It’s common sense to believe that networks formed of individuals who share close ties are more functional and, ultimately, more useful, than networks where the connections are more disparate. In schools, it often seems that it’s our closest colleagues who influence and affect us the most – members of same department team, for example. However, as Mark Granovetter argues in his essay The Strength of Weak Ties, it’s actually the people who we are only loosely connected to that are most likely to convey benefits to us:
Those to whom we are weakly tied are more likely to move in circles different from our own and will thus have access to information different from that which we receive.
Fundamentally, people to whom we are weakly tied are more likely to possess information that we don’t already know about because they are detached from our daily lives and routines. And it’s this detachment that’s the key. Within our silos, we can often be, as Granovetter suggests, ‘confined to the provincial news and views’ of those closest to us. This isn’t to say, of course, that we should cancel all departmental meetings from next half-term onwards or stop having a good ol’ chat over lunch: our close connections matter. However, it’s easy for us to become deprived of – Granovetter’s words again – ‘information from distant parts of the social system’ if we don’t seek to look beyond our own closest networks from time to time.
Roland Burt, the American sociologist, makes the same sort of point in his essay Structural Holes versus Network Closure as Social Capital. Focusing on American businesses, he argues that individuals who are able to make links between ‘structural holes’ – the gaps between individuals who possess useful sources of information – are most likely to place themselves in advantageous positions. Burt writes:
Social capital is created by a network in which people can broker connections between otherwise disconnected segments.
In education, spanning gaps – these structural holes – drives improvement and empowers teachers. Twitter, in particular, provides a forum in which myths are debunked, information is exchanged, and resources are shared. It’s weak-tie networking at its very best and most effective. Over the past two years, it’s been my network on Twitter that has enabled me read hundreds of different blog posts, visit other schools, and attend a series of debates at City Hall. I’m a more informed and confident teacher because of my weak-ties. Twitter has helped make me better.
So, embrace the debate and challenge your most cherished beliefs. And get writing that blog post – that too.
Thanks for reading –