By John B.B. Freeman
As theories go, espousing the importance of social networks as an educational tool seems a natural.
After all, the process of going to school necessarily includes a large measure of socialization, along with the essentials of learning and the awkwardness of adolescence.
For Alan J. Daly, UC San Diego professor and chair of the Department of Education Studies, social networks hold the key to more enlightened forms of teaching, learning, and leadership.
“What I’m trying to do in my work is bring to the surface the importance of our humanity — done so with humility,” said Daly. “To me, connecting the powerful ideas of social networks to the critical work of educational transformation is a hallmark of my research.”
With the emergence of social media networks, most people think first about Facebook, LinkedIn and other large-scale networks. But Daly focuses on the hard work of educators in schools and districts throughout San Diego and those that stretch far beyond.
“We’re becoming more aware about social influence and that our social interactions can impact us in very important ways,” said Daly. “It is not just the quantity of relationships we have,” he said, “but the quality of those relationships.”
That quality has to do with interactions that are infused with trust, “a critical element in our ability to take risks with one another in the exchange of ideas and knowledge.”
Daly concedes his preferred theory sometimes runs counter to traditional educational improvement efforts.
“Most educational policy assumes all that’s needed is to teach educators the right skills and everything will improve,” he said. “We know from experience that such a one-dimensional strategy simply doesn’t work. You have to pay attention to both the skills and the relational aspect of working together.”
What about the old-fashioned notion of the independent spirit?
A social network map depicting the patterns of interaction on Twitter between us.
“For a long time, we believed we were just individuals marching through life, doing our own thing, making our own decisions, without truly recognizing the role of social influence,” said Daly. “We are getting better at understanding the inter-dependence and influence of our relationships and that’s a powerful idea to embrace.”
Daly’s department has multiple connections to Extension’s Clear Credential and counseling programs, led by a shared vision for equal opportunity and social justice. Many of his department’s students earn their state credentials through Extension coursework.
“We are getting better at understanding the inter-dependence and influence of our relationships.”
—Alan J. Daly
“We both benefit from our close collaboration,” he said, “not only on a social networking level but on a more practiced level.” Following a 16-year public schools career — first as a teacher in Riverside, then a school-site psychologist in Oceanside, and a site administrator in Oxnard — Daly spent two years as program director with UC Santa Barbara’s Center for Educational Leadership and Effective Schools.
Daly earned his Ph.D. and second masters from UC Santa Barbara after obtaining his undergraduate degree from Clark University near his native Boston, and later, a master’s degree in Counseling from San Diego State University. A frequent contributor to top-tier education journals, he’s the author of the book Social Network: Theory and Educational Change.
Daly, who has been with UC San Diego since 2006, was named chair of the Department of Education Studies in 2013.
He views his own life as an example of the inherent value of social networks. Growing up in a working-class family, he had little interest in going to college.
“I didn’t have anybody I could ask for the secret college handshake,” he said. “One day, I was mowing a lawn for a friend of my grandmother who was a college counselor. He decided to take me under his wing.”
Soon after, his life’s goals and priorities changed.
“I feel very fortunate,” said Daly. “My adult life has been the result of a lot of hard work, relationships and mentorship. I have a deep and profound connection to the power of people to change lives.”
Still, memories of his humble beginnings remain.
“For a lot of my life, even now, I don’t always feel like I fit in and see myself as a kind of outsider,” said Daly. “My own inner voice prompts me to ask myself: Do I deserve this privileged opportunity? Have I actually earned it or is this luck? How can I work more effectively? These questions not only keep me honest in my work, but recommit my efforts to collaboratively create the conditions for others to achieve what might seem unimaginable.”
He often reflects on classrooms of young people who face uncertain futures, persistent educational inequalities, and all too often unrealized dreams.
“Cycles of poverty, marginalized communities, and educational systems that fail to fulfill their promise will continue to have enormous deleterious effects on generations of young people,” he said, “until we collectively break down the walls and build better connections between us.”
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