We are thrilled to present the ‘Learning Ecosystems Trilogy’, a collection of three reports that gather the intense international and collaborative research, discussion and practice led by the NetEdu team (PSITIC, Blanquerna- Ramon Llull University) in the last three years (2020-2023). Our key focus in the Trilogy is the urgent need of new educational leaders equipped and empowered to heal, seed and weave human connection and social infrastructure across our learning systems for flourishing futures. This is not about superheroes or superheroines, either about bottom up or top down change, it is about new leaders unfolding across spaces, facilitating and weaving the conditions for our collective emancipation and for a new system to emerge. Our work contributes to ground how ecosystemic leaders -or weavers- are becoming extremely influential in the learning ecosystems’ growth, spanning multiple boundaries, seeding synergies, and empowering people, organizations and whole communities for deeper and wider learning and flourishing.
Learning ecosystems are evolving as a new paradigm that is interwoven with a diverse body of previous influential research as Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory (1974); Paulo Freire’s Critical Pedagogy; Edgar Morin’s Complexity Theory (2001); Provan, Milward, Kenis and Klijn’s work around Interorganizational Networks and Network Governance (2001); Alan Daly’s research on Social Networks in Education (2010); latest work of VanderWeele on Human Flourishing (2020), and the work led by Dr. Jordi Riera in PSITIC, Blanquerna Ramon Llull University, in the last 20 years around systemic and networked-based education. All these studies share a central idea: hyper-fragmentation and isolation within our educational systems’ silos is drastically reducing our capacities to interact, learn, feel well and evolve individually and collectively, a reality that has been globally visualized and exacerbated by the pandemic. Thus, we are aware that we need to collaborate, co-create, co-design, and several co-, but we don’t have the needed infrastructure and culture in place.
Learning ecosystems are complex and difficult to narrow, and we conceptualize them as the natural environments where people learn and unlearn across life time. So, an initial idea is that we all already live in learning ecosystems with diverse and contextualized characteristics as we inhabit the planet.Thus, learning ecosystems are influenced by many social forces of all diverse contexts, as resources, cultures, laws, policies, traditions, leaderships, organizations, people and relationships, among others. Ultimately, our work takes a social and relational perspective to understand and weave learning ecosystems, underlying that learning and flourishing opportunities are inherently and actively shaped by a wide network of people and stakeholders that are specific from each context.
Thus, this complex social network extends far beyond the traditional frame of family and formal education, including a wide range of influential individuals and organizations. Some of them interact directly with children and adolscents -as schools, highschools, universities, libraries, community centers, theaters, museums, after school programs, sport centers, social networks, digital devices, video games, religious organizations, neighborhood spaces, among others-. Others interact indirectly with them -as educational districts, municipalities, governments, Ed tech companies, among others. All of these stakeholders belong to diverse sectors -including public, private, civil society and combinations of these three-; they are part of multiple systems –education, health, youth, wellbeing, technology etc; including professionals from different disciplines -as education, psychology, tech, sociology, health, architecture, research, and so on-; and finally, all of them are learners. Therefore, the relational capacities within and across the learning ecosystem determine the learning and flourishing possibilities and opportunities offered to all people and communities, especially to the most vulnerable ones.
In the Learning Ecosystem Trilogy we take a careful and deep look into how leaders across the ecosystem weave this relational capacity in their contexts for deeper and wider learning and flourishing. And we understand the relational capacity of a learning ecosystem as 1- the social connection between all people, and 2- the social infrastructure that weaves the diverse parts of the system. And we will try to explain this idea a little further. Initially, we believe that seeding social connection becomes a central priority in our learning environments for individual and collective flourishing. We can’t learn and flourish in an unsafe relational environment that makes us feel that we don’t belong. As the Office of U.S Surgeon General states (2023), we live in a fragmented society where isolation and loneliness are a dangerous consequence of the imperative of our times, an epidemic that strongly affects health, learning and growth of children, young people, adults, teachers, leaders, parents, elders, whole schools, whole communities and so on. And we know that most vulnerable people and groups are the ones suffering more from this epidemic and its consequences. Thus,social connection is a primitive human need at the core of the survival and evolution of our species, which is why that for flourishing futures we must prioritize ahead of instruction and achievement, the design of safe and flourishing environments that protects and supports us all across spaces and lifetime: students, teachers, educators, parents, etc. – especially the most vulnerable.
Second, is the fact that social connection becomes, beyond a human need to be fulfilled, an invisible but powerful infrastructure that can enable or inhibit learning and flourishing opportunities for people and the planet. This idea suggests that any desired change and transformation in education that we can dare to imagine, such as a new learning reform, method, strategy, tool, mindset, culture, leadership or policy, is directly influenced by the quality of our social connection among the people that are involved in all levels of the system -from design to implementation-. Thus, change is inherently relational and systemic, starting with the inner relationship with ourselves, with relationship with territory and nature, including relationships between students, between student and teacher, between student and all educators that interact in the wider and natural environment; and last but not least, change is interdependent on all social connections between educators, leaders, social workers, health professionals and/or parents, among many others, that are also part of the natural environment where we all live and learn. It is across this invisible social infrastructure -also named as social capital or social fabric- that we all interact, challenge ourselves, exchange resources, access new opportunities, learn, grow and find sense and meaning to our lives. Thus, the better we weave the social infrastructure in our systems and organizations, the greater will be the opportunities and possibilities for all to learn and flourish.
The Learning Ecosystem Trilogy relies on initial descriptive studies emerged in the last decade where we have collectively explored and framed the learning ecosystems paradigm and learnt from worldwide experiences –UNESCO, Jacobs Foundation, WISE, Dream a Dream India, Global Education Futures,The Weaving Lab, Learning Planet, Remake learning, Education Reimagined, among others-. The Trilogy opens the door to a new level of development of studies in the field, presenting new experiential research-practice that aims to support leaders that are not aligned or even familiar to the ecosystemic approach to unfold the relational capacity in their communities and organizations for flourishing futures. Thus, the work presents the experience of more than 500 world wide education leaders playing and experimenting with new tools and frameworks, facing contextual resistances and contributing to understand real needs and elevate new thinking around our purpose. The Trilogy is formed by three complementary action-research reports where we explore crucial questions around how to weave Learning Ecosystems, claiming to inspire new leaders across the system -macro, meso and micro- to accelerate the development of our flourishing futures.
The Trilogy is a direct call to governments, policy and decision makers to support, train and give wings to these new type of leaders to weave the relational and collective capacities in our learning ecosystems, taking care and empowering them is strategically fundamental for our flourishing futures. And finally, we deeply hope that this work offers all amazing weavers in the world a whisper of experiential inspiration, with new frameworks, guidelines, tools and processes, all of them to be discussed, adapted and lifted with new meaning and purpose to design and lead flourishing learning ecosystems worldwide. They truly are one of the philosopher stones for our flourishing futures.
Trilogy Presentation next November 23rd 2023, from 4 to 5.30 CET. Hosted by the Weaving Lab, the session will be facilitated by Robyn Whittaker (NetEdu team) and Jordi Díaz Gibson (NetEdu Lead), and other team members will be in attendance to contribute to the thinking. Nadia Chayney (The Time Zone Research Lab) and Pavel Lucksha (Global Education Futures) will engage as reflective thinking partners to the team. Please respond to this survey if you plan to attend, or would like to contribute your thoughts to this ongoing work. In the session we will open and share the published reports, and will also present a Learning Journey where we want to deeply discuss the work with all of you.
The Learning Ecosystem Trilogy is a reality thanks to UNESCO, Jacobs Foundation, the Government of Spain and the Ministry of Education of Ghana that have supported and funded the action research developed. Special and deep thanks to Valtencir Mendes and Borhene from UNESCO; Ross Hall, Nora Marketos, Romana Kropilova and Donika Dimovska from Jacobs Foundation, thanks for trusting us to lead this amazing learning journey.
The shared learning journey has been rich and complex, deeply impacted by the COVID 19 pandemic and post pandemic forces, but full of inspiration and meaning. It has been a complete honor to share this journey with a team of amazing human beings, extending our collaboration across more than 1000 thoughtful and committed educators and leaders from the five continents. They all meaningfully enriched every single thought and piece of this Trilogy.
NetEdu Team and Authors of the Trilogy Reports
Jordi Díaz-Gibson (Ramon Llull University); Robyn Whittaker (Kaleidoscope Lights); Mireia Civís (Ramon Llull University); Yi-Wha Liou (National Taipei University); Dale Allen (DXtera Institute); Peter Fagerström (Educraftor); Enikö Zala-Mezö (Zurich University of Teacher Education); Akwasi Addae-Boahene (T-TEL Ghana); Eric Ananga (T-TEL); Avril Kudzi (Jacobs Foundation); Lana Jelenjev (The Hum); Anna de Montserrat, Annabel Fontanet, Mireia Lerena, Míriam Cos and Estel Torruella (Ramon Llull University).
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!
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.
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, weneed 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.
In our collective journey of transitioning from standardized educational systems to human and caring learning ecosystems, we are happy to share with all of you the date and focus of the next NetEdu Workshop that will happen on January 19th 2021 from 5 pm to 7.15 pm CET time (by Zoom). This time the workshop discussion will be focusing on a hot area for the global project: How leaders cultivate the seeds of learning and caring ecosystems, and specifically we will focus on trust building as a key seed for ecosystemic growth. For this we will have three leaders as panelists that have used our NetEdu tools from diverse ecosystem levels from around the world:
We will have a deep dive on trust drivers and consraints, its relevance, its measurement and its meaning, with crossed discussion from the leaders ground, we will also have breakout rooms, a fish bowl and of course, many surprises to come. As we usually do, building community will be a goal for us so you all can invite your close networks and aligned partners in your local or global contexts. We also share with you our latest blog post also focused on trust as a pillar of learning ecosystems: A question of trust: the case of the Arcadia Unified School District.
If you are interested in joinng the session please contact Jordi Díaz-Gibson (firstname.lastname@example.org)
By Alan J. Daly, Katie Martin, Nicolette Van Halem, David Vannasdall, Devin Vodicka
Arcadia Unified School District Superintendent, David Vannasdall, was visiting classrooms and noticed that every student in a kindergarten classroom had produced the exact same piece of artwork. It struck him in that moment how the learning experiences in many cases were at odds with the aspirations that they shared as a community. They had gone through a multi-stage process to identify their core values which embodied a sense of creativity and innovation: Imagine, Inquire, Inspire and yet this example underscored the need to do more.
Arcadia Unified is widely recognized as one of the most successful K-12 systems as their students have 100% graduation and are successful by many metrics. Even so, their leaders also know that as the world continues to evolve the system and expectations in which education takes place must equally evolve and continue developing learners that thrive in an unpredictable world. During that walkthrough it became apparent how despite their vision, the systems set in place were anchored in standardization through existing practices and approaches. Moving forward would require more than a new vision.
This contrast between aspiration and reality plays itself out in classrooms, schools, and communities across the United States everyday. This is the story of how Arcadia Unified engaged in a research-practice partnership with Altitude Learning and the University of California San Diego as part of the NetEduProject as they sought to better understand and rigorously examine key levers for transformational change. The journey begins on a shift away from a “one size fits all” model of the industrial era to a learner-centered model that is grounded in values and purpose. This journey and partnership continues to evolve, deepen, and point to promising new ways of engagement. Even as we grow, the experiences from the early stages of the process in Arcadia have generated tremendous insights that are particularly relevant now as we are confronted with an unprecedented need to rapidly shift in response to COVID-19. The pandemic has further exposed the pressing need that our educational system must change if we are serious about equity and meeting the needs of each and every learner.
All come together with the idea that relationships and culture are key elements which must be attended to in creating transformational change. At the center of this idea is that the people in the learning ecosystem and particularly the leaders are core levers of change and therefore attending to the culture and climate in which they do their work is of primary importance. With this project we aim to develop a deeper understanding of successful change efforts towards learner-centered education in learning ecosysytems and the role of culture and climate all with a focus on equity.
What did we learn?
We gathered data around agency and culture in the Winter and Spring of 2019 and 2020 from 11 K-12 schools in the Arcadia Unified School District. Data came from a total of 42 school leaders, 371 teachers, 1622 students, 409 parents, and 174 classified staff reflecting close to a 70% response rate. Seven stakeholder groups were invited for the survey round, interviews with different stakeholder groups are ongoing, as well as observations and social network analysis.
Through the survey, we gathered a variety of climate variables from all stakeholders including: students, teachers, parents, classified staff, principals, and central office administrators. We worked with the district leaders to identify important ingredients of student’s school experiences within the district and defined the following culture variables accordingly:
Student perceptions of the culture and climate about the school
Student sense of belonging
Student perceptions of safety
Student trust in their educators (including teachers and principals)
Student voice and choice in their learning
Student perceptions of the relevance and contextualization of schoolwork
Student perceptions of interactions with their teachers
Student perceptions of interactions with their peers
Student perceptions of the usefulness of mobile devices for learning
The central question that we aimed to answer is: Out of all the areas we measured, what are the highest leverage points in realizing student-centered learning for the district? We applied a new set of approaches on this data to support district and site decision making on improvement efforts (see graph below). This new method produces a data-based ranking of the areas in terms of their positive effects on all other areas. Overall, it appears that students’ trust in their educators (principal and teacher trust) has the highest average association with all areas that together make up the student’s school experience.
Parallel to the findings in the student survey data, the results show that principal trust has the highest overall association with areas that together make up the teacher’s daily experiences in their work, including collaboration between teachers, communication with parents, instructional practices, and equity beliefs.
Increases in student’s perception of their trust with leaders are associated with an average increase of 15% in all eight other areas that make up a student’s school experience. In comparison, increases in safety as identified what leaders might think are most impactful are only associated with an average increase of 5% in all eight other areas. This makes the point that while leaders have good insights as to areas to focus on, the Better Together research-practice partnership resulted in an additional gain that would not have been realized without the partnership work. This research-practice partnership is successful because of the trust between partners and the fact the efforts are grounded in valid and reliable instruments and cutting-edge methods. The bottom line of the work is the importance of trust both within the partnership, but also across levels in the organization for realizing the district’s mission and core values.
Once trust was identified as a key element in transformational change, leadership renewed their focus on the importance of the quality of relationships and their core values and the results have been impressive. As is evident in the graph below, the levels of trust from 2019 to 2020 have grown in statistically significant ways. So how was all of this accomplished?
Four Key Areas of Transformation
As a result of the research-practice partnership, we identified 4 key elements of Learner-centered innovation with a focus on equity and they all revolve around a culture of trust that empowers individuals to collectively work to improve outcomes for all learners. To build on the shared vision and create more transparency and trust, we created a guiding coalition that included central office administrators, site based administrators, instructional coaches and teachers to 1) Leverage Systems Thinking and Networks 2) Focus on Collective Intelligence 3) Personalize and Contextualize and 4) Co-Design Solutions.
1) Leverage Systems Thinking and Networks to Create a Shared Vision
Too often when we create change it is done in silos and fails to represent diverse voices and perspectives that can create more meaningful and lasting change. Peter Senge points out that the only vision people ever commit to is their own. Without ongoing conversation about their vision and what it means in your content, it’s impossible to build a shared vision across a community. By including teams from the central office and each school and seeking input from families and the community, we were able to better understand the system and work together to create networks and catalyze the desired change.
2) Focus on Collective Intelligence
Nothing is more inspiring than working toward a common goal with people who share your passion and commitment. This collaboration among teachers from different schools and administrators created a contagious vibe that spurred creativity and innovation. We worked to define the desired goals, align learning experiences and enable conditions that we wanted to work towards. When schools and districts focus on compliance and mandates to implement programs and procedures, voice and choice are limited. On the other hand, like in Arcadia when you work to create an environment that honors the expertise of educators, you can empower those in schools who are working with students every day so that they can make informed decisions based on the needs of learners. We can change policies and implement new programs but if we don’t empower teachers and create school culture where people feel valued and free to take risks, we will miss out on our greatest opportunity to change how students learn.
3) Personalize and Contextualize
Based on the vision and the desired goals for learners, each school and educator was empowered to define specific areas of success and determine next steps that would move them forward. We spent a day as a team visiting each other’s classrooms and making our learning visible. This opportunity to learn and open up classrooms was built on the collective trust and allowed educators to see new and different practices. We supported teams to not just understand the vision but to take the ideas and practices we shared and explore what it looked like in different classrooms and contexts.
4) Co-Design Solutions to Create the Enabling Conditions for Change
The guiding coalition worked to make the vision and values explicit, found examples of what was possible throughout the district and beyond, and collaborated to identify barriers, challenges, and opportunities. Collectively this team was able to identify priorities that the district should focus on to further support the desired shifts in teaching and learning to continue to move toward the desired practices and meet the needs of each and every learner. This was possible because of the clear vision and a culture of trust to make choices based on the needs created a sense of agency and empowered educators to evolve their practices.
A New Way Forward
To transform ecosystems into ones in which students take an even more meaningful action in their learning, they need to trust their teachers. In parallel, teachers need to trust their administrators. This also flows in the opposite direction where administrators must extend trust to teachers who in turn must extend trust to the students. The key is deep, respectful high trust reciprocal relationships between all members of the educational community In short, when educators are trusted, empowered and supported to create more learner-centered experiences, they, in turn, can create the same environment of trust empowerment and support for their students.
Teachers create what they experience and it is our goal in the Better Togetherpartnership to model these practices and continue to research, learn and co-create the conditions for meaningful change and lasting impact. In partnership and through collaboration, we can make progress in the direction of our aspirations. For Arcadia, the shift is in the direction of more imagination, inquiry, and inspiration and unleashing the potential in the system. Our partnership has reinforced the notion that relationships are at the center of the change process. It begins and ends with trust and there is no question about that reality.
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.
Jordi Díaz-Gibson and Mireia Civís, coordinators of the NetEduProject
Fully immersed in the 21st century, we can see that, at the educational level, efforts are being made to shift from organizational models based on hierarchical authority and control to more horizontal and network-connected organizational forms (Daly, 2010). This suggests a series of transitions in the educational world from independence to interdependence; from centralized leadership to distribution of leadership; from responsibilities to co-responsibility; from specialists to multidisciplinary generalists, and from dogma to dialogue. Thus, we understand that educational change and innovation in schools or other socio-educational organizations have to acknowledge these organizations to be located in the context of a neighbourhood or a community and that, at the same time, this wider social system also has a relevant role in education.
Educational organizations have become more and more aware of the need to connect with their neighbourhood or community in order to improve their educational action. Recently there has been an increase in collaborative strategies among educational agents in the same area, thus setting up collaborative educational projects with attention focusing on children, youth and families themselves. These initiatives are based on the fact that the systematization of these relationships, formal articulation and sustained collaboration among educational organizations establish the basis for educational improvement. And from these ideas emerges the concept that sustains NetEduProject: Educational Ecosystems.
An Educational Ecosystem is the set of social relationships between educational actors in an educational organization, neighbourhood or community. An ecosystem is based on the idea that enriching and promoting educational action demands the connection and collaboration among educational and social agents. These interconnections include internal –among professionals inside an organization– and external interdependencies –among organizations in the community such as schools, after-school entities, associations, social services, families, universities, companies, and so on–, and result in the establishment of synergies, shared construction of knowledge, and achievement of shared objectives. This is the rationale of educational action in the “network society” to meet the challenges of education in the 21st century.
In the last twenty-five years, we have lived the emergence and consolidation of experiences based on this idea of Educational Ecosystems. Thus the empowerment of social relations between educational actors in the community has become a very present strategy in the national and international context as a response to current shared and complex challenges that require the joint action of agents involved. Then, these initiatives have emerged with different district educational programmes, area educational projects, local educational networks, local community educational plans, community educational partnerships, education action zones, neighbourhood educational associations or preferential education areas, among the most common examples. In short, we understand that these initiatives have a current focus on their Educational Ecosystems as they share a base on educational and social co-responsibility, community closeness, and interdisciplinary collaboration.
Educational organizations pursue specific goals, but these ecosystems take into account both, educational objectives and the content exchanged among agents through social links –ideas and knowledge, educational materials, emotional support, among others–, where bonds shape a certain structure of relationships (Scott, 2000). Thus, these ecosystems consist of all the educational agents in a community, that is, the professionals and other members of the organizations that work to achieve shared educational goals in a certain community.
Therefore, these initiatives are specifically focused on the qualitative process of transformation of both an organization and a community into educational ecosystems based on collaboration and innovation. At the same time, these ecosystems require the creation of a new way of working together on the basis of trust, by providing a new know-how based on interdisciplinary discussion and collaboration among educational and social professionals in the community (Díaz-Gibson & Civís, 2014).
Up to now, we can say that there are Educational Ecosystems’ initiatives that are improving education in Catalonia and all around the world. Particularly, North American, European and Australian researchers have pointed at significant results achieved by these initiatives such as an improvement in school achievement (Carpenter et al., 2010; Renée & McAllister, 2011), improvement of capacity to innovate (Sorensen & Torfing, 2010; Miller & Jaeger, 2011), or the optimization of socio-educational resources in the community field, as well as an increase in organizational efficiency (Keast & Brown, 2002; Díaz-Gibson et al., 2010; Díaz-Gibson et al., 2016; Almirall et al., 2012).