Multi-professional Networking in Schools and out

Author: Tuire Palonen, University of Turku, Finland


Professionals, including educators working at schools, have to constantly update their knowledge and develop their skills and competencies so as to cope with various kinds of earlier known or unforeseen challenges and problems. It is easier to handle complexity if one does not need to do it alone. Connections or ties between colleagues provide access to many kinds of resources and pieces of advice. Those situations where problems are solved together with other professionals might be called examples of socially distributed expertise or multi-professional work. Rather than representing mere individual capabilities, higher-level professional competencies can be seen as appropriations, within individuals, of capabilities of professional communities and networks. This is possible because professional competencies are materially, socially, and temporally distributed (Pea, 1993). One professional must not master everything by oneself to be competent. It is promised already in how we define the term of competence.

Studies relating to workplace learning, including our own studies (Hakkarainen et al 2004), yet, indicate that knowledge and competence tend to concentrate to one or few central actors. In many cases, these core actors are not only centrally located within their own professional community but they also keep up rich and multi-faceted personal social networks extending to various external communities and organizations. Building such extended networks represent professionals’ agentic efforts of creating personal learning networks, i.e., to expand their capability or accessible resources.  This especially happens alongside changes in the work environment or when new challenges appear. In those situations, experts, such as teachers and other staff members at schools, nurture and profile their own expertise by re-activating and strengthening some relevant links from their work environment or their past work communities. When problems are seen on the horizon, it is time to take into consideration, who might be able to help the situation.

Specialized expertise profiles

Specialists provide support whenever needed, including for students with an immigrant background and for their teachers. More generally, educators with specialized expertise profiles, of any kind, have an important role in multi-professional work settings. Very often extra resources are focused on education that concerns academic skills, such as reading, writing, and mathematics, or behavioral and socio-emotional challenges, or knowledge regarding varying cultural values and habits. Educators are responsible for identifying, assessing, overseeing and coordinating what is needed when problems appear. Teaching, consultation, co-operation, and background work is then wanted and it all includes participating in school meetings, carrying out written work such as individual educational plans, taking part in training, assessing students, and designing materials. In these situations, educators’ expertise must show a high degree of adaptivity. In order to keep up their competence, diverse and multi-faceted network relations across various organizations are a necessity (Tuomainen et al, 2012).

In school and out

Educators’ work takes place at the levels of students and the school community as well as the school and its environment. This means a variety of collaborative roles for educators. Simultaneously, they are actors in wider cross-organizational networks and collaborate with various domain experts. These networks include participants from schools as well as experts from social work and health services and other networks. In these multi-professional networks, educators are expected to adopt the role of experts, be organizers of collaborations between various parties of local authorities, and offer information needed. For multi-professional networks, one important component is professional activity or agency. It is known that expertise cannot be sustained by relying only on once-acquired knowledge and proficiency. Often educators themselves need new expert resources to do their work. In recent years, one typical situation for this has been related to multicultural topics. Moreover, one must consider that learning and development of one’s expertise are not merely mental and individual processes; expertise intrinsically involves participating in collective activities which are crucial for professional competencies. Therefore, collaboration is a key aspect of developing effective educational provision for pupils with varying educational needs and coming from many kinds of circumstances. Although multi-professional work has often been advocated, ways of cultivating corresponding practices have not been much discussed in published reports. Further, although multi-professional work is needed, it is not always easy, and teamwork does not advance smoothly. Thus, it requires deliberate cultivation of interagency work; that is, a professional endeavor to work together in spite of the obstacles, knowledge barriers or lack of prescribed routines to do so.

Professional Networks

Professional networks offer a resource for problematic situations. It is something we already know from elsewhere, e.g. from hospitals. Likewise, educators must have multifaceted professional networks including experts from their own schools as well as external organizations. Through these professional connections, it is possible to reach information of a variety of student-, special education administration-, and collegial-related expert resources.

In professional communities, as mentioned above, there are typically groups of actors whose expertise other members trust and whose advice is often sought. These central “knowledge brokers” have metaknowledge, i.e., upper-level knowledge of the division of epistemic resources and competencies embedded in their close social networks. They also have diverse and heterogeneous contacts that go beyond their immediate social circles; therefore they can and may channel relevant knowledge to their own work communities. Based on earlier research I want to argue that the central educators’ expertise is based on wide networking practices that allow them to share knowledge and collaborate with other teachers and educators as well as activate external professional relationships and expand their networks when necessary. The presence of such a basis suggests that multi-professional networking enables the growth of the potential network connections and resources of an individual educator, for instance, when regarding challenging and new situations with students of immigrant background, and adjusting their instruction according to the needs of their students, consulting other teachers, and work management.

It appears that the central educators who are often asked advice situate themselves in suitable network environments and undertake collaborative efforts to provide support to students as well as to co-operate with teachers and other professionals. In order to do so, they may be said to have relational agency (e.g. Edwards, 2005). It can be concluded that the educators with broad professional scope are characterized as relational experts who work at boundary zones between schools and the external world and have wide and rich (i.e., heterogeneous) professional networks.

TEAMS – for schools’ purposes

Accordingly, people in the teaching profession can, similarly to other domains, use teamwork to advance their own skills and abilities and thus gain synergies and access to better solutions for complex problems. On the other hand, problems may originate from the different organizational embedding of several educational professions. Collaboration in these situations is connected with various and partly conflicting understandings of educational objectives. Multi-professional collaboration, as any co-operation, can in the worst case be a stress factor. To avoid this, some features are especially important for collaboration, such as autonomy of the individual professional and trust and reciprocity of the relationships among colleagues (Böhm-Kasper, Dizinger, & Gausling, 2016).

Teacher expertise presupposes social interaction and knowledge sharing. How this interaction happens and whether it might be facilitated can be studied by using many methods, for example, social network analysis, among others (Palonen, & Hakkarainen, 2014). It is also the reason why educators’ ties through which multi-professional work is realized are studied in TEAMS project by using social network analysis. Marc Sarazin’s earlier text in this blog gives some more information regarding this.



Böhm-Kasper, O., Dizinger, V., & Gausling, P. (2016). Multiprofessional collaboration between teachers and other educational staff at German all-day schools as a characteristic of today’s professionalism. IJREE–International Journal for Research on Extended Education, 4(1), 9-10.

Edwards, A. (2005). Relational agency: Learning to be a resourceful practitioner. International Journal of Educational Research, 43, 168-182.

Hakkarainen, K. Palonen, T., Paavola, S., & Lehtinen, E. (2004). Networked expertise: Professional and educational perspectives. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Palonen, T. & Hakkarainen, K. (2014). Social network analyses of learning at workplaces. In C. Harteis, A. Rausch, A., & J. Seifried. Discourses on Professional Learning: On the Boundary Between Learning and Working (pp. 293-315). Springer Netherlands.

Pea, R. D. (1993). Practices of distributed intelligence and designs for education. In G. Salomon (Ed.), Distributed Cognitions: Psychological and Educational Considerations (pp. 47-87). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tuomainen, J., Palonen, T., & Hakkarainen, K. (2012). Special educators’ social networks: A multiple case study in a Finnish part-time special education context. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 56(1), 21-38.


Published 5 July 2021