Understanding the Potential for Social Networks in Education Reform

Whether it be technology, curriculum, standards, or classroom practices, too often new programs are viewed as a linear cause-and-effect situation without taking all of the broader contextual factors into account (Domitrovich et al., 2008). There is an assumption that changing one aspect of education would logically lead to some other form of improvement. However, as Professor Larry Cuban explained in a 2013 essay, schools are more than just a combination of complicated moving parts. They are more like complex organisms. As such, moving one lever does not automatically lead to a change in the entire system. Therefore, reformers, policymakers, administrators, and teachers need to consider the broader ecology in which schools and students exist.  To ultimately make systemic improvements, they need to recognize how everything is both interdependent and interconnected (Cuban, 2013).

Psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner uses the metaphor of Russian Nesting Dolls to illustrate this concept. He explains that the tiniest, innermost doll represents the interactions between individuals. The next layer includes elements of the immediate surroundings which are then affected by a macro layer that includes broader economic, social, and political influences. In a school setting, imagine the students in the smallest doll. Elements of school such as curriculum, technology, or standards might be included in the next layer. Those structures then exist within a macro layer that includes forces exuded by politics, economics, globalization, and society. Within the metaphor of the doll, every system then exerts some form of pressure on everything else.

I had Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) Ecological Systems Theory in mind as I started reading Julia Freeland Fisher’s new book, Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations that Expand Students’ Networks. She argues that in their current state, schools account for and respond to macro forces by focusing on micro relationships with students and teachers; but at the same time, schools miss a critical opportunity by ignoring students’ external environments – particularly their social networks. If schools hope to close the achievement gap and provide educational equity for all students, then they need to address not only the linear cause and effect of macro forces on educational programs but also the broader social relationships that students need to take advantage of future opportunities. In other words, educators need to think about how they help students form social connections with experts, mentors, supportive adults, and diverse peer groups to increase the likelihood of new opportunities over time.

It was this notion of expanding students’ social networks beyond the confines of the school ecosystem that brought me back to Bronfenbrenner. Because in addition to the previously mentioned macro and micro forces, when describing his ecological perspective, Bronfenbrenner (1979) also includes time as an underlying chronosystem. He acknowledges that the events in an individual’s (or organization’s) history influence the interdependence of systems in the present and eventually the future.

In a literal sense, the events of a child’s life might influence his or her reaction to a moment in the present. My utter dislike of eating beets can be traced to a horrific dinner with my Grandmother over 35 years ago. Similarly, with the institution of education, many of the practices institutionalized in today’s schools can be traced back to the events the comprise the history of education.  As edtech historian, Audrey Watters, discussed in a recent talk at Georgetown University, history matters. She argues that every decision should be questioned for precedence.

Why do schools tend to isolate students from the real world instead of helping them to forge meaningful relationships within the community?

Why isolate learning into subjects, classes, and grades?

If we look at the history of the institution of education, and the nuanced intentions behind each decision, then we can start to see how all of the interdependent systems of society, politics, and economics influence the immediate setting in which students exist.

All of this brings me back to Fisher’s book. Though I admittedly have a few more chapters to read, she makes a compelling argument for examining student social networks as a lever for reform. As she explains, the idea of bridging the achievement gap first emerged in 1966 with the publication of what eventually became known as The Coleman Report.  What has become a seminal work, The Quality of Educational Opportunity report first documented discrepancies between students of different races as well as different socioeconomic backgrounds. Though reformers continue to examine how to improve education from within, The Coleman Report found that only 8-9% of the achievement gap can be attributed to what happens IN school. Instead, it raised the issue that the interdependent forces of a student’s environment – particularly family structures and economic class – impact student performance. Therefore, as Fisher asserts, shifting focus to external networks offers another opportunity for intervention.

By actively working to create new relationships and opportunities for students, the potential increases for students to gain equitable access to the social capital that they will need for future success. However, education is a complex system, and we need to remember not only the influence of history on the present but also how each interdependent system impacts the lives of our students.

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