In The Education Hub’s recently released report, The Quest for Scale: achieving system-wide innovation and improvement in education, we present a new paradigm for achieving system-wide achievement and change in education in New Zealand, networked improvement. Network improvement rejects the traditional one-size fits all, programmatic approach to scale, in favour of a focus on ongoing learning and capacity building at all levels, and the utilisation of collaborative networks to facilitate the fluid exchange of innovation learning across contexts and traditional institutional boundaries.

While the implementation of networked improvement approaches in education is in its nascent stages around the world, and we therefore have few well-established examples to learn from, the literature does provide some guidance for a system wanting to develop such an approach to educational improvement in the form of six principles.

Building capacity and accelerating the ability to learn

A key part of innovation and improvement work must be working with educators, those on the front line who ultimately are responsible for implementing any change. This involves building a mindset among practitioners and a method of working within schools that promotes effective change management processes, creates the opportunity to continuously evaluate and iteratively refine new approaches, and facilitates sustained learning, which is fed back into the system.

Learning cycles to develop practice-based evidence

While learning cycles may take different forms, all are characterised by the disciplined, analytic and systematic use of rigorous methods to investigate whether a change or a set of actions leads to the desired outcomes. Learning cycles facilitate learning through rapid design cycles and provide the infrastructure to enable educators to move quickly from problem definition to prototyping and then to implementation and evaluation. At the heart of any learning cycle must be a commitment to the collection and use of robust evidence to inform next steps and ongoing actions, principle number three.

Data use to reinforce and inform iterative improvement

Data are critical pieces of the innovation and improvement process; they are what enable participants to determine whether a change or innovation actually leads to improvement. Evidence collection should start from a working theory of improvement (including the identification of the desired outcomes or measures of success), and associated measures should enable the real-time learning of student experiences to enable iterative development, as well as the evaluation of whether the processes and changes being developed are actually leading to long-term improvements in valued outcomes.

Purposeful collaboration among different stakeholders

Networks are powerful mechanisms for driving innovation because of their ability to bring together individuals from different contexts and with diverse knowledge and expertise in deliberately structured ways. In education, the most successful networks are those that bring together the theoretical knowledge and empirical findings of researchers, the practical know-how and context-rich expertise of educators, and the specialised skills of other experts and designers. Perhaps most importantly, high-functioning improvement networks see non-school partners as equal collaborative partners rather than outside consultants, and embed them within the improvement process.

Networks with highly structured processes and ways of working

In contrast to many education networks, which are loosely formed and governed, improvement networks are highly structured, intentionally formed collaborations. High functioning networks have four essential characteristics: (1) a well-defined, realistic aim and specific, measurable goals that are aligned to the specific problem and working theory of improvement; (2) a deep understanding of the problem being addressed and the working theory of improvement; (3) discipline methods of inquiry including effective measurement tools and data systems; and (4) a mechanism to coordinate efforts and learning across all network members.

Central hub support

While the strength of networks is their distributed and horizontal structure, well-functioning networks also require strong leadership and a well-resourced central hub. The central hub’s primary role is to initiate and integrate activity, including catalysing engagement; identifying potential new members; developing initial processes and structures; maintaining and coordinating knowledge management (dissemination); and supporting activity in each of the member organisations as well as cross-institutional activity and knowledge flows.

The combining of these six principles has the potential to facilitate a new approach to innovation and improvement; an approach that rejects a focus on universal prescription and instead champions the need to adjust powerful ideas to diverse contexts and diverse populations, embracing a pluralistic approach to education. It combines a deep appreciate for the research evidence with respect for the tacit knowledge and expertise of educators. Implementing such an approach to improvement in New Zealand requires the system to empower educators to work in collaboration with each other, and with researchers, designers and other experts to create the conditions, systems and infrastructure needed to ensure our young people can thrive. These ideas are not completely new to the New Zealand education system. However, they are not currently embedded in ways that consistently drive mind-sets, actions and behaviours in education.

The third and final piece in this three-part series will explore the potential opportunities presented by Communities of LearningKāhui Ako for driving a networked improvement approach.

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