07/10/2014 04:24 pm ET | Updated Sep 09, 2014

The Untapped Potential of Teacher Networks

The word "network" gets used to mean many things. For professionals of all kinds, a network usually refers to a collection of people with similar or related skills and experiences, often those who can be helpful in finding new employment or advancing in a career path (hence the verb "to network"). If you Google "teacher network," the first few pages of results mostly align with this version of network: online spaces for teachers to share and discuss resources such as lesson plans; professional associations for teachers of a particular discipline or in a particular region; graduates of particular teacher preparation programs, etc.

But not all teacher networks are created equal. Some are stronger than the sum of their parts, some have impact that extends beyond the immediate group of participating educators, and some have the potential to move the profession as a whole. These kinds of networks have characteristics similar to what Ken Everett, an Australian entrepreneur and a former classroom teacher, calls network organizations (2011). They exist to do something specific and are characterized by members who know and trust each other. They have a shared identity; a shared sense of purpose and responsibility for fulfilling that purpose; and the commitment and ability to develop distributed leadership for the organization. But network organizations aren't created spontaneously, and many well-intentioned efforts to build teacher networks fall short of developing these characteristics. How can educators move beyond just networking to building strong network organizations?

From my work over the past decade at the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation, I have learned what it takes to develop leadership capacity in teachers from the beginning of their careers, and a robust national network plays an intentional -- and critical -- role in this leadership-building effort. Our Fellows work together, both in-person and online, over an extended period of time -- five years for the initial Teaching Fellowship, and potentially an entire career for those who complete the Fellowship and remain engaged in the KSTF community. As we've built our network, we've seen it function in three distinct modes, each of which has, I believe, untapped potential to bring about radical improvements to the education system in the United States. I'll use examples from KSTF to illustrate these modes, but there are other teacher networks that function in similar ways. (The National Writing Project is one excellent example that comes immediately to mind.)

In the first mode, a network organization of teachers functions to support and enhance individual teachers and their teaching practice, by facilitating broader access to resources, knowledge, support and mentoring. Professional support and enrichment of individuals is a common feature of many networks, but when members know and trust each other and have a shared sense of purpose, this support and enhancement can be personalized and contextualized in ways that multiply the overall effect. For example, KSTF Fellows work in groups to study teaching of a particular topic, or to develop their ability to use particular methods, such as Complex Instruction. These collaborations and affinity groups allow Fellows to deepen their connection to each other, further their sense of shared purpose and grow their own sense of agency and efficacy.

The second, less common, mode derives from the quantity and strength of connections among teachers that develops in the first mode. The networked organization supports and empowers teachers to work collaboratively with each other and colleagues to accomplish something particular in their local contexts. One somewhat tongue-in-cheek analogy that we've used to describe this kind of network is the humongous fungus: local clusters may appear to be independent, but they are deeply connected and nourished by the same widespread network. These emergent sub-networks form in response to a locally felt need and may dissolve as its members decide that their need has been met. While these sub-networks may vary in purpose, longevity, standards and practices, they build on and benefit from the professional capital of the larger network. KSTF Fellows have formed regional groups to work together on locally relevant issues such as district pacing guidelines and the impact of state standardized tests on teaching practice. While these kinds of collaborative groups are not uncommon, strong interpersonal relationships among the members, shared values and practices and autonomous (rather than top-down) goal setting and decision making allows them to accomplish far more than what a group of ad hoc teachers might ordinarily be able to accomplish.

We also are beginning to see evidence that teacher networks can function in a third mode that is both rare and of critical importance, given the current state of STEM education in the U.S. This type of network organization of teachers has the capacity to function as a collective entity to:
  • identify pressing and ubiquitous problems in education;
  • study and understand those problems in depth within local contexts (including the identification of problem components);
  • develop and test solutions to problem components;
  • synthesize and analyze data from local contexts;
  • build upon collective findings; and
  • share knowledge gained with the broader field, including other teachers, researchers and policy-makers.

Our analogy for the third mode (also somewhat tongue-in-cheek) is an army: a collective entity made up of highly-skilled members with shared norms and expectations that gets deployed to accomplish something of ubiquitous consequence. However, like all analogies, this one has its limits, for a network functioning in this mode chooses how to deploy itself.

This third network mode is really all about knowledge generation for the profession. Teachers, of course, generate and share knowledge through a variety of channels, such as conference presentations, writing for blogs and practitioner journals and informal venues such as social media or conversations with colleagues in the hallway between classes. But the U.S. educational system does not have the infrastructure for systematically pooling, critiquing and widely sharing that knowledge. In part, this is because of the local character of education: Schools, districts and states have no mechanisms by which to harness and leverage developed human capital beyond local contexts. The result of this lack of infrastructure is that most of the professional knowledge base on teaching and learning comes from those outside the teaching profession.

And yet some of the most pressing problems in U.S. education are ones that cannot be fully understood, much less solved, without teachers' specialized knowledge, skills and access to students and their learning, classrooms, schools and communities. This disparity suggests the need for a national network of teachers -- intentionally cultivated to develop the characteristics of network organizations -- that is both capable and driven to contribute to national as well as local efforts to improve education. Building such networks isn't easy. It requires giving teachers the time and space to develop strong professional relationships and mutual trust and allowing them to cultivate shared norms and standards. But perhaps most importantly, it requires trusting teachers to identify and understand what's not working, work together to fix it, and then share their work broadly for purposes of critique and widespread professional learning. While there are certainly simpler ways to network teachers, investing in the infrastructure to build network organizations has the potential to move the profession, and with it, the quality of teaching and learning everywhere.