Collaborative Learning Communities – the roles people play (pt 6 in a series)

This week we examine serial or parallel networks, the roles people play within them and how, if we don’t take care to establish them correctly, one faulty connection can plunge everything into darkness.

Serial and parallel networks:

If you thought the festive season had finally been put to bed for another year, I am about to bring it back to the front of your mind. Specifically, Christmas lights, the shiny little stars of cheer that brighten those long winter evenings. When they work. 

When they don’t, those lights are the very definition of frustration, not least because we need to run through a checklist to identify the reason. It could be a fuse in the motherboard, or in a plug, or if you’re still running those fire hazard chain lights, the failure of a single bulb is enough to snuff out the entire string. Then, when they light finally do light up, you discover they’re not the lights you remembered them being last year. 

 Dealing with all of this can seriously erode the season of goodwill to all people.  The same can be said with Collaborative Learning Networks (CLNs) that form a Collaborative Learning Community (CLC). All it takes is one person for the entire chain to come to a standstill.

Not so much with CLNs, where Stage One Activity, the transfer of information in the Olevi Collaborative Learning Model, is appropriate.  Here, social media has allowed communication of information to flourish, and the control of connectivity tends to be delegated, diverse, and free  with 24/7 access. In other words the flow of information is not reliant on any one individual.

However, for Stage Two and Three Activities, experiential learning and coaching and mentoring, CLNs are often vulnerable to the actions of one person. This person usually controls the Organisational Capital and gives permission for action to take place.  They act like a fuse. It could be the teacher in the classroom who has established  collaborative learning groups in their class or the head teacher who has sanctioned a number of CLNs amongst their staff with those from other schools. These groups cease to function without the necessary permissions, direction, time and resources in place. 

On numerous occasions I have met a teacher or school leader who had been engaged in one of our workshops who I had not seen for a while to be told their headteacher has withdrawn permission for them to attend. In the immediate context of the school’s development, this decision might well be justified but CLCs as I have shown take time to build value and are quickly lost.  These should be regarded as long-term asset, not a quick fix.  

The slide above demonstrates that within every network designed to use Stage Two and Three activities, you must ensure that you are building a CLN that is going to use parallel, rather than serial, links between staff. In this way you ensure that if one connection fails due to  a breakdown in relationships or absence, the network does not grind to a halt. 

For example, Challenge Partners meetings included senior partners, the head teacher nominated to lead a hub of schools and the hub managers, as well as staff involved in the network. There were several advantages with this: 

The roles we play in networks

In the early days of the development of Challenge Partners, we were fortunate to work with Professor Louise Stoll and her team from the Institute of Education, University College of London.  Louise is recognised as a world expert in the field of school improvement and effectiveness. Among a number of themes, her research looked at the role that key staff play in the transfer of knowledge. The team’s findings highlighted the critical role that certain staff played, and identified this as staff catalyst. These staff were not only able to recognise quickly the value of knowledge they obtained from other staff but reform it if necessary in a way that could be shared with others. Then crucially they had the energy and determination to ensure the knowledge was transferred effectively. They acted as a catalyst.

In our work, I have used this role and two others to assist in the way we regard the roles we play in CLNs. Alongside catalyst, I have identified the roles of blocker and filter.   In the blocker role, we stop information from traveling further. In the filter role, we reject some knowledge and accept other whilst the catalyst filters and engages with appropriate knowledge as in the slide above. All three roles are important.  What distinguishes the effective networker is an ability to utilise the correct role when presented with knowledge or skills. Rather like the concept of selective attention, outstanding practitioners attend to small areas of knowledge, know what they are looking for and how to use it effectively. Others, however, behave on a continuum which ranges from blocking it all, to trying to learn it all. The result is the same – an inconsistent impact on their development.

With the above in mind, and using the analogy of the Christmas lights, my advice, if you are a teacher or a school leader is to: 

  1. Check that all your chains of lights/Collaborative Learning Networks are connected to the motherboard/Collaborative Learning Community
  2. Ensure they have enough power/time and resources/Organisational Capital to work. 
  3. Check each chain of lights/CLN of students or teachers to ensure that it also has enough power/time and resources/Organisational Capital
  4. Make sure that each chain of lights is linked in parallel rather than serial order/you are not too dependent on the relationship between two students or staff.
  5. Check that all of the lights are screwed in correctly/relationships are brokered and that they can carry out the three different functions of block,filter and catalyst in the appropriate time.  

Then you can stand back and wonder at the marvel of hundreds of shining stars empowering students with the wisdom of the education community. However, don’t rest on your laurels, start looking for more of the brightest lights, catalysts and new chains in CLCs so that next year your light show will outshine even Danny DeVito’s.