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Thoughts on chapter 5 of Hargreaves’ and Fullan’s Professional Capital

Teaching is complicated. Learners’ needs are multifarious and educational systems and qualifications frameworks are complex and ever-changing. Schools face challenging circumstances and teachers need to be talented and robust to thrive in this context.

In order to “teach like a pro” teachers need to be highly qualified, rigorously trained, have access to highly experienced mentors and they need to be demonstrably working to improve their practice as a means of indicating a long term commitment to the profession. And they need to be trusted to develop these skills and processes in ways which will maximise benefits for learners.

So individual teachers need to have human capital. In Hargreaves and Fullan’s terms this means having the “requisite skills and knowledge” to teach successfully, but it also means knowing your subject, how to teach it and the children you are trying to teach it to and their collective and individual needs.

Education systems can thus improve by basing their efforts on building the human capital of individual teachers. But Hargreaves and Fullan would argue that the improvements gained would only ever be piecemeal. In order to make wholesale, systemwide progress, the gains made need to be not in the individual human capital of teachers but in their collective group capacity, their social capital. And central to this concept is trust. Groups that work together on joint projects where their relationships are based on mutual trust will achieve far more than the groups where relationships are characterised by suspicion, selfishness and distrust. No surprise there. But how often do schools or authorities do anything discrete to develop interpersonal trust within their teams?

Once the trust is established, increased social capital flows between all participating members of the group. This brings with it increased knowledge as individuals can now tap into the collective wisdom and understanding, the human capital, of their networks members.

Hargreaves and Fullan referred to Wilkinson and Pickett’s work The Spirit Level on the correlation between levels of trust and income inequality. The same correlation may well be found between levels of trust between teachers and the percentage of their learners who achieve their educational potential (as measured, perhaps, by rates of progress).

The work of Christakis and Fowler and in Connected is perhaps also worth mentioning here as it makes clear the enormous potential of networks in terms of developing ideas and patterns of behaviour – there would seem to be a lot that these ideas have in common with the social capital concept and their insights could well be useful in developing powerful systems for sharing and growing the trust and expertise so essential for educational success.

At this point Hargreaves and Fullan start to refer to social capital in terms which seem to have much in common with Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital. Given the nature of this book it seems remarkable that Bourdieu’s work is never cited, as his thinking is surely central to the development of the whole capital analogy, taking it from economic to wider spheres.

Hargreaves and Fullan go on to suggest that social capital is the key factor that determines whether or not a project or innovation is successful in a school. We have all seen ideas which have taken off brilliantly in one school but flop disastrously in another. If social capital can genuinely be isolated as a likely cause of this variation then there would be much to be gained from policies which seeks to systematically grow social capital. I think that Susannah Temple’s development of the Temple Index of Functional Fluency, which has grown out of her in-depth understanding of transactional analysis and emotional literacy, could have an important role to play in developing this vital social capital and I shall pursue this link in more detail in my next post.

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