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The teacher as ‘leader-networker’ September 1, 2010

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Educational Leadership, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
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From Associate Professor Steve Wilson

In this post, Steve Wilson extends the argument in his initial post on this blog, ‘The evolution of the 21st century school’, by suggesting that we need a new metaphor for the 21st century teacher – the ‘leader-networker’. This piece is from a broader article currently under construction.


To understand the metaphor of ‘leader-networker’ for the 21st century teacher, we should briefly consider common metaphors for the 21st century school. Traditionally, the school has often been compared to a ‘factory’, or a ‘family’. More contemporary metaphors for the school have included a ‘community’ and a ‘learning community’. Within these respective metaphors, the teacher might be conceived as the ‘manager’, ‘parent’, ‘mayor’ and ‘facilitator’. Each of these metaphors does capture something of the traditional roles schools and teachers have undertaken and developed in 20th century society, but they do not provide an insight into the necessary evolving role of the school into the 21st century.

In my view an appropriate metaphor for the 21st century school is the school as a ‘network’. I like the metaphor of the ‘network’ because it captures the complexity and context of contemporary schooling. It neatly builds upon and extends the current metaphors we employ to describe the school. Effective schools are certainly ‘communities’, and the good ones are ‘learning communities’. However, in the 21st century it is the effective construction of ‘networks’ which forms the basis of these communities. Within classrooms, teachers develop networks of learners through team, cooperative learning and whole-class approaches. They create networks of student learning across classes. In effective schools, the teachers form networks between each other, sharing and cooperatively planning practices and experiences. Within the effective contemporary school, networks are the fundamental building blocks to community.

It is fair to say that in most contemporary schools, the extent of the networks they create end at the school gate – that is, the networks are contained within the school. That is the characteristic of the 20th century school – it is generally a self-contained system that, when operating effectively, has developed successful internal networks which focus on learning and which involve both teachers and their students. In some cases, schools have formed complex and effective learning networks in their broader community, with families, social agencies, other learning institutions, and employers. These schools are evolving the characteristics of the 21st century school.

A critical event occurred in the 1990s – the development of the internet – and has progressed with extraordinary pace since that time. It has expanded the notion of the ‘network’ to the point where the concept of ‘network’ has become a ubiquitous social reality. The impact of global digital information transfer and the internet, and their application to social and professional networking and commercial and retail activity, has been nothing short of astounding. In many respects, schools have been exempt from this impact, but this will not continue. Digital technologies and tools will vastly expand the ways in which schools network, and with whom. The 20th century notions of the self-contained classroom and the self-contained school will be eroded, and our teachers and school leaders will need to develop the skills of the ‘leader-networker’.

The question is not if these expanded and digitally-enabled networks will assume critical significance in the learning practices of schools, but how. Our young people, our students, are already highly networked outside of school and routinely access digital information to engage in real-life and ‘real-need’ learning. Our school-based educational leaders (and indeed, all those in wider hierarchies whose roles are to support the school) need to become consummate ’leader-networkers’ to ensure that digitally-enabled networks are used to enhance quality learning outcomes for children. Few of us are yet sure how these new networks can be utilised to meet the challenges of 21st century school education – it is the school-based ‘leader-networker’ who is best placed to develop these understandings.

I am therefore happy to argue that an appropriate metaphor for the 21st century school is a ‘network’, and the teacher and school leaders need to be viewed as a ‘leader-networkers’. For me, the metaphor of the ‘leader-networker’ captures the leadership role the teacher must maintain in classroom learning in a way that metaphors such as ‘negotiator’ seem unable to do. This metaphor also maintains the best elements of the ‘learning community’ metaphor, because genuinely accessible networks have many of the characteristics of effective learning communities. More importantly, I like the metaphor of the ‘network’ because it is an inclusive term which allows for complex relationships, of various types, to exist. As such, it includes our students as part of the network (indeed, conceiving of school-based learning networks without the participation of students becomes a nonsense). Attributing our students the quality of ‘learning networkers’, this metaphor encourages our students to help to drive the network and contribute to its collaborative work in knowledge construction within the 21st century school.

Steve Wilson is Head of the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.

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