School Culture

  • Teaching = Thinking + Relationship

    Our guest author today is Bryan Mascio, who taught for over ten years in New Hampshire, primarily working with students who had been unsuccessful in traditional school settings. Bryan is now a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he conducts research on the cognitive aspects of teaching, and works with schools to support teachers in improving relationships with their students.

    Before I became a teacher I worked as a caretaker for a wide variety of animals. Transitioning from one profession to the other was quite instructive. When I trained dogs, for example, it was straightforward: When the dog sat on command I would give him praise and a treat. After enough training, anyone else could give the command and the dog would perform just as well and as predictably. When I worked with students, on the other hand, it was far more complex – we worked together in a relationship, with give and take as they learned and grew.  Regrettably, when I look at how we train teachers today, it reminds me more of my first profession than my second.

    Teaching is far more than a mechanized set of actions. Our most masterful teachers aren’t just following scripts or using pre-packaged curricula. They are tailoring lessons, making professional judgments, and forging deep bonds with students – all of which is far more difficult to see or understand.  Teaching is a cognitive skill that has human relationships at its center. Unfortunately, we typically don't view teaching this way in the United States. As a result, we usually don't prepare teachers like (or for) this, we don’t evaluate them like this, and we don’t even study them like this. In our public discussion of education, we typically frame teaching as a collection of behaviors, and teachers as though they are simply technicians.  This doesn’t just create a demoralized workforce; it also leaves students in the care of well-meaning and hard-working teachers who are, nonetheless, largely unable to meet their students' individual needs – due either to lack of preparation for, or mandates that prevent, meeting them.

  • Is The Social Side Of Education Touchy Feely?

    That's right, measuring social and organizational aspects of schools is just... well, "touchy feely." We all intuitively grasp that social relations are important in our work environments, that having mentors on the job can make a world of difference, that knowing how to work with colleagues matters to the quality of the end product, that innovation and improvement relies on the sharing of ideas, that having a good relationship with supervisors influences both engagement and performance, and so on.

    I could go on, but I don't have to; we all just know these things. But is there hard evidence, other than common sense and our personal experiences? Behaviors such as collaboration and interaction or qualities like trust are difficult to quantify. In the end, is it possible that they are just 'soft' and that, even if they’re important (and they are), they just don't belong in policy conversations?

    Wrong.

    In this post, I review three distinct methodological approaches that researchers have used to understand social-organizational aspects of schools. Specifically, I selected studies that examine the relationship between aspects of teachers' social-organizational environments and their students' achievement growth. I focus both on the methods and on the substantive findings. This is because I think some basic sense of how researchers look at complex constructs like trust or collegiality can deepen our understanding of this work and lead us to embrace its implications for policy and practice more fully.

  • Broadening The Educational Capability Conversation: Leveraging The Social Dimension

    Our guest author today is James P. Spillane, Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Professor in Learning and Organizational Change at the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. Spillane has published extensively on issues of education policy, policy implementation, school reform, and school leadership. His most recent books are Distributed Leadership in Practice and Diagnosis and Design for School Improvement. Learn more about Spillane's work at www.distributedleadership.org.

    We are well into a new century – 15 years and counting! Yet, we continue to fixate on last century notions about human capability. Specifically, we still dwell mostly on the individual teacher or school leader, on investing in and developing their individual human capital so as to improve their productivity and in turn generating higher returns to the individual, school organization, school system, and society. The empirical evidence has established educational professionals' human capital is undoubtedly important for school and school-system productivity.* At the same time, however, by fixating primarily on human capital, we miss or undermine the significance and potential of social capital.

    Social capital captures the idea that capability (and by extension productivity) is not simply an individual matter but also a social matter. In other words, in addition to individual capability, there are (often untapped) resources that reside in the relations among people within organizations, systems, or society – a social capability. These social relations can be a source of and a channel for crucial resources such as trust, information, expertise, materials, security, obligation, incentives, and so on - see Bryk & Schneider 2002; Coburn 2001; Daly, Moolenaar, Bolivar, & Burke 2010; Frank, Zhao, & Borman 2004; Frank, Zhao, Penuel, Ellefson, & Porter 2011; Louis, Marks, & Kruse 1996; Moolenaar, Karsten, Sleegers, & Daly 2014. In a given system or organization, social capital is much more than the aggregate of members' human capital.

  • Turning Conflict Into Trust Improves Schools And Student Learning

    Our guest author today is Greg Anrig, vice president of policy and programs at The Century Foundation and author of Beyond the Education Wars: Evidence That Collaboration Builds Effective Schools.

    In recent years, a number of studies (discussed below; also see here and here) have shown that effective public schools are built on strong collaborative relationships, including those between administrators and teachers. These findings have helped to accelerate a movement toward constructing such partnerships in public schools across the U.S. However, the growing research and expanding innovations aimed at nurturing collaboration have largely been neglected by both mainstream media and the policy community.

    Studies that explore the question of what makes successful schools work never find a silver bullet, but they do consistently pinpoint commonalities in how those schools operate. The University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research produced the most compelling research of this type, published in a book called Organizing Schools for Improvement. The consortium gathered demographic and test data, and conducted extensive surveys of stakeholders, in more than 400 Chicago elementary schools from 1990 to 2005. That treasure trove of information enabled the consortium to identify with a high degree of confidence the organizational characteristics and practices associated with schools that produced above-average improvement in student outcomes.

    The most crucial finding was that the most effective schools, based on test score improvement over time after controlling for demographic factors, had developed an unusually high degree of "relational trust" among their administrators, teachers, and parents.

  • Relationships Matter: Putting It All Together

    About six months ago, we published a post entitled The Importance Of Relationships In Educational Reform, by Kara S. Finnigan and Alan J. Daly. This post was the first of an ongoing series on the social side of education. In addition to Finnigan and Daly, scholars such as Carrie R. Leana and Frits K. Pil, Kenneth Frank, and William Penuel have joined this effort by writing about their research and sharing their perspective.

    If there is one take away about the social side approach, it is the idea that relationships matter in education. Teaching and learning are not solo but rather social endeavors and, as such, they are best achieved by working together. The social side perspective: (1) shifts the focus from the individual to the broader context in which individuals operate; (2) highlights the importance of interdependencies at all levels of the system – e.g., among teachers within a school, leaders across a district, schools and the community; and (3) recognizes that crucial resources (e.g., information, advice, support) are exchanged through interpersonal relationships.

    In my previous post I shared a list of resources (e.g., videos, news articles, papers etc.) that I compiled, and which I will periodically update, on the research underpinning the social side lens. Today I want to share two additional materials: First, a short video that I created, which summarizes, in a visual way, the ideas outlined above; second, an interactive image to help you explore our collection of content on this topic.

  • Resources On The Social Side Of Education Reform

    Updates to this post will be posted here

    For the past few months, we have been insisting, through this blog series, on the idea that education reform has a social dimension or level that often is overlooked in mainstream debate and policy. Under this broad theme, we've covered diverse issues ranging from how teachers' social capital can increase their human capital to how personnel churn can undermine reform efforts, or how too much individual talent can impede a team's overall performance. This collection of issues may prompt a number of important questions: What exactly is the "social side?" What are its key ideas? I would like to offer a few initial thoughts and share some resources that I've compiled.

    The social side is primarily a lens that brings into focus a critical oversight in the public debate on educational reform and its policies: The idea that teaching and learning are not solo but rather social endeavors that are achieved in the context of the school organization, and within the districts where schools are embedded, through relationships and teamwork, rather than competition and a focus on individual prowess. 

    This social side perspective does a few things:

  • Constitution For Effective School Governance

    Our guest author today is Kenneth Frank, professor in Measurement and Quantitative Methods at the Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology and Special Education at Michigan State University.

    Maybe it’s because I grew up in Michigan, but when I think of how to improve schools, I think about the “Magic Johnson effect." During his time at Michigan State, Earvin “Magic” Johnson scored an average of 17 points per game. Good, but many others have had higher averages. Yet, I would want Magic Johnson on my team because he made everyone around him better. Similarly, the best teachers may be those that make everyone around them better.  This way of thinking is not currently the focus of many current educational reforms, which draw on individual competition and market metaphors.

    So how can we leverage the Magic Johnson effect to make schools better? We have to think of ways that teachers can work together. This might be in terms of co-teaching, sharing materials, or taking the time to engage one another in honest professional dialogues. There is considerable evidence that teachers who can draw on the expertise of colleagues are better able to implement new practices. There is also evidence that when there is an atmosphere of trust teachers can engage in honest dialogues that can improve teaching practices and student achievement (e.g., Bryk and Schneider, 2002).

  • Is Teaching More Like Baseball Or Basketball?

    ** 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?

  • Feeling Socially Connected Fuels Intrinsic Motivation And Engagement

    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.

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

    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.