Book Notes & Thoughts: Communities of Practice, Part I

Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, by Etienne Wenger

At the end of my first two semesters in graduate school, I think I know just enough now to know that I do not know what I want to study or how I want to study it. I am still interested in networks, leadership, and change, but do not know the level at which I want to resolve those ideas, much less how I would study it. Much of the work I want to do this summer and fall is searching for a conceptual frame that helps me describe my observations in a way that moves understanding (mine and research generally) forward. I’m beginning this here with Communities of Practice.

Reading this was slow, especially coming off of the three previous books I’ve written about (Connected, Where Good Ideas Come From, and Disrupting Class), which were popular nonfiction, written to be engaging to a general audience. Communities of Practice is definitely aimed for an academic audience, and “presents a theory of learning that starts with this assumption: engagement in social practice is the fundamental process by which we learn and so become who we are.” This assumption is not how I have previously conceived learning. I think it is pretty typical in a Western, individualist society to think of learning as something individuals do, with teaching as something we do to others, not as something created between us. Continue reading “Book Notes & Thoughts: Communities of Practice, Part I”

Book Notes & Thoughts: Disrupting Class

Book cover, from

By Clayton Christensen, Michael B. Horn, and Curtis W. Johnson

*note that these authors are not educators

Do not read this book, but if you do, please only read chapters 2-5. The authors’ do give a compelling argument for the way disruptive innovation happens, and there are certainly some good ideas for how to approach changing the educational system in there. Outside of that, see my comments below.

The authors propose using an innovation lens to study the problems in education, which are identified as problems by the international test scores that say the United States is behind other countries in math scores (TIMSS) and in the number of STEM graduate students and the changing demographics of Silicon Valley. (p.6) To their disparaging point about the “changing demographics”: from what I have read, it is still predominantly white men. A company like Google is still 70% male and 60% white, but I get it: it’s not 100% white men like the good ol’ days. Also, assuming the “diversity” comes from outside of the United States is not accurate and perpetuates stereotypes. That is not to say that some of the non-white and white people in Silicon Valley are not foreign nationals, but as our country continues to diversify, the workforce and management should as well. I realize that this is not the thrust of this book, but the cultural, racial, and gender bias in the way this book is written made me want to throw it against the wall repeatedly.

Downward trend in students that study math & engineering because the extrinsic motivation is gone when a country becomes prosperous (p.7-9)

“Assigning schools new jobs for which they were not built – and therefore not necessarily doing – has mean that schools don’t look as good in light of the new requirements.” (p. 45) I agree. I find it ironic that on page 156, in the chapter about the effect of early child development on academic success, the authors suggest that high schools should be tasked with teaching parenting skills to improve how they speak to their children in the first 3 years of their lives because that it the root cause of the achievement gap. Does that sound as contradictory to you as it does to me?

Schools are improving, but those improvements are not valued because of 2 disruptions: Nation at Risk, NCLB

p.45 disruptive innovation theory

p.46 key diagram of disruption


p.47 disruptive innovation is not equal to breakthrough improvement: it benefits nonconsumers – those unable to use the standard

p.55 “crisis in education” 1958 Life Magazine cover because of Sputnik

History of Education p.64

Job 1: preserve democracy and inculcate values

Job 2: provide something for every student (turn of 20th century – competition with Germany)

Job 3: keep America competitive (Nation At Risk)

Job 4: eliminate poverty (NCLB)

p.73 “schools have crammed [computers] into classrooms to sustain and marginally improve the way they already teach and run their schools, just as most organizations do when they attempt to implement innovations, including computers.” Thus the failure of a lot of 1:1 programs where students never use them or only use them for non-school activities.

p.74 “To succeed, disruptive technologies must be applied to applications where the alternative is nothing”

p.75 “organizations will shape every disruptive innovation into  sustaining innovation because organizations cannot naturally disrupt themselves”

p.81-82 computers serve to sustain the school model rather than disrupting

p.92-94 places with non consumption – ripe for disruptive technologies

  1. rural & urban high schools that lack funding or qualified teachers and online can offer AP or other options
  2. homebound/homeschool students
  3. credit recovery

p.102 pressures on schools

  1. technological improvements make learning more engaging
  2. design of student-centric software
  3. looming teacher shortage
  4. cost pressures

p.105 future classrooms – not the best but maybe the best possible

p.107 increased student:teacher ratio – I’m not a fan and it doesn’t seem to be what is working in PL

p.110 no more summative assessment with online learning because integrated into the learning process – only reason we need summative assessments is because we don’t know how students are doing during the learning process

p.135-6 second phase of disruption will be people assembling together to teach each other – custom-configured to each different type of learner – no mention of participatory cultures? connected learning?

p.136-7 all this stuff about tutors as the platform – no mention of Blooms 2sigma problem/research

p.140 having to teach material is when you finally understand it – this was definitely true for me with a lot of the biology I had to teach in my first year in the classroom

Teachers unions are almost always used as the example of barriers to change in the system, though on p.141 they do acknowledge that there are many factors, such as textbook adoption process and demand for standardization. I think they should also add elected officials who defund education and unfunded mandates that hamstring districts.

p.143 “Introducing student-centric learning through facilitated networks” – Who will build these networks? How will people get paid to create content? Earlier examples of facilitated networks included telecommunications or banking – “the network is a supporting infrastructure that helps the buyers and sellers make money elsewhere” and “participation in the network typically isn’t the primary profit engine for participants.”

p.147 Vignette about Principal Allston. It’s hard to take these as serious from three male writers: “Sitting in her office, flush from vindication of having given Maria the Arabic class she’d wanted, Stephanie Allston gets up, closes the door, kicks her heels off, and puts her nylon-clad feet up for just a moment.” Really?

p.155 It is really hard to read this writing about poor “young, single, inner-city mothers” and the previous section on how this lack of “dancing talk” is the cause of multigenerational entrapment: “the children of lower-income, poorly educated, inner-city parents are trapped in a multigenerational cycle of educational underachievement and poverty.” (p.153) While this might play a part, it is not the only piece of the poverty puzzle. What draws me to a networked approach to solving problems is that there is never one cause and one solution. It is always more complicated than that. Also, “welfare families”? How old is this research!?! Hart & Risley (began research in 1965) and a reference to, which conveniently sells software, hardware, and courses to improve the language exposure during childhood to “close the achievement gap.” Hmmm… I smell a white upper class rat.

p.156 “Professional couples…often are so anxious to get back to their careers after childbirth that they hand their babies prematurely to caregivers whose responsibilities for multiple children give them bandwidth for little more than business talk.” I’m pretty sure it’s not exclusively because of being anxious for their careers. Let’s remember that the United States often has NO paid parental leave for either moms or dads, and when there is, it’s sometimes as little as 2 weeks or at most 6 weeks. Aside from paid leave, the cost of childcare is more than college tuition in some places. Slamming parents for not making better decisions ignores the principles of their own book about understanding the decisions that customers make rather than making assumptions. And while we’re at it, maybe instead of yet another suggestion for schools to fix the problem through some home economics classes, which we know is really directed at the girls, not the boys, and which we know won’t actually work, as this whole book as been trying to point out, how about we focus on affordable health care that pays for prenatal visits and delivery in a hospital; quality, affordable childcare for whenever parents choose or need to go back to work; and a little less ignorant judgement on the part of the authors.

p.160 I thought finally they were going to talk about participatory cultures and connected learning! Nope.

p.174-5 In an interesting juxtaposition, the authors cite the Big Picture schools, which use project based learning and student teams, held up as a model for “integrated” experiences, then computer-based learning, which is about delivering content in a competency-based, self-paced, continuously assessed way. Big Picture, to me, feels very relationship and interpersonal based, whereas the computer-based learning seems much more individualistic, both person and content-wise. Also, I wonder how the Big Picture schools would stand up in a double blind, “gold standard” study?

p.223 “Districts should see chartered schools as heavyweight research and development laboratories whose charter, in essence, is to help the district match a school typology with students in a given circumstance.” I’m continually disappointed by the failure of the authors to address issues of equity and access. The idea of classifying students according to some schema, which they mention as multiple intelligences repeatedly thorough the book, smacks of tracking and/or the other many ways that discrimination happens. I’m not ready to commit to multiple intelligences as a way to sort children. It’s just not that simple.

p.224 “Rather than view [chartered schools, such as KIPP] as competitors that are to be isolated, district schools need to monitor the success of chartered schools so that they can define the circumstance for which each different architecture is the superior solution.” Well, maybe the chartered schools could share some of their data and/or access to understanding their school? Also, let’s not assume they are successful before we have evidence, shall we? Particularly in this chapter, I’m surprised they haven’t brought up New Orleans at all. My understanding there is that it’s now all charter schools there and students basically apply to which one they think will work best for their child rather than having a neighborhood school. I’ve also heard that it isn’t working out well, particularly for students with special education needs.

p.224 “Viewing chartered and pilot schools – mostly aimed at reaching the underserved segment of the market…” Are they though? My recollection of the New Orleans charters says that they’re not serving special education students well. Can you site something that gives evidence that charters are about underserved populations? What exactly do you mean by “underserved”? Is this by low socioeconomic status? race? English-speaking? special education?

p.230 diagram of tools of governance that can elicit cooperation

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p.235 The authors suggest that we have reached a point with schools where democracy will not work for change, so, as illustrated by the Chattanooga Schools, “mayors have taken direct control of their schools districts” and “appoint[ed] a superintendent who shared their same vision, and the superintendent did not have to worry about pleasing disparate school board members who have competing visions for reform…. [I]n many ways, many of the structures of democracy no longer stand in the way.” This concerns me on two levels. First, the replacement of a public, democratic, educational system, once called the foundation of our society, by benevolent non-educator dictators? Second, I believe in a sort of fractal like alignment in culture for the different levels of education. If we want to live in a democracy, students need to learn to participate in civic life, to vote, to be engaged in community, and one way is for them to learn this is in schools. If we want teachers to teach this, they need to participate in a democratic organization so that their voices are heard, that they have representatives in governance. I don’t think we can reorganize schools from in an autocratic way from top down, ignoring the voices of teachers who are meant to carry out this work with students, and then expect them to cultivate a love of learning and civic engagement in their students.

Just one page later, the authors write, “Although better learning is the goal, states and districts cannot ‘enact’ better learning. All they can do is create the conditions that motivate teachers and students to do whatever it takes to get better results.” (p.236) Oh really? So now we should pay attention to teacher motivation?

“They haven’t made soccer practice virtual yet, but even that might be useful.” (p.242) Um, I’m pretty sure it’s called Fifa 15 on XBOX One.

They do not develop the modularity idea. They describe is as opposed to interdependent, where interdependent means that all the parts are dependent on each other, rather than something like a Dell computer which could be built of components bought from different sources. What would this look like in education? Is it just about having a clearer system of credits or badges that indicate which standards are mastered?

Their final recommendations to graduate schools of education includes “circumstance-based statements that will help us make much better progress in the years ahead as we learn what each individual student needs, not what works on average for students in a school” (p.248), yet they cite randomized controlled trials or double blind studies as “a significant step forward” (p.196) in their section on education research. They qualify this that this is the first step in their descriptive phase of the research pyramid that they propose, and that RCT should be a starting point to then investigate the anomalies, underlying conditions, or circumstances that affect those that respond or do not respond. I wish they could have given some examples here. I think I might need to read Meredith Honig’s book that they cite about education policy. Something I think they are missing, however, is that the methods for how you understand circumstances are not possible, in my growing understandings of how these things work, through RCT. You need qualitative researchers who do research from constructivist, post-modernist, and critical approaches. The questions asked by researchers in those paradigms allow us to understand people and learning.

As you can tell by my comments, I have a lot of objections to how this book is written and what is written in the book. What scares me is that this is stuff people outside of education really like: praise on the back book jacket includes Jeb Bush (presidential candidate), Joel Klein (Chancellor NYC DoE), and Jim Collins (business leadership writer). There is certainly wisdom to be learned from outside of education, and I will definitely take away from this book the ideas of targeting non-consumers and disruptive innovation, but I would hope my writing would never come across so insensitive nor so dismissive of an entire field of work that I do not even work in.

Continue reading “Book Notes & Thoughts: Disrupting Class”

Book Notes & Thoughts: Where Good Ideas Come From


I’m not sure what is more geeky: my favorite chemistry graph itself or the fact that I have one. But seriously, the phase diagram is so elegant! In one picture, it explains how temperature and pressure relate to the states of matter. The lines are phase transitions (like condensation, sublimation, and solidification), interesting edges for investigation to understand how the particles behave.

What does this have to do with my reading? Steven Johnson, in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, draws from many examples of innovation across history and across disciplines, many of which are from science, but in particular he uses the analogy of “liquid networks.” In a liquid, there is enough structure for particles to mix and combine but enough energy for them to move around and slide past each other whereas in a solid they would just be stuck in place and in a gas they would collide and fly away. In his analogy, the particles in a liquid social network are ideas and people.

Continue reading “Book Notes & Thoughts: Where Good Ideas Come From”

Reflections on “Blueprint for Armageddon”, WWI podcast series by Dan Carlin @hardcorehistory

Podcast “cover” artwork for the first episode.

Over the past three weeks, I’ve been listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast series entitled “Blueprint for Armageddon.” With six episodes and over 22 hours total, it was a major undertaking. And I don’t didn’t even like history! Like a good story teller does, he pulls you in and weaves a tale that you want to listen to, almost regardless of the content. But in the process, I became fascinated with the war itself, the technological changes, and the process of trying to imagine what it was like on the ground and what it was like to be alive and in the world at that time.

I think like most Americans who experience the normal high school curriculum, my experience with learning World War I was  in March/April of my sophomore year, at which point we highlighted enough major details (trench warfare, Wilson’s 14 points, Entente vs. Allies) in order to understand the seeds of World War II. We would move on quickly to World War II, which ran into the last weeks of the year and the cold war/60s/70s/80s were oh-by-the-way mentioned. You get the distinct message that WWI just isn’t worth focusing on, but in this (extensive) telling of the story, I was amazed at how, on many fronts other than just military history like the development of technology and social movements, this war set up not just WWII but an entire era that affects our beliefs today. Continue reading “Reflections on “Blueprint for Armageddon”, WWI podcast series by Dan Carlin @hardcorehistory”

Book Notes & Thoughts: Connected

Connected: How your friends’ friends’ friends affect everything you feel, think, and do, by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler.

My summer reading list is quite long… I hope I’ll get to read and blog all of them, so here we are, starting strong, with the first one: Connected. As per usual, this is not a formal essay on the book but rather some quotes I thought were interesting and my reflections on reading.

  1. Networks as a “superorganism.” (p.xvi) This makes sense to me. The properties of the network that are emergent. They don’t exist in the individuals but exist only in the relationships of the parts. This book is a study of the structure and function of human networks. What’s the point? If we understand this, we can use a networked approach to understand and solve problems. This is hopefully where my doctoral research is heading within the context of education.
  2. Network diagrams are really beautiful pictures (p.12), but it’s quite hard to determine their shape. Yet determining the shape is important because we affect it and it affects us. Mobile technologies and interesting websites (like give interesting insights, but it’s never complete. Yet somehow I feel like this is the size of the ruler and coastline paradox. Networks are infinitely complex, so what’s actually important is knowing how you bring it into focus. I’ve thought some about open and closed networks this year with my Carnegie reading and summit, and that’s one of the things I continue to find interesting. Open networks allow space for innovation but closed networks give you the feedback you need to understand your participation.
  3. “Social networks, it turns out, tend to magnify whatever they are seeded with.” (p. 31) Hmmm… this sounds very powerful and very scary.
  4. There are several interesting chapters about characterizing the shape of networks through tracking diseases and money, among other things. I was most interested when they began talking about networking creativity. (p.162) In an analysis of Broadway musicals that succeed or fail, researcher Uzzi (1996) concludes that teams who had never worked together failed because they were not well enough connected but teams where everyone had worked together also failed, presumably because there were no interesting ideas. Ultimately, he concluded that there was a sweet spot with diversity of new people and stability of previous relationships. This has significant implications for how one might about assembling a team of people to work on a project together.
  5. Possibly my favorite chapter was “It’s in Our Nature” with the biologist in me coming out. I find fascinating the idea that we have evolved a society where there is a balance between the number of cooperators, free loaders, and punishers. Robert Axelrod’s study of a cooperative strategy, where you cooperate the first time, see what people do, and then copy what they do after that (i.e. if they don’t cooperate, you won’t cooperate again, but if they do cooperate, you will again). This might be a mechanism by which humans tested out a strategy and then evolved cooperative societies or doomed them to not survive. The punishers enforce social norms for people who try to free load on the system. All these roles together, Hauert and his colleagues showed, would produce the conditions where you have a mixture of these three types of people that was always in flux. Maybe I should have been a sociologist, except that I always want to know how we apply this information. I think it comes down to understanding that there are different roles in a network. As the authors say, “some people will be well connected to the social network, and others – the loners – will not.” (p.221) So how you focus networked action must be based on the roles of the players in the network, the level of resolution you want to see, and structure of the network at that level.
  6. The Hyperconnected chapter is not that new anymore. As I was reading, this chapter could have been in a number of other books. What I did pick up here, though, is something that goes along with It’s Complicated, by danah boyd (which I wrote about here). It’s not that people are different today, but our new technologies have new affordances, and these affordances change what the behavior looks like, but not necessarily the motivators or biological drives. Another piece that I would argue is that the authors over-idealize the ability to assume an avatar and have it treated as just the avatar. I don’t remember and can’t find the source (so if you know it, please add in the comments) of where I read this, but the text that you type is gendered, from the structure of sentences, the frequency with which you agree with the other person, the way you frame questions or statements, the vocabulary choice: all of that is gendered and cultural. There is less distinction between you and your online avatar than I think they make it sound.
  7. The last chapter, The Whole is Great, gets as the good stuff, getting back to the human superorganism and what we do with all this information and understanding. Social networks do not belong to people – they are properties in between us – and we can share these as a resource for public good. Public goods are available to all and not diminished by people’s use, but they are difficult to start and maintain, mostly because it’s hard to get people to pay for them. Of course, the authors point out, not all networks produce good things, with obvious examples like drug or sex trafficking. The point that I took away here is that they need to be considered both as a factor and a resource. In education, this might be as simple as recognizing that the teachers are connected to each other, and this network will mediate whatever efforts are made to maintain or change schools. It also means that taking a networked approach is more than just “networking,” where you get a lot of people’s business cards at an event. Networked actions work with or build the structure and function of the social network, something that is already built into our lives. I find this approach hopeful, in that doing good work can be spread through a network and can positively affect friends’ friends’ friends.