Voices in Education

How Change Really Happens: The Hidden Potential of Social Networks
When I was a teacher, a colleague of mine wanted to try a new reading program. He had done his homework and carefully examined the research base upon which the program was grounded. Moreover, he even went to visit schools that had successfully implemented the approach, carefully noting strengths and necessary modifications for our school. As he presented the approach at a staff meeting, he was convinced he had constructed a very powerful, balanced, rational argument for the program. I was quite impressed with the work he had done and the persuasiveness of his line of reasoning.

However, after the formal staff meeting, another informal “parking lot” meeting took place with a few influential well-connected staff, one of whom was very central in the "gossip" network of the school. This teacher reported to the others she had a ‘friend’ in another school in which they tried the program and reported that it “didn’t work.” After this meeting after the meeting, the teacher, who in a sense was an informal “opinion leader,” quickly spread her thoughts about the program across the school’s network and despite the “objective” quality of the idea it was essentially finished before it could begin.

Although reforms are documented and monitored through plans and reports, change does not necessarily result from these formal plans and blueprints, but rather occurs in the interaction of participants. Change processes ultimately emerge and are maintained through interpersonal relationships, and it is the interdependence of relational ties that may ultimately moderate, influence, and even determine the direction, speed, and depth of a change. Therefore, recognizing the quality of social ties between and among educators is important in understanding the flow of relational resources such as communication, knowledge and expertise, and further how that network of relationships may support or constrain efforts at change.

The idea that social relations can influence the diffusion and depth of a change effort suggests an alternative view to understanding how reform does or doesn’t occur. Although much of the reform literature reports the importance of the technical elements of change such as curricular and structural arrangements, social network theory foregrounds the informal relations between individuals and how patterns of interaction may influence change efforts. Network theory provides a lens and set of methods for examining not only the movement of relational resources associated with reform (collaboration, knowledge, etc.), but potentially attitudes and opinions about that effort.

The studies presented in my new book, Social Network Theory and Educational Change, highlight the need to attend to social networks as critical in the change equation. Although the book suggests a number of areas to consider related to change, the following questions are offered as a way to highlight network thinking:

  • In what ways do the proposed formal structures of reform, such as professional learning communities and coaches for example, interact with existing informal social relations, such as friendship, support, and collaboration?
  • In what ways is the expertise related to reform centralized or dispersed throughout the network?
  • How has the expertise in the system been ‘audited’ in order to diffuse existing knowledge?
  • Are there hubs in the network that have disproportionate influence over reform or alternatively are their isolates who are ‘socially distant’ and as such are not receiving timely and accurate information?
  • What opportunities do connected subgroups, such as grade levels, have to formally interact with other subgroups?
  • Has the organization prepared enough redundant ties should a key individual leave the network?
Social network research suggests that "informal" webs of relationships are often the chief determinants of how well and quickly change efforts take hold, diffuse, and sustain. Focusing on the pattern of relationships first represents a shift in the way we approach reform. Typically a reform effort begins with an overall articulation of the strategy including the components of the effort, necessary resources, assessment tools, timelines, and personnel. In the best situations these elements are integrated with existing social systems. However, in many cases these formal approaches are merely layered onto existing efforts without systematically attending to the structure of the informal network or established relationships already in place. This emphasis on relational linkages suggests an equally important supplementing, not a supplanting, of the more formal technical aspects of school improvement that are currently demanded by federal and state policy. The implication of this integrated perspective is that successful change efforts will require intentional emphasis on both the formal architecture of reform as well as the informal networks of relations upon which these formal structures are layered.

About the Author: Alan J. Daly is an assistant professor of education at the University of California, San Diego. He is the editor of Social Network Theory and Educational Change (Harvard Education Press, 2010).