Chris Brown (Durham University, UK)

The Networked School Leader

ISBN: 978-1-83867-722-0, eISBN: 978-1-83867-719-0

Publication date: 3 April 2020


Brown, C. (2020), "Prelims", The Networked School Leader, Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. i-xxv.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2020 Chris Brown

Half Title Page

The Networked School Leader


It will come as little surprise to anyone who has ever worked in a school or who has read anything about teacher CPD that providing opportunities for teachers to collaborate and undertake professional learning together can lead to increased teacher job satisfaction, more effective teaching practice and improved pupil outcomes. But the keyword here is CAN – we also know that many forms of professional learning, including collaborative professional learning, fail to have a meaningful or long-term impact on teaching and learning. The devil is in the detail, in the implementation – and that is why this latest book from Chris Brown is so powerful. It offers key insight into the role of school leadership in harnessing the power of professional learning networks, and through a combination of theory and case studies of two professional learning network (PLN) approaches helps us begin to understand how such principles might work in practice. Picking up on often-neglected elements of the process – including how the learning from PLNs is shared and mobilised through the wider school – it highlights the conditions for success in collaborative professional learning (and the inhibitors of it!), providing a detailed view of not just the potential benefits of developing and engaging in PLNs but also the substantial challenges for school leaders in doing so effectively.

Cat Scutt, Director of Education and Research, Chartered College of Teaching

The great strength of The Networked School Leader is its comparative aspect. Chris Brown explores his ‘formalise, prioritise and mobilise’ advice to school leaders who want to harvest the full potential of professional learning networks by drawing on his studies of networks in England and Germany. These diverse examples help to illuminate how and why networks can be powerful mechanisms for supporting learning and innovation within and across schools, but also why their leadership is challenging and why they so often fail to achieve their full potential.

Professor Toby Greany, Chair in Education, University of Nottingham

This timely book is essential reading for school leaders looking to engage and collaborate with others. Written with a focus on lived experiences, Chris offers a compelling case of the benefits when leaders support learning networks in their schools, offering sound and realistic recommendations for how to do so.

Ruth Luzmore, Head teacher – Primary, St Mary Magdalene Academy, London

Title Page

The Networked School Leader

How to Improve Teaching and Student Outcomes Using Learning Networks

Chris Brown

Durham University, UK

United Kingdom – North America – Japan India – Malaysia – China

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Howard House, Wagon Lane, Bingley BD16 1WA, UK

First edition 2020

© 2020 Chris Brown

Published under exclusive licence by Emerald Publishing Limited.

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British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN: 978-1-83867-722-0 (Print)

ISBN: 978-1-83867-719-0 (Online)

ISBN: 978-1-83867-721-3 (Epub)


For my good friend and colleague, Alan Daly, who first introduced me to the power of networks


In there [the labyrinth], Minos walled up the twin form of bull and man, and twice nourished it on Athenian blood, but the third repetition of the nine-year tribute by lot, caused the monster's downfall. When, through the help of the virgin princess, Ariadne, by rewinding the thread, Theseus, son of Aegeus, won his way back to the elusive threshold, that no one had previously regained, he immediately set sail for Dia (Naxos), stealing the daughter of Minos away with him…

Ovid Metamorphoses Book VIII lines 152–182 translated by Anthony S. Kline

List of Figures and Charts

Figure 1.1 A Graphical Depiction of PLNs
Figure 1.2 Factors Affecting the Likely Formation and Success of PLNs in Improving Teaching and Learning
Figure 3.1 Factors Affecting the Knowledge Brokerage Journey
Figure A1.1 Coding Structure Following the RLN Interviews
Figure A1.2 Coding Structure Following the Pess Network Interviews
Figure 5.1 The Four Workshop Model Used in the RLN Process
Chart 6.1 Relationships Involving Just Conversation about RLN-related Teaching and Learning Approaches (Schools ‘C’, ‘N’ and ‘S’)
Chart 6.2 Relationships Involving Just Conversation about RLN-related Teaching and Learning Approaches (School ‘M’)
Chart 6.3 Relationships Involving Conversation, Professional Development and Collaboration about RLN-related Teaching and Learning Approaches (Schools ‘C’, ‘N’ and ‘S’)
Chart 6.4 Relationships Involving Conversation, Professional Development and Collaboration about RLN-related Teaching and Learning Approaches (School ‘M’)
Chart 6.5 Type of RLN Innovation Use by School
Figure 7.1 Configuration of the Pess PLN
Figure 7.2 The Four Key Stages of the Pess Project
Chart 8.1 Formalisation and Prioritisation in Pess Schools
Chart 8.2 Mobilisation in Pess Schools
Chart 8.3 Mobilisation and Formalisation in Pess Schools
Chart 8.4 Relevance and Perceived Benefits of Pess

List of Tables and Boxes

Box 1.1 Examples of Education Networks
Box 1.2 The ‘Dark Side’ of Collaboration
Box 1.3 Four Types of Collaboration
Box 2.1 Instructional and Transformational School Leadership
Box 2.2 Distributed Leadership
Box 3.1 The Characteristics of Effective PLCs
Box 3.2 The Characteristics of High Quality Learning Conversations
Box 3.3 The Neocave as Boundary Object
Box 3.4 The Concept of Opinion Formers
Table 3.1 Five Attributes That Affect the Adoption of Innovations
Table 3.2 Adopter Types
Box 4.1 Research Learning Networks and Developing Potential Learning Networks
Box 4.2 A Brief Explanation of the Case Study Approach
Box A1.1 PLN Interview Questions (Pess Network and RLN Partcipants)
Box A2.1 RLN Survey Questions
Table A3.1 Pess Survey Questions Employed
Table 5.1 Research Learning Network Participants Listed by School
Table 5.2 A Summary of Key Findings for Each School
Table 6.1 To What Extent Are School Staff Using the New Approaches to Teaching and Learning Relating to the RLN? 145
Table 6.2 General Agreement in Relation to Culture of Trust Statements
Table 6.3 General Agreement in Relation to the Environment of Innovation Statements
Table 6.4 Formalising and Prioritising RLN Activity
Table 6.5 The Relative ‘Centrality’ of RLN Participants
Table 7.1 Pess Network Participants Listed by School
Table 8.1 A Comparison of Perceived Benefits by Different Respondents
Box 9.1 The Elements of Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Systems Theory

List of Pictures

Picture 1 George Fredrick Watts' ‘The Minotaur’
Picture 2 France de Ranchin's Labyrinth 1
Picture 3 France de Ranchin's Labyrinth 2
Picture 4 France de Ranchin's Labyrinth 3
Picture 5 Laurentius de Voltolin’s ‘Henry of Germany Giving Lecture to Students at the University of Bologna’
Picture 6 Great Hall of Polychromes of Altamira
Picture 7 Miró i Artigas a les coves d’Altamira



Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs


North Rhine-Westphalia


Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (England’s school inspectorate)


The developing potential – empowering schools project (Germany)


Professional learning network


Quality and Support Agency of the State Institute for Schools


Research-informed teaching practice


Research learning network (England)

About the Author

Chris Brown is Professor in Education at Durham University, UK. He has a long-standing interest in how research evidence can and should, but often doesn’t, aid the development of education policy and practice. In the past few years he has sought to drive forward the notion of Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) as a means to promote the collaborative learning of teachers, and to ultimately improve student outcomes. He has written and edited multiple books and papers on this topic, and is the co-founder and co-convener of the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement’s Professional Learning Networks research network.

In 2018 Chris was awarded a Siftung Mercator Foundation Senior Fellowship, which allowed him to conduct the research that forms the basis of this book. Each year Siftung Mercator identifies and invites just six people worldwide to apply for one of its fellowships. Potential Fellows are identified by a panel as ‘exceptionally talented and outstanding researchers and practitioners’, and recipients are offered the space and freedom to devote themselves to exploratory and unconventional research and practical projects.

Chris was also awarded with the 2015 American Educational Research Association (AERA) ‘Emerging Scholar’ award, the 2016 AERA Excellence in Research to practice award and the 2016 UCEA Jeffrey V. Bennett Outstanding International Research award. This is Chris' eleventh book; he has also published hundreds of articles and regularly presents at conferences all over the globe.


Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) hold the promise of addressing many of the issues education faces now and in the future. Schools are expected to prepare all children for a fast-changing society, in an age of accountability as well as continuous (self-)improvement, while teacher turnover is a substantial problem in many countries. Teachers and school leaders feel PLN participation, for example: broadens your view and sharpens your brain; is dynamic and inspiring, and helps to understand how students think. PLN participation helps teachers to appreciate their job more and (finally) talk about their teaching again. It can help teachers rethink their practice to face the challenges of an increasingly complex society, together with teachers and school leaders from other schools, as well as researchers and other stakeholders.

In reality, the success of PLNs is not guaranteed, depending on a range of factors and processes that need to be in place before we can expect positive results. Since the launch of the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement PLN network in 2017, Chris Brown and I have worked with our members to further define PLNs, elaborate their theory of action and identify key areas of focus for further research. The first thing we agreed upon when talking about starting the network was to make sure we would have collaborative outputs regularly from the start, beyond Congress meetings and sessions. Our 2018 book Networks for Learning brought together insights into PLN processes, influencing factors and outcomes based on research by several PLN network members, and included an excellent discussion by Alan Daly and Louise Stoll to inspire us to take on further challenges in this important field. They identified several future directions to consider, among which ensuring depth of learning as well as breadth; paying attention to the conditions to support relational space; and moving towards a systems perspective. In relation, school leadership is a vital factor. Teachers, and also school leaders themselves, often state that leadership support for PLN participation and sustainable implementation in schools could have been much better. What leaders should do how, exactly, is less clear. Facilitation is often mentioned as important, yet surely not sufficient.

The path from educators participating in PLNs to widespread application of PLN learning in their schools is not simple and linear. The positive quotes in the first paragraph are taken from interviews and questionnaires with participants in one of our own studies into 23 PLNs in the Netherlands, with participants from more than 90 schools across the country.1 These same participants, however, including their school leaders themselves, reported little leadership support for PLN participation and further knowledge sharing within their school. Our data team research2 also shows that school leaders can both hinder and enable the work of data use PLNs, and that good practices in this respect are still rare in general. This makes it hard to determine how school leaders can ensure meaningful PLN engagement and support their teachers with PLN participation, let alone ensure that other teachers engage actively in PLN products and outputs. More multilevel, mixed-method studies are needed to provide both detailed case information and multi-school generalisable information to show the extent to which PLNs are effective and why, and specifically into the school leader role. In the research conducted for this book, Chris Brown has used an extensive mixed-methods study to provide much-needed insights into the role of school leaders in making PLNs effective, and potential for improvement. As clearly explained by the in-depth case results and the final chapter reflections in this book, school leaders need to embrace distributed instructional ethical leadership, using prioritisation, formalisation and mobilisation as approaches to make sure that all school staff and students will benefit from the PLN in which their school participates. It is also acknowledged, however, that not all schools are in the most advantageous situations to do so, and what school leaders facing challenging circumstances need to be aware of.

Chris Brown has worked with teachers and school leaders from numerous schools in different countries to increase their use of research. With receiving the Mercator Fellowship and writing this book Chris shows to be a leading researcher in this exciting field, bringing together insights based on his long-standing interest in research use, educational leadership and PLNs. His keynotes, RLN workshops and books inspire me in my work with school leaders and teachers from primary to higher education.

Likewise, any school leader will be very inspired to conquer the PLN labyrinth to improve teaching and student outcomes after having read this book.

Dr Cindy Poortman

University of Twente