The first time attendee at a principals’ centre conference arrives promptly at the beginning of the second day without having had a chance to first consult the programme. Twenty to thirty people are drinking coffee, eating pastries, and milling comfortably between four or five conversation groups scattered throughout the lounge area. After thirty minutes of good talk on an issue of special interest to her, the newcomer looks at her watch and feels guilty: ‘But what are we supposed to be doing?’ she asks the woman next to her. ‘This’, she is quickly assured.
(Lieberman and Grolnick, 1996:1)
In recent years, teacher networks have been portrayed, in the American school improvement literature at least, as part of the ‘new professionalism’ (McLaughlin, 1997) although many of the examples used actually date from the 1970s; for example, McLaughlin cites the National Writing Project funded in 1974, and Lieberman and Grolnick (1996) cite the work of Allen Parker (1977) and Goodlad (1977) in documenting the development of teacher networks. In Britain too we have seen manifestations of teacher networking, for example, linked to the Schools Council curriculum projects of the 1960s and 1970s. There has always been a considerable degree of subject-related networking fostered by the subject associations and local education authority (LEA) inspectors and advisors and, in the 1980s, networking was fostered by TVEI (the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative). However, it was relatively uncommon for networking to be an explicit goal. A notable exception is CARN (Collaborative Action Research Network) established in 1976 specifically to facilitate teachers’ networking on a worldwide basis although, as its founder reports, the organization has increasingly become less a network of teachers and more a network of higher education academics (Elliott, 1996b). Networking is integral to the very nature of action research in that it necessarily involves individuals and groups working within particular contexts and on specific cases. Therefore, participants need to gain access to other cases and engage in critical friendship in order to challenge their own perspectives and practices. Action research implies a shift from ‘didactics’ to ‘dialectics’ in professional development pedagogy (Bell, 1989).