The Big Bet on the Power of a Network and Professional Teacher Communities

We use the words “network” and “community” loosely at the Foundation. In my own work, we talk about teacher practice networks but we also have implementation networks (networks of districts). We also talk about teacher communities, communities of practice, and professional learning communities.

One of our grantees defined the difference using a definition by Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner. While “networks” are characterized by an interconnected web of nodes and links that foster building relationships, personal interactions, and connections among participants, with an ability to open more opportunities for information sharing and productive connections; whereas “communities” provide the opportunity for “the development of a shared identity around a topic that represents a collective intention—however tacit and distributed—to steward a domain of knowledge and to sustain learning about it.” That is a lot to take in, and Kenie Richards on my team boiled it down by saying:

Networks are about connections. Communities are about building something together.

 A recent conversation with Joe Murphy from Vanderbilt expanded my thinking even more. In his book with Daniela Torre called Creating Productive Cultures in Schools, he offers the core elements of communities of practice and distills the critical few elements as: shared vision; collaboration; ownership; shared leadership; shared accountability and trust. He argued that the network is only the structure or platform that make the “DNA” needed to create a community where the real work happens.

 One of the ideas we are testing at the Foundation is whether or not we are seeing online digital teacher communities, in fact, mirror the qualities of a professional community of practice and whether or not they might be an alternate place to build community – other than the school-based PLCs that don’t seem to be having much effect on practice. We are taking the thinking one step further to look at the impact peer to peer learning has on improving practice, and our hypothesis is that not only will teachers practice shift as a result of participation in these communities; but they will also influence their peers. It’s a big bet for sure but as Joe reminded me during our conversation, “Isn’t that the role of foundations? To make those big bets?”


Josephy Murphy book - Communities of Professional Practice

Murphy, Joseph F, and Daniela Torre. (2014). Creating Productive Cultures in Schools: For Students, Teachers, and Parents. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.