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.


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.


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?


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.


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?


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.


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?


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


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!!


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.

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

Justice Potter Stewart on definining obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964)

“While I am still having trouble defining exactly what this is, I know that what I observe to be my PLN has dramatically changed the way I view teaching, communities, and the negotiation and formation of knowledge.”

Alec Couros on defining personal learning networks

Alec Couros didn’t invoke the Potter Stewart clause in his recent attempt to discover a definition of personal learning networks, but he could have. Alec put the question “What is a PLN?” to his Twitter network in what, he noted, was an inherently existential exercise. But a useful and enlightening one. While a satisfactory definition is still lurking out there on the margins, Alec’s network kicked back some robust 140-character building blocks for starters, like these:

From @BlancheMaynard: “PLN is organic; PLE is mechanic. You can use ‘tools’ like Twitter within your PLE to access your network, but the tool isn’t the network.”

And from @jrichardson30: “To act as a source AND catalyst for this sort of thought-provoking conversation and authentic experience mentioned above that leads us to a point where are required to engage, to reflect, and ultimately to contribute instead of just consuming.”

We know a PLN when we see one. More importantly, we know when we’re in—and being changed by—one. And while we may struggle to find referents and research to support what we’ve learned through our experience,  we know what we know deeply and intuitively. As Alec says, the personal change can be dramatic. This business of not quite being able to put our empirical finger on a truth,  of knowing something through direct personal experience, strikes me as being essentially mystical.  In this light, Alec’s existential exercise  starts to look more like a koan: What is the sound a PLN defining itself?

Not that there’s anything wrong with having an inner life. Parker Palmer often talks about the importance of interiority in education, but with a decided slant toward reclaiming a more pragmatic mysticism.  He talks about Barbara McClintock, the eminent, Nobel-winning geneticist, as an example of a “wheels-down” mystic; her science was rock-solid but guided by an intuitive grasp of patterns and relationships in genetic material. Her decades of research focused on corn. Asked by her biographer, Evelyn Fox Keller, to describe her leaps of insight into the complex genetic structure of corn, McClintock responded, “Somehow you have to have a feeling for the organism….To do great science, you have to learn, somehow, to lean into the kernel.”

Leaning into the kernel. That suggests intentionally knocking ourselves off-kilter and into a new stance, giving up our usual straight-up-and-down center of gravity in hopes  of discovering new slantwise perspectives. Getting closer, mingling spaces, listening beyond the noise. And, to me, the language of leaning also implies a degree of trust: trust that you’ll be caught as you begin to fall into a void. Arguably, Alec Couros was leaning into the kernel of his PLN, trusting it to buoy his understanding, and trusting that he’d recognize insights as they emerged.

Parker Palmer also frequently talks about trust as a defining factor  in the success of schools. He cites the study conducted in the 1990s by Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider of the University of Chicago, Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement.

What factors, they wondered, made the difference between schools that got better at educating children over the course of that decade—as measured by improved test scores—and schools that did not? The answer was not money, models of governance, up-to-date curricula, the latest in teaching techniques, or any other external variable. The answer was ‘relational trust’ between teachers and administrators, teachers and parents, teachers and teachers. Schools with high relational trust, and/or leaders who cared about it, had a much better chance of serving students well than schools that ranked low on those variable.

He continues:

Well, who doesn’t know that a building full of people who don’t trust each other will not do much good with all the money in the world? And who doesn’t know that a building full of people who trust each other can do great work, even with a lack of material resources? Everyone knows that, right?

Like a PLN, relational trust can be a hard notion to pin down. Palmer argues above that we know it when we see it, even if we’re not sure how to go about making it happen.

All of this kernel-leaning makes me wonder how relational trust plays out in personal learning networks. Bryk and Schneider tell us relational trust is an important factor in how effectively schools function and how well they serve students. Does the idea transfer to PLNs? Does relational trust factor into how *effectively* your network functions, and by extension, how well it serves its participants, and by further extension, your students? Obviously, a school’s goals and structure are quite different than the fluid, organic, shifting, opt-in life of a PLN. But I wonder if our PLNs can teach us lessons about building relational trust back home in our schools. 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?

For fun and edification, and to try to spark some insights a la Couros, I’ve created a brief relational trust survey based on items from Hoy and Tschannen-Moran’s Omnibus Trust Scale . It has two parts: the first addressing relational trust in your PLN, and the second deals with trust in your school/work setting. I  tweeted the link last week, and a few hardy souls have already ventured forth to take the survey—thanks, Bill and all, especially for the illuminating comments. I promised to deliver a formal summary of results ’round about now, but it’d be nice to collect a few more responses. Let’s keep it open for another week or so. Informal snapshot: suffice it to say that the numbers for relational trust in PLNs are running unsurprisingly high, and the trust-in-schools numbers are lagging behind.

If you’re game, take the survey.