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A Capital Idea – thoughts on Chapter 1 of Professional Capital by Hargreaves and Fullan

As an Education Development Officer working with secondary schools I am, of course, very interested in this book, subtitled Transforming Teaching in Every School. So, the plan is to read the book, chapter by chapter, and blog my thoughts about the book and the potential that it offers for system change.

Professional capital is defined in Chapter 1. It is the collective worth of teachers and their ability to accomplish their desired goals. The central premise of the book is that education systems should systematically invest in this capital.

By analogy with financial capital, the authors argue that professional capital can only be increased if it is circulated and investment takes place. Bourdieu, strangely never gets a mention. However, Carrie Leana’s work on the impact of the combination of high levels of human capital (talent) and social capital (patterns of interaction between teachers and students) on student outcomes does. From this work Hargreaves and Fullan extrapolate the importance, when attempting to transform an education system, of all elements – teachers, parents, students, leaders, unions etc – working together to improve things collectively.

This is a powerful, idealistic vision which draws on Tina Rosenberg’s work on the power of peer pressure. It also seems to have elements, though it doesn’t mention them, of the work of Christakis and Fowler, who, in Connected argue that networks have a very important impact on behaviour and that this can be beneficially harnessed.

The authors argue strongly that interventions aimed at raising attainment through increasing either students’ or teachers’ human capital will only ever have short term impact. What is needed is systemic investment in both their human capital and their social capital. Alongside well developed decisional capital, whereby transparent, responsible judgements are made for the collective good, these factors give rise to professional capital through which schools can build sustainable improvements.

The really interesting part of Hargreaves and Fullan’s thesis, at least for an Education Officer, is that the theory can be scaled up. They argue that, just as individual teachers and students can only improve things through heroic efforts, individual schools, if working on their own, need to work ridiculously hard to make a real difference. Major improvement is only possible when schools work together, investing collectively in the professional capital of their staff.

In the increasingly competitive situation that most schools, certainly in the US and England, now find themselves, this message of co-operation and mutuality is refreshing. The key difficulty is going to be persuading all the parties involved that the collective good is more important than their own personal, sectarian, small-scale but very human concerns and that they are both subservient to and best served by a relentless focus on the greater good.

It will be interesting to see how these arguments are played out in future chapters and flesh laid on to the bones of this argument. In the meantime, we could do a lot worse than to listen again to the great agnostic sermon on thinking altruistically and looking at the bigger picture, David Foster Wallace’s This is Water. If you are interested, here’s a link to a recently made film version that cuts it down to about 9 mins.

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