Refocusing the lens: educational research in an era of relationships

Alan Daly (Department of Education Studies, University of California, San Diego, CA, USA)

Journal of Educational Administration

ISSN: 0957-8234

Article publication date: 2 February 2015



Daly, A. (2015), "Refocusing the lens: educational research in an era of relationships", Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 53 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Refocusing the lens: educational research in an era of relationships

Article Type: Commentary From: Journal of Educational Administration, Volume 53, Issue 1

Keywords Leadership, Relationships, Social networks


In countries across the globe there are long standing educational inequities despite decades of attention, study, and work. This statement is not to undermine the strides made, but as an educational community we still have a great distance to travel in becoming more equity minded and keeping issues of poverty and education front and center. Perhaps one of the contributing factors to not making greater progress on these issues is that many educational systems, and in fact individual educators, operate as independent units, and as such may continue to create and replicate separate and unequal outcomes for students and communities. Typically, educational institutions and support agencies have not viewed themselves, either as organizations or individuals, as part of a larger interdependent and interconnected system or network. This failure to recognize and embrace the idea that decisions, actions, and inactions are mutually influential and consequential has perhaps inhibited the collective ability to address pressing issues that have for far too long plagued educational organizations across the globe. The set of papers puts the idea of interconnectedness and interrelatedness front and center for our consideration.

The papers in this special issue are crafted on the foundation that educational entities are complex systems situated in networks of interactions and interdependence, in this thoughtful set of papers we are asked to look both at the structure of these relationships as well as the quality of the interactions within these systems. The questions that are asked within these papers and the way in which the interactions themselves are theorized and examined set this collection apart. Placing interactions and important outcomes from those interactions front and central I believe reflects a promising next generation of educational research. The question facing us all as researchers/practitioners is not whether or not relational capacity and the climates in which people do their work is important, but rather how we study, create, nurture, and sustain these networks in support of equity and excellence for all shareholders. This will require educational systems and those who study them to perhaps redefine areas of focus and perhaps even fundamentally shift from dedicated work on lone individuals to leveraging and examining connected networks of experimentation, reflection, and refinement (Daly, 2010).

In moving this more relational research/practice agenda forward will mean that in order to answer for long present inequities, researchers, and educators will need to move beyond vestiges of an industrial mechanistic age in which people were viewed as interchangeable capital to becoming more design based, dynamic, and networked. This approach may eventually blur and even erode the lines between: reformers and targets of reform; proprietary and public; creators and consumers; experts and novices; and most importantly researchers and practitioners. These shifts borne from the work in these papers also suggest additional important considerations for the work of research in particular.

Although we have spent a good deal of energy in developing and enacting rigorous approaches to educational research, which are critical, we have not spent as much time considering how this work is relevant to improving practice and outcomes as many of the papers have explicitly tackled in this special issue. Moving forward into this more interconnected world will require both rigor and relevance in the praxis of research, practice, and policy, which is the explicit goal of the guest editors of this special issue, which they have successfully achieved. This change will require paying better attention to the social side of the educational change equation particularly in relationship to how administrators and teachers interact and the cultures they co-create.

It may not be surprising that we do not foreground social relationships in the work of change as we have often viewed “humans as resources” or “capital” to achieve ends (Daly, 2012). For years, our educational systems have operated on an industrial model, which is designed around a conveyor belt metaphor. Students move from teacher to teacher in a relatively prescribed pattern with each educator filling their heads with information deemed relevant at the time and then moving the student on to the next teacher all under the watchful eye of the manager (principal) who doled out reward and sanction. The same is often true in our research models in which all too often research that is produced never reaches the hands of those who may best benefit – we have created a uni-directional system in which knowledge is supposed to flow from the research to the practitioner in a linear and direct path. Rarely do we consider that perhaps the ideal relationship is a reciprocated one in which knowledge and relations flows in both directions as is suggested in these papers, this again is a vestige of our mechanistic past.

We reinforce the idea of the lone person by allocating focussed time for individual training and recognizing individual capacity, not necessarily social interactional value that can come from relationships as outlined in this special issue. In essence we significantly invest in the human capital of educators, while paying short shrift to the social capital inherent in educational systems. Many of the largest policy shifts facing education across the globe still have deep roots in human capital at the expense of the role social interaction plays. Consider the fierce debate regarding “value added models” and subsequent policy instruments as an example of an individual human capital investment as opposed to a more social capital investment model of evaluation. One major assumption underlying the idea of traditional “value-added”, as it is typically construed, is that student achievement is the result of the interaction between teacher knowledge/training/experience; ability to effectively teach content; and previous student performance, and that that combination can be captured in a measure. In this sense, a teacher’s ability to “add-value” is a very individualistic undertaking determined almost exclusively by the human capital, or training, knowledge, and skills, of the individual teacher and the demographics of the student. This assumption seems to ignore recent research (e.g. Daly et al., in Press; Pil and Leana, 2009), which suggests that while human capital is important in the achievement equation, perhaps equally important is the influence and access to knowledgeable others in a high trust social context that supports sense making and co-construction of knowledge. One cannot walk away from this special issue and its set of studies believing that the relationship between principal and teacher and the climates that are formed within those interactions are not central to the idea of promoting access and equity.

The concept driving the work in this special issue and this more relational approach to studying schools and systems, conceptualized broadly, is an intuitive one; that relationships matter in very central ways to the work of education. Despite the intuitive nature of this statement, it is a point that has almost been lost on policymakers at all levels of education. We recognize that the work of educating and creating conditions for learning is at its core a people endeavor. All one has to do is examine spreadsheets of any school district and note that in most places 80-90 percent of educational budgets are dedicated to human resources. The work of education is at its core social work. We are social beings and that sociability does not stop outside the schoolhouse door. This set of papers enables us to step through that door with better clarity and armed with theory and robust methods to look deeper into the core role of social interactions. This special issue highlights high quality work that is directly centered on different types of relationships (Advice – Moolenaar and Sleegers; Mentorship – Pogodzinski) as well as the quality of those interactions (Tschannen-Moran and Gareis) and how relationships are related to the key elements of the educational endeavor (student engagement – Price; Burnout – Van Maele and Van Houtte). Taken together they provide a clear and compelling argument for the importance of principal-teacher relationships and resulting climates that can either facilitate or inhibit the core work of education.

Leading and learning as a relational act

As these papers indicate, learning and leading is interactive, social, and at its best creates change in the learners, leaders, and the systems in which they do their work as well as create climates in which that work can be done. We live in a social world and as such are deeply affected by others sometimes in ways in which we are unaware. Recent research suggests that our happiness, health, weight, and even wealth are influenced by the social networks in which we reside (Christakis and Fowler, 2009). However, despite this we still tend to draw on a variety of formal structures, processes, and accountability levers to improve performance. However, while these more technical approaches at improving education are important and have been well documented, what appears to be generally missing, but is receiving attention in this special issue is acknowledgement the power of the relational linkages between individuals.

Why should we think that once an individual walks on to a school campus or into a district office or out in to a community that their social networks cease to be influential? If networks can influence something as personal as our health or happiness, future paths, and worldviews surely they can also influence how we go about the core work of education terms of learning and leading. Therefore, examining both the quantity and quality of social ties between and among educators are is convincingly done across these papers is important in understanding how promoting authentic trusting interactions support positive relations, resilience to burnout, and deeper engagement with students (Moolenaar and Sleegers, this issue; Pogodzinski, this issue; Tschannen-Moran and Gareis, this issue; Van Maele and Van Houtte, this issues; Price, this issue).

I am also struck by how the formal and informal roles in schools and districts play out in these papers. Within any organization one can imagine at least two systems at work, one “formal” and the other “informal”. This distinction between “formal” and “informal” is important in understanding a key take away from these papers. At an individual level the “position” of an actor can be conceptualized as representing a “formal” position such as superintendent, director, principal, or teacher for example. In a “formal” role, an educator has a certain set of interactions, which are often based on expected skill sets and position in a typically hierarchical structure. For example, the superintendent or other high-ranking district leader may be at the top of the hierarchy and as such one might expect knowledge, expertise, and advice to flow outward to others who occupy “lower” formal positions in the hierarchy. This process is often reflected in the organizational charts of most organizations.

For example, a school or district may decide to adopt a new research-based reading program to promote reading achievement. This comprehensive program may require training, adherence to a specific curriculum, regular assessments, and collaboration between vertical and horizontal teams. This strategy assumes teachers have equal curricular ability prior to and after the training as well as the skills and knowledge in working with, and in, different teams. While coaching and mentorship as shown in this special issue may be of assistance to mediate differences in skill sets, it is equally likely an educator will obtain information from another trusted colleague who may or may not be as well versed in the program as the coach or identified mentor. Although individuals in the formal system may be assigned to be mentors, often the mentorship relationships are something that forms more organically. Relying strictly on formal mechanisms to diffuse information and knowledge, create mentors, or even mandates to “work together” may leave critical practice gaps in the organization and potentially lead to a lack of depth and fidelity to the undertaking or even threaten the sustainability of the effort or even leading to burnout as is suggested in the Van Maele and Van Houtte paper.

One important mechanism in terms of aligning informal system with the formal structure is through the examination of the level of trust as is done in two of the papers for this special issue (Tschannen-Moran and Gareis; Van Maele and Van Houtte). Authentic collaboration, grounded in high trust relations, according to empirical studies and research literature, takes on the form of communities of practice (Lave and Wenger, 1991) or so-called professional learning communities (Bowgren and Sever, 2010; Hargreaves, 2007; Lieberman and Miller, 2008). These learning communities require not only the structural aspect of formal organizational routines as the architecture for reform to take place but also the relational and cognitive aspects that enable the meaningful, efficient flow of relational resources related to reform practice (Daly, 2010, 2012; Liou and Daly, 2014). The structural aspect provides a way to understand both formal and informal structures of the systems (Coleman, 1990; Inkpen and Tsang, 2005; Wasserman and Faust, 1994); the relational aspect focusses on building a trusting relationship between and among educators (Bryk and Schneider, 2002; Tschannen-Moran, 2004); and the cognitive aspect underlines the importance of opportunities for and professional dialogue in order to develop shared language (Little and Horn, 2007; Nahapiet and Ghoshal, 1997; Talbert, 2010). Better integrating these three aspects as suggested as one looks across these excellent papers may increase the level of collaboration and has a host of other positive outcomes as demonstrated on these papers.

However, merely providing time and directives to “work together” does not necessarily result in meaningful collaboration between vertical and horizontal teams. Sole reliance on these formal structures might unintentionally create a culture of contrived collegiality (Datnow, 2012) as opposed to authentic collaboration. In fact, “forced” collaboration may create a rock and hard place situation for a teacher who is attempting to balance the strong informal social pressure not to collaborate and equally strong formal pressure to work together. “Resistance” of a teacher in this sense does not reflect some clash over belief systems, but rather being caught between two powerful and opposing forces. Taking a more relational viewpoint on these situations may provide better insights in better understanding the “resistors” in change, spheres of social influence, and the multiple social worlds that must be negotiated when improving educational outcomes for all students.

Progress through a relational perspective or the “social work” of improving outcomes requires a set of skills and capacities that, as these studies point out, some leaders and educators may or may not possess. Interpersonal skills such as facilitating, questioning, active listening, and collaborating are often assumed to be among capacity of educators, but that assumption is potentially faulty and can derail efforts. Moreover, the ability to rebuild and repair damaged trust is a complex and nuanced endeavor as suggested in the Tschannen-Moran and Gareis paper. Research suggests that support and training around these important competencies can support collaborative work (Desimone, 2009; Goddard et al., 2007; Mesler and Spillane, 2009; Spillane and Kim, 2012; Stoll, 2010). One message for those studying educational change is that variation in change efforts often has to do with not only the type and support for the intervention, but the quality of the informal relations upon which the effort is layered and co-evolves as is clearly demonstrated in the work of this special issue.

High leverage points

Although the study of the role of relationships and interactions in education and beyond is growing in education as these fine papers illustrate, there still remains a need for basic mixed-methods empirical work in the field that explores the effect of overall network structure on issues of importance as the Moolenaar and Sleegers and Price papers suggest. Studies are needed that examine key attributes of individuals and relate those attributes to how individuals interact. Further, the use of innovative methodologies as is evidenced in the Moolenaar and Sleegers papers push our ability to analyze relational data. Examining the intersection and congruence of formal and informal systems and the effect of formal changes on informal relations related to educational processes is a particularly high purchase area of focus. Comparative studies on high and low performing systems and different aspects of culture (innovation, organizational learning, etc.) may also provide useful information in better understanding the uptake of educational initiatives. There is an enormous gap in our understanding of impact of instructional approaches and potential effects on the social interactions of students, who are the eventual recipients of these strategies.

Approaching the work of both research and practice is at its core a “systems” affair as these papers suggest. Therefore, while reforming individual schools is important, recognizing that schools are embedded in a wider district and community context is essential as the Price article clearly demonstrates. A growing body of work suggests that the use of research evidence in education is also related to a web of social interactions that operates within a lager interdependent system (Daly et al., 2014; Finnigan and Daly, 2014). This work at its core suggests we need to open up our perspectives as to what constitutes a “system” and how do carefully capture the interdependence and nuanced interactions that occur both horizontally and vertically in a system.

In sum, I think we as a field are poised for a resurgence regarding the importance of social relationships in the work of education at all levels as we see in the work in this special issue. Relationships have always been important, but I think now after enduring so many years of technical fixes, rigid accountability, and pressure/stress, the educational community and the students and families they serve are ready for an explicit shift onto a more relational perspective of the work as is wonderfully outlined in this special issue. I see that change in terms of reinvesting in the human and social capital in systems of improvement. The work of the twenty-first century is not only about facts, figures, and rote learning, it is about the generation of intellectual capital and the creation, development, and management of knowledge as it exists in multiple arenas. The generation of knowledge therefore is a socio-culturally embedded process conducted through, between, among, and with people who reside in social networks. Therefore, the quantity and quality of those ties may be consequential for both individual and collective outcomes.

In twenty-first century education it seems we are striving to move from models of hierarchal command and control to flatter more networked types of organizing. This suggests a series of transitions from: independence to interdependence; centralized leadership to distributed leadership and shared responsibility; specialists to cross-trained generalists; dogma to dialogue; change being guided not by rigid policy and procedure, but facilitated through simple, shared, and flexible parameters which honors professionalism and the influence of context. Therefore approaching work of education as a “system of relations” recognizes that while the individual is important it is the system of interactions in which that individual resides that is also consequential in many ways with some being evident and explicit others being hidden in plain sight – all one has to do is to review these papers to be convinced of this fact.

Alan J. Daly

Department of Education Studies, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, California, USA


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Further reading

Borgatti, S.P. (2002), Netdraw Network Visualization, Analytic Technologies, Harvard, MA

Borgatti, S. and Foster, P. (2003), “The network paradigm in organizational research: a review and typology”, Journal of Management, Vol. 29 No. 6, pp. 991-1013

Horn, I.S. and Little, J.W. (2010), “Attending to problems of practice: routines and resources for professional learning in teachers’ workplace interactions”, American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 47 No. 1, pp. 181-217

Granovetter, M. (1985), “Economic action and social structure: the problem of embeddedness”, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 91 No. 3, pp. 481-510

Jones, C., Hesterly, W.S. and Borgatti, S.P. (1997), “A general theory of network governance: exchange conditions and social mechanisms”, Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 22 No. 4, pp. 911-945

Moolenaar, N.M. and Daly, A.J. (2012), “Social networks in education: exploring the social side of the reform equation. Editorial to the special issue on social network theory: teaching, learning, and change”, American Journal of Education, Vol. 119 No. 1, pp. 1-6

About the author

Dr Alan J. Daly, PhD is a Chair and Professor of the Department of Education Studies at the University of California, San Diego. His research and teaching primarily focus on the role of leadership, educational policy, and organization structures and the relationship between those elements on the educational attainment of traditionally marginalized populations. Alan draws on his methodological expertise in social network analysis in his work and has a book on the topic published by Harvard Press entitled, Social Network Theory and Educational Change and a second book with Springer entitled, Using Research Evidence in Schools. Dr Alan J. Daly can be contacted at:

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