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  • Writer's pictureRuth Ashbee

Knowledge-Based Professional Networks

A while ago I enrolled on the Historical Association’s Subject Leader Development Programme, in order to help me better understand both supporting heads of history and the development of middle leadership in general. I was not disappointed! It was an incredible programme, and one I would recommend to anyone involved in leading history, staff development or quality of education.

Something that struck me about the programme was that one of the first pieces of advice was to know who makes up your network of support, and to actively connect with that network. They mentioned people like SLT in your school, the Historical Association, and subject leaders in other schools. The importance of professional networks was something I'd been tacitly aware of but until I saw it presented in this way I wouldn’t have articulated as a number one piece of advice for middle leaders. But thanks to this programme, I now understand it to be fundamental to the development of school leadership at all levels and in all fields.

If you’re on LinkedIn, you’re probably contacted frequently by people seeking to “build their network”. THIS IS NOT WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT. 99 times out of 100 on LinkedIn, people want to sell something. Everyone has to make a living, and I am broadly a fan of diversity in the system, but this sort of network doesn’t inspire me, and I don’t think I have much to offer or gain from them.

I have thought about what the difference is between those selling-type networks and the professional networks I value so highly. Great professional networks develop when people want to discuss knowledge: ideas, research, legislation, policy, ethics, etc. etc. -- Knowledge is the key causal factor in these networks. From these discussions, relationships emerge. These relationships are a key feature of the networks, but they are generally a secondary feature.

Below are some of the activities we might engage in in a knowledge-based professional network:

· Discussing ideas and develop critical analysis e.g. of assessment approaches

· Sharing updates e.g. changes to exam board practice, various government requirements, new books or blogs of interest

· Building more formal organisations e.g. CogSciSci

· Coordinating campaigns e.g. the Campaign for Evidence-Informed Teaching

· Planning blog series e.g. the Great Explainers or Twitter events e.g. #ClassicBlogWeek

· Sharing resources

· Asking for and sharing advice

· Establishing specialist links for colleagues – helping others to grow their network for all of the above

· Sharing laughs/tears/abject disbelief/horror at the latest challenges the government/world throws at us

· General conversation and lols

What should you do if you would like to develop knowledge-based professional networks? Below are my top tips:

1. Read the discourse: books and blogs, conference sessions, etc. It’s good to have knowledge to begin with!

2. Engage with the discourse: comment (respectfully!) on blogs either on the blogs themselves, as a reply to the tweet linking the blog, or as a dm to the author. Ask the writers questions e.g. their advice on a specific issue, or if they have any experience of a specific issue, or if they have any thoughts on a particular area.

3. Seek out individuals to follow and connect with. Good ways of finding people can be by looking at who has liked tweets linking great blogs, looking at people’s bios, and asking others for recommendations or signal boosts. For example, in the past I have sought to make links with health & social care teachers; I tweeted asking for links, and I asked a couple of larger accounts to retweet for me to increase my reach.

4. Tailor your bio to help others to know what you are about to encourage the right people to connect with you.

5. Strike up conversations with individuals through tweets or dms – you might ask if they are happy to connect around a particular area, e.g. “Hi X, I have gained a great deal from reading your blogs, would you mind if I asked your advice about Y?

6. After you have built a number of connections, you might consider asking a few people if they would like to create a dm group. DM groups are, in my opinion, one of the most fertile formats for developing informal knowledge-based discussions. It’s often worth having a focus but not too tight. For example, you might be a maths teacher and be wanting to develop a professional network around maths teaching. My advice would be to approach maths teachers who you know share a good amount of alignment with your approach – e.g. if you are all fans of Craig Barton, Jemma Sherwood and Mark McCourt then that is a good level of alignment, and you might seek to establish a group around “research-informed maths teaching” for example.

7. If you don’t already blog or share resources, consider it! You don’t have to be an expert – who is? If you’re unsure, why not ask someone to look over something you are considering sharing to give you some feedback to help get you started. You can always start a blog with a caveat along the lines of “this is me sharing my thinking so far, really keen to discuss so if you agree or disagree please get in touch”… “I don’t have all the answers but thought others might find it interesting to hear about my experience of implementing X” etc.

8. All of the above could apply to any area: Y7 transition, Y13 transition, student leadership, teacher development, extracurricular, head of year, safeguarding, reading, philosophy of education, recruitment, any subject specialism, any area of leadership… all of these and more would be great areas to build networks in.

A final note: I think it’s best when we approach all of the above with knowledge as the focus, rather than the networking element. If we start pursuing networks for their own sake we can risk unrewarding discussions and a general LinkedIn vibe, and the networks won’t take off. Talking about interesting and important ideas, sharing our work, helping others and being helped ourselves is massively motivating -- look after the discussions and the networks will look after themselves.

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