The results of my impromptu survey on relational trust in PLNs vs. school settings are in. For those of you who like your information organized in slide-by-slide chunks, a no-frills summary is embedded below and posted on Slideshare. You may, without guilt and with my blessing, jump right in and skip the rambling analysis further below.

A QUICK REVIEW

The survey was sparked by the collision of a couple of ideas: Parker Palmer’s frequent mention of Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider’s ground-breaking research on trust in schools, and Alec Couros’ recent quest to figure out what we really mean when we talk about personal learning networks. Survey items were adapted from Hoy and Tschannen-Moran’s Omnibus Trust Scale. I used Hoy for a number of reasons: 1) their scale differentiated between aspects of trust and allowed me to pull out just the items addressing trust in colleagues, 2) items were easily adaptable to the PLN context, 3) Professor Hoy generously put it out there to be used for professional and personal development, and 4) the T-scale directions page offered much needed hand-holding for a fake psychometrician like me. It was distributed to the Twitterverse a month ago and has garnered 18 responses so far. Number 18 came in after I did my first round of number-crunching, though, so for the posted results, n=17. Quick thanks here to Alec for sending most of these my way.

ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS

I was wondering:

  • Is your level of trust with colleagues in your network higher or lower than with those in your school?
  • Is it a different kind of trust? Is it easier to trust a school colleague who’s also a member of your network?
  • What aspects of relational trust in PLNs (if any) could inform and improve relational trust-building in schools?

FINDINGS

Overall, relational trust in PLNs was rated significantly higher than in school settings. After running the numbers through the Hoy-o-Vac  (Note to self: remember to reverse values for the “suspicious of each other” item), the average score across all items for PLNs was  4.82. On the school-setting side, it was 3.41, almost a full point and a half  less. Converted to a standardized score where 500 is the mean, PLNs came in at 581 and schools at 283—over two standard deviations below the mean.

I anticipated that PLNs would rate higher for relational trust but was surprised that both sets of scores weren’t higher. Since our respondents were coming from a variety of school settings rather than from a single identified school, I expected scores on the school side to reflect a generalized average that was close to the 500 mean, with the PLN scores coming in somewhat higher. Instead, the school scores were almost rock bottom. What does it mean? You got me. It may lend support to Steve Dembo’s theory that participation in a PLN catalyzes some teachers’ decisions to leave a school, or even to leave the profession. If so, it’s not clear which is the chicken and which is the egg: Does the glimpse of greener pastures made possible by  a PLN sow seeds of discontent, or are the people who find their way into a PLN more likely  to be already frustrated with the status quo? Is a kind of selection bias at work? Cause and effect? For whatever reason, by whatever mechanism, survey respondents came through the door with a low sense of trust in their school settings.

The real learning for me came from reading through what respondents wrote in the comment section. Five distinct themes emerged from respondents’ reflections about relational trust and what they’ve found valuable in their PLN experiences: choice, equality, openness or transparency, diversity, and learning. This stuff is sheer gold, which is why  I’m quoting heavily—what they have to say is too eloquent and powerful to bury in a paraphrase.

CHOICE

The trust relationships in plns seem stronger to me because they are self selected. I can opt in or opt out of the relationship—something I can’t do in school.

You *choose* those that you invite into your PLN – and I assume you have chosen wisely. Those who are *assigned* to work in your same facility are not there by your choice. This parallels the difference between your circle of friends and your family, does it not?

EQUALITY

In a pln, everyone is equal and there is no leader.

That equality increases the trust between pln colleagues—and the inherent lack of equality in school based relationships inhibits the development of trust.

OPENNESS

The major difference I have found is related to the openness of sharing, exploring, learning/relearning and willingness to think out loud through blogs, tweets, podcasts and webcasts, sometimes at great risk professionally through my PLNs.

Funnily enough I think the people in my PLN know the ‘real me’. People in my school think they do,but in fact when it comes down to it – they don’t.  Am I more open with my PLN? Or is it because those in my PLN  are interested in/care about  the same things as I am – hence their membership in my PLN in the first place?

DIVERSITY

My PLN encompasses more diverse people/jobs/outlooks than contacts in my school district.

LEARNING

It is refreshing and energizing to be an active contributor in many professional social networks, and I learn something new every day! I couldn’t say the same about my experience in my own school/university. Over the years attitudes have become very status quo and a reluctance to by educators to consider themselves life-long learners beyond their “work hours” has been quite common. I love my PLNs!!

TO SUM UP

How did we do answering those essential questions? Pretty well with the first one, but after that it all goes haywire. The five strands of the PLN experience identified as valuable by our respondents strike me as a good place to start if you’re trying to build a high-trust organization. How readily might they transfer back into a traditional school setting? Harder to say. Another way to look at it might be to start with the people. Collect a group of people who value choice, openness, equality, diversity, and learning, and any organization they build will have a higher degree of relational trust. In other words, the question we should be asking isn’t “Can we take these lessons back to improve relational trust in schools?” but “What are the people who’ve already learned these lessons going to build?

What do you think?

Thanks again to all who responded. If you’re interested in taking a closer look at the data, or getting a copy of the survey form, contact me at sschwister at gmail dot com.

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Mine eyes have been opened to the glories of disruptive innovation. I think I’m finally starting to get it, thanks to Scott McLeod.

I was lucky enough to have a seat in the room Thursday as Scott presented to a group of Minnesota administrators on the whole prickly, sticky ball of 21st century challenges facing school leaders. (One of the slides in Scott’s presentation shows a blindfolded CEO-type; the text reads, “The people in charge of leading school organizations into the 21st century often are the least knowledgeable about the 21st century.” Pretty blunt message to deliver to a group of school CEOs, but no discernable ripples or gasps in response. Guess they were too busy listening.) Later in the session, Scott reprised his K-12 Online Conference presentation on Clayton Christensen‘s notion of disruptive innovation and its implications for school leaders.

My understanding of disruptive innovation before yesterday was pretty pedestrian: new technologies or paradigms come along periodically, shake everything up, and displace the old. The cassette tape replaced the vinyl record, and was in turn replaced by the CD, which is now being replaced by the iPod. Everything new is old again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

THE CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT MODEL PROBLEM

What I’d missed all along is the part about how organizations manage, or are overtaken by, the changes. It ain’t pretty. Call it the Continuous Improvement Model Problem. Organizations are designed to serve their present circumstances, not an unknowable future, and will tend to continue along those lines, doggedly pursuing incremental improvement, striving to fit ever-more-snugly into their chosen niche, unless and until…disrupted. Most organizations are full of capable, well-intentioned, passionate people doing a bang-up job of serving constituents, clients, or students in fulfillment of their stated mission—which does not usually include trying to remake the organization into something it’s not. When the disruption occurs, it’s usually too late to turn the Titanic, and down we go, deck chairs, string quartets, and all. It’s tough for currently successful organizations to stay ahead of disruptive changes even if they see them coming; they’re tempted to try to keep both balls in the air, to try to serve the current mission while moving incrementally toward the new. Or, if the innovation has already arrived, to try retrofitting old systems to navigate new conditions. What’s really called for is a separatist approach. Establish autonomous colonies in unknown territories based on new, untried principles, let them compete directly with your current organization, and the ones that survive are the future of your organization. Correction: The ones that survive will become your organization. The “natural laws” of disruptive innovation suggest that retrofitting is a fool’s errand—all it does is prolong the agony. It’s a harsh, red-in-tooth-and-claw message, but an important one for school leaders to absorb.

THE END OF PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT AS WE KNOW IT

Scott says that the disruptive innovation facing traditional schools is personalized learning, as represented by the growth of charter schools, alternative schools, and online coursework. You could extend that assertion into the realm of teachers’ professional learning: personal learning networks are emerging as a disruption to professional development as we know it. Those of us who are part of a PLN understand the innovation happening here—the incredible value of informal, networked, collaborative learning—and many have tried to spread the word. PLNs haven’t hit the mainstream yet. They’re still below what Scott calls the good enough line for any number of reasons: the learning isn’t credentialed, the research is pending, the numbers haven’t reached a tipping point. Some, like Kevin Jarrett, have come up with great ideas for bringing the global lessons of PLNs home to a local face-to-face network of colleagues, bridging the two worlds, and put them into action, open-participation barcamp-style.

MOVE OVER, MILES STANDISH

Evangelizing about the value of PLNs strikes me, for the first time, as a brave attempt at retrofitting. In trying to spread the word, encourage integration of elements of PLN development into existing professional development models, and grow toward a critical mass, are we still trying to serve the current system? Are our attempts to persuade (and charm, seduce, coax, coerce, bribe, etc.) others to change their practice ultimately aimed at effecting systemic change? Maybe, maybe not. Change is good on an individual level. But it occurs to me that we need to ask hard questions about what we hope to accomplish at the macro level, what changes we want to see, where we want to put our energy—sustain the old world, or . The idea is forming in my head that, if PLNs are a disruptive innovation, there’s no looking back, no sense spending energy trying to retrofit into the old system. Deep participation in a PLN becomes a radical, subversive, separatist activity, like the Pilgrims setting sail for Virginia…er….Plymouth. With every blog post, with every tweet, each of us is writing and rewriting a kind of Mayflower Compact for a new world.

Steve Dembo was only half-joking when he suggested that participating in a PLN is like unplugging from the Matrix; once your eyes are opened, you can’t go back. Like it or not, you’re a separatist, a personal learning network Pilgrim. Where are new colonies being established, and what will they look like?

[I know, I know: This post leans way too heavily on a metaphor freighted with Euro-centric, colonial-imperialist baggage. Counterpoint: Remember what Malcolm X said about Plymouth Rock and where it landed.]