Practical wisdom from the NetEdu Workshop on Cultivating trust in learning ecosystems

Last Tuesday January 19th 2021 we celebrated our NetEdu Workshop on TRUST as a fundamental seed to be cultivated in learning ecosystems. It was lovely to see and listen to you all, and was amazing to share the learning space with more than 40 leaders and educators from the 5 continents that are really devoting their energy on making educational systems more human, relational and interwoven. The term ‘Learning Ecosystem‘ is gaining a powerful attention across the world -and this will increase in 2021- as a crucial approach to transform education and enhance learning opportunities for all, empower every student as a changemaker, weave caring and meaningful relationships within and across school boarders, enable school-community collaboration, grow individual and collective well-being and foster planet sustainability. But the huge expectations on the concept and named outcomes contrast with the low research based knoledge and understanding we have around how we can weave these human ecosystems and try to enhance all these relevant and ambicious challenges. And this is why the NetEdu Community and all these faces are so important!

Meditating and connecting to our collective purpose

However, there is already a big consensus around the idea of TRUST being the glue of learning ecosystems, but we strugle when we are willing to land in schools, districts and cities and start weaving meaningful relationships based on individual and collective TRUST. And this was the purpose of our session, to capture our collective experience and expertise to enlight the dialogue with practical wisdom. For this, we had the wonderful close testimony from three leadership teams from diverse countries that are using our tools to collect data around TRUST in their educational ecosystem levels and build TRUST as a crucial seed and sistemic outcome. Down here I will share some of the highlights of the session shared by members and facilitators, not as a conclusion but as a starting point to continue our glocal conversation and learning journey around how are we building trust in worldwide learning ecosystems.

One of the words that best captured the very rich and deep discussion that we had was “together“. Trust is built when we engage around shared hopes and dreams, and are able and willing to work together to achieve them. It can be expressed through words with a “com-“prefix, that indicate togetherness, such as “Com-passion” (shared struggle) and “Com-fort”(shared strength). Trust is also built when there is integration and “togetherness” individually across heart, mind and spirit, and organizationally and systemically across different systems levels and objectives, for instance education department, district, school leaders, educators, learners and community levels. 

In this sense, being integrated within ourselves also allows for healthy mirroring to occur. It is now known that the phenomenon of  mirroring is a neurological, biological and emotional occurence. We work well together when we are able to mirror back to each other what is happening in our system. Students thrive in environments where teachers and leaders are able to mirror to them what agency looks like. It is therefore so important for us to attend to these levels of teacher and leader wellbeing, so that these environments of healthy mirroring can occur – and not to focus solely on what is happening at the learner level. When leadership and educator levels are well, and are integrated across heart, mind and spirit, environments are created where not only learners, but everybody within that system can thrive. 

Social Network analysis helps visualize emotional and intangible exchanges in the ecosystem

We also discussed how trust struggles to emerge because of the lack of “familiarity” with an organization, with someone or with her or his work: familiarity is connected to empathy and compassion, and may emerge from an authentic interest in the other person and from testing ways to connect with his or her work. This last point is particularly salient for trustful interactions in inter-organizational contexts, where people may have a preconception of how distinct their different organizations and actions are. In this sense, a “silo structure” and individualistic culture, where there is low transversality and low empathy, dramatically decreases trust across the whole organization.

Therefore, the ability to listen emphatically becomes a proxy for benevolence. To develop a trusting environment, we need first to insist on developing an authentic disposition towards students’ wellbeing. A caring teacher, for example listens empathically, knows how to express and make sure that the student felt that she/he is genuinely interested in her/his well-being. We also believe that teachers and staff should always be able to step back, emphatically, and distinguish what the student “is” from how she/he may behave or have learned. Institutionalized spaces and dispositions to express feelings and emotions are a key element. For this we need to work on rebuilding the relationship we all may have with mistakes, distinguishing the error from the person who commits it, and this happy-error culture needs to travel from classes to teachers labs. In this sense, trust in a school or community setting is a situation where the individual is empowered and not judged by his or her actions. The lack of judgment was also central in the discussion as a cross-sectional trust driver.

However, measuring trust in order to inform the conversation and enact was also a relevant piece in our conversation. Colleagues from Barcelona shared the metaphore placed by Kaplan in 1964. As we guess from the image below, an illuminated area is an area where it is possible, even simple, to find something and obtain quantitative data. The light provided by the research itself means that the data found can be presented as objective, even indisputable. The dark street is the rest of the space, and these are the areas where obtaining data would be complex, perhaps impossible in relation to the means available. Thus, collecting data on trust in practice can be sometimes imprecise but extremely meaningful and useful to strengthen the community and weave the ecosystem. And this was highlighted by leaders as a core value of the research-practice partnership lived and experienced with diverse tools co-developed in the NetEdu community.

Regarding school leader’s relationships with teachers and other staff, we shared that it is essential for school leaders to replicate these relational features in their interactions: coherence is fundamental to promote a caring and trusting environment. Also, for this latter kind of relationship, we need to rethink the idea of control as a support on teachers’ activities, for example, shouldn’t be an external judgement but collaborative and adaptive support in order to foster trust: their formulation and implementation may be co-constructed and adaptable to ground dynamics. In this sense, we discussed the differences between the trust-terms Solidarity and Support. Solidarity is connected to community and a sense of belonging, and is an ongoing process, while support can be momentary as a feeling of “someone having your back”, as the school leader or the colleges.

Regarding the city level ecosystem, we came into the idea of the need of supporting the multiplicity and interconnection of diverse formal and informal networks that conform the whole ecosystem, identifying weaving opportunities and duplicities and favouring the flow of resources exchange. The strategies discussed to generate trust across levels were mainly based to create a relational climate in the network of diverse organizations and professionals based on horizontal and supportive relationships, considerng purpose and previous learnings of the participants, and facilitating universal learning conditions where everyone feels part of the whole and feels supported to participate. It was also relevant the intent of building new learning across all actors through spaces of metacognition, sensemaking and deep reflection; thus favoring the increase of professional capital among teachers and educators, and being faithful in each session to coherence and symmetry priciples: what we want to happen in our organizations and classrooms, we make it happen first with the global network. Thus, four systemic strategies were shared to be developed at this macro level of the ecosystem ecosystemic: leverage Systems thinking and networks to create a shared vision; focus on collective intelligence and co-ideation; personalize and contextualize; and co-design solutions to create the enabling conditions for change.

Finally, we were all invited to continue our deep conversation in our local contexts and organizations. A second invitation was to encourage all of you to consider whether your work on trust could be captured in a blog post and shared across our community and beyond (contact us if you have an idea for that;-). In our view it’s vital that all of us are encouraged to continue to experiment with the ideas around cultivating trust in learning ecosystems and specifically wrestle with applying and learning from them. We will end with special thanks to all the energizers of the session: Juan David and Diego Pinzon, school leaders from Montemorel School in Cundinamarca, Colombia; David Vannasdall, superintendent weaving the Arcadia Unified School District of 12 schools from California, United States; and Tatiana Soler, Victoria Ibañez and Imma Adell, co-leaders of the City School network Networks for Change weaving around 300 schools in Barcelona, Spain. And of course, special thanks to our beautiful trust builders and co-facilitators in the session, Alan Daly, Gitte Miller, Martin Scanlan and Juan David Pinzón.

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