By: Thomas Cowhitt, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

Relationships matter. This mantra guided my work as a secondary classroom teacher in the United States. I entered my classroom each day knowing that quality teaching and learning only happens when quality relationships exist between teachers and students.

I am finding that this mantra is still very much relevant as I transition from classroom teacher to researcher. Relationships are critical when trying to secure research partner schools. More significantly, my belief in the importance of relationships now guides my methodological approach to understanding schools.

My research aims to better understand how schools embark on and carry out change processes.  Schools are complex organizations that are made up of intersecting social and political networks. The organizational hierarchy of a school staff misconstrues school processes as orderly and predictable. However, understanding school processes requires researchers to account for more than the formal titles. Researchers must dig deeper to map the highly complex social guts that make up any human organization.

Social Network Analysis (SNA) is a growing methodology that explores the formal and informal relationships between people. SNA is a theoretical lens for researchers that values relationships as the driving force behind organizational action and outcomes.  The methodology can visualize complex networks of relationships and also provides strong analytical tools to measure structural characteristics that impact organizational performance.

Sample School Network
Pictured is a sample network of a secondary school. Individual educators are depicted as nodes. If a professional working relationship exists between two individuals, the nodes are connected by an edge.

My work involves mapping the working relationships between members of a school staff. I then differentiate between individuals based on their technical knowledge of an ongoing change initiative. Using network metrics like centrality, I study how the position of highly knowledgeable actors impacts the implementation of change.

Most network researchers primarily use a survey tool to collect network data. My surveys are approximately fifteen questions. SNA surveys need to be brief because asking a respondent to recall their relationship networks can be intellectually demanding. SNA researchers must also be very intentional with wording of questions as relationship data can be quite sensitive

Several questions in the survey measure individual attributes like years of teaching experience or age. Other questions are specifically designed to solicit relationship data. These questions usually propose a hypothetical circumstance and ask the respondent to identify everyone they would interact with to resolve the situation.

A network can be constructed once a researcher collects attribute and relationship data.  The existence and strength of a relationship is recorded into an adjacency matrix. The matrices are then imported into social networking software to produce a visual of the organization. Consider using open source software like iGraph or paying to access UCINET. Although network visuals look intuitive, the application of SNA metrics is required to truly understand an organization.

I believe my research is relevant because our schools are in a continuous state of change.  Reflection by education professionals supports an internal environment where schools are constantly attempting to improve teaching and learning practices. An external political climate of accountability also pressures schools to change. The purpose of this research is not to advocate for any specific initiative. Instead, my hope is that this research will help schools become high-functioning learning organizations that can implement and sustain useful initiatives to improve teaching and learning.

If you want to learn more about my research, please visit my website at Also, follow me on Twitter @EdNetResearch for more information on networks in the U.K. and beyond.


Thomas Cowhitt is currently working towards a PhD with the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. His research aims to understand the organizational structures and processes that drive school change. As a former public school teacher in the United States, he worked in schools that rapidly implemented and sustained significant changes to teaching and learning. Thomas also worked in schools that quickly abandoned and often resisted seemingly simple changes. He thinks that studying organizational change will help our schools function as adaptable learning organizations.


Posted by:fersacambridge

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