Dare Mighty Things!

You may have seen this news article from the Guardian about the hidden message in the Perseverance parachute. As I am teaching a “Coding and Society” class to upper school students right now, I though we could use this as a real world example of decoding patterns.

The image of the parachute was capture during the descent.

I projected the image of the parachute on the whiteboard, and we drew the lines to isolate each color.

We built a spreadsheet to input the colors of each band and formulas to convert the color into a sequence of 0s and 1s, then convert those to 10 digit binary numbers, then the binary number to a decimal, and finally used the ASCII (pronounced “Ask-ey”) table to convert to a letter. A student in the class figured out that you can use the formula =char() to convert the number for you so you don’t have to use the table.

Students had the article, my slides, my spreadsheet, the internet, the answer. This wasn’t a test, but a fun way to work through how you could write an algorithm that goes from a color input to a text output. Feel free to make a copy of the spreadsheet and do the same with your students!

Dissertation Abstract

My dissertation, Solving Problems Together: Findings from the Early Stages of a Networked Improvement Community, is a three-article case study of the initial stages of a Networked Improvement Community built around the practices in personalized learning schools.

Networked Improvement Communities (NICs) are a type of research-practice partnership that tackle how to sustain and scale change across school communities. Research on how they are initiated is needed as this model is adapted across a range of contexts. Case studies in particular provide the depth of exploration to understand what aspects of the NIC model worked in a particular context, for whom, and under what conditions. This dissertation explores how the NIC initiation team designed processes to identify a common problem of practice, to allow participants to share their expertise, and to facilitate trust-building interactions. I argue that a key task for NIC initiation is to design processes that facilitate the kinds of collective problem solving needed for large-scale change. This contributes to the framework for NIC initiation (Russell et al., 2017) and research on research-practice partnerships more generally (Coburn & Penuel, 2016).

In 2011, Tony Bryk, Louis Gomez, and Alicia Grunow proposed a new model for improving educational systems at scale: the Networked Improvement Community (NIC). A NIC is described as a social reorganization of research and development (R&D) activities. They argue that R&D needs a new approach to tackle the complex and systemic nature of the problems that schools face. NICs aim to (1) identify and understand the problem that needs solving, (2) bring together a “diverse colleagueship of expertise” (Bryk & Gomez, 2007, p.19), including researchers and practitioners, and (3) structure the social arrangements through a disciplined inquiry approach called improvement science. In contrast with traditional R&D, NICs are explicitly driven by problems, rather than theory; begin with small, iterative testing, to learn from the variation in outcomes (LeMahieu et al., 2017); and achieve scale by the coordination and combination of these small tests through network partners from different contexts. With growing interest in the implementation of networked improvement nationally and internationally, how to initiate this model with integrity is critical (Russell et al., 2017).

Each article then takes up one of the three guiding questions set forth by Bryk and colleagues (2011): what problem(s) are we trying to solve?, whose expertise is needed to solve these problems?, and what are the social arrangements that will enable this work? As the authors note, these three questions are seemingly straightforward, but have complex answers in how NICs are implemented in the real world. As such, the goal of this dissertation is to illuminate how NICs are an achievable, social reorganization of R&D and research at the network level can produce know-how for getting ideas into action.

These three questions are each taken up one article of this dissertation and connected to a different aspect of the NIC initiation framework (Figure 1) through the instrumental case student of PiPNIC, the Personalization in Practice – Networked Improvement Community. The first article examines how the PiPNIC initiation team identified a problem of practice in listening to educators and educational leaders across the state. Drawing on qualitative data, the analysis traces how the activities of the initiation team narrowed the problem space and selected a problem of practice. The second article examines how the NIC activities supported participants in sharing their problem-based expertise, illustrating how the design of the NIC activities created the conditions for ideas to be generated, selected, and integrated through the coupling of network and team design tasks. Finally, the third article explores how collaborative design fostered help-based interactions, and how these social arrangements may provide the conditions for participants to build the relational trust necessary to solve hard problems. Each article addresses practical and theoretical considerations for initiating NICs.

The three articles come together around the same phenomenon (initiating a NIC), yet each makes distinct methodological and theoretical contributions. By organizing this inquiry as an instrumental case study, the goal is to produce insight in the spirit of continuous improvement, rather than an evaluation of whether NICs “work.” As such, this case contributes to the collective effort to leverage the wisdom of research, practice, and design knowledge to improve educational systems for each and every student they serve and for the people who work in them.


Bryk, A. S., & Gomez, L. (2007). Ruminations on Reinventing an R&D Capacity for Educational Improvement. Paper Presented at the American Enterprise Institute Conference, “The Supply Side of School Reform and the Future of Educational Entrepreneurship,” 1–44. Accessed: January 14, 2019.

Bryk, A. S., Gomez, L. M., & Grunow, A. (2011). Getting ideas into action: Building networked improvement communities in education. Frontiers in sociology of education. 1, 127-162.

Coburn, C. E., & Penuel, W. R. (2016). Research–practice partnerships in education: Outcomes, dynamics, and open questions. Educational Researcher, 45(1), 48-54.

LeMahieu, P.G., Grunow, A., Baker, L., Nordstrum, L., Gomez, L.M. (2017). Networked improvement communities: The discipline of improvement science meets the power of networks. Quality Assurance in Education, 25(1), 5-25.

Russell, J. L., Bryk, A. S., Dolle, J., Gomez, L. M., LeMahieu, P., & Grunow, A. (2017). A Framework for the Initiation of Networked Improvement Communities. Teachers College Record, 119(7).

Presentation Zen, by Garr Reynolds

Coexist. Flickr by Robert Engberg.

Communicating ideas is fundamental to my work (and most people’s, I suppose). So when Jennifer Gonzalez, over at The Cult of Pedagogy, did a post about Presentation Zen, I knew I needed to read it. I create slide decks for the classes I teach, the conferences I present at, the dissertation I will eventually defend…

“A good oral presentation is different than a well-written document, and attempts to merge them result in poor presentations and poor documents” (p.13).

Based on Dan Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind, Reynolds writes about six aptitudes: design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning.

Design starts at the beginning: “consider your topic and your objectives, your key messages, and your audience. Only then will you begin to sketch out ideas that will appear in some digital visual form later” (p.16). Continue reading “Presentation Zen, by Garr Reynolds”

Post-Semester Teaching Reflections

Screen Shot 2019-05-13 at 12.06.57 PM
From Getting Ideas Into Action (Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, 2011)

A week before this semester began, I was asked to teach ELPA 875, Theory and Practice in Educational Planning. This post is a summary and brief reflection of this experience and how I might improve the course in the future. The image above was a focal diagram that we returned to throughout the semester. The PDSA image comes from

Course Theme

Broadly, this is a class about planning for and effecting change in an organization. Through the lens of trying to impact change, we considered

  • Scale – district, building, classroom, learner. For example, we explored how defining problems at a large scale, such as the achievement gap, can make them feel unsurmountable and consequently disconnected from daily work. We worked to define problems in a way that was connected to our daily work and aligned with organizational goals.
  • Design – we talked about a design strategy of starting with small, iterative testing rather than large-scale changes all at once; seeing the system that produces undesired results; and considered the importance of including different perspectives – not just to be “midwest nice” – but because no one person can see all the pieces of a system,
  • Change as relational – bringing people together to solve common problems can be the work that builds a positive culture where people trust and support each other.

Continue reading “Post-Semester Teaching Reflections”

Book notes & thoughts: Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, by Jerome Bruner (1986)


Actual Minds, Possible Worlds is a book that has been on my reading list for a long time, and this weekend, for whatever particular reason, I decided to pick it up. The relevance to my research was immediate, and in some ways I’m glad I waited so long to read it, because it actually make sense to me now.

Bruner is describing two schools of narrative analysis. First, there are the academic psychologists, who take a top-down approach. They come at understanding narrative “from a theory about story, about mind, about writers, about readers. The theory may be anchored wherever: in psychoanalysis, in structural linguistics, in a theory of memory, in the philosophy of history. Armed with an hypothesis, the top-down partisan swoops on this text and that, searching for instances (and less often counter-instances) of what he hopes will be a right ‘explanation’. In skilled and dispassionate hands, it is a powerful way to work. It is the way of the linguist, the social scientist, and of science generally, but it instills habits of work that always risk producing results that are insensitive to the contexts in which they were dug up. It partakes of one of the modes of thought to which I shall turn in the next chapter – the paradigmatic.” 

Second, there are the playwrights, post, novelists, critics, editors. These are the “bottom-up partisans [who] march to a very different tune. Their approach is focused on a particular piece of work: a story, a novel, a poem, even a line. They take it as their morsel of reality and explore it to reconstruct or deconstruct it. They are in search of the implicit theory… the effort is to read a text for its meanings, and by doing so to elucidate the art of its author… Their quest is not to prove or disprove a theory, but to explore the world of a particular literary work.”

Partisans of the top-down approach bewail the particularity of those who proceed bottom-up. The latter deplore the abstract nonwriterliness of the former. The two do not, alas, talk much to each other… Nor can I [argue] that when we know enough, the two approaches will fuse. I do not think so. The most that I can claim is that, as with the stereoscope, depth is better achieved by looking from two points as once.”


This first chapter, to me, speaks of the divide between research and practice in education. To the educator, there is infinite complexity in their practice and context. This is their morsel to explore it to reconstruct and deconstruct it. They are immersed in the particulars. In contrast, academic researchers are concerned with the theories that explain across. Though Bruner calls these bottom-up vs. top-down, I like playing with terms like particular vs. general, or local vs. lateral. 

The concept of the stereoscope – to see, hear, and feel both perspectives at the same time – provides a new way to think about their resolution. I have read (and blogged) about research-practice partnerships and new models for bridging the research-practice gap. This seems an approach not so much to resolve them as to attune to each independently. But I guess I’ll learn more about it in the next chapters…

Books Notes & Thoughts: “So Good They Can’t Ignore You,” by Cal Newport


This summer I picked up a book that’s been on my “to read” list for quite awhile. I first heard about author and computer science professor Calvin Newport on an interview with Tim Ferriss, and the timing couldn’t have been better. This year is the last 500, the dissertation, the job market – a lot will likely change in the coming few months.

Newport’s focus of the book is to discover, “How do people end up loving what they do?” (p.199). Challenging the conventional wisdom to “follow your passion,” Newport instead argues that compelling careers emerge from “working right” rather than a soul-searching discovery of the “right work” (p.228). The title is from Steve Martin giving advice for people who want to make it in show business.

What I appreciate about the book is that in proposing this thesis, Newport then articulates how he puts his principles into practice in his own career. So while I’m not going to summarize his argument against the “follow your passion” advice here, but do the same “lifestyle design” with what I’ve learned to how I will organize my work in this year. Continue reading “Books Notes & Thoughts: “So Good They Can’t Ignore You,” by Cal Newport”

Reflections on #CarnegieSummit V


Another April escape to the West Coast! With a snowstorm rolling in as my flight took off for San Francisco, I was relieved and excited to be on my way to my fourth Carnegie Summit, this time as a session and poster presenter.

In this post,

  1. Carnegie has the best keynotes
  2. How are we building educational systems for the future?
  3. Who should be recruited to participate in a NIC and how are they engaged?
  4. Games to teach improvement science? Yes!

1. The Carnegie Summit has the best keynotes. I have vivid memories of listening to Marshall Ganz, Hahrie Hahn, Bryan Stephenson, Peter Senge, and Jeff Duncan-Andrade. I’ve rewatched Tony Bryk’s talk from last year, in which he outlined the problems with educational research and reminded us that in a democracy, the production of knowledge cannot be relegated to an elite few, which is why improvement needs center the voices of teachers and students.

Continue reading “Reflections on #CarnegieSummit V”

Podcasting for the New Books Network


Last summer I started co-hosting on the Education channel of the New Books Network (which I wrote about here). It’s taken a little while to get my own set up for podcasting, but I think I’m ready to roll, hosting my first online interview tomorrow morning. Here’s the new set up:

  • Yeti USB condenser microphone – new in the box for $80 on craigslist
  • Sennheiser HD 206 headphones – about $30 on Amazon
  • Skype – free download
  • Zencastr – free, web-based platform, hobbyist account

Today I spent some time prepping my set up. I found some online video tutorials, including one specifically about microphone use, and ones specific to podcasting with the yeti. I’ll admit, I didn’t know which was the front or back of the mic (volume dial should be facing me), nor did I know whether it should be upright or tilted (upright), nor did I know what “gain” is (how sensitive the mic is to picking up sound)! I have no background in recording, so this is all new to me.

My plan is to start the interview via Skype, go over the way the interview will proceed, then ask the other person to mute their Skype mic and audio and open the Zencastr link. Zencastr creates two audio files, one for each person, then zips them together once the recording is over. This avoids the audio “hand off” jumps that happen in regular video chats.

Continue reading “Podcasting for the New Books Network”

Book Notes & Thoughts: Strangers, by Hochschild


Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild

This book isn’t exactly related to my personal research, though understanding the cultural and political landscape of America is always important in locating my own work. I actually decided to read this through a recommendation from my mom (Hi, Mom!) on GoodReads. She is a voracious reader and regular user on GoodReads, so I finally decided to join her. I logged in, followed her, then look through the books she had read and wanted to read. I suggested we read a book together, and picked this one out from her “want to read” list. Today I marked it as “read,” although I declined to write a review. My mom is much better about doing that than I am!

We both got the book from our local libraries, and checked in with each other’s progress along the way. The narrative of the book was perfectly woven somewhere between an academic ethnography and popular non-fiction. Hochschild takes the reader to rural Louisiana and explores the “keyhole issue”: the environment. Rather than take on an issue that is classed, where people of middle- to high-economic status clearly benefit and low-economic status do not, Hochschild chooses the environment as an issue that affects us all. Her driving question was to explore how people reconcile their vote in favor of the Tea Party and the environmental destruction from deregulated industries, such as Shell, Gasol, Pittsburgh Plate Glass, and Citgo, among many others.

Hochschild writes about the “empathy wall” that stands between the right and the left. I appreciated her honest and aware internal dialogue as she questioned responses from locals that felt illogical to her. She interrogated their politics, cultural beliefs, religion, gender identities, the role of work, belief about what it means to be American, viewpoints on immigration, and each other. She uses the analogy of “standing in line” to describe what it feels like to be marching forward toward “progress” and the American Dream, which is just over the top of hill. We were all “in line”, with white men at the front, but the civil war, the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, immigration and refugees, has been the government helping other people “cut” in line. Along with the sense of cutting comes the injustice and feeling of having been in line and followed the cultural norms of working hard and patiently waiting for rewards due. The (undeserving) cutters are not working hard and asking the government to push them ahead. This sentiment is the source of distrust and resentment toward government involvement.

Along with this is the cultural erosion of society as it was when “the line” was in tact (i.e. pre-Civil War? I’m not sure when the locals in this book would go back to.). I didn’t take any notes on this book, but I wanted to quote one long passage from near the end of the book that resonated with me:

But without a national vision based on the common good, none of us could leave a natural heritage to our children, or, as the General said, be ‘free.’ A free market didn’t make us a free people, I thought. But I had slipped way over to my side of the empathy wall again.

Mike agreed with a smidgen of this – a skeleton crew at the EPA, maybe. But the EPA was grabbing authority and tax money to take on a fictive mission, he felt – lessening the impact of global warming. This was just another excuse to expand, like governments do…..

In fact, after the 2009 government bailout of failing banks, companies, and home owners, the federal government seemed to side with yet more line cutters. Now debtors, too, were cutting ahead of people and the federal government was inviting them to do so. This was a strange new expression of social conflict, undeclared, appearing on a new stage, with various groups undefined by class per se – blacks, immigrants, refugees – mixed in. And by proxy, the federal government was the enemy.

And on the personal side, there was one more thing – the federal government wasn’t on the side of men being manly. Liberals were certainly on the wrong side of that one. It wasn’t easy being a man. It was an era of numerous subtle challenges to masculinity, it seemed. These days a woman didn’t need a man for financial support, for procreation, even for the status of being married. And now with talk of transgender people, what, really, was a man? It was unsettling, wrong. At the core, to be a man you had to be willing to lose your life in battle, willing to use your strength to protect the weak. Who today was remembering all that? Marriage was truly between a man and a woman, Mike felt. Clarity about one’s identity was a good thing, and the military had offered that clarity, he felt, even as it offered gifted men of modest backgrounds a pathway to honor. Meanwhile, the nearly all-male areas of life – the police, the fire department, parts of the U.S. military, and the oil rigs – need defending against this cultural erosion of manhood. The federal government, the EPA, stood up for the biological environment, but it was allowing – and it seemed at times it was causing – a cultural erosion. What seemed to my Tea Party friends to be dangerously polluted, unclean, and harmful was American culture. And against that pollution, the Tea Party stood firm. (p.202-203)

This book gave me a lot to think about in this political and cultural moment, and I’ll leave it at that.

Article Thoughts: Interaction Analysis, by Jordan and Henderson (1995)


Image from

After reading Simon’s Sciences of the Artificial last week, my advisor recommended I read Interaction Analysis, a classic Learning Sciences article by Brigitte Jordan and Austin Henderson, published in 1995. It takes stock of the way that video recordings are being used in qualitative research to study the interaction amongst people and with their work/life/learning artifacts. It draws on a number of different fields, but particularly from health care, education, and the computer industry.

I was particularly looking for ideas of artifacts and representation, primed from Simon, and made notes throughout about how I could use this in the research design of my dissertation. I had intended to take a couple notes in my new “dissertation reading notes” Google document, but ended up with a long list of quotes and thoughts!

Continue reading “Article Thoughts: Interaction Analysis, by Jordan and Henderson (1995)”