I have been enjoying the sunshine, scenery and seafood in Vancouver, while attending the AERA conference. This conference is massive, with over 15,000 delegates and a telephone directory instead of a programme. The highlight of the conference for me was Cynthia Coburn’s excellent keynote address (see http://tinyurl.com/87swf5r for her work). I was pleased to find that her conclusions supported the work on relationships that is emerging from our current Teacher Agency and Curriculum Change project (ESRC – RES-000-22-4208 ) – see http://tinyurl.com/d36j3qk for the paper we gave at AERA.

Coburn suggests that the quality of teacher social networks is a highly important factor in developing curricular reform. She identifies 4 key themes, which should be of interest to schools seeking to meaningfully implement CfE.

  1. Social interaction is a major factor in shaping teachers’ responses to innovation. In particular, the ways in which teachers are able to draw upon social networks determine the ways in which they make sense of new ideas – whether they simply shoehorn new ideas into existing practices, or whether they genuinely engage with new ideas and potentially change existing practices.
  2. The nature of social interaction is shaped by leaders. Coburn provided persuasive empirical evidence to support the role of principals and other school leaders in articulating a clear vision for reform, and in establishing the spaces where sense making might take place through collegial dialogue.
  3. The nature and structure of interaction matters. This especially resonates with our research, which suggests that teachers in schools where there are established channels for horizontal communication (i.e. between faculties) exhibit enhanced levels of agency in their work. This contrasts sharply with schools where channels of communication tend to be mainly vertical (i.e. top-down), where teachers seem more likely to exhibit learned helplessness in the face of externally-driven reform. We also suggest (as did Coburn) that teachers with external relationships are likely to have greater access to resources (e.g. access to new ideas) than their colleagues who work entirely within one school.
  4. Social networks are shaped by external environments and policy. School districts in Coburn’s study were significant in providing resources (money and concepts), pointing teachers to other resources, legitimating collegial activity and providing forums for teachers to work with external people. I suggest also that local authorities in Scotland and national agencies should play a significant role in supporting networking (and this is developing), but that they should also consider the potential impact of policies in reducing such activity (e.g. the negative impact of accountability practices).

Scottish local authorities have taken great steps in the last year or two to develop formal teacher learning communities. And yet my suspicion is that we could be doing more to develop the sorts of informal teacher networks that help teachers to make sense of often complex and confusing new policy. This is about developing genuinely collegial cultures as well as new structures for collaborative working. It is fundamentally about understanding the conditions in which such networks get established, and the processes which make them become sustainable. Coburn’s seminal work is a great resource in this respect.


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