iNACOL

Disrupting ‘Who You Know’ to bolster students’ life opportunities

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Sep 7, 2018

My freshman year at Yale, I took an introduction to international relations class with the late, great Professor H. Bradford Westerfield. The course was notable for Westerfield’s informative, entertaining, and occasionally sweeping statements, including this one:

“It’s not what you know. It’s who you know.”

In a course on international relations, one might wonder why a noted professor would repeat this line several times—both consecutively and across sessions of the course.

The reason is that in a whole variety of fields and contexts, relationships—or social capital—matter. Relationships help individuals get access to opportunities and jobs; they help entrepreneurs raise capital; and, alongside the trust that comes from a long history of a relationship across countries, they can help world leaders get deals done.

This idea, that whom you know matters, has been long known and well studied by researchers across a variety of fields. An individual’s social capital has significant impact on their success and failure in life, as well as their health. The robustness of a society’s social capital has a significant impact on the wellness of the society across a range of metrics.

Despite knowing all this, there has been a persistent puzzle in the extensive research. How do we increase access to positive social capital for those from disadvantaged backgrounds? If we don’t address this, then millions will struggle to access the American dream, as they lack the opportunity to get ahead. Yet today there are a paucity of solutions.

Enter Julia Freeland Fisher’s new book, Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students’ Networks, which she wrote with her husband, Daniel Fisher. After summarizing the relevant research on social capital, Fisher, who is the director of education at the Clayton Christensen Institute, dives squarely into the territory of how do we unleash innovations to solve this challenge.

The book’s first insight is that schools, which have been built to keep the outside world…outside, must be the gateway for innovations that tackle the opportunity gap—meaning the gap disadvantaged students face that goes beyond academics by considering broader life outcomes. No longer can schools just focus on what you know.

If that seems like a tall task, you’re right. Schools have a litany of things for which they are already responsible—from academics to arts and sports to behavioral considerations and, increasingly, college success, to say nothing of making sure students have healthy lunches and other such services. Indeed, much of the history of schooling in the United States has been of piling more and more things on what schools must do, as I recounted in my first book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns with Clayton Christensen and Curtis Johnson.

But addressing students’ social capital is not a choice, Fisher argues.

First, given that society is already moving to hold schools accountable for the life outcomes students achieve—viewing what they learn academically as a means to bolster social mobility—narrowing the opportunity gap means tackling students’ reservoir of social capital. We are learning, for example, that social supports are a critical ingredient for getting students to and through college.

Second, relationships impact what you know. Students who lack caring relationships are more likely to drop out of school, for example, and they are more likely to suffer health challenges that impact their academic achievement. We also bemoan the fact that there are shortages of qualified teachers in certain academic subjects. Were schools to tap into the broader world of experts around the world, however, they could solve many of those access challenges.

There are fortunately headwinds afoot that will help schools, which Fisher highlights.

With the rapid rise of online learning in schools—blended learning (the subject of much of my writing)—delivering academic content, once a differentiator for schools, is increasingly a commodity. As these innovations improve, that will increasingly free up time and resources in schools to focus on other things, like building students’ social capital.

Disruptive innovations, like online coaching, mentoring, tutoring programs, and social networks, are also emerging that change how people connect. That’s opening the door to allowing students to create relationships with coaches, mentors, experts, and peers with the goal of radically expanding students’ access to social capital. And that, in turn, can change students’ views of what is possible and give them the relationships to help realize their new dreams.

Important, Fisher points out, is to use these tools to disrupt the limitations ingrained in all students’ inherited networks, not solidify what they already have, and to make sure students don’t just build online relationships, but use them to develop strong offline ones.

Some schools are already reshaping themselves to allow students to take advantage of these tools and interact with experts in the real world, for example. No longer are these experts inaccessible if they can’t take an entire day to trek out to a school. And no longer are these opportunities being left to chance.

Fisher also lays out conceptual roadmaps for how technological tools should be designed to be sure they are used to expand social capital, as well as how to address the privacy and safety concerns that are sure to abound as schools spend more time inviting the outside world inside the schoolhouse. What is sure to spark some controversy as well is her recommendation that policymakers start thinking about how to measure social capital so that schools will pay attention to it; after all, what measured gets done.

With a persuasive argument, comprehensive research, and robust theory on innovation that makes expanding students’ social capital actionable, Who You Know has the possibility of redefining and breathing life into what has become a stalled and stale education reform agenda.

Much as Disrupting Class helped usher in a decade of focus on innovation and personalizing learning for students, Who You Know is poised to bring about the next revolution in schools of harnessing technology to expand students’ social capital and tackle the persistent opportunity gaps in society. This matters because it’s not just what you know in life, it’s who you know.

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.