Human relationships are and will be the engine of the educational transformation in the 21st century

Human relationships are and will be the engine of the educational transformation in the 21st century

University of California San Diego Professor of Education Alan Daly is one of the leaders of the NetEduProject. In this interview he answers questions relating to the role of the social networks and learning ecosystems in the world of education. He shares the importance of cultivating and weaving social relationships in schools and communities to build social networks and learning ecosystems. And of course, today we share a well known image in the NetEduProject: human towers in Catalonia, Spain, a gràfic example of what human relationships can build. At the same time, talking about human relationships in this context of global pandemic and social distance, really touches our heart. It can be missunderstood or contradictory, but in our times social relationships are more important and powerful than ever. Thus, focusing in human relationships and learning ecosystems enable us to embrace our own sense of humanity and humility, connecting in deep and meaningful ways that are going to make fundamental change not just in education but in our broader society. 

Can you tell us what is a social network in education, and give us an example?

When people hear ‘social networks’ they imagine Facebook or Twitter or something like this and this is a kind of social network. But the kinds of social networks that we work in the NetEduProject with are primarily in schools and communities, with teachers, and really what I’m interested in understanding is their sets of relationships in between and amongst themselves. In education we have spent a lot of our time thinking about human capital. So human capital is our own experiences and our training and our knowledge and all that resides inside of ourselves. And we haven’t spent as much time thinking about social capital. Social capital is the knowledge that exists between two individuals, or the potential for that knowledge to exist between two individuals. So, I have some knowledge and experiences inside of myself and you have knowledge and experiences inside of yourself. If we can make a relationship together in some way, then we can exchange that knowledge. And that knowledge or those ideas or information, those all have real potential: They are capital, they have value to them. So the first thing we have to understand is that the reason that I’m interested in networks is that I’m interested in the value that comes from social relationships.  And so, a network, if you can imagine in your mind’s eye is a set of these little dots. Each one of these dots typically represents a person, and then you can imagine lines between these dots, which represent the relationships. And those are the kinds of networks that we look at. And we can look at a variety of different ones and different types of relationships that people may have.

Why are social networks important in processes of educational reform and change efforts?

For a long time in education we have approached change as just a knowledge problem. Meaning, if only we could get people more knowledge, training and skills there would be this increase in change and performance. And I think that’s given us incremental improvements but not transformative improvements. And I think the reason behind that is that we have undervalued the interactions and the relationships that people have in systems. So if we think about change in the school or any kind of organisation, change happens between and among people. When you and I are together trying to make sense of something, we’re in effect changing, and my understanding of what’s happening is changing because of my interaction with you. So, in my work, I’m foregrounding the importance of the social interaction and backgrounding the knowledge piece, whereas in most educational change, they foreground the knowledge piece and background the relational piece. Now, I’m not saying that knowledge and information and training aren’t important, I work at a university so obviously I believe that they are, but I believe that we have probably undervalued the importance of our human connectedness and the quality of our relationships.

Why do we need to take an ecosystemic perspective in educational reforms to achieve success?

One of the things that we see in our work is that we have to think about taking a systems perspective, meaning that we can’t be thinking about the small, discrete parts of an organisation to really effect big transformative change. We’ve got to be thinking in terms of an ecosystem. And so if we’re only thinking about people that are in the formal leadership positions like principals or other community leaders, I think we miss a great deal of what’s happening in the system itself. So let me give you an example: Sometimes we can go into a school and we can look at these social interactions that we were talking about earlier and it turns out that there’s a teacher who a lot of people turn to for advice or knowledge or information, and in a way that person is a kind of a leader in the system although they don’t hold a formal leadership position in the same way a principal might hold. So with the NetEdu and the ScholWeavers tool for example, we trying to empower these kind of informal leaders among the school community. So if we only targeted the principals, those with the formal authority and leadership, we might very well miss out on really important leaders in the system. So in effect, what I’m trying to say is that leadership is more than just a title or a formal position; it has to do with the set of relationships we have between and amongst ourselves because those can be consequential.

When thinking about the leadership of learning ecosystems we like to highlight the importance of trust. And I think trust is a really important element in any kind of leadership role. So, the way that trust gets formed is that it’s an assessment of risk. I’m going to interact with you and I’m going to take a risk with you when I share something that you won’t make fun of me or you won’t laugh at me or you won’t think that I’m ridiculous. So I take a risk when I interact with you. And in turn you take a risk when you interact with me. And that exchange with one another, that helps build trust between us. And I think this idea about trust is a key element of transformative leadership. If we really want to move systems, it’s really about the quality of the relationships that we have between people. And transformative leaders have the ability to take those relationships and help move them to another level. I think the other part that goes along with transformative leadership is I think, it’s this idea about vulnerability. And, a leader’s ability to be vulnerable with somebody else, to open themselves up, to indicate that they’re not sure or they’re maybe not clear about the next step to take, I think can actually be a really freeing thing to those people that are following that leader. For far too long we’ve believed that the leader should have all of the answers. I’m sort of pushing on this idea that maybe this vulnerability is the new capacity for leaders of the 21st century.

What helps to promote trust in the system? Is it something that leaders can do?

I think certainly the leaders really have to take an important first step on that,. Because if they create the conditions for people to be able to interact and be vulnerable with one another, then they’re more likely to do so. If a leader creates the conditions that it’s not safe to take a risk, or to be vulnerable, or to seek one another for advice, then people are unlikely to do that. There’s been some really interesting work that’s been done by Bryk and colleagues in Chicago and we’ve done some work on trust too, and one of the big interesting findings that they find is that in those schools that have higher levels of trust between and among staff and between staff and students, those schools have higher academic productivity than schools in which there are lower levels of trust. So, this isn’t about some magical program that is in place in the school; it’s about the quality of the relationships. And leaders have an important role in setting the tenor and the conditions for those interactions to take place. But that’s not everything, right? You have to create the conditions for colleagues to share with one another.

Why are ever-popular technical plans and performance incentives not enough to transform education and society?

When we think about social or educational change, the sort of simple answers are these kind of technical fixes, right? If only we had more of this, if only teachers had more training, if only we had more money, then everything would be perfect. But we know that isn’t necessarily the case. So we can think about two kinds of leaders. We can think about technical leaders and they have the ability to sort of execute these technical plans and blueprints and we can think about adaptive leaders, those are the ones that are going to question the assumptions and try to embrace the context and try to think about the human relational capacity that’s going on within the system. And most often, we think about the technical things because they’re easy to measure and easy to take care of,. But in fact they don’t necessarily move us very far. So, let me give you an example. Here in Europe, which is wonderful, a lot of people drive stick-shift cars, manual cars right? In the US we’re far too lazy for this, so we just drive automatic cars, right? But let’s pretend I’m here and I don’t know how to drive a manual car very well and so eventually I burn out the clutch on this manual car. Now, I can bring it to a mechanic and the mechanic can replace the clutch and I can go and drive off, but a few months later I will be back again to have that car repaired. So that mechanic effectively has taken care of the technical problem, the broken car, but that person is not addressing the adaptive issue which is the driver inside the car. So unless we undertake the long-term deep work that is necessary for educational change to happen at the adaptive level, it’s unlikely we’ll move forward very far. And as long as our policies remain at this technical level, we will never be able to push to that next level.

What is an innovative and collaborative climate in schools and why do you think work should be done to promote it?

I think something that is happening in education worldwide is that we have become addicted to outside expertise. We have come to believe that the only way that change can happen is that some expert from the outside can help show us the light and lead us to the Promised Land. And sometimes that’s really important. We need external expertise and partners and folks to help move us forward. But I also wonder and believe that if we set up the learning ecosystems and the structures that are necessary for people to access learning and knowledge that already resides within their own system, amazing things could happen. You know, if you went into a school and you asked most teachers: “Who is the expert on language?” Or: “Who is the expert on maths?” or: “Who is the expert on science?” Or: “Mrs. Jones, a couple of doors down, what’s her expertise?” Some teachers may know, others might not know. We don’t often do an audit of the expertise within schools to celebrate the knowledge that resides within teachers and leaders within schools. We often, our first starting point, is to look outside. And what happens when we look outside is it decreases a person’s sense of efficacy. It’s a belief that somebody else outside of me has to tell me what to do and that erodes my efficacy. And a sense of efficacy is incredibly important. Bandura and other researchers have shown that my belief about my ability to reach and teach a child is as important or even more important than what that kid walks in the door with. And then we take that individual efficacy and we think about that across the school or across the system and we build the collective efficacy of systems to move forward.

Then we can start with this idea about innovation. What sometimes people get obsessed about is about innovation itself, like: What’s the thing we’re going to do? And that’s a really important thing to pay attention to. But it turns out that one person’s innovative idea is someone else’s everyday practice. So by labelling something or some approach as an innovation we might not be really looking at something that is innovative at all, it just could be somebody else’s regular practice. So what we’ve tried to do in our work is to move off innovation itself and to look at the climate and conditions that surround an organisation or a school or a district’s ability to create a climate that allows innovation to happen. So what do we know about climates in which innovation takes place? Well, number one, they’re about risk-taking, which means it’s got to be ok to fail. And most systems are not okay with people failing. But our argument has always been “Fail, fail fast and fail forward”. So that you can redesign, retool, reinvent and continue moving forward. But if systems don’t create the kinds of conditions so that people feel safe to do that, innovation won’t happen.  The second thing, is that we’ve got to create an opportunity to create diversity of perspectives. So, oftentimes what happens, we surround ourselves with people who think like us in some way and that doesn’t allow us to have a diversity of perspective and opinion. And that’s what so wonderful about doing international work, is that it opens up your eyes and it opens up your perspectives and allows you to see the world from a new and different way. So first, we have to have risk-tolerant climates; second, we have to look at a variety of perspectives. And then thirdly, we have to be able to question the assumptions that underlie our work. We have to be willing to take a hard look at what we’re doing and ask ourselves the important question: Why are we doing this? Where is our work really rooted? What’s the why of what we’re doing? Because sometimes we forget that. And learning ecosystems that are innovative understand those three things in a deeper level.

How can policymakers help to create the conditions for educators to work together, share practices and develop their profession?

There are several things I can think of: Number one is we have to stop shaming and blaming educators. It’s this belief that if we have a big enough stick or we shame them enough, they will somehow improve. I think this is a pretty misguided way of thinking about things. So it turns out that if you do this, you’ll get incremental improvement but never to the next level of improvement. Let me give you an example: When systems or people feel under threat, what happens to your body is, you kind of close down, right? Your fingers and your hands get clammy, and you’re sort of: are you going to fight or are you going to run? And so, when systems feel like they’re under threat because they’re being shamed or they’re being humiliated or they’re being punished in some way, it turns out that they respond in very similar ways. They tend to circle the wagons. They tend to act in various stereotypic ways, they don’t innovate, they close off communication, decisions only get made by a few people. So, organisations in themselves often act just like people do when they’re under threat, which is what I think is happening here. So, when you’re under threat, what happens is that you feel like you have a big stick over your head and it turns out you don’t make your best decisions, your most creative decisions, your most innovative decisions when you have a big stick over your head. So, the idea is we have to remove fear, because it really undermines innovation, it undermines risk-taking, it undermines our ability to create meaningful and deep relationships and its’s going to be those meaningful and deep relationships that are authentic, that are genuine, that are imbued with trust. That’s what’s going to make the difference. Number two, focus on culture and climate within organisations. Actually make that something that we are intentionally thinking about, and measuring and trying to make progress towards. Because we know that the climate that exists and how people feel when they’re in a climate, that’s really important for their own productivity. You know within minutes, when you walk into a school as an educator, as a researcher or as a parent, the feeling tone of that school. You just sense this, right? Human beings sense this, we’re social creatures, we sense this. So how does one pay better and closer attention to the climate and the culture? And if that becomes something that we’re measuring, because what gets measured gets done, then that has people pay attention to these important, what we’ve often called soft skills around climate and culture and trust. And this is exactly what we do in the NetEduProject.

How useful is social network data or the data generated by the SchoolWeavers Tool? Can these data be used for educational change?

I think we live in a data-rich, information-poor climate right now. I think there’s tons of data around, we’re swimming in data, but we don’t know how to make meaning of it necessarily. So I can make very pretty charts, graphs but where does the meaning-making take place? How does one sense-make around data? So part of what we’ve been doing in our work is that we’re actually feeding data back into systems and then rather than telling them they should do X, Y and Z, we’re actually leading them through a process, so that they reach conclusions that are going to be useful to them. We’re creating the opportunity for people to sense-make around data. And to try to figure out what are they going to do on Thursday morning, it isn’t enough that we just hand people data, it’s the way that they’re going to interact with it. So how do we think about creating the conditions for people to interact around data in a way that it doesn’t feel threatening, in a way that they can make meaning? And how do we also provide them data that is actually useful, not just a bunch of numbers and statistics that we’re collecting, although that can also be useful. But also about the quality of what’s happening within systems. A lot of places have students a full year and then they give them the big test at the end of the year and somehow, next year they should improve based on the previous year’s results. Those sort of long-cycle assessments. I’m not so clear those always help to guide instruction as much as formative assessments. So, giving you feedback on a more regular basis that’s going to have to do with the work that you’re doing every day. So, I think formative assessments are much more useful for school and communities. Now, that kind of data might not be as useful for a policymaker. But the question is: How do we help policymakers see the complexity of the data? That the world isn’t just reduced to some small soundbite. That the work that we’re doing is actually quite complex, quite nuanced, and in order to make progress we have to sustain that work over time. So I’m not advocating for a certain kind of data or a certain kind of approach. What I’m advocating for is creating and opening up a space for dialogue to take place. And in that dialogue, amazing things can happen, as long as we don’t rush to decisions about something or misread what the data says.

Do you think that social networks and learning ecosystems can help to improve student achievement?

There has been some work that has been done in this space and we have done some work in this space also. I’ll give you an example. I taught sixth grade, and so this is for eleven- and twelve-year-old kids and I loved it. And I entered a grade level so I entered a collaborative group with other sixth grade teachers. And it turned out that the group of people that I was working with were amazing. They were thoughtful, they were passionate. They were great teachers. And I learned so much from them, I gained so much. And that enriched my experience as an educator but it also enriched the experience of my students. They benefited from the social network in which I resided. Now let me contrast that to a colleague that graduated in the same year as I did, was teaching in another sixth grade class just across town. The people in that group didn’t talk to each other, well, they didn’t even like each other, they would actively ignore one another.  And so therefore, he didn’t have access to the other knowledge and ideas and information that I had access to, just for the mere random chance that I ended up in this school and he ended up in that school. And so therefore, his students also didn’t have access to the knowledge and understanding and perception and passion that his colleagues had. Like I did. And so to think that teacher social networks are not influential on students, to me, it confounds not only research but it confounds what we know intuitively about the ways in which people work and live.

Do you think that social networks are important for supporting students who are marginalised or living in poverty?

I think they’re incredibly important. I’m going to put a little caveat there for a second though. Because, when we think about a social network, meaning the connections between and among people, it can also be that bad stuff moves through social networks too. They’re not all shiny and puppies and rainbows, because sometimes bad ideas can move through networks, or beliefs about the potential of students can move through networks. So I’ve been in places before where people don’t believe that kids that come from poverty can actually achieve at the same level of their colleagues that are of higher socio-economic standards. That kind of belief or knowledge also moves through social networks. So the network in and of itself is not good or bad. What I’m arguing for, is building deep, high-quality relationships and then watching what is moving through those and also allowing pro-social interactions to take place that are going to help students. So I think this is a nuanced description. But in general, when we think about teachers having the ability to access one another, then I think this is a really important and powerful idea, because beliefs can also be shaped by our interaction. Especially if I have an emotional connection with somebody or I consider them a strong friend. I’ll give you an example. So, if I go to a training as an educator and the presenter is sharing this wonderful idea and he’s got great PowerPoints and he’s very passionate about what he wants to share and you and I are together in this meeting and we’re really close friends and we walk out together and I’m kind of excited about this idea, but I turn to you and I say: “Hey, what do you think about this idea?” and you say: “Hmm, I don’t think so.” I’m less likely to uptake that idea, because we have a strong connection. So in a way our relationship actually undermined my ability to go and try and do something new and something different. So I think my point here is that we have to be mindful about these networks and more importantly I think we have to visualise them. Our networks, we’re surrounded by these invisible sets of relationships that impact us in ways we’re not even aware. So how do we make them visible? And interesting work is suggesting that these networks influence how happy we are, even our weight. So these networks are consequential on our lives in ways that we can’t even imagine. So the question is: For schools, how do we help visualise these networks in ways that they can be used as a force of good? Particularly in communities that are impoverished or suffer from poverty? And I want to take this one level further, because I don’t think it’s just the networks within schools, I think we have to think much broader than that as a placed based learning ecosystem. I think it’s about the networks and connections out to communities, between community members. I think what we have to start doing is thinking about ourselves as network weavers; that we are connecting and linking together these networks in support of kids and families that are in poverty. Because at the end of the day, when we can lift children, and the families and communities that are in poverty, we all benefit. We all benefit. And so the question is: How do we do that in deep and meaningful ways that honours those communities? And I think that can be accomplished through supporting and nurturing our networks and learning ecosystems.

Interview adapted from The Social Observatory La Caixa 2018