Book Notes & Thoughts: Research and Practice in Education, by Cynthia E. Coburn and Mary Kay Stein


I have a new strategy for literature reviews, which is how I found this book. Basically I find the people whose ideas I’m interested in and then find everything they’ve written. This past summer, I read a white paper by Coburn, Penuel, and Geil (2013) called Research-Practice Partnerships: A strategy for leveraging research for educational improvement in school districts. Right up my alley. Loved it. So I went in search of what else the authors do and have done.

First, Bill Penuel is a research at UC-Boulder. During my design-based research class this fall I had to research and present a DBR project, so I used the opportunity to read about Penuel’s work with InquiryHub and learned about DBIR (design-based implementation research). Starting with the person gave me a window into the current research conversations rather than simply past published work.

Cynthia Coburn was another author on the article, so I went looking for her other publications and found this book of case studies. It is divided into four sections: university-school partnerships, tools, larger scale networks, and district-level partnerships.

The three chapters on the role of tools used concepts from some of my previous reading, such as Wenger’s Communities of Practice, which I wrote about here and here, or Star’s boundary objects, which I had read about in the DBIR work. Getting to see how these ideas are APPLIED and written about is critical, I think, in my development as a scholar.

Ikemoto and Honig write about the Institute for Learning and how an intermediary organization can partner with teachers to improve student learning. While IFL itself is interesting, what I learned most from this chapter was how to apply a sociocultural learning perspective to ground the analysis of their research. They specifically look at how tools of the program, such as IFL’s Principles of Learning or their LearningWalk protocol. Interestingly, I think there is a difference in what they refer to as tools and what some refer to as artifacts.

In the aforementioned DBR class this fall, I heard many times about LeTUS, and getting to read the meta-description and analysis of the project answered many of my questions about it, continuing to fill in my understanding of the research-practice landscape.

My favorite chapter was the one about a larger scale: the National Writing Project (NWP). Laura Stokes applies Englebart (1992)’s organizational levels of infrastructure to the theory of action of the NWP. This is the same conceptual framework that is used to describe Networked Improvement Communities work (Bryk, Gomez, and Grunow, 2011) and will inform my spring research project studying a regional network. If I hadn’t been reading every chapter, I would have missed this connection.

Stokes describes NWP as an “improvement infrastructure” and demonstrates how the design of the network acts at A, B, and C Levels to improve student and teacher writing. Stokes cites the key components of the infrastructure as its model, its linked local sites, its knowledge resources, its people and its programs. I like the visual they use to show the action levels of the Local NWP sites and NWP Network.


The key here is that work that learning that happens at Level A accrues to the network, so individual pockets of teachers are not rediscovering what the teachers at the school next door already know. I like to think of the infrastructure as a harness that links us all together so that as some move forward we are all drawn along. Your work improves my work and vice versa.

Side note: I have always LOVED that NWP requires its participants to do their own writing, such as having teachers actually write out answers to the prompts of the college entrance test (p.154). One of my firm beliefs is that teachers must continue to engage in learning what they are trying to teach. This is one of the reasons I like working at Field Day Lab, where teachers learn through designing.

The chapter about Lesson Study by Perry and Lewis was excellent, especially given my participation in a Critical Friends Group. I think if I were to be in charge of professional development at a school or district this is how I would want to approach it. They note that “lesson study is about the lesson, not about the teacher” (p.133), which aligns with some of the other reading I’ve been doing about professional development as improving teaching, not teachers (Hiebert & Morris, 2012).

The conceptual frame of this chapter, increasing the “demand” for professional development, was interesting. I’m not always a fan of use economics terms outside of economics, but I understand their application of Elmore (1996)’s use of the term. Note to self, must look up Elmore’s work.

In their concluding chapter, Coburn and Stein reflect on the implications of the case studies presented. One is that “designers should place renewed attention on teacher learning and organizational change” (p.217), with attention to how teachers “learn how to teach”. They cite the designs needed to harness the work of practitioners: tools to foster interaction, participation structures, and intentional pathways to connect research and research-based ideas. (p.219) Notably, at the school level, teachers need opportunities to experiment with new approaches AND discuss and adjust practice. I think we often do the first but not the second, and meaningful discussions do not happen by themselves, which is why I love the critical friends protocol.

All of the projects described in this book are multiyear, well funded initiatives. I have two thoughts about this. First, when I think about my career, ultimately I would want to build one of these networks or partnerships.But where do I focus – tools? teachers? districts? teacher education? intermediary organizations? policy? Furthemore, what implications does this have for the role I conceive of as a researcher? How does this match with the traditional role of a university professor, and is this the best job to achieve what I want to do? As they note, traditional scholarship often creates disincentives to do this kind of work. (p.224)

Second, when I think about the more immediate demands of a dissertation, I won’t be able to build a practice-partnership likes these, so perhaps I can concentrate on finding interesting networks or partnerships already in progress and study them. I have some ideas…

Overall, this book builds on my consistent interest in how schools change, and, in these chapters, it is through partnerships with researchers or outside organizations. The most valuable takeaway for me from this book was the value of reading (or at least skimming) every chapter, which is why I continue to prioritize the time to read and then write about my reading.


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