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

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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.”

 p.10

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…

Book Notes & Thoughts: An Elusive Science, by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann

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Every time I go to a conference, I try to bring a book to read, usually one that has been sitting on my shelf waiting for me. The book fills those little in-between moments of travel waiting in line or on the plane, downtime after sessions finish, or in the quiet time before bed when there are no children to be tucked in. This time it was An Elusive Science: The Troubling History of Education Research, by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, former Harvard GSE dean and current research professor at Bard College. This was a nice follow up to reading and blogging about Reese’s history of K-12 schools, as that provided the context for Lagemann’s history of what was happening in research. As I become a member of this research community, this book gave me the historical perspective of my field.

My advisor, Rich Halverson, and Erica Halverson quote Lagemann in their chapter in the Sage Handbook, Education as Design for Learning, A Model for Integrating Education Inquiry Across Research Traditions. This was one of the foundation articles in how I think about education research. They draw on Lagemann to understand the foundations of educational research. As I try to formulate my own schema for situating design, improvement & innovation, and educational research & development, I wanted to understand the history of the field.

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Book Notes & Thoughts: America’s Public Schools, by William Reese

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America’s Public Schools: From the Common School to “No Child Left Behind,” by William J. Reese, 2011.

I subscribe to Larry Cuban’s blog, which means I get an email every few days with his historian perspective on new initiatives like Personalized Learning or Coding for All. As I work on my research to understand how change does (or does not) happen in education, I felt like some historical context might provide perspective on the conversations I am having today.

William Reese is a professor here at UW-Madison in Education Policy Studies and History, though I’ve not had the opportunity to take a class with him. I had previously read Pillars of the Republic, by Karl Kaestle and Shopping Mall High School, by Powell Farrar and Cohen, but I was particularly interested in this book about the more recent times of NCLB. Nonetheless, I learned much about the progressive era, Dewey, curriculum, urban vs. rural schools, and the wrestling of a common goal for public schools. One of the key trends that was new to me was the consistent assumption that held up urban schools as the ideal and rural schools as backwards. This is written as the dominant narrative of public schools, with some attention paid to integration orders after Brown v. Board and the different experiences of non-white and poor students in schools.

p. 13-14. “School-houses and churches are the true symbols of New England civilization, as temples, pyramids and mausoleums were the symbols of ancient civilizations,’ declared a college professor at mid[19th-]century…. Schools, he said, were not like clocks, once wound ticking of their own accord; someone needed to operate and guide them. Moreover, ‘no reform is carried in the State or the world without a reformer. Improvements originate with original minds, and are usually presented to the people by interested advocates.”

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Book Notes & Thoughts: Organization Theory

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Over the last few days, I read a textbook. And if I’m honest, I loved it. Graduate school continues to feel like a privilege and a luxury, to learn about ideas that I find interesting, do engaging and meaningful work with teachers and other researchers, and try my best to write in a way that captures my thinking.

I remember a high school English teacher telling me that the easiest (and therefore worst) way to write a summary is to do so chronologically: “And then, and then, and then.” It’s the easiest to write, because it’s also the easiest way to understand. This is what I needed to wrap my head around organization theory, which I want to use for the conceptual framework for my dissertation.

This book, Organization Theory, by Mary Jo Hatch, gave me an entry point into the scope of study, both chronologically (from classical, modern, symbolic/interpretive, to post-modern) and topically (core concepts, decision making, power, politics, change, and learning). Not only did this give me an entry point into this field, but it also allowed me to see where my interests are. What does thinking about schools through the lens allow me to see, understand, and say? And of course, how do I limit my view by seeing it through these theories?

Classical period, 1900 onward; Modern, 1950s onward; Symbolic/Interpretive, 1980s onward; Post-Modern, 1990s onward. Theory = a system of ideas; Social theory = a perspective on reality. Continue reading “Book Notes & Thoughts: Organization Theory”

Book Notes & Thoughts: Going to Scale with New School Designs: Reinventing high school

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As part of our personalized learning in practice study, we visited, studied, and worked with a number of small district charter schools across Wisconsin. We talked a lot about High Tech High and Big Picture Schools. When I found this book (again, perusing the education stacks), it was in the area that I am thinking about: scale, design, and new models for learning. Reading it gave me a window into how to do education research at an organizational level.

Going to Scale with New School Designs: Reinventing High School, by McDonald, Klein, Riordan (2009).

The late 1990s was a time when the small school movement was rising, and there was interest and support for restructuring. This was the time of charters and vouchers, with the idea of choices and new designs. Similar to the Improvement by Design, this book is largely a story of the challenges of replication. In fact, they are an interesting (though unintended) juxtaposition. Whereas the goal of CSR was to replicate large traditional schools, the goal of “going to scale” with Big Picture was to replicate small, instructionally innovative schools. But their questions for inquiry are quite similar: how to install and support their design across contexts?, what challenges might be expected? how to manage these? what are the roles of the designer and client?

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Book Notes & Thoughts: Change Leader, by Fullan

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Next up on the read it and return it list is Change Leader: Learning to Do What Matters Most, by Michael Fullan (2011). This book was cited in something I read and I happened to be wandering the education stacks (yes, some people still do this) and I picked it up. I was curious about the first chapter: Practice Drives Theory: Doing is the crucible of change. Definitely in my court.

“All the best concepts to be deeply experientially grounded.” (p. xi) This book comes after Fullan worked on whole-system reform, engaging with practitioners and policymakers to change large, complex education systems. “The most effective leaders use practice as their fertile learning ground. They never go from theory to practice or research evidence to application. They do it the other way around: they try to figure out what’s working, what could be working better, and then look into how research and theory might help.” (p.xii)

  • “Doing is the crucible of change” (p.3)
  • “Effective change leaders … walk into the future through examining their own and others’ best practices, looking for insights they had hitherto not noticed” (p.11)
  • adaptive challenge (require new discoveries and behavioral change) vs. technical problems (we know the answer, solution just needs to be applied) (p.17-18)
  • “balance between capacity building and accountability interventions” (p.19)

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Book Notes & Thoughts: Improvement by Design

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It’s been awhile… I think every blogger goes through a spell when it’s really hard to write. In January, I set out a writing plan for the spring, which involved blogging a book per week. Easy, right? I made it through the first month, but the blogging never happened. And now I’m in a total writing block, unable to tap out the literature review that is past due! So, my goal is to get back in the saddle, as they say, and use this for what it’s always been good for: making me write, organize my thoughts, and document my work. I’ve pulled down all the books off my shelf from the library that I’ve read (okay, skimmed) over the past few years. In the next few days, they are going to get reviewed and returned. Forward progress and decluttering!

The first book is Improvement By Design: The Promise of Better Schools, by Cohen, Peurach, Glazer, Gates, and Goldin (2014). I’m all about improvement these days, heading to present a poster at the Carnegie Summit in a week, and I also am increasingly sold on the idea of education as the design for learning, which I wrote about LOOOONG ago, in the days before I did this reading and thinking for a living. So naturally, when I saw the title, I was intrigued.

I’m really curious right now about how people are using words around educational reform right now. The contents of the book talk about improvement, implementation, suitability, and building systems. Interestingly they do NOT say innovation, which is what I usually put alongside improvement. Here are MY definitions of a few terms:

  • Improvement – making the system better
  • Systemic Improvement – using a systems approach to make the system work better
  • Innovation – creative application of a new-to-you idea
  • Infrastructuring – the process of creating the connections, relationships, individual knowledge, and agency for change (based loosely on definitions from Penuel, 2015, and DiSalvo & DiSalvo, 2015)

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