School & District Management Opinion

Structures Drive Behavior: Right is Magic, Wrong is Deadly

By Tom Vander Ark — May 17, 2017 5 min read
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Our experience of the world depends on the actual structure of the networks in which we’re residing and on all the kinds of things that ripple and flow through the network ~ Nicholas Christakis

Structures drive behavior. Organized one way we can be inventive and cooperative; organized in a different way we are uninventive and uncooperative. That’s a research finding of Nicholas Christakis, director of the Human Lab at Yale. “Same human beings, different typology - a different architecture of ties - completely changes the kind of group properties that these individuals evince.”

It’s not about individual performance, it’s about the system. It doesn’t make sense to focus on “teacher effectiveness” without a focus on building a coherent system. As Deming said, “A bad system will beat a good person every time.”

The process starts “by putting students in the center,” said Doug Knecht, Bank Street Education Center. With a focus on the intersections of child development and adult learning, the Center helps school systems build “a coherent throughline (illustrated above) from the central office and pedagogical supervisors to teacher teams and their students.”

A coherent system starts with the learner and their experience. “Rather than trying to figure out who will succeed and who won’t, now we ask ‘what are the right conditions for each learner to succeed?’” said Sandy Shugart, President of Valencia College.

For the last 20 years, the working theory at Valencia has been anyone can learn anything under the right conditions. “That changes the conversation,” added Shugart. “We change conditions in partnership with the learners.”

The annual performance appraisal system in business and education has reinforced a myopic focus on individual performance. “Human beings assemble themselves and form a kind of super organism,” said Yale’s Christakis. “Super organisms have properties that cannot be understood just by studying the individuals.”

Individual performance coaching is useful, but the first role of a leader is as system architect--getting the conditions, connections and culture right.

“Network leadership operates from the understanding that the nature and pattern of connection in a system underlie its state of health,” said Curtis Ogden, Interaction Institute (listen to a recent podcast with Ogden).

Work on the system, not the people, said author and advisor Niels Pflaeging. “Leadership has to be work focused on improving the system.” (Thanks to Niels for the diagram above).

Designing Network Structures: 10 Lessons

Most of us work at work and learn in networks. We may be employed by an organization, but it operates as a network and we work and learn as part of many networks--some formal, many informal. Inspired by a great book on social networks by Peter Plastrik and Madeleine Taylor, and insight from Curtis Ogden, following are 10 lessons on effective network structures and an example for each.

1. Different structures serve different purposes. A loose multi-hub structure speeds cost-effective diffusion; a centralized network promotes fidelity.

  • Future Ready Schools is a loose affiliation of districts committed to forward-leaning design principles. Success Academy is a tight network serving low-income NYC elementary students.

2. Build strong connections. Build systems to connect nodes and subsystems. Recognize that the periphery of a network can be useful as a source of connections that core members don’t have. Pushing responsibility out to the edges is what helps networks survive and thrive. Networks are flipping a top-down and center-focused orientation to seeing “the periphery as norm.”

  • iNACOL advocates for student-centered learning and serves individual, school and corporate members with a variety of services.

Are the various systems and subsystems sufficiently connected to themselves and to one another to facilitate overall health and wholeness?

3. Watch the impact of a dominant hub. A dominant hub can impede the movement of information and resources, and get in the way of the other network members developing strong relationships with each other. Allow for initiative across the system that cuts out bottlenecks.

4. Invest in shifting structures. As networks evolve, their shifting structures require different kinds of “care and feeding.” Each of these tasks is fundamentally about developing connectivity, alignment and production—but within very different structural contexts.

  • After 20 years of decentralized operation, the KIPP network invested in a default curriculum to better support teachers, students and district partners to scale impact.

5. Make the network do the work. Networks should create conditions for self-development. Rather than viewing members as passive extractors, ask them to collaborate to produce value.

6. Let connections flow to value. Allow popular nodes to attract and share resources and encourage co-creation. Keep information and other resources flowing. Value contributions before credentials. Avoid doing things that members don’t find valuable.

7. Use variation to strengthen a network. A network’s ability to create adaptive capacity depends crucially on assembling specialized competencies among its members. Create connections across boundaries/dimensions of difference.

8. It’s a network-to-network world. If you can weave the clusters together, the network you are building will grow faster and have more immediate connectivity and capacity.

9. Promote equity and diversity. Be aware of how implicit bias impacts your thinking and actions in the network; practice de-biasing strategies. New thinking comes from the meeting of different fields, experience and perspectives.

  • Members of the Remake Learning Network in Pittsburgh--some 250 schools, libraries, universities, startups and museums--pursue equity through a shared agenda of innovative teaching and learning.

10. Keep plans flexible. Networks tend to plan two things: projects they will undertake, one after another, and the development of the network as a whole.

  • Districts and networks use projects to distribute and develop leadership while carrying out a change agenda.

These lessons suggest to Ogden a set of core skills of working in networks: inquiry, listening, seeing patterns, cultivating trust, making connections, creating space and supporting self-organizing.

For more, see:

The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.