Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Right Network for the Right Problem: Tackling Challenging Educational Systems Problems-And Spurring Effective Collective Action-Requires a Network Designed for That Purpose

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Right Network for the Right Problem: Tackling Challenging Educational Systems Problems-And Spurring Effective Collective Action-Requires a Network Designed for That Purpose

Article excerpt

Educators are increasingly realizing that individuals working in isolation can't adequately address the teaching and learning problems facing us today, whether it's the individual teacher toiling alone in the classroom or the isolated school in a district. The fact is, the problems of achievement, attainment, and equal opportunity that educators grapple with today weren't created by individuals. They were created by systems. And they won't be addressed through isolated action.

Educators need to find ways to produce effective coordination among the many processes and actors that are part of the achievement equation. Faced with challenges of their own, many other sectors have turned to collective action networks --otherwise known in education as communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991), professional learning communities (DuFour & DuFour, 2010; Hord, 1997), and design partnerships (Penuel, Coburn, & Gallagher, 2013). In large-scale engineering design, collective action has been responsible for creating the Boeing 787 Dreamliner; in software engineering, for developing the Linux operating system; and in health care, for solving the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) puzzle. In education, our version of collective action is to help education systems and the individuals in them perform teaching and learning tasks better. Instead of teachers doing this in isolation, with their insights locked away in their local settings, the focus on networks is about releasing that nascent collective energy in education. The aim of network activity is to solve problems of practice more quickly by creating ways for more people to take advantage of the skill, expertise, and knowledge of many others. When the network is large, you can tap the creative efforts of many different people, increasing the odds that someone somewhere will figure out something better.


Here, we describe one particular network form --networked improvement communities (Bryk, Gomez, & Grunow, 2011; Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, & LeMahieu, 2015)--that can be of great value to educators as they tackle complex problems of practice.

Two kinds of collective action networks

But first, let's look at collaborative arrangements more broadly. They're not created equal. Leaders who want to take advantage of the power of networks to solve education problems have to pick and grow the right kind ofnetwork for the goals they seek to advance.

The kind of problem that educators face determines the kind of network they should build. Broadly speaking, we can divide the world of collective action networks into at least two kinds: sharing networks and execution networks. In a community whose overarching goal is sharing information, the coordination bar is set lower than in a community whose purpose is common action to achieve measureable improvements on a problem.

Sharing networks

In the education sector over the past decade or so, we've developed a great deal of experience in starting and maintaining sharing communities, like communities of practice. Members may engage in activities such as gathering and analyzing information about a problem, and individuals in the community may share solutions they've found. The raison d'etre of sharing networks is to use collective energy to support individual action and agency.

One powerful example of a sharing community is the Math Forum (Herrick, 2009). In 1992, a visionary math educator named Gene Klotz recognized that math pedagogy needed to change. The research and practice community was learning that effective math pedagogy should be much more problemand project-centered rather than involving a steady diet of worksheets, lectures, and drills. Yet teachers had few ways to access this pedagogy and associated materials. With support from the National Science Foundation, Klotz and his colleagues created the Geometry Forum, now known as the Math Forum (Renninger & Shumar, 2002; Renninger et al. …

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