The Power of Networks

Too often, educators tend to tackle problems in isolation, whether in an individual classroom, school, or district. But when we come together to address challenges, we multiply our ideas, expertise, resources, and knowledge. That’s why the Rennie Center is working to harness the power of networks.

Over the past few years, we’ve teamed up with districts and partners across the state on a number of networks aimed at improving education in the Commonwealth. Through these experiences, we’ve worked with several kinds of networks, each with its own unique value.

A Community of Practice is a group of educators who meet to exchange ideas, ask questions, and share resources. Members of this type of network do not necessarily use the same strategies for improvement, but they learn from one another’s experience and knowledge. The Massachusetts Education Partnership’s District Capacity Project, for example, brought districts across the state together around labor-management-community collaboration. While each team worked to accomplish different types of goals, project facilitators gathered to share techniques, troubleshoot problems, and discuss lessons learned around collaboration. Our approach to this work is described in the book Improving Education Together from Harvard Education Press.

A Learning Community is similar to a Community of Practice, but members of this type of network share common challenges and are working to increase their knowledge and expertise around specific evidence-based solutions. They meet to discuss potential strategies and compare notes throughout the process. For example, the Massachusetts Institute for College and Career Readiness brought together districts from across Massachusetts around the goal of preparing Gateway City students for life after high school. Each district used research-practice partnerships as a strategy for improvement and met to discuss challenges and successes.

Improvement Networks have a few key differences from Learning Communities and Communities of Practice. Members of an Improvement Network share a common problem of practice, a commitment to a shared outcome, and a focus on testing, tweaking, and scaling potential solutions. An Improvement Network is focused on achieving measurable outcomes.

The networks within the Massachusetts Teaching and Learning Network, for example, work toward a common goal of improving effective teaching. Their efforts are focused around testing new practices, scaling what works, and adjusting what doesn’t. Similarly, the Excellence in Social and Emotional Learning Network brings together nine Massachusetts school districts around a shared goal of expanding social-emotional learning in schools. They’re teaming up to set measurable outcomes and learn from practices that work. In both of these networks, participants are working together to learn which strategies work in different schools and with particular student populations.

Choosing the type of network that works best for you depends on the problem you are looking to address, the commitment you’re willing to make, and the resources available. While a Community of Practice can be beneficial if you’re looking to share ideas and brainstorm with fellow educators, a Learning Community can help if you want to build knowledge around a specific problem. Sometimes, a Community of Practice or a Learning Community can evolve into an Improvement Network as the group’s problem and outcomes become clearly defined.

To be ready to take part in an Improvement Network there needs to be a consensus around and commitment to the problem you’re looking to address. You should to be able to make a significant time and monetary investment in the project and be willing to fully commit to the improvement process.

Every problem is different, so choosing the right approach can be difficult. We’re here to help. Contact us for advice on which network is right for you.