of responsibility to focus attention on this pressing issue.”

For me personally, over this past year I have thought deeply about my own role as an educational change researcher—have I been a change agent, an advocate, an ally, or an observer? Is that enough? As a result, I have done what many in the field are now doing. I am listening more, educating myself on the history of race in America and the institutional racism that is the legacy of this history through the work of Ibram Kendi (2016) and Isabel Wilkerson (2020). Community Engaged Leadership for Social Justice (DeMathews, 2020) is another excellent resource focused on school leadership. I am thinking differently about my own approach to the study of educational change. I have always recognized that schools are embedded within communities and that this influences change efforts, but I now have a deeper appreciation for how the history of a community is interwoven with the present and that this history and the current reality both need to be understood when studying the implementation of a localized school reform. My research has always explored relationships in reform, but, in the past, I have focused on who is engaged in change implementation. Over this past year, I have become more interested in who is left out of reform-related decision making and why.

I am now collaborating with a colleague on a new research project, the first since completing my dissertation. This new project examines the implementation of culturally responsive teaching practices in a district undergoing a demographic shift. In many ways, the research design is similar to that of my dissertation, “Structures and relationships: A mixed-methods study exploring the flow of knowledge entitled “Structures and relationships: A mixed-methods study exploring the flow of knowledge relating to a recent initiative in one rural school district” which focused on how educators in one rural school district utilized organizational structures and social relationships to access and share knowledge about new instructional practices related to a recent change initiative. However, in this new project I am excited to integrate some of the take-aways from this past year of self-reflection.

Specifically, three details make this project a step towards my being a more active participant in the dismantling of systemic racism in schools. First, the change of focus is one intended to reduce racial inequities in schooling within a district. Second, as a part of understanding the study context, I am looking beyond district practices and digging into the history of the community with an eye towards issues of race. Third, our research design pushes us to look beyond the actions and attitudes of those active in the implementation of this reform and attend to those whose voices are not included in the planning and/or implementation. Taken together, I am hopeful that these design elements will result in research that deepens understandings of change processes designed to address issues of equity that is rich in context-specific details. Such details are important for informing the work of future change agents as they consider strategies for their local context, and also for researchers, as it can provided critical clues as to how variations in context influence outcomes.

LtC: In your dissertation you highlight how teachers’ relationships and interactions with colleagues shaped their understanding and enactment of reform initiatives. What would be some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and use of organizational theory?

JK: Before pursuing my PhD, I was a classroom teacher and a school principal. I knew from experience that while instructional coaches, professional development, and other resources are helpful for learning about new initiatives, educators rely heavily on one another to make sense of how to actually implement these changes in their classrooms. While there is research that examines how organizational routines support change and how educators support one another, my dissertation contributed new understandings of how school routines and informal relationships interact to impact change implementation. This was an area identified by Penuel, et al. (2010) as in need of further exploration. I found that the way that principals utilized school roles and routines impacted opportunities for informal interactions among educators, and educators developed informal, yet consistent, patterns of interactions that served as informal knowledge-building structures that these educators relied upon to make sense of new classroom practices (Karnopp, forthcoming).

From a theory perspective, I utilized knowledge creation theory (Nonaka, 1994) and structuration theory (Giddens, 1984) to create a framework for understanding organizational learning in schools. While knowledge creation theory explains how educators utilize interaction spaces to discuss and make sense of new ideas until they become a part of the fabric of the organization, structuration theory explains how knowledge creation spaces emerge or fall into disuse. To date, I have not found any empirical studies that bring these two theories into conversation with one another. In this way, I believe my work contributes to the scholarship on organizational change.

I think the field of Educational Change can learn a few lessons from this work. First, organizational structures, such as resources, roles and routines work in conjunction with positive collegial relationships among educators to support changes in educator practice. While resources and routines are important, it is equally important that educators have access to knowledgeable individuals whom they trust and the time and space to have conversations for gaining knowledge of and engaging in sensemaking about new practices. School leaders should recognize that the choices they make regarding the allocation of resources, classroom assignments and school schedules shapes the opportunities educators have to interact with one another. These interactions can influence the depth and breadth of reform implementation, and so it is important to ensure that choices regarding these routine structures align with reform goals. This may be particularly important in under-resourced districts where formal supports, such as instructional coaches, structured communities of inquiry and embedded professional development may be sparse.

LtC: Some of your recent work looks to better articulate the nature of systemic reform into vision and action. What implications might such work have for policy/practice interactions with colleagues and students in the field and/or for educators’ daily practice and interactions with colleagues and students?

JK: Systemic reform requires two components—a clear vision of change and a plan of action that provides a path for attaining the vision. This articulation of vision and action benefits from the integration of both top-down and bottom-up approaches to the change process. Top down elements effectively promote a vision, provide incentives and resources and remove barriers. However, bottom-up approaches facilitate the development of a shared vision, bring in diverse voices, address local needs and increase buy-in. Integrating the two encourages and facilitates systemic change in a way that addresses the needs and leverages the assets of the local community context (Reigeluth & Karnopp, 2020). Practically speaking, approaching change in this way takes time. While an initial idea, or vision for change may start with a core group of leaders, change agents need to bring in a broad range of stakeholders and think carefully about the structures they will utilize to broaden, organize, facilitate and communicate the work. This includes providing the time and space for conversations to happen. From a policy perspective, flexibility is key to allow for the variations in vision and action that are likely to result from stakeholder attention to local needs. Schools will need financial resources to support the work of systemic change, and policies that serve as barriers to change, such as those that rely on standardized testing for accountability need to be removed and rethought.

“Systemic reform requires two components—a clear vision of change and a plan of action.”

LtC: Educational Change expects those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?

JK: Schools are incredibly complex systems, which is, in part, why so many change efforts struggle. I believe reform that takes a systemic approach is most impactful and sustainable, but the successful implementation of complex systems-level change continues to be a challenge. To realize systemic change, school leaders need a clear vision that is supported by thoughtfully aligned strategic action. Those in the field of Educational Change can support individuals and groups through the change process by stepping into the role of guide or facilitator, not to direct or dictate the details of change implementation, but to help schools and communities to identify their own change goals and navigate the process. As researchers, we bring knowledge of best practices based on current evidence, as well as knowledge of the inquiry process. We are well positioned to use these skills and knowledge to support local efforts to develop context-specific visions and action plans for change. Collaborative structures, such as research-practice partnerships hold promise as effective ways for educational change researchers to work side-by-side with schools and districts to support their change goals while also contributing to scholarly understandings of change processes. In terms of teaching, faculty might also provide support by developing local capacity through courses that teach future school leaders about effective, collaborative change strategies such as design thinking or improvement science.

“Reform that takes a systemic approach is most impactful and sustainable.”

In my work, I see formal network structures and improvement science as having a lot of potential to support local efforts to enact systemic change. The process provides a structure that promotes collaborative and inclusive inquiry as schools work towards their vision. The formal network element provides an organizational structure to facilitate interactions, collect data, monitor progress and strategically scale successful strategies, while the collaborative inquiry process facilitates the positive, professional interactions that are so important to educators’ enactment of new practices. Such networked structures have the potential to not only facilitate communication and collaboration among educators, researchers and other stakeholders to address problems of practice, but also to support reform implementation across a district or region by informing practice and supporting policy advocacy (Karnopp, 2020; Lochmiller & Karnopp, 2020).

What really excites me about networked improvement communities is the sense of empowerment educators develop through their engagement in the process. It is a very different approach to reform than teachers are accustomed in that these communities center, value and leverage their expertise and daily classroom practice. This sense of empowerment may be helpful for encouraging buy-in and sustaining the hard work of system change. Looking forward, those in the field might explore how information gained through structured collaborative inquiry approaches could not only inform implementation, but also galvanize stakeholders at the district and state levels to develop sustainable practices, policies and implementation guidelines that are sensitive to variations in local context.

LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?

JK: There is a lot to be excited about in the field of educational change. We often think in terms of student outcomes when it comes to visions for change. Moving forward, I think issues of equity will further shape and refine how we define positive student outcomes and subsequently, our visions for change. In terms of implementation, the body of literature exploring social relationships in the context of educational change has made, and I believe will continue to make important contributions to our understandings of implementation processes. This work provides a valuable socio-cultural perspective that challenges those in the field to attend more closely to local context in the study of reforms, including the lived experiences of teachers. As we gain greater understanding of the role and nature of relationships in reform, I anticipate future research in this area to expand beyond descriptive studies to explore how social network analysis of educator information and advice interactions may serve as an indicator of change readiness, as a tool to inform school change implementation, and/or to evaluate the depth and breadth of reform uptake. In regards to educational change research broadly, I believe that future research will examine more deeply the complexity of change—how the community, educators and formal organizational structures interact and influence reform efforts. I hope that there will be increased attention to whose voices are included and left out of change efforts.

References

DeMatthews, D.E. (2018). Community Engaged Leadership for Social Justice: A Critical Approach in Urban Schools (1st ed.). Routledge.

Giddens, A. (1984). The Constitution of Society. Berkeley. University of California Press.

Karnopp, J.R. (under review). Hidden Structures: How roles, routines and relationships interact to support a knowledge network.

Karnopp, J. R. (2020). Ties that bind: Knowledge movement and tie formation in a regional principal’s learning network. Voices in Reform. 3(1), 55-76.

Kendi, I. X. (2016). Stamped from the beginning: the definitive history of racist ideas in America. New York: Nation Books.

Lochmiller, C.M. and Karnopp, J.R. (2020). Initiating a Network’s Renewal: Charting the Development of Reading Recovery’s Networked Improvement Community. Journal of Reading Recovery. Spring 2020, 27-34.

Nonaka, I. (1994). A dynamic theory of organizational knowledge creation. Organization Science, 5(1), 14-37.

Penuel, W.R., Riel, M., Joshi, A., Pearlman, L., Kim, C.M., & Frank, K.A. (2010). The alignment of the informal and formal organizational supports for reform: Implications for improving teaching in schools. Educational Administration Quarterly, 46(1), 57-95.

Reigeluth, C.M., and Karnopp, J.R. (2020) Vision and Action: Two sides of the coin for systemic change in education systems. TechTrends. doi.org/10.1007s11528-020-00528-x

Wilkerson, I. (2020). Caste: the origins of our discontents. First edition. New York: Random House.

ABOUT THE LTC SERIES: The Lead the Change series, featuring renowned educational change experts from around the globe, serves to highlight promising research and practice, to offer expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change, and to spark collaboration within the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association.  Kristin Kew, Chair; Mireille Hubers; Program Chair; Na Mi Bang, Secretary/Treasurer; Min Jung KimGraduate Student Representative; Jennie Weiner, LtC Series Editor; Alexandra Lamb, Production Editor.

A Driving Force Behind Educational Change: Cecilia Azorín on Networks, Distributed Leadership & Inclusion

This week, IEN features the November Lead the Change (LTC) interview with Dr. Cecilia Azorín (@CeciliaAzorin), Associate Professor at the Faculty of Education, University of Murcia, Spain. Dr. Azorín is one of the leaders of an Erasmus+ KA2 Project comparing all age schools in Wales, Spain, and Iceland.  She received the Michael Fullan Emerging Scholar Award in Professional Capital and Community (2019).

Lead the Change: The 2021 AERA theme is Accepting Educational Responsibility and invites those of us who teach in schools of education to accept greater responsibility for the inadequate preparation of educators for work in racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse P–12 schools and postsecondary institutions. For example, when educators discipline African American students at disproportionately higher rates, misdiagnose them for special education, identify too few of them for advanced placement and international baccalaureate programs, deliver to them a culturally irrelevant curriculum, teach them in culturally disdaining ways, and stereotype their families as careless and hopeless, the schools of education that produced these professionals are just as responsible as the professionals themselves. Furthermore, if scholars who study and document these trends do too little to make our findings actionable, then we, too, are contributors to the cyclical reproduction of these educational inequities.   

Given the dire need for all of us to do more to dismantle oppressive systems in our own institutions and education more broadly, what specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call??

Cecilia Azorín: Accepting educational responsibility implies conceiving education as something that can help individuals overcome inequalities, a mechanism capable of transforming lives and positively impacting people’s progress. This statement leads one to think about the social mobility that can be produced as a result of education. Harris and Jones (2020b) have recently stated that “social and educational mobility are important because they reflect the equality of opportunity in society” (p. 18). Put simply, Hargreaves (2020) defines social mobility as the chance to achieve greater success through education compared to one’s parents.

When your background is humble, for example, when your father is a farmer and your mother a homemaker, becoming the first PhD of your family, and eventually, a university professor, is no easy task. I have experienced social mobility firsthand, and it has not been a bed of roses. And yet, I can say that my own social mobility was the consequence of education and the experiences I received. Creating effective educational experiences for all children is the first step to dismantle oppressive systems. This is linked to an approach that essentially recognizes the power that education has in terms of social justice.

When I think about dismantling oppressive systems in education, a song springs to mind – “Another Brick in the Wall” released by the British group Pink Floyd in 1979. I invariably use this song as a university welcome for my students, future teachers, with whom I work on concepts such as, what is, and what is not, an effective pedagogical approach, how to capitalize on their passion for teaching, how to engage in divergent thinking and what it means to educate in an environment that responds effectively to student diversity. Another Brick in the Wall is a protest against the strict norms and rules of traditional conceptualizations of teaching and learning – a system more concerned with maintaining discipline and restricting creativity than with motivating and transmitting knowledge.

On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the Declaration of Children’s Rights, the United Nations declared 1979 the International Year of the Child, thus recalling our collective commitment to protect children. From that moment on, authoritarian approaches to education began to be questioned. Undoubtedly, the message this song projected not only in British society, but in the rest of the world, allowed people to dream that the change in education was possible. In reality, the argument was clear and called for a new teaching, an improvement of the school based on less control and more freedom.

In 1980, one year after its release, this song was adopted as a protest anthem among black students in South Africa who were suffering from apartheid, a system of racial segregation that divided schools and communities in a discriminatory manner and unjustly perpetuated inequalities.

Today, there are new layers of exclusion that leave childhood and youth unprotected. According to the Global Monitoring Report (UNESCO, 2020, 4): All over the world, discrimination is based on gender, remoteness, wealth, disability, ethnicity, language, migration, displacement, incarceration, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, religion and other beliefs and attitudes; the Covid-19 pandemic has added new layers of exclusion.

Unfortunately, the continued exclusion of many merely confirms that oppressive systems are embedded in the very fabric of our societies, and are traditionally characterized by discriminating forms of oppression that directly attack the most vulnerable groups. For example, in Spain (my home country) and in many other places around the world, discrimination, stigmatization continue as does the fight to make schools more inclusive. Thus, a system of parallel schooling is currently maintained, with students attending so-called “ordinary” schools and others being relegated to “special education” schools. 

Inclusion is a major driving force for educational reform and a central goal of the international agenda. In a recent article, we analyzed how we can help schools to review progress on their journey to becoming more inclusive and show that fostering reflection amongst teachers about the contexts, resources and processes that underpin their work can make a difference (Azorín & Ainscow, 2020). But, how does one ensure that no one’s dream is denied and keep young people on the track to a brighter and equitable future without equal education opportunities for all children? The school cannot and must not leave anyone behind; on the contrary, it must set itself up as a guarantor of the right to a truly inclusive, equitable and quality education, without exceptions. This is probably one of the main challenges and responsibilities facing educational change scholars in these complex times.

“The school cannot and must not leave anyone behind; on the contrary, it must set itself up as a guarantor of the right to a truly inclusive, equitable and quality education, without exceptions.”

LtC: Given your focus on school networks as a strategy to enhance educators’ knowledge and practice, what would be some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience? 

CA: Nowadays, scholars are turning their attention to collaborative networking and all it entails. The inference is that educational networking as a policy mechanism is here to stay, and that networks represent a school improvement strategy with high expectations placed upon them (Azorín & Muijs, 2017). Networking is becoming ever necessary to tackle problems and establish the adjustments demanded by contemporary education. Some interconnected lessons derived from the penetration of networks in education are explained below (Azorín, 2017):

  • An opportunity for crossing boundaries. Networks enable the creation of a whole new scenario in which connectivity is prioritized over isolation; collectiveness over individualism; and collaboration over competitiveness.
  • A strategy for building bridges. When collaboration extends beyond schools and professionals, resources are effectively mobilized and there is an exchange of knowledge and experiences that make it possible to “learn from others”.
  • A driving force behind educational change. Networks are formed by interactive and horizontal structures that act as levers for change, leaving behind the hierarchies of the past to allow progress to gain momentum.

This way of understanding education embraces winds of change that go beyond school gates in the quest for greater collaboration. A few years ago, a couple of research stays in the United Kingdom afforded me the opportunity to see emerging networks and partnership alliances in action (Azorín & Muijs, 2018). In an attempt to promote reflection on why professional learning networks are social, political, and cultural, as well as educational (Azorín, 2019), my research in the British context offers other views of networks that focuses not only on education but also on social welfare issues and aims to target networking from a broader perspective. This results in opening up schools to the community, a topic which is not yet covered widely in educational research.

“Networking is becoming ever necessary to tackle problems and establish the adjustments demanded by contemporary education”

To position school networks at the forefront of research, in 2018 I co-edited a special issue based on new forms of participation and social transformation through networking in education (Azorín & Arnaiz, 2018) in the Spanish journal Profesorado. Revista de currículum y formación del profesorado (see Volume 22, Number 2). This edition put the focus on the expected role of collaborative networks in education, the new forms of participation and social transformation that appear under these modes of organization, and the need to disseminate ideas that contribute to the creation of knowledge within this fruitful line of current and future research.

Recently I edited another issue on leading networks in the School Leadership & Management journal (see Volume 40, Number 2-3), which boasts an excellent line-up of international authors. This edition explores leadership actions that support effective networking and promotes reflection about whether networks can impact positively on students or are merely used as an organizational structure that benefits teachers in terms of professional learning and support (Azorín, 2020b). Together the diverse set of articles in this compendium conclude that empirical evidence in this direction remains thin and requires further attention.        

The central lesson of school networks as a strategy to enhance educator’s knowledge and practice is probably that networking affords a powerful way of organizing and operating; they offer viable solutions for the future of the network society and represent a reality that is advancing towards other forms of social participation and transformation. Networks are, in essence, the constellations illuminating the next routes of educational change.

LtC: In your recent work, you argue that distributed leadership offers new opportunities to understand professional collaboration generally and in the context of professional networks specifically. What do you see as the most needed changes to policy/practice in response to this argument?

CA: While COVID-19 continues, millions of people are caught in a traumatic experience. The pandemic is causing a chronic state of uncertainty and highlighting the weaknesses of education systems to adapt to change.

At the education level, leading schools during a pandemic is a challenge of vast dimensions. Once the initial shock is over, educational leaders need to recover the helm of their schools that this unexpected virus has taken from them. In this respect, networking is becoming a good ally in the fight against COVID-19.

Prior to this period of crisis, educational research and practice had already focused on the prevalence of an important current of thought that advocates distributed leadership as a key condition for effective networking and coherent professional collaboration (Azorín, Harris & Jones, 2020; Harris & Jones, 2017). COVID-19 has accelerated networking to an unprecedented level and distributed leadership is now being used as a mechanism of coherent response to the current situation. 

In education, there is a call for collaboration and leaders are being required to network. According to Harris and Jones (2020a), “most leaders will be running on empty given the myriad of challenges that COVID-19 has created for them, so distributed leadership is a necessity to survive” (p. 246).

We have argued that the adoption of a lens of distributed leadership practice within networks will afford a better understanding of how networks operate (Azorín, Harris, & Jones, 2020). In our work, from the point of view of distributed leadership and networking we provide a three-fold classification that aims to make sense of the complexities involved in changing education policies and practices:

  • Network leadership: based on leadership through organizational connections across organizations, where the type of network dictates membership, there are no implicit barriers to entry and knowledge transfer is central to effective networking.
  • Lateral leadership: characterized by collective agency, interdependent decision making, collaborative action, formal and informal leadership patterns, collective ownership, fluid, interchangeable membership and releasing potential.
  • Distributed leadership: related to leadership by expertise within, between and across organizations, inter-changeable membership according to needs, a focus on leadership practice more than leadership position, and extending or ‘stretching’ leadership capacity as a key purpose.

In terms of policy and practice, Harris (2012) argues that “despite decades of research on school improvement, school effectiveness and system reform, some policymakers are still selecting and implementing policies that have little, if any, independent empirical evidence supporting them” (p.5). Distributed leadership perspective would shift the knowledge base on networks “away from largely normative descriptions, self-report and over assertion to more sophisticated research designs and analytical processes that would generate more rigorous and reliable evidence” (Azorín, Harris, & Jones, 2020, p. 121). If we look at the educational research, there is empirical evidence that supports the following set of propositions about the types of leadership practices that are most prevalent and effective within networks (Azorín, Harris & Jones, in press):

  1. Middle leadership supports effective networking.
  2. Distributed leadership within networks enhances innovation.
  3. Teacher leadership is an essential component of effective networking.
  4. Collaborative practices need to be learned and practiced.
  5. Formal leadership drives distributed leadership.
  6. Distributed leadership patterns matter in networking activity.
  7. Effective networks are communities of practice.
  8. Distributed leadership provides support in networked organizations.
  9. Leadership in networks is not fixed but interchangeable.
  10. Effective network leaders build and sustain professional capacity.

These findings clearly demonstrate that distributed leadership is a successful approach that can support, stimulate, and enhance networking. Within this change of outlook, a good recommendation is to take note of what evidence tells us and bring in policies that include what is functioning in practice to promote reforms that go in the right direction. It is important to facilitate links that allow distributed leadership to flourish in networks at the systemic level. To make this happen, educational leaders’ actions have to go beyond school limits and move towards a process of democratization and openness.

“Distributed leadership is a successful approach that can support, stimulate, and enhance networking.”

LtC: Educational Change expects those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?

CA: One of my priorities as an educational change scholar is opening up schools to their communities and elevate these communities’ importance in decision-making and policy. In education, as in many other aspects of life, it is important to recognize that context matters (Harris and Jones, 2018). Schools have to reflect on the context in which they are immersed, be prepared to work in collaboration networks with neighboring allies, and to take firm steps to open up to the world (Azorín, 2019).

Schools are no longer expected to merely provide an educational function or service, but to safeguard the well-being of their students and, despite the pandemic, ensure continuity of learning. They are asked to take a step forward, to foster rapprochement with their local community, neighborhood, various educational and social agents, volunteer networks, and associations (Azorín & Muijs, 2018). In the 21st century, it does not make sense to live disconnected from what is happening around us. It is vital to open up and remove the barriers that still make it difficult for millions of people to benefit from the improvement provided by the different connections they have in educational and social spheres.

Similarly, the construction of a “school without walls” could be supported, both physically and pedagogically; a renewed institution capable of transcending its own rules and questioning its own practices and relations with its surroundings. Against the backdrop of the pandemic, reimagining schooling in that sense is a reminder that the call for collaboration and networking should not be delayed any longer.

Below are 7 important factors that educational change scholars could bear in mind to support the transformation of education when they engaged in and with different school settings:

  1. Communicate to share and exchange information.
  2. Connect to learn from others.
  3. Collaborate together for a common purpose.
  4. Create new knowledge.
  5. Co-lead for distributed leadership to flourish.
  6. Circulate ideas that allow the dissemination of innovations.
  7. Catalyze the change of cultures, policies and practices.

Educational change scholars act as links that bring the value of ideas and are able to initiate social movements that enable the transformation of educational systems for the improvement of their countries. This is often done through the use of evidence-supported knowledge and advice about practices that work. Their work is to connect theory, policy, and practice, clarifying the meaning of what they do so that others can replicate it.

“Educational change scholars’ work is to connect theory, policy, and practice, clarifying the meaning of what they do so that others can replicate it.”

In short, I have published numerous results of research projects and experiences of educational innovation carried out in schools with which I had the opportunity to collaborate very closely. Often, when I share the trends in scientific literature and the proposals of some schools with others, the professionals working in them say they were unaware this knowledge was available. I have learned from these experiences how relevant it is that ideas travel from one school to another. When we know that something has worked in one school it is easier for another to want to put something similar into practice, while adapting it to its own reality. The educational change scholar has the capacity to make this possible. In summary, the interconnection between the different educational and social agents involved in the school, as well as the dissemination of their practices, is part of the formula for educational change.

LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?

CA: Unquestionably, 2020 has been a turning point, a before and after in people’s lives. The pandemic has marked the end of the educational journey of the previous decades. Hargreaves and Fullan (2020) recently stated that “educational reform in the postpandemic age must be transformational and not seek to return to normal” (p. 327). Beyond the COVID-19 supernova (Azorín (2020a) “we need to come out of this crisis as a stronger society, with a fairer and more supportive educational system that really can change lives. Otherwise, we will have missed out on an opportunity” (p. 388).  In the coming years, educational change is going to take huge strides in terms of networking, leadership and innovation.

First, the monitoring of collaborative networks that have sprung up in education and society, especially in these uncertain times, needs to be researched. Since the beginning of the pandemic “the chains of favors have multiplied with initiatives of support and help towards the most vulnerable” (Azorín, 2020a, p. 383).  If networks are at the front-line of the crisis, where formal and informal groups connected by social ties have emerged in force. 

Second, Harris and Jones (2020a) state that “a new chapter is being written about school leadership in disruptive times that will possibly overtake and overshadow all that was written before on the topic” (p. 246). At the school level, there is no single person able to respond to all the demands and challenges deriving from COVID-19. In contrast, many actors are playing crucial roles at this moment and distributed leadership is positioning itself as a viable strategy for the present and future of education (Azorín, Harris, &Jones, in press). 

Third, within this uncertain atmosphere, it is worth asking if COVID-19 can act as a channel for innovation and change in education. I agree with Fullan and Quinn (2020), who conclude, “Our sense is that there are many people (students, teachers, parents and others) who see a dire need for improvement in learning systems and are willing to work toward that end. With the right combination of action positive system change could occur at a more rapid rate than at any time in the past century” (p. 22).

In any case, surely the above ideas can serve as beacons to illuminate the change in education that is so needed and will mark the new coordinates on which we will continue to teach, write and research.

References

Azorín, C. (2017). Redes de colaboración entre escuelas inglesas para la mejora de la inclusión socioeducativa. Profesorado. Revista de currículum y formación del profesorado, Número Extraordinario, 29-48.

Azorín, C. (2019). The emergence of professional learning networks in Spain. Journal of Professional Capital and Community, 4(1), 36-51.

Azorín, C. (2020a). Beyond COVID-19 supernova. Is another education coming? Journal of Professional Capital and Community, 5(3-4), 381-390.

Azorín, C. (2020b). Leading networks. School Leadership & Management, 40(2-3), 105-110.

Azorín, C. and Ainscow, M. (2020). Guiding schools on their journey towards inclusion. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 24(1), 58-76.

Azorín, C. and Arnaiz, P. (2018). Redes de colaboración en educación. Nuevas formas de participación y transformación social. Profesorado. Revista de currículum y formación del profesorado, 22(2), 1-6.

Azorín, C. and Muijs, D. (2017). Networks and collaboration in Spanish education policy. Educational Research, 59(3), 273-296.

Azorín, C. and Muijs, D. (2018). Redes de colaboración en educación. Evidencias recogidas en escuelas de Southampton. Profesorado. Revista de currículum y formación del profesorado, 22(2), 7-27.

Azorín, C., Harris, A. and Jones, M. (2020). Taking a distributed perspective on leading professional learning networks. School Leadership & Management, 40(2-3), 111-127.

Azorín, C., Harris, A. and Jones, M. (in press). Future Leadership. Distributed Leadership and Networking: Exploring the Evidence Base. In D. Netolicky (Ed.), Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership. Routledge.

Fullan, M. and Quinn, J. (2020). Education Reimagined: The Future of Learning, available at: https://edudownloads.azureedge.net/msdownloads/Microsoft-EducationReimagined-Paper.pdf (accessed 27 November 2020).

Hargreaves, A. (2020). Moving: A Memoir of Education and Social Mobility. Bloomington, United States: Solution Tree Press.

Hargreaves, A. and Fullan, M. (2020). Professional capital after the pandemic: revisiting and revising classic understandings of teachers’ work. Journal of Professional Capital and Community, 5(3-4), 327-336.

Harris, A. (2012). Lead the change series Q&A with Alma Harris. AERA Educational Change Special Interest Group, 20, 6.

Harris, A. and Jones, M. (2017). Professional learning communities: A strategy for school and system improvement? Wales Journal Education, 19(1), 331-333.

Harris, A. and Jones, M. (2018). Why context matters: A comparative perspective on education reform and policy implementation. Educational Research for Policy and Practice, 17, 195-207.

Harris, A. and Jones, M. (2020a). COVID 19 -school leadership in disruptive times. School Leadership & Management, 40(4), 243-247.

Harris, A. and Jones, M. (2020b). System Recall. Leading for Equity and Excellence in Education. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin.

UNESCO (2020). Global Education Monitoring Report 2020. Inclusion and education: all means all. Paris: UNESCO.

ABOUT THE LTC SERIES: The Lead the Change series, featuring renowned educational change experts from around the globe, serves to highlight promising research and practice, to offer expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change, and to spark collaboration within the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association.  Kristin Kew, Chair; Mireille Hubers; Program Chair; Na Mi Bang, Secretary/Treasurer; Min Jung KimGraduate Student Representative; Jennie Weiner, LtC Series Editor; Alexandra Lamb, Production Editor.

A Conversation about School Improvement Networks and Collaborative Inquiry in Chile

This week, Mauricio Pino-Yancovic and Alvaro González talk with IEN about their new book on the Chilean Ministry of Education’s recent improvement strategy relying on school networks. Written with Luis Ahumada and Chris ChapmanSchool Improvement Networks and Collaborative Inquiry: Fostering Systematic Change in Challenging Contexts describes the processes and challenges of implementing collaborative practices between schools.

Why this book, why now?

The School Improvement Strategy was put in place at a moment when the Chilean school system was going through a period of significant structural reforms to improve the quality and equity of public education. A basic principle of this reform effort was to produce a cultural change from competition to collaboration as a way to produce the necessary conditions for systemic improvement. The School Improvement Networks (SINs) were instrumental to making that change. The Networks were mandated by the Chilean Ministry of Education to bring together between 5 and 15 schools, each represented by their principal and curriculum coordinator, a representative of the municipal department of education, and one or two Ministry supervisors. Through LIDERES EDUCATIVOS, a Center at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, we were commissioned by the Ministry to produce a yearly monitoring report of networks across the country based on questionnaire data. In addition, in 2016 we did a qualitative study of 15 networks in different regions to deeply understand how networks had been formed and were initially developing.

This book was born out of the necessity to open a dialogue with scholars around the world investigating networking and collaboration. We have learned very much from US and Canadian as well as European scholars. In fact, the opportunity to publish our manuscript came from an invitation by Chris Brown at the University of Durham and Cindy Poortman at the University of Twente to write for a series on Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) they edit with Emerald. Also, we have collaborated in this book with Chris Chapman from the University of Glasgow who has been a key supporter and friend in our projects. Finally, we were driven by the conviction that we had something meaningful to contribute from the Global South regarding collaboration and networking. Although the book is focused in Chile, we are aware that the challenge of developing a culture of collaboration in a context of privatization, competition and isolation, resonates with many countries.

What did you learn in working on this book that you didn’t know before?

From our experience studying and working with networks, we realized that it is much more powerful to think about the challenge of improvement from a systemic perspective rather than an individual one. Networks facilitate developing such a systemic approach, but we were first hand witnesses of how difficult it was to enact such change in practice, especially in a competitive environment such as the Chilean one.

By pulling together the evidence from several studies about networking, we produced a clearer picture of what networking among schools looks like in practice. This picture shows us that there are three key elements that need to be in place to ensure the sustainability of networks:

  • Building professional capital among network actors which would allow them to increase their capacity for collective change and improvement
  • Developing network leadership capacities for leading upwards, leading laterally, and leading downwards, which mobilizes influence and power relations within and outside networks, which is crucial in a challenging context
  • Establishing an appropriate system infrastructure to support and legitimize changing cultural patterns beyond the remit of networks themselves.

What’s happened in these contexts since you wrote the book?

In October 2019, Chileans took to the streets demanding social reforms aimed at tackling inequality and changes to a constitution that dates back to the 1980s, during the dictatorship of general Augusto Pinochet. It has been four months of massive protests and harsh police repression, which have mobilized the country to hold political actors to account on several topics. Education has been a central issue in these past months, as social and economic inequality is reproduced and reinforced in our neoliberal-inspired school system. Teachers and school leaders have had to deal with the consequences of this social discontent in schools and, in some cases, networks have been a key support in helping them to decide how to approach the situation. School networks seems to be an appropriate path to continue supporting a cultural change.

Unfortunately, the current government had decided earlier in 2019 to partially withdraw support to the School Improvement Networks strategy, although they have not phased it out altogether. Ministry supervisors were redeployed to focus on providing support and intervention directly to underperforming schools. Nonetheless, in most cases, networks have continued their work as school leaders value the opportunities to share and exchange experiences among schools in the same geographical area. In addition, we have been invited to support several school networks project at district levels. The findings described in this book are also being used by those who are pushing forward strategies based on meaningful collaboration for school improvement.

What’s next — what are you working on or what do you hope will happen in these contexts?

The agreement between the Ministry of Education and the LIDERES EDUCATIVOS Center ended in December 2019 but a renewal application was submitted, and we are awaiting a response. In the meantime, everyone in our team has gone to work elsewhere although still linked to the issue of networking and collaboration for school improvement. For instance, Mauricio is now a researcher of the Center for Advanced Research in Education (CIAE), Institute of Education at Universidad de Chile, working on projects to develop and support school networks using Collaborative Inquiry, and working closely with districts on the systemic improvement of the territory. Álvaro has gone to work as a postdoctoral researcher at Universidad de O’Higgins and he is starting a three-year study about the support provided to underperforming schools in Chile, where interorganizational collaboration and learning play a key role. Luis Ahumada has returned to his position as Professor at the School of Psychology at PUCV, still involved in educational leadership. Also, we hope to continue our collaboration with Chris Chapman, Chris Brown, Cindy Poortman and many other scholars that we had the chance to know through the ICSEI PLN network and elsewhere.

What do you hope those working in other parts of the world will take away from your experiences?

Many educational systems have opted for the strategy of networking to support improvement not only for schools in difficulty but also entire systems. This movement builds on the empirical evidence showing how difficult it is for a school to improve on its own. Our book shows that in marketized school systems, such as the Chilean one, it is possible to overcome the logic of individual accountability, promoting collaboration and co-responsibility between all levels of the system. We hope that our book will inspire decision- and policy-makers to promote networking at different levels of the system and to create spaces where collective support and democratization allow for the development of a different bond among schools and the communities they serve.