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PISA2018 – 4.1 Social Capital

PISA2018 – 4.1 Social Capital

The relations or interactions between people are referred to by sociologists as social capital.

Too often it is forgotten that the nature of those interactions and how people feel about them are critical to the operation of the enterprise. The key to successful operation is how people work together and how decisions get made. Conversations are the basis of that. In successful organisations, and that includes schools, leaders work to align people with objectives. And that is achieved by conversations.

As Lynda Gratton and Sumantra Ghoshal (in Organizational Dynamics Vol 31(3), p209-223, 2002) said, “Conversations lie at the heart of managerial work. Managers talk. It is through talk that they teach and inspire, motivate and provide feedback, plan and take decisions… develop new ideas, share knowledge and experience, and enhance individual and collective learning… Yet, in most companies, very little attention is paid to the quality of conversations.” (Lynda Gratton is Professor of Management Practice at London Business School; the late Professor Sumantra Ghoshal (1948-2004) was also at the London Business School.)

Professor Lauren Resnick (University of Pittsburgh), in her 2009 Wallace Foundation Distinguished Lecture, ‘Nested Learning Systems for the Thinking Curriculum’, explained that it refers to “the opportunities that some people have, and that organizations can create, for acquiring knowledge and other resources through interactions with others”[1].

She noted further that a number of sociologists studying education reform processes had begun to document links between social capital in schools – groups of teachers engaged with one another –   and the forms of knowledge-based thinking that cognitive and sociocognitive theory recommends. In other words, how openly or widely they share information—both positive and negative—about their work, the breadth of their social networks.  Do they know or care who has expertise? How broad or narrow are their networks? Resnick’s expert educator colleagues described it as “the quality of professional community within a school and viewed it as a primary means of building human capital”.

Resnick acknowledged these as powerful concepts, though not telling the whole story. “Groups and individuals in the organization develop routines that constitute the normal ways in which work gets done. These routines are not always in the official manuals, but they allow members to perform satisfactorily in the judgment of clients and supervisors and for their own self-satisfaction. Such routines often involve adaptation to internal and external institutional constraints and may also recruit the power of informal “below the radar” work groups”.

Resnick referred to a significant large study by Professors Carrie Leana and Fritz Pil (also at the University of Pittsburgh) of social capital in New York City schools where high social capital (as measured by structured surveys) apparently led many competent teachers to stay in schools serving the poor, even if the teachers had opportunities for better paying jobs nearer to their own homes in the suburbs.


In The Power of Professional Capital With an investment In collaboration, teachers become nation builders Andrew Hargreaves (Research Professor at Boston College until 2018) and Michael Fullan (former Dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, known as OISE) summarised the main elements of their book 2012 book, Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School (Teachers College Press, New York, NY).

They said, “Systems that invest in professional capital recognize that education spending is an investment in developing human capital from early childhood to adulthood, leading to rewards of economic productivity and social cohesion in the next generation. Professional capital requires attention not only to political and societal investments in education but also to leadership actions and educator needs, contributions, and career stages.

Hargreaves & Fullan also referred to the study by Professor Carrie Leana. “A simple but powerful study from helps to illustrate the idea of the relationship between human and social capital. She did a study in New York City with a sample of 130 elementary schools She measured three things. She looked at human capital — the qualities of the individuals, their qualifications and competencies on paper. She measured social capital with questions like: To what extent do teachers in this school work in a trusting, collaborative way to focus on learning and the engagement and improvement of student achievement? And then she measured math achievement in September and June as an indicator of teachers’ impact.

“Leana found that schools with high social capital showed positive achievement outcomes. Schools with strong social and human capital together did even better. Most important, Leana found that teachers with low human capital who happened to be working in a school with higher social capital got better outcomes than those in schools with lower social capital. Being in a school around others who are working effectively rubs off on teachers and engages them.”

Leana expanded on her studies in The Missing Link in School Reform.

She briefly reviewed the arguments about public schools and the advocacy for charter schools represented by the film “Waiting for Superman”, the belief that public schools will be improved by bringing in people from outside, that teacher tenure is the enemy of effective education and that the role of principal is mainly as an administrator. “Unfortunately, all three beliefs are rooted more in conventional wisdom and political sloganeering than in strong empirical research. Together they constitute what I call the ideology of school reform.” She also refered to value-added arguments about teacher evaluation and merit pay.

Leana wrote, “James Coleman’s work comparing students in public and parochial schools. He found that parochial school students performed better and attributed this to the social links among parents and within neighborhoods, which strengthened student support systems. In business, social capital has received attention because of its role in creating intellectual resources within a firm.

“Our research shows that social capital is also at work in schools. When a teacher needs information or advice about how to do her job more effectively, she goes to other teachers. She turns far less frequently to the experts and is even less likely to talk to her principal. Further, when the relationships among teachers in a school are characterized by high trust and frequent interaction—that is, when social capital is strong—student achievement scores improve.

Leana’s research revealed students showed higher gains in math achievement when their teachers reported frequent conversations with their peers that centered on math, and when there was a feeling of trust or closeness among teachers. In other words, teacher social capital was a significant predictor of student achievement gains above and beyond teacher experience or ability in the classroom. And the effects of teacher social capital on student performance were powerful. If a teacher’s social capital was just one standard deviation higher than the average, her students’ math scores increased by 5.7 percent.

One New York City teacher described how social capital works in her school: “Teaching is not an isolated activity. If it’s going to be done well, it has to be done collaboratively over time. Each of us sets our own priorities in terms of student outcomes. For example, one teacher might emphasize students knowing all the facts and operational skills. Another might think that what’s most important is to develop a love of learning in students. Still another teacher might want to develop students to be better critical thinkers and problem solvers, and they’re not as concerned about students memorizing the facts. A good teacher needs to help students develop all of those things, but it’s easy to get stuck in your own ideology if you are working alone. With collaboration, you are exposed to other teachers’ priorities and are better able to incorporate them to broaden your own approach in the classroom.”

“If human capital is strong, individual teachers should have the knowledge and skills to do a good job in their own classrooms. But if social capital is also strong, teachers can continually learn from their conversations with one another and become even better at what they do.”


Professor Leana visited Australia – Melbourne University and the Australian Graduate School of Management – in 2004. Her visit was not reported in the media.

Shirley Brice Heath, then Professor of English and Dramatic Literature and of Linguistics and Anthropology at Stanford University, and now Professor Emerita, also visited Australia, in 2005 at La Trobe University, and in 2008 and 2010 at the Centre for Aboriginal Policy Research at ANU in 2008 and 2010. Recipient of three honorary doctorates, Heath has made important contributions to understanding transitions through adolescent youth in impoverished neighbourhoods, involvement of young people in drama and the integration of visual, verbal and other representational modes in curricula. Her visits were not reported in the media.

An important conference on curricula was held at the Graduate School of Education, Melbourne University, in 2008. It was not reported in the media.


Leana goes on to note that social capital can be a lifeline in chaos, loss of social capital is highly detrimental to student achievement.

As to principals she found, “When principals spent more time building external social capital, the quality of instruction in the school was higher and students’ scores on standardized tests in both reading and math were higher. Conversely, principals spending more of their time mentoring and monitoring teachers had no effect on teacher social capital or student achievement. The more effective principals were those who defined their roles as facilitators of teacher success rather than instructional leaders. They provided teachers with the resources they needed to build social capital—time, space, and staffing—to make the informal and formal connections possible.”

She concluded, “Building social capital in schools is not easy or inexpensive. It requires time and typically the infusion of additional teaching staff into the school. It requires a reorientation away from a Teacher of the Year model and toward a system that rewards mentoring and collaboration among teachers.


Systems Thinking is a leadership model that recognises that people, structures and processes interact within organisational systems to foster (or restrict) organisational and individual wellbeing. It involves seeing overall structures, patterns and cycles rather than specific components. In respect to groups of people it involves considering how the whole group behaves, not how the individual members of the group behave, what individual skills they have or don’t. It emphasises how all members of the group contribute to a common goal or purpose. Cohesion!

Importantly, whilst  a set of individuals may have particular strengths and be able individually to achieve to the highest level, what matters is how people work together. There are views that systems theory has evolved to chaos theory in which, whilst there is no apparent order determining the dynamics, in fact there is an underlying order: small changes can cause changes in the overall system.

This has relevance to the situation of schools and teachers. Every time the issue of educational achievement emerges, the accusations that teachers are inadequately qualified, that universities have lowered the bar for entry to teacher training courses, and so on ad nauseum emerge. One response has been to establish ‘Teach for America’ which in Australia has become ‘Teach for Australia’. This involves recruiting people with good university qualifications and give them a few months training in teaching and sending them out into schools. The problem is, as Linda Darling-Hammond (Stanford University) and others have found, the achievement of these people in raising the learning achievement of students is no greater than for certified teachers.

No-one would suggest that content knowledge is unimportant. But the debate often privileges that over any other feature. Understanding the importance of social capital and the implications of systems thinking leads to recognition that cooperation amongst teachers in sharing knowledge and experience is likely more important. John Hattie emphasises that it isn’t just experience that leads to teachers becoming successful in teaching but expertise, expertise in pedagogy, effective engagement with the students. And that is achieved by privileging social capital and recognising that how people work together makes the difference.

In a talk on Ockham’s Razor Live philosopher Sadjad Soltenzadeh (University of NSW, Canberra’s School of Engineering and Information Technology) emphasised that superior achievement by individuals often led to egos getting in the way of group performance. Examples are especially to be found in sports teams, for instance in baseball, the subject of Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball. (His later book Flash Boys also demonstrates creativity and persistence, not technical expertise, are the more important drivers[2]).

Soltenzadeh referred to the US Olympic hockey team which defeated the Soviet Union in the semifinals at the Winter Olympic Games in Squaw Valley California in February 1960 and the next day beat Czechoslovakia to win its first-ever Olympic gold medal in hockey. The players were college students and amateurs. Fourteen years later the US team, again made up of college players, defeated the Soviet Union and then Finland to win the gold medal at Lake Placid, New York. The Soviet team had captured the gold medal in the previous four Olympic contests.

Soltenzadeh gave the example of fish seeking to escape being eaten by sharks and provided with wings so they could fly out of the water. But the fish could not breathe in air and so fell back into the water, where their wings were an encumbrance, only to be eaten by sharks after all. Attributes which would seem useful may not be relevant to the context of the challenge.

Whilst numerical scores are often attributed to various characteristics of people in an effort to find the best member of a group or enterprise are in fact relevant only to the extent they relate to the goals of the challenges which the group is to face: not everything that can be measured is important!

In museums and other knowledge organisations, recruitment which privileges individual achievement can lead to conflicts as “superior” individuals experience, or more often generate, conflict when they feel their expertise is not leading to their solutions being adopted or where their wish to pursue their chosen priorities leads to refusal to involve themselves in projects which require cooperation in a particular project important to the purpose and success of the enterprise. In other words, attention has to be given in recruitment to assessing the ability of prospective appointees to work productively with others. That is often claimed by employers to be critical and something that should have been emphasised during the education of people applying for jobs.

This has relevance to leaders who too often are expected to have all the capabilities needed for the group to succeed. In an art museum for instance, a new director may be chosen on the basis of their expertise in art history but then expected to devote their time to raising funds. A better strategy would be to ensure a mixed leadership team where each member complements the others rather than having to be the expert in every knowledge and skill domain. In many organisations in the public sector promotion delivers persons with achievement in the principal knowledge area to positions of supposed leadership where they are expected to devote their time to administrative tasks.

So it is with teachers and schools.


[1] Educational Research 39: 183 DOI: 10.3102/0013189X10364671

[2] Two excellent reviews of Flash Boys are by James Surowiecki (High on Speed, New York Review of Books July 10, 2014) and John Lanchester (Scalpers Inc., London  Review of Books Vol. 36 No. 11 · 5 June 2014)