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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Learning the HOW of Social Capital

Learning the HOW of Social Capital

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Indiana State University

Launching a class in School and Community Relations this past weekend, I asked students this question, “How are we taught to facilitate social capital with those who can make a difference in education?”

Students shared pre-service advice, such as the fact that they have been taught the benefits of engaging others in sharing ideas, collaborating on best practice, communicating scope and sequence of curriculum among different grade levels, networking with supportive community members, and reaching out to those unlike themselves.  Because I have smart students, I got smart answers.

I probed further, “But prior to doing these things (all very important), HOW did you learn to DO the communicating – especially when reaching out to those more difficult or unresponsive? HOW did you learn ‘the HOW’ of accessing and developing positive social capital?”

This was not such an easy thing for them to answer, I discovered, so I tried to answer the question, myself, after class. 

How did I learn “the HOW” of developing positive social capital?  I was quite adept at it while a school leader?

Was it in my leadership training programs? 

For the most part … it was not. 

Not prescribed via formal curriculum, in fact, the HOW was instead taught to me through direct discussion and vicarious observation during moments when interest was piqued during my youth and young adulthood … even into the present day.

Here are a few of those experiences that I have had over the years in learning how to develop social capital:

1.     Observing a master of ceremonies at hundreds of wedding receptions interact with newlyweds and inlaws – especially in situations of family estrangement – about who would do what with whom during wedding festivities.  From an early age, I played in a wedding band and did a lot of people watching. This offered modeling of not simply negotiation, but also of integration.

2.  Watching my father, a small, retail business owner in a community of laid-off autoworkers, interact with those who had lost dignity. He did so in a way that affirmed their sense of personal worth, as they feigned nonchalance in the face of significant life trauma.  That offered me a deep understanding of keeping people’s needs at the forefront of one’s attention.

3.  Learning from my favorite teacher how networking with well-placed friends in high-ranking places did not begin in the dinner circuits, country clubs, or caucus rooms, but long-prior as schoolchildren pitching pennies near run-down basketball courts. That offered me an understanding of true in-group/out-group dynamics and not to assume that I go “way back” with someone.

4.     Receiving a reminder from a former colleague and dear friend, now deceased, of the fact that friendships demand hard work, selfless interest, and time for one another, even when not convenient.  That offered me an understanding of the need to make small relational deposits continuously, as withdrawals are necessary from time to time.  One should not expect return without investment.

5.     Observing human interaction continuously as a student of relationships, replaying in my mind what worked so well for others in the rarity of any given moment, hoping to borrow style in a way that it appears my own. That offered me a library of social capital reference material.

6.     Realizing on my own that I should always lend a store clerk a smile (handing money directly as opposed to laying it on the counter), offer my place in line to those who appear hurried or stressed, treat with respect others who have lost their own, send a smile to young children who look to others with distrust, and thank someone sincerely for taking a bit of time for me, even if he/she was curt in doing so.

Not too many of these things did I learn in a classroom. 

All of these things have been invaluable in the HOW of my fostering social capital.

Looking back with a more clinical eye, the things that I have learned in formal educational settings were more similar to “Little What’s” than they were to HOW’s. 

Here’s an example of something I learned: 

Educational programs improve with the input of stakeholders [The WHAT] through active parent/teacher organizations and family involvement in school improvement planning [The HOW]. 

In the example above, the articulated HOW is not really a HOW, but instead a “Little What” embedded inside the bigger WHAT.  It’s another WHAT.

What, instead, would be some HOW’s?

Learning …

1.     … HOW to greet someone entering the school and what to say in the first seven seconds of an interaction so as to ensure that he/she feels empowered and authentically valued.
2.     … HOW to balance your small talk among guests sitting in a room awaiting the event to begin, so as to avoid their sitting around looking at each other uncomfortably.
3.     … HOW to thank everyone for his or her participation in a way that is individually meaningful, but collectively efficient.
4.     … HOW to encourage candor and heartfelt commentary without inadvertently shutting down the communication through defensiveness when something strikes too close to home.
5.     … HOW to guide a group toward consensus when conflict is present among stakeholders.

I believe that we can provide more HOW’s to preservice and in-service educators, and that we’re doing more of this all the time. Positive social capital depends upon it, as we turn challenge into opportunity for today’s schools, families, and communities.

When designing professional development, we must all take care to transcend the “Little What’s.”

Too often those are all we study.


Dr. Ryan Donlan works with the Department of Educational Leadership in Indiana State University’s Bayh College of Education to bring more HOW’s to the WHAT of scholar/practitioner development in cutting edge leadership development programs.  He can be reached at (812) 237-8624 or at

1 comment:

  1. Great thoughts, Dr. Donlan. As educators in today's tech-savvy world, I believe this is getting more and more difficult to teach not only students, but pre-service teachers. All too often the art of communication is lost to a simple text. Young adults today do not know HOW to do many of the points listed. It is sad, but we must find a way to inject balance into the way young people communicate today.