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Aurora Institute

The Power of Connections

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

This is the third article in the series Conversations with Authors About Competency-Based Education.

It’s always fascinating when you read several books in a row that you might not have thought were at all related but when read together forge an overarching set of ideas. It happened last week when I read Who You Know by Julia Freeland Fisher and Daniel Fisher, Better Together by Tom Vander Ark and Lydia Dobyns, and The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, one right after the other. My breakthrough thinking was that we understand ourselves and assess ourselves as individuals – individual people, individual teachers, individual schools. And certainly there is always a story to be told through this singular lens. However, there is another analysis that tells quite a different story. Who are we, what do we know, and what do we accomplish through our relationships, connections, and collaborations?

What You Know

We know less than we think we know…and there are worrisome implications for this condition, known as the knowledge illusion, for designing effective personalized, competency-based schools. The authors of The Knowledge Illusion walk through the research about how we tend to overestimate our knowledge and what we can do about it. They describe different ways of thinking about intelligence as something that is individual and something that is social.

There are several important things for all of us to remember:

  • We tend to think about what is familiar as knowledge. However, knowledge is what can be applied to a problem. Thus, familiarity isn’t enough.
  • It’s just as important to understand what we don’t know as what we do know.
  • Looking at causal relationships can help us understand what we know and don’t know…except in the situation in which our beliefs and values are shaping how we experience the world.
  • Social intelligence is the ability to tap into the knowledge of other people and other resources about what we don’t know and need to know to solve problems.

This means that district and school leadership needs to include assessing what the group knows and doesn’t know, how to help build knowledge to fill gaps or tap into resources as needed, and coordinating and delegating in ways that decisions are being based on real knowledge, not the assumption that we know.

There are too many important insights to share here – go read the book.

Who You Know

For anyone familiar with child and youth development, you know that learning starts with relationships. Yet for some reason, we have a very difficult time keeping that front and center when we think about school design. We say we are driven by standards or centered on the student, but we don’t always think about how to design to develop, strengthen, and sustain relationships. (Please note: You will find relationships highlighted in many of the schools CompetencyWorks has visited, including Casco Bay, Making Community Connections, and R5 as well as the paper Meeting Students Where They Are.)

The ideas, solutions, and possibilities about how to expand students’ networks and social capital brought forth by Fisher and Fisher in Who You Know are likely to push your thinking. I can always count on Julia Freeland Fisher to come at problems from directions that I would never have considered and, in doing so, uncover aspects of schools, education, and learning that I would never have seen. As one expects with groundbreaking books, I found myself totally agitated at times, wanting someone to discuss, explore, and challenge some of the ideas presented.

The authors start with careful explanations of how important relationships and social capital are in generating educational and economic opportunity. They then explore the changes that schools will need to make to develop interdependent architectures if they want to support students in building more productive relationships and the technological tools that are already available. They close with an exploration of what is possible if we reconfigure how we organize schools around building relationships, connections, and networks.

Who You Work With

Once upon a time, districts were the primary structure within which schools were organized. They managed both schools and professional learning. Times have changed. Many schools still operate within districts (and charters often operate within CMOs), but they may also be part of other networks. These networks may be organized around professional positions, programmatic or instructional approaches, innovations or funding relationships, or by region.

In Better Together, Vander Ark and Dobyns describe how platforms are helping networks to scale and for knowledge to flow more easily between schools. They also explain that the platform products aren’t yet meeting our needs – partially because education and learning is always rooted in relationships. Thus, conferences and network meetings are increasingly organized to support networking and relationship building as well as transferring new ideas. For many, professional networks are as likely to be across town as across the country.

Better Together also explore how connections are an important part of transforming schools to create bridges between schools and the community; collaborative teaching models; and creating strong learning organizations. All of this requires strong design thinking. It also requires strong intentionality so that we are creating highly aligned, integrated connections that optimize value, not one-off experiences or programs.

In reading this book, I was constantly aware that networks can also reinforce less-than-quality practice. As Sloman and Ferbach suggest, it’s easier to think you know more than you do and that you are doing something well when others are doing the same (group think). Thus, the section on Dynamic Networks is particularly helpful in thinking through the trade-offs of network models. Perhaps something we might do as a group (not as one of those funder-driven consultant driven processes) is look at our networks to think about who is in them (and who isn’t); what knowledge we are able to tap into (and what is missing); and how we might tighten some weak links to have knowledge flow even more effectively to expedite school transformation.

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Have you read a book recently that has changed your thinking or how you approach your work? If so, we’d love to have you share your insights.

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