For some, mentioning the word “networking” will conjure images of corporate expenses, company credit cards and excess; for others, memories of name badges, cheap wine and awkward conversations. And for many, the term will remind them of the explosion of online social networks – just a decade ago non-existent and now ubiquitous.
It is the exponential growth of these social networks that is one of the driving forces behind the renewed interest in networks and the potential that they hold. Understanding and harnessing this potential could bring great reward for schools and teachers alike. While online social networks might be new, Professor David H Hargreaves in Personalising Learning (2004) points out that “networks (themselves) are as old as the human race”. Tribes, for example, were fundamental to the architecture of early human society.
Networks, put most simply, are just connections between items – usually organisations or people. To get a bit more technical and academic about it: they consist of nodes (in our case representing people or schools) and links, known as “edges” in graph theory. Nodes that have a large number of connections to other nodes are often described as hubs and when a large number of nodes are connected as a group then that is known as a component.
The distance between nodes is the number of edges (links) between those nodes. A network with very short distances between nodes is usually termed as tight, whereas a network with long distances between nodes is known as sparse. It is from these connections, lack of connections and the various distances between connections that networks can provide their benefits.
It is generally true that in social networks, nodes tend to cluster together to form tight groups. Teachers in schools are a good example of this: departments are often very strongly connected networks. The whole-school staff, while being more loosely connected, are still relatively tightly connected.
There are of course great benefits to these tight networks. It means information flows quickly and efficiently around them. Lesson plans for example might be shared in a department and a great technique that the maths department has developed might be shared with the whole school. However, there are downsides to these tight clusters. It means that the information shared around these networks is often homogenous and can become stale. This is of course a bad thing and can lead to siloism.
But it does provide teachers with an opportunity. If the gaps in knowledge (known as “structural holes”) between schools in networks can be bridged then this will provide a raft of benefits. Ronald Burt, an expert on network analysis, has conducted numerous studies showing the benefits of bridging structural holes, including the sharing, development and creation of new ideas (Structural Holes and Good Ideas, 2004). If teachers are able to come into contact with each other more often then it could provide fantastic opportunities for them to gain access to new knowledge.
“Bridging structural holes”, then, will prove of great benefit to teachers, even if it sounds a little daunting and potentially a little painful. All it really means, of course, is networking – linking people with different knowledge and skills to share these for mutual benefit. Fullan and Hargreaves have argued convincingly that teachers must be allowed to work together, or as they put it “build (their) human capital through social capital” (Professional Capital, 2013). If teachers are able to network effectively then the benefits could be huge for schools, teachers and students.
Famously it is often claimed that if the human race were imagined as one huge network, each human would be six or fewer connections away (interestingly, analysis of data from Microsoft Instant Messenger showed that, for this medium at least, the average distance between users was 6.6).
It is hard to say what the average distance between teachers in this country and abroad would be, but whatever it is, it seems clear that the more we actively try to reduce the distance and grow networks of teachers, the better. It might mean a few more days with your name plastered to your jacket but, ultimately, it will be worth it.
Chris Smith is research co-ordinator at SSAT. The SSAT Achievement Show is a practitioner-led event showcasing best practice nationally. This year’s show takes place on June 26. Visit www.ssatuk.co.uk/achievementshow2014