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Social Side of Education Reform Blog Series

  • Is Teaching More Like Baseball Or Basketball?

    Written on December 8, 2014

    ** Republished here in the Washington Post

    Earlier this year, a paper by Roderick I. Swaab and colleagues received considerable media attention (e.g., see here, here, and here). The research questioned the widely shared belief that bringing together the most talented individuals always produces the best result. The authors looked at various types of sports (e.g., player characteristics and behavior, team performance etc.), and were able to demonstrate that there is such thing as “too much talent," and that having too many superstars can hurt overall team performance, at least when the sport requires cooperation among team members.

    My immediate questions after reading the paper were: Do these findings generalize outside the world of sports and, if so, what might be the implications for education? To my surprise, I did not find much commentary or analysis addressing them. I am sure not everybody saw the paper, but I also wonder if this absence might have something to do with how teaching is generally viewed: More like baseball (i.e., a more individualistic team sport) than, say, like basketball. But in our social side of education reform series, we have been discussing a wealth of compelling research suggesting that teaching is not individualistic at all, and that schools thrive on trusting relationships and cooperation, rather than competition and individual prowess.

    So, if teaching is indeed more like basketball than like baseball, what are the implications of this study for strategies and policies aimed at identifying, developing and supporting teaching quality?

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  • Feeling Socially Connected Fuels Intrinsic Motivation And Engagement

    Written on November 20, 2014

    Our "social side of education reform" series has emphasized that teaching is a cooperative endeavor, and as such is deeply influenced by the quality of a school's social environment -- i.e., trusting relationships, teamwork and cooperation. But what about learning? To what extent are dispositions such as motivation, persistence and engagement mediated by relationships and the social-relational context?

    This is, of course, a very complex question, which can't be addressed comprehensively here. But I would like to discuss three papers that provide some important answers. In terms of our "social side" theme, the studies I will highlight suggest that efforts to improve learning should include and leverage social-relational processes, such as how learners perceive (and relate to) -- how they think they fit into -- their social contexts. Finally, this research, particularly the last paper, suggests that translating this knowledge into policy may be less about top down, prescriptive regulations and more about what Stanford psychologist Gregory M. Walton has called "wise interventions" -- i.e., small but precise strategies that target recursive processes (more below).

    The first paper, by Lucas P. Butler and Gregory M. Walton (2013), describes the results of two experiments testing whether the perceived collaborative nature of an activity that was done individually would cause greater enjoyment of and persistence on that activity among preschoolers.

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  • All The World’s A Stage: How Churn Undermines Change

    Written on October 28, 2014

    Our guest authors today are Kara S. Finnigan, Associate Professor at the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester, and Alan J. Daly, Professor and Chair of Education Studies at the University of California San Diego. Finnigan and Daly recently co-edited Using Research Evidence in Education: From the Schoolhouse Door to Capitol Hill (Springer, 2014), which explores the use and diffusion of different types of evidence across levels of the educational system. 

    “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances." William Shakespeare – As You Like It

    All too often in districts under intense accountability pressures, exits and entrances happen frequently and repeatedly. One might conceptualize the work of district reform as a play in which actors are beginning to learn their lines and block places on the stage but, just as the play is underway, some key actors leave and others join, causing disruption to the performance. Now, if all of those who leave or join have smaller roles, the disruption may be less extreme, but if most are lead actors or the director or even the head of costume design, you’d likely have to push back opening night.

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  • A New Focus On Social Capital In School Reform Efforts

    Written on October 14, 2014

    ** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

    Our guest authors today are Carrie R. Leana, George H. Love Professor of Organizations and Management, Professor of Business Administration, Medicine, and Public and International Affairs, and Director of the Center for Health and Care Work, at the University of Pittsburgh, and Frits K. Pil, Professor of Business Administration at the Katz Graduate School of Business and research scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center, at the University of Pittsburgh. This column is part of The Social Side of Reform Shanker Blog series.

    Most current models of school reform focus on teacher accountability for student performance measured via standardized tests, “improved” curricula, and what economists label “human capital” – e.g., factors such as teacher experience, subject knowledge and pedagogical skills. But our research over many years in several large school districts suggests that if students are to show real and sustained learning, schools must also foster what sociologists label “social capital” – the value embedded in relations among teachers, and between teachers and school administrators. Social capital is the glue that holds a school together. It complements teacher skill, it enhances teachers’ individual classroom efforts, and it enables collective commitment to bring about school-wide change.

    We are professors at a leading Business School who have conducted research in a broad array of settings, ranging from steel mills and auto plants to insurance offices, banks, and even nursing homes. We examine how formal and informal work practices enhance organizational learning and performance. What we have found over and over again is that, regardless of context, organizational success rarely stems from the latest technology or a few exemplary individuals.

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  • Regular Public And Charter Schools: Is A Different Conversation Possible?

    Written on September 18, 2014

    Uplifting Leadership, Andrew Hargreaves' new book with coauthors Alan Boyle and Alma Harris, is based on a seven-year international study, and illustrates how leaders from diverse organizations were able to lift up their teams by harnessing and balancing qualities that we often view as opposites, such as dreaming and action, creativity and discipline, measurement and meaningfulness, and so on.

    Chapter three, Collaboration With Competition, was particularly interesting to me and relevant to our series, "The Social Side of Reform." In that series, we've been highlighting research that emphasizes the value of collaboration and considers extreme competition to be counterproductive. But, is that always the case? Can collaboration and competition live under the same roof and, in combination, promote systemic improvement? Could, for example, different types of schools serving (or competing for) the same students work in cooperative ways for the greater good of their communities?

    Hargreaves and colleagues believe that establishing this environment is difficult but possible, and that it has already happened in some places. In fact, Al Shanker was one of the first proponents of a model that bears some similarity. In this post, I highlight some ideas and illustrations from Uplifting Leadership and tie them to Shanker's own vision of how charter schools, conceived as idea incubators and, eventually, as innovations within the public school system, could potentially lift all students and the entire system, from the bottom up, one group of teachers at a time.

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  • Why Teachers And Researchers Should Work Together For Improvement

    Written on September 4, 2014

    Our guest author today is Bill Penuel, professor of educational psychology and learning sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. He leads the National Center for Research in Policy and Practice, which investigates how school and district leaders use research in decision-making. This is the first of two posts on research-practice partnerships; both are part of The Social Side of Education Reform series.

    Policymakers are asking a lot of public school teachers these days, especially when it comes to the shifts in teaching and assessment required to implement new, ambitious standards for student learning. Teachers want and need more time and support to make these shifts. A big question is: What kinds of support and guidance can educational research and researchers provide?

    Unfortunately, that question is not easy to answer. Most educational researchers spend much of their time answering questions that are of more interest to other researchers than to practitioners.  Even if researchers did focus on questions of interest to practitioners, teachers and teacher leaders need answers more quickly than researchers can provide them. And when researchers and practitioners do try to work together on problems of practice, it takes a while for them to get on the same page about what those problems are and how to solve them. It’s almost as if researchers and practitioners occupy two different cultural worlds.

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  • No Teacher Is An Island: The Role Of Social Relations In Teacher Evaluation

    Written on August 19, 2014

    Our guest authors today are Alan J. Daly, Professor and Chair of Education Studies at the University of California San Diego, and Kara S. Finnigan, Associate Professor at the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester. Daly and Finnigan recently co-edited Using Research Evidence in Education: From the Schoolhouse Door to Capitol Hill (Springer, 2014).

    Teacher evaluation is a hotly contested topic, with vigorous debate happening around issues of testing, measurement, and what is considered ‘important’ in terms of student learning, not to mention the potential high stakes decisions that may be made as a result of these assessments.  At its best, this discussion has reinvigorated a national dialogue around teaching practice and research; at its worst it has polarized and entrenched stakeholder groups into rigid camps. How is it we can avoid the calcification of opinion and continue a constructive dialogue around this important and complex issue?

    One way, as we suggest here, is to continue to discuss alternatives around teacher evaluation, and to be thoughtful about the role of social interactions in student outcomes, particularly as it relates to the current conversation around valued added models. It is in this spirit that we ask: Is there a 'social side' to a teacher's ability to add value to their students' growth and, if so, what are the implications for current teacher evaluation models?

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  • Social Capital Matters As Much As Human Capital – A Message To Skeptics

    Written on August 4, 2014

    In recent posts (here and here), we have been arguing that social capital -- social relations and the resources that can be accessed through them (e.g., support, knowledge) -- is an enormously important component of educational improvement. In fact, I have suggested that understanding and promoting social capital in schools may be as promising as focusing on personnel (or human capital) policies such as teacher evaluation, compensation and so on. 

    My sense is that many teachers and principals support this argument, but I am also very interested in making the case to those who may disagree. I doubt very many people would disagree with the idea that relationships matter, but perhaps there are more than a few skeptics when it comes to how much they matter, and especially to whether or not social capital can be as powerful and practical a policy lever as human capital.

    In other words, there are, most likely, those who view social capital as something that cannot really be leveraged cost-effectively with policy intervention toward any significant impact, in no small part because it focuses on promoting things that already happen and/or that cannot be mandated. For example, teachers already spend time together and cannot/should not be required to do so more often, at least not to an extent that would make a difference for student outcomes (although this could be said of almost any policy).

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  • Do Students Learn More When Their Teachers Work Together?

    Written on July 17, 2014

    ** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

    Debates about how to improve educational outcomes for students often involve two 'camps': Those who focus on the impact of "in-school factors" on student achievement; and those who focus on "out-of-school factors." There are many in-school factors discussed but improving the quality of individual teachers (or teachers' human capital) is almost always touted as the main strategy for school improvement. Out-of-school factors are also numerous but proponents of this view tend toward addressing broad systemic problems such as poverty and inequality.

    Social capital -- the idea that relationships have value, that social ties provide access to important resources like knowledge and support, and that a group's performance can often exceed that of the sum of its members -- is something that rarely makes it into the conversation. But why does social capital matter?

    Research suggests that teachers' social capital may be just as important to student learning as their human capital. In fact, some studies indicate that if school improvement policies addressed teachers' human and social capital simultaneously, they would go a long way toward mitigating the effects of poverty on student outcomes. Sounds good, right? The problem is: Current policy does not resemble this approach. Researchers, commentators and practitioners have shown and lamented that many of the strategies leveraged to increase teachers' human capital often do so at the expense of eroding social capital in our schools. In other words, these approaches are moving us one step forward and two steps back.

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  • The Importance Of Relationships In Educational Reform

    Written on July 7, 2014

    * Reprinted here in the Washington Post

    Our guest authors today are Kara S. Finnigan, Associate Professor at the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester, and Alan J. Daly, Professor and Chair of Education Studies at the University of California San Diego. Finnigan and Daly have recently co-edited Using Research Evidence in Education: From the Schoolhouse Door to Capitol Hill (Springer, 2014).

    There are many reforms out there; what if these ideas are not working as well as they could because educators are simply not communicating or building meaningful relationships with each other or maybe the conditions in which they do their work do not support productive interactions?  These are important issues to understand and our research, some of which we highlight in this post, underscores the importance of the relational element in reform.  To further explore the social side of the change equation, we draw on social network research as a way to highlight the importance of relationships as conduits through which valued resources flow and can bring about system-wide change.

    A few years ago Arne Duncan noted that "[NCLB] has created a thousand ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed.”  We think that may have to do with the over reliance on technical fixes, prescriptive approaches and the scant attention to the context -- particularly the social context -- in which reforms are implemented.  But what would things look like if we took a more relational approach to educational improvement?

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