Inquiry & Learning for Change

A Little Essay on How Communities of Practice and Dense Networks can result in high quality learning and outcomes for ALL students: Collaborative Capacity and System Symmetry

Community of Practice members engage in a Consultancy about their district change work

Note: I wrote this essay in April of 2018 at the beginning of the work to create the Deeper Learning Dozen. I might change a few words around, but for the most part, it all still rings true.

Fullan (2016) and Elmore (unpublished) both tell us that systemic improvement will not occur simply from the development of individual teacher or leader capacity; it results from a strategic focus on the growth of collaborative capacity, the ability of adults to work together in sustained and complex interactions, focused on the ongoing improvement in the quality of their practice. That adult work must mirror the complexity of the interactions that they wish their students to experience in the instructional core, which Elmore refers to as “system symmetry.”

Elmore emphatically states that we must focus our effort on improvement in the quality of practice and experience in the instructional core first, and only much later on student achievement. Change in the instructional core will happen only if the kind of change in adult collaborative learning described above is strategically led in educational organizations. We believe that ongoing communities of practice in expanding dense social networks creates the kind of settings where this change in adult collaborative learning can occur.

What we need is an emergent and qualitatively different learning and leadership experience of participants that results in emergent and qualitatively different practices and actions.

The Learning Model:

Communities of Practice, the “curriculum,” that is, the focus of the collective learning, emerges in communities of practice through an inductive process of development:

  • a shared sense of purpose in the role of leaders in transforming school districts more equitably to support the deeper learning of ALL students, 
  • a strongly supportive community within which to enact their collaborative capacity to provide and sustain their leadership, and, 
  • a setting to engage collectively in the exploration and development of the knowledge and skills needed to grow and improve their leadership practice over time

The Growth Model:

We focus on the development of Collaborative Capacity and System Symmetry (“Quality first, then scale”). Communities of practice emerge and expand among an innovative core of people, with appropriate support and guidance. At their periphery, a community of engagement can be nurtured, people interested in the innovators’ work and potentially wanting to try out some ideas. Further “out,” a community of interest can develop that should be kept informed and increasingly engaged as they are ready (David Albury). See below for more on this idea of nested communities.

This raises the question of the need for more broadly distributed dense social networks, and ongoing networks, beyond periodic summer institutes and professional learning convenings, within which sustained relationships might develop, and teacher and leader professional growth and collaborative capacity building might occur and continue to develop. Social network theory, rethinking how community-based organizations can more effectively meet the needs of their communities, identifies key principles for network-driven improvement (Making Connections – Denver Social Network Project, 2007):

  1. Reciprocity: members both take from and contribute to the network.
  2. Membership: new ways to use talents and skills in service to the network, an authentic demand for change, and regular growth and expansion as members bring in others or connect members to the information, resources, and relationships of others.
  3. Network Learning: new ways of thinking about transformation, innovation, and expansion, in that every person in the network represents new knowledge, resources and relationships; and, organizational structures emerge in response to self-determined needs, thus are more flexible and adaptable; and,
  4. Demand-driven: new ways of thinking about self-determination and ownership or “authorship,” and control and design from the bottom-up.

The Change Model

Implicit in both the ways in which “curriculum” (that is, the focus of the collective learning) develops in communities of practice and “growth” (scaling) occurs in social networks is the idea of emergence. Emergence is an inductive process of development, not a deductive one, that, to quote the work of Meg Wheatley and the Berkana Institute, “names, connects, nourishes, and illuminates,” “making visible the possibility of abandoning the old and jumping to the new.” This involves “hospice work, pioneering, and illuminating… and quietly protecting the space for those who are doing the pioneering work.” Inductive learning processes in social networks cannot be designed with pre-determined curriculum or assessed with pre-determined metrics for growth and impact. They must be facilitated with an eye to nurturing emergent ideas and involvements, that are “controlled and designed from the bottom-up,” where the focus of learning emerges in the social interaction of participants, and growth is driven by densely networked interactions of participants’ demands as they learn. This requires a fundamental change in the culture of learning from how educational organizations have traditionally structured or measured that culture…

This is why we quote Fullan et al. on Changing the Culture of Learning:

“The change lesson here is that we need to change the culture of learning not simply the trappings or structures. It cannot be done by policies or mandates. Transformation will only occur when we engage in the work of facilitating new processes for learning [our bolding here]. Once we have agreed on the [student] learning outcomes or competencies described earlier in this chapter, we need to provide rich opportunities to: work collaboratively; build new learning relationships; and learn from the work. No amount of pre-planning is better than the common experience of learning together while doing the work, because it builds capacity and ownership simultaneously. Simply put, we learn more from doing than thinking about doing so if we want deep learning we need to get started [our bolding here]. Thus, leadership for change is crucial—leadership that comes from all quarters” (Fullan, Quinn, McEachen, 2018 page 26).

What Fullan et al. are describing is exactly the paradigm shift that is needed and that communities of practice embedded in dense networks can provide. Thus, when we think about the learning environment we want to create, we are thinking about an emergent curriculum and emergent knowledge and skills shared within communities of practice, driven by the participants, and distributed through mutual exchange across wide networks of communities of practice that grow based on the demand of participants, not by any predetermined mechanism of control. The metrics are qualitative, not quantitative.


Terry Bailey, The Piton Foundation. Ties That Bind: The Practice of Social Networks.

Richard Elmore. Chapter Two: The Strategic Turn in School Improvement.

Fullan and Quinn. Coherence.

Fullan, Quinn, and McEachen. Deep Learning: Engage the World, Change the World.

Hi Howard, The Piton Foundation. Four Principles of Social Networks.

Meg Wheatley, The Berkana Institute. Our Theory of Change.

Peggy Holman, Engaging Emergence


Beyond Communities of Practice and Social Networks, is the idea, developed by David Albury, of “nested communities.” Albury describes three nested communities that are the focus of different kinds of strategies, and have permeable boundaries between them: at the center, and involving the early adopters and increasingly apprenticing others into it, is a Community of Practice (the protected space of pioneers, in Wheatley’s terms). The next layer out is a Community of Engagement, where those who might want to try out some of the ideas of the pioneers as they see the pilots and prototypes happening. Further out is the Community of Interest, people who need to be kept in the information loop and in relation to the others, who may take awhile to adopt the new ideas, but must not be left out of the process.

There’s a blog about applying them in a school project in Australia here:

And he wrote a little more about it here in a piece on healthcare:

(The “scaling innovation” frame is rather a different one from organization/system change, but there may be some interesting overlap).

Comments are closed.