Monday, May 20, 2013

Networks That Learn

Since I first started this blog a little over two years ago I have focused on issues related to Jewish education in particular and education in general. My role in the field has shifted my vantage point, and my study towards an Ed.D through Northeastern University has provided me new tools and knowledge to think about my vision for education and the field of Jewish education as whole. I am deeply invested in cultivating a systems approach to Jewish education that will enable a design and experimental approach to transforming our field, primarily through a flattened approach to utilizing networks for conversation, collaboration and change. This is present in my doctoral research, my professional work as a consultant and soon to be employee of a Conservative congregation as the Director of Youth Learning and Engagement, and in my informal efforts to develop Jed Lab with members of my professional learning network.

Back when I worked in the entertainment industry, I only through of the word network as a verb, as in "I went to the showcase to network." Ever since I immersed myself in the world of Jewish education have I started to appreciate that network is really a noun, a structure of relationships bound in three dimensions by time, space and purpose. I think the reason I have been drawn to network thinking and networked learning likely because I intuitively seek out relational learning experiences, and I was an early adopter to using technology to discover and develop relationships (I met my wife in an AOL chat room in 1997).

As an educator, I have always been more interested in the process of learning that in discovering the best way to manage a classroom. For me, networks provide another structure and theoretical framework to understand how learning truly occurs. My work in the classroom as a teacher at Milken Community High School, as a volunteer for LimmudLA and as a Jewish nonprofit professional, I always emphasized relationships and experiences as a the primary ways to foster learning, growth and transformation. This occurs informally and formally for my students, my volunteers, my program participants and my colleagues. As I became more aware and practiced with networks, I have become more intentional and strategic in designing and facilitating dynamic network conversations and collaborations. 

Watch this great Tedx presentation by Mark Turrell, where he provides an excellent overview of the elements of Network Thinking:

Exploring networks creates a great opportunity for learning about what formal and informal networks mean to Jewish organizations, the field of Jewish communal service and education and our work as Jewish professionals. It is critical to understand the background behind frameworks for networks, and the learning and growth that comes from utilizing and activating natural and designed networks. Rabbi Hayim Herring posited that too many organizations rely on vertical hierarchies, operating under command and control leadership models, and are more activity driven than mission driven. I believe the horizontal orientation of network models emphasizes influence rather than power. For this very reason we need networks and networks facilitators to offer flattened relationship building and influence into a system where vertical structures create a great deal of repetition, competition and silos. We should not be afraid that new models demand a shift from old paradigms, but rather how these new models prepare us for the inevitable new paradigms as explored by Jonathon Woocher.

While we develop a common language for network thinking and weaving, we must understand that common terminology, such as "network weaving" and "network weavers" originated from a single author, June Holley, who coined the term. Her efforts culminated in a book used to support her ideas that individuals within a network can “knit the net” in “connecting those individuals and clusters who can collaborate or assist one another in some way.” While "weaving" may not be the perfect metaphor for this activity, June Holley and others such as Beth Kanter, have elevated the conversation of the role of networks, and the opportunity to use technology, including social media, to do so. Their work stands on the shoulders of great thinkers like Karen Stephenson, who provided the frameworks, conceptions and models to understand, utilize networks and evaluate our application of networks. I hope to explore new metaphors for network engagement that emphasize the relational process of network engagement, rather the structural elements of networks. 

My investment in networks began with connections fostered through shared purpose and interest. At the DeleT Alumni Network in 2009 in Los Angeles I recognized the bound teacher network of individuals trained through a common framework and with common language. We shared interests, passion and a desire for change in the field of education. We established meaningful relationships during our short period of time together at the conference, but developed a structure for engaging in collaborative research, advocacy and peer support.

Over the last four years, my engagement in the DeLeT Alumni network has provided me with a collegial support system as I have transition between jobs, assumed leadership positions. I have amplified my network engagement through opportunities the DAN has provided to go to three of the four of the North American Jewish Day School conferences, the first two as a DAN leader representative, and the last one as part of a group of 40 teacher leaders. In 2010, we collaborated with the Pardes Educator Alumni network for a joint conference. These were not just opportunities to be exposed to new ideas, content areas or professional development, but ripe opportunities to take advantage of developing meaningful relationships and established new conversations about the field of Jewish education and our work in it. 

For the most part, network weaving occurs informally, through people self-taught and self-motivated to foster relationships that bind and activate those who find commonality through ideas, purpose and action. For these people, and the institutions that are now finding roles internally to support them, their efforts go beyond simply enhancing the social links between members of their networks. Network weaving operates within a theoretical framework for structurally understanding that our field is recently adopting. Network thinking fights against the nature of isolated programs as silos, but understands our system structurally as a complex and layered set of individuals and organizations linked spatially and temporally across mission, geography and programming. 

What network weavers offer institutions, whether they be schools, synagogues or communal agencies, is a new way of thinking about activating individuals to collaborate and create in innovative and dynamic ways. This has been achieved in the field of social justice by community organizers, emblematic in the synagogue world by the URJ's Just Congregations. In the field of Jewish Education, several network organizations, including Hillel, YU and the Jewish Education Project have hired professional staff to engage in network weaving as key element to their overall strategy of engagement.

As I continue to immerse myself in developing my own professional learning networks, and to study networks in my academic work, I am thrilled to see the evolution of the conversation about the impact network thinking and behavior is having on our field. Many educational schools and organizations have worked with leaders in the field, like Darim Online, to understand how to re-imagine their institutional systems and embrace social media technology to address their network functions. Many organizations have invested in personnel and resources to further efforts to internally and externally weave networks within their institutions, member networks and the field as a whole. These include varied organizations with a range of strategic visions and models, including academic institutions, like Yeshiva University's YU 2.0 program, network organizations, like the Jewish Education Project, foundations, like Avi Chai and their new HaReshet program and engagement programs, like Birthright Next's NEXTwork initiative.

I am now working with Ravsak, who first exposed me to the power of networks through their extensive programs for the network of Jewish community day schools. Together, we hope to design a strategic and intentional model for engaging the network of educational leaders within Ravsak's network of member schools. This will entail training, developing and coaching network facilitators who will be as effective in fostering network learning as the great Jewish educators are in fostering learning in classrooms, camps and other settings.

For my doctoral research, I am exploring how organizations can facilitate organizational learning to cultivate network relationships amongst individuals and groups. I will create a case study, which I hope will be a valuable resource to our field by addressing: (1) What learning activities, on individual and group levels, facilitate and promote the sharing and interpretation of knowledge within networks? (2) How do individuals engaged in networked learning further their individual learning and collaborate to act upon shared understandings? 

As a professional passionate about the field of Jewish education and communal service, I want to address: 

1. How will we invest in a paradigm shift of thinking? This requires identifying and allocating the proper resources to do so, and to understand our network and field of education as a system? We need to invest the resources in understanding our network and field of education as a system. We need to use use tools, such as causal loop diagrams and systems diagrams, to understand the interactive elements of our systems, and the causal relationships that reveal how one variable within the system affects another. These systems thinking tools, like causal diagrams, allows us to understand how change in one part of our system (such as pricing for Jewish day schools) affects the whole system. This requires identifying the appropriate system archetype that reflects the narrative and templates for our field and networks. Each archetype provides its own “theme, storyline, patterns of behavior over time, structure, mental models and effective interventions,” allowing us to understand and diagram our system appropriately. This will enable us to see whether the bureaucratic organizational structures so familiar to our Jewish organizations truly reflect the needs of our organizations, networks and wider field. See the video below for a visual description of systems mapping.

Causal Loop Diagram


2. Will we invest in understanding network theory and its applications, using survey tools to study our organizations? Do we want to run the risk of these very influential frameworks and models being integrated as mere buzz words? Will we cultivate a new model of leadership to reflects the power of connectors, in Gladwell terminology, so that network weavers are developed and trained? If we want network weavers to fully appreciate their impact on the system and reflect the mission of the organizations they represent, then we need to cultivate network leaders that are not simply self-taught or those that happen to be present on social media. This means not just expecting that anyone within a network can facilitate a network's learning and activation. We need to design ways to train, coach and support our best connectors in mastering their skills and integrating into our most complex networks.

3. Are we willing rethink paradigms of leadership, where relationships of influence are as important as centers of power? While change may be slow to many Jewish institutions, the shift to network thinking provides a window into the ways technology and process thinking have altered the landscape of the world in general, and the Jewish world particularly. The advent of the Digital Age has transformed how people gather information, communicate with others and access power, so as to empower the many, rather than limit control to the few. We need network weavers to continue to connect people to others, but also to support the process of activating those with new passions for exploring this new found access, communication and knowledge.

4. Are we ready to embrace network weaving as not just a means to fostering social relationships, but as a new mode of education and learning? Network weavers serve at their best when they are facilitators of network learning. This requires rich knowledge of organizational learning theory and practices. Through organizational networked learning models, weavers enable organization's members who have gathered and interpreted knowledge and to share that understanding with others. A network weaver connects, activates and facilitates groups of individuals and organizations to coordinate, align and collaborate to create new models of engagement.

Let's start by building relationships. In the near future, I hope to write about the connections between Ron Wolfson's Relational Judaism approach and Networks.

So if you made it through this whole post, and we don't know each other. Let's connect, and expand our networks and learn together.

For more on networks in the Jewish sector, watch Dr. James Fowler's presentation from the 2013 Jewish Funders Newtork Conference:

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