3. Networked Learning

It is highly advisable to use external support in the form of stimulus material, tools to help you structure your work (like this site), peers (your networks) and coaches / consultants.  The use of such inputs however must achieve ALL of the following aims.

  1. These supports should help to simplify the project and allow more people to be actively engaged
  2. They should increase the likelyhood of success because they use the prior learning of others
  3. They should increase the capacity of the institution to do further research – i.e. Ownership of the project MUST be within the institution itself.  The relationship is not that external sources lead the project but rather they support the growth of capacity within the institution.  This point is critical.

Longer term relationships and coherence is allways more effective because there is a hidden cost to using any external support.

Stimulus material requires time and resource to enable it to be interpreted, contextualised and recommunicated.  It is extremely difficult to combine multiple ideas in the same project.  For example if you read work by Seymour Papert and are inspired to try problem based learning, then you hear a conference presenter discuss the work of Piaget and are inspired by the idea of developmental learning stages you have already enormously increased the complexity of the the project by setting yourself the task of combining these two approaches coherently and explaining to other teachers and students how you did this.  It is better to run a project on one idea, evaluate it then try something different in a separate project.  As you build up capacity and a knowledge base in the school it becomes easier to begin combining ideas.

Often I present keynotes and these are effectively Stimulus material.  Assuming you were in the audience and assuming you were inspired by the ideas you would have usually less than an hour to interpret them and apply them to your context.  All that the stimulus can hope to do is inspire you to try and give some idea about the starting point.  Often such conferences lead to inspiration and motivation but no clear way forward.  A collegue of mine, Val, asks her staff to agree on just one idea from a conference that they will take forward.  This means the staff can see the conference as a set of advertisements for which idea will be followed that year.  After the conference there is no guilt in forgetting all the other inputs because there is a confidence that the most popular one will be followed up and thereby converted to a longer term and deeper focus on one set of ideas.

Tools and Structures : It is critical that one clear set of tools and structures is agreed on for a project.  My favourite analogy here is plug sockets in the wall.  It does not impact on your creativity and purpose if all of the plug sockets are the same, it just makes life easier.  In the same way, protocols and structures can be very well defined and rigid in schools providing this does not damage personal ownership and choice.  The software programme ‘Word’ is another example.  All of the tools help you regardless if you are writing a novel or worksheet.  Tools require familiarisation and training and these processes take time but if these tools are then used extensively and repeatedly the investment is worthwhile.  If the tools are forever changing then the loss of time and coherence is considerable.

The PbyP toolset for example, if used weekly by at least four teachers and all their students takes around 6 months to become routine.  During these six months, some of the time and effort is spent learning and remembering how to use the tools.  After the six month period this training overhead disappears and the investment of time is paid back.  The tool becomes as irrelevant as the shape of plug sockets and no longer needs to occupy thinking time.  Schools that do small scale or short term trials are highly unlikely to ever see the benefits of introducing new tools.  It is far better to make a sizable single commitment to one toolset and then evaluate this than to take a ‘suck it and see’ approach to numerous ones.  If the ownership is kept locally then even a toolset that didn’t work will have increased the capacity for collective discussion, reflection and evaluation which is the core purpose of most whole school projects.

Peer Networks :  These are extremely time consuming to establish and maintain.  New tools such as Twitter and Facebook have made the process easier and new stimulus methods such as Teachmeet and TED have widened access.  One of the main reasons for setting up PbyP as an international peer network was to give secure and easiliy managed access to such networks by all students and teachers.  These are no substitute for genuine two way collaborative networks but they facilitate building the capacity needed to maintain them.

As part of the Microsoft Partners in Learning programme I have been facilitating the development of peer networks of schools from different countries.  Common tools and support materials are the key here to making networks seemless and effective.  Even something as simple as setting the dates for meetings at the start of the year at the same regular time is a structure which is part of helping to ensure that Total energy required to input is less than total benefit percieved to be output.

The evidence for the effectiveness of ‘Professional Learning Communities’ is compelling.  Even when these peer networks are as small as two teachers who already work in the same space.  The key is making these networks professional (agreed protocols and focus), Learning (openness to recieve and give genuine feedback) and communities (based on common goals of improving outcomes through looking holistically at the process).  It is better to form PLCs with formal agreed outcomes, processes and commitment to each other for the duration of each project rather than rely on ad hoc collaboration

Coaches / Consultants: Longer term relationships with specialists who have successful experience of the process you are currently engaged in and can work alongside you to challenge, develop and focus your strategy and your thinking.  Coaching of this kind is a large part of my day job.  One of the reasons I have for building up this site is so that it can provide other forms of support to complement my work when I am involved in coaching or consultancy.

Step One  – Common Purpose and Shared Vision

Measure success in terms of the number of people that are working together in a common direction rather than concentrating all your effort on a core team.  It is easier to work with positive, energetic people who share your views than to lead a team of creative thinkers.  It may be true that you have to trial ideas with select teams because of resources but it should be clear from the start that EVERYONE is involved.

Click here for a really simple tool you can use that has been tried and tested with teachers from over 80 countries and will allow you to set the common purpose and vision for your school.  It requires about 2 hours to complete.  It is best done face to face in a meeting but can also be done via an online poll.

If you can’t involve everyone first time around then don’t worry.  Click here for a simple way of planning how to engage more people each year.  Remember, you need to set the pace you are comfortable with.

Step Two – Keep focussed on your core purposes

Successful schools who have sustained continuous improvement for many years have this in common: Each year they focus everyone’s attention on just three large core aims.  They publicise these widely and make sure everyone is aware of them.  The core aims have to be measurable and must be important across the whole school.  They also have to be specific enough to be meaningful.

Click here for guidance on how to do this.  It is not difficult and can be done at the same time and in the same way as you did step one above.

Step three – Make sure

Check you know why you are choosing to change the school and what you hope to achieve through this change.  It sounds like a simple point but the most frequent reason for change not being successful is lack of communication which results in lack of shared commitment and direction.

To do this step correctly is an art in itsellf and I will add a link here for further guidance.  If you are doing this for the first timeLike all sustainable processes, this needs to be continuously improving so it is more important that you commit to continuous improvement than

However you achieve it, the outcome from step one is that you are certain you want to improve and you are certain you have the majority of people at the school also convinced that change is reeded.


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