Book Notes & Thoughts: How Scholars Trumped Teachers, by Larry Cuban

phd082508sThis summer I had a long reading list… but my writing list had better deadlines. Inadvertently, I did manage to read this book, How Scholars Trumped Teachers, by Larry Cuban.

Larry Cuban is a Professor Emeritus of Education from Stanford University and very well known for his book (along with David Tyack) called Tinkering toward Utopia on school reform (or lack thereof). I found out that he had been posting on his blog about Personalized Learning, which we’ve also been studying. So I looked up his books and found this one and requested it from the library. But instead of sitting on my desk with all the other books from the library, I started reading it, even when I didn’t really have the time. (Sometimes I call this “productive procrastination.”)

In his book, he examines two questions:

  1. “Over the last century, how have university structures and processes, including curricular reform, influenced the academic work of research and teaching?”
  2. “Why has scholarship trumped teaching in universities?” (p.2)

Continue reading “Book Notes & Thoughts: How Scholars Trumped Teachers, by Larry Cuban”

Book Notes & Thoughts: The New Institutionalism in Education (2006), Edited by Heinz-Dieter Meyer and Brian Rowan

new institutionalism

Eight chapters into the book and I returned to the beginning to remind myself of the definition of “New Institutionalism.” Amazing how we can get lost in jargon and think we’re understanding what we read. Seriously though, the jargon in this field is terrific! Pages go by when I realize I don’t know what is being said. I know all the words, but not what they actually mean together. As always, this is why I blog, so that I have a chance to put my thoughts into words. It is this act that makes me clarify my thinking.

New institutionalism was a shift in how institutions were studied. Up until the 1970s, there was a focus on the goal of the institution and how it was structured. The people in it were considered rational actors. But researchers at Stanford began to notice that, in fact, institutions were “loosely coupled” (Weick), meaning that what was intended was not actually done. This has often been cited as the reason reforms don’t make an impact. I think of this like trying to move a mattress: you start to lift at one end but the other end is wobbling on its own accord. When we then look at schools today, they are actually quite tightly coupled between standards and assessments, though perhaps not in all realms. Spillane and Burch (chapter 6) write about make “instruction” less monolithic and breaking it down by subject, because math instruction might be tightly coupled with assessments, but social studies might not.

Stanford organization theory researchers proposed that actions taken followed myths and ceremonies, rather than rationality. For example, it might be in a teacher’s best interest to change how they teach because it would raise test scores, but they would reject it because it is not consistent with the mission of the school and would not be considered legitimate schooling by the public. I think of this in the case of Rocketship schools, where kids sit in cubicles staring at screens (or at least this is how it is described). This may improve test scores, but it is not seen widely as a legitimate form of education for all. Importantly, this is neither good nor bad. These practices are complex & contradictory, as Meyer and Rowan say in the introduction (p.11).

Continue reading “Book Notes & Thoughts: The New Institutionalism in Education (2006), Edited by Heinz-Dieter Meyer and Brian Rowan”

Book Notes & Thoughts: Educating Activist Allies


“There’s something sticky about privileged people studying injustice while participating in institutions garner the more advantage.”

How you teach and where you teach can powerfully undermine or reinforce what you teach.”

As part of my Ideology & Curriculum course this spring, I read this book by Katy Swalwell. The following is a version of the reflection that I wrote for the course, plus my reading notes afterwards.

While other books this semester were difficult to read in the sense that I had little previous experience with the material, this book was like reading about my own schooling and teaching experience. I was a teacher who was indifferent to “diversity” initiatives at first, then slowly intrigued, now actively engaged. For me, it was as part of teacher professional development that I came to reflect on and challenge my understandings of race and privilege. For this reason, it was odd to read this book as I felt like I was both the student and the teacher at Kent Academy. The analysis that Swalwell presents was educational for me both in my understanding of myself and of social justice education with privileged students.

“If we are to interrupt the reproduction of an equal opportunities and outcomes, we must understand how poverty is not just about poor people but about the relationship between people of all classes” (p.12). This quote has two aspects that I thought connected to our class: finding opportunities for interruption (linking to Educating the “Right” Way) and the structural approach of binaries (Bernstein). In other words, you cannot understand poor people without also examining non-poor. Continue reading “Book Notes & Thoughts: Educating Activist Allies”

Book Notes & Thoughts: The Shopping Mall High School, by Powell, Farrar, and Cohen

shopping mall high school

The semester is over, which means it’s time for reading! The summer around here is actually much busier than the semester, like trying to squeeze all the loose ends into the “free time” when you don’t have classes (oh wait, taking one class).

I’m really excited to geek out this summer about organizational theory. Seriously. I think I’ve gone from my first year “everything is novel and interesting” to my second year “I know what I’m not interested in anymore” and “I want to spend all of my time thinking about…” My advisor is stacking up the books for me to read, and my post today is from the first of those readings.

(As always, these thoughts are rough, non-linear, and littered with more questions than answers. I will say, though, that I have referred to these blog posts often as a way to remember what particular books or articles were about. This continues to be my commonplace book in the commons.)

The Shopping Mall High School: Winners and Losers in the Educational Marketplace was written in 1985 as part of a national study of high schools and is the second book in the series. In the introduction, the authors explain the analogy of the shopping mall:

  1. High schools accommodate the range of student needs by offering many options so they can achieve the result they want; there is “something for everybody” (p.2). There are four types of curricula: horizontal (different disciplines), vertical (levels of difficulty), extra-curricular (sports and other nonacademics), and social services (e.g. counseling).
  2. It is for students/families to choose their path, and thus not the school’s responsibility. Schools do not tell kids what to do. If they are happy, they will stay. If they stay, they will graduate.

The authors call these “treaties,” i.e. the compromises made to reach passing grades. “Learning is not discounted or unvalued, but it is profoundly voluntary” (p.4).

David Cohen wrote chapter 5, Origins, focusing on a history of the high school in two periods, 1890 to pre-WWII and the 50s to the 80s.Before starting graduate school, I read Kaestle’s Pillars of the Republic, which was 1790-1860, so this chapter almost picked up right where that left off.

The big debates were between 1) intellectual rigor and the perceived lack of ability by the masses of students enrolling, and 2) whether the curriculum should be academic or practical.

  • “Between them, Elliot and Hall had politely laid out the greatest issue that divided American educators at the time: could all students be expected to pursue an intellectually demanding program of academic study, or should most be given an easier and more practical curriculum? This question was full of implications for schools and for political democracy, but it was quickly settled – in Hall’s favor” (for the practical curriculum) (p.243), and by the 1930s this was in place.
  • “American educators quickly built a system around the assumption that students didn’t have what it took to be serious about the great issues of human life, and that even if they had the wit, they had neither the will nor the futures that would support heavy duty study” (p.244).
  • “Many educators argued that schools had to tie their work to new developments in American society: rapid industrialization, a knowledge explosion, and the efficient style of great corporations” (p.247)
  • “A new organization for high schools would help to turn educators into captains of industry and respected liters of society” (p.248).

Choice is something I’ve been interested in along with the research I’ve done on personalized learning. Many seem to think this is the first time we’ve given students choices, but not so:

  • “Student choice was an essential development in the new system. Reformers argue that students ought to be able to select their courses, and, within limits set by test scores and counselors’ opinions, to select the curriculum in which they would work” (p.258).
  • Choice was not a new idea, Harvard president Elliott had introduced an elective system, and Dewey had also urged educators to have a curriculum that got students interested. Dewey also worried about choices and curriculum, and argued against the “vocationalized and stratified offerings” (p.258-259) Dewey wanted to “marry quality and equality” and choice is not available to all students. Interestingly, it was actually students in the academic track who had less choice in terms of the number of academic courses relative to the vocational tracks.

Of key difference here, however, is that choice is used to keep students in school and to shift responsibility onto the student and the teacher.

I learned that it was not that schools or society wanted to educate everyone: it was a massive increase in enrollment as a result of the financial crises of the 1890s and lack of economic options for adolescents. They were in school because there was no work. So the schools compromised – gave them an easy path to graduation and tried to entice them to learn something along the way. From the beginning, it wasn’t about academics.

“So far, our picture of the high schools’ response to mass enrollment suggests a curious mixture of hope and despair. From one angle the reforms describe just above added up to a massive revision of educational substance and standards, all of it designed to cope with the deluge of students who were believed to be incapable of serious academic work. But the reforms were not an exercise and cynicism. There was 1 billion enthusiasm for the good work that schools would do with the new students. High schools would serve democracy by offering usable study so everyone, rather than dwelling on ab academic abstractions that would interest only a few. It was easy to ignore the great inequalities in what students would learn – for a booming economy needed clerks as much as it needed corporate executives. The reformers’ vision combined deep pessimism about most students is academic capacities with high optimism about schools is capacity to do good” (p.259-260).

“If most students were as incapable as reformers believed, how can we explain the reformers’ astonishing faith in the schools power to redeem them?” (p.260). This quote has interesting resonance with Can Education Change Society?, by Michael Apple, which we read at the end of our class this spring. Clearly we still grapple with whether schools are agentic institutions.

Cohen’s perspective on this: “The answer lies, first, and the simple fact that the reformers were pedagogues…. Second, these educators had been raised in the faith of Horace Mann. Most were small town men, drawn from the protestant heart of the country, where a belief in education’s saving power had deep religious as well as political roots. If education is America’s civic religion these men were among its leading evangelists, struggling to build institutions that would bring the untutored masses into the one true church. Faith of their sort is rarely diminished by evidence about the heathens incapacity; if anything such evidence only heightens evangelical zeal” (p.260).

One of the consequences of these treaties was that if students were not engaged, it was the school’s fault or the curriculum’s fault because it wasn’t engaging the students.

Also very interesting, was the “invention” of adolescence (p.262) by Joseph Kett. Russell and Hall describe adolescence as “the best things are springing up from the human soul” – endless enthusiasm. “If the race is over to advance, it will not be by increasing longevity… But by prolonging [adolescence]” – Hall (p.262). As a former middle school teacher, I agree!

All this talk about “practical curricula” is that it sounds basically like project-based curriculum, which either means it’s incredibly hard to implement or it’s not actually the best way for schools to do this, if they were talking about it in the 20s and 30s and we still can’t seem to do it today hundred years later.

  • “It seems, then, that the reforms discussed here produced the worst of both worlds: new courses, content, and academic standards that were less intellectual and more practical, and a style of teaching that was as dull as reformers had once complained of in Latin and medieval history courses. There was one difference, though: it was much easier for students to get through. Schools could best be more successful, at least in the sense of increasing both enrollment and graduation rates” (p.267).
  • “The practice of passing students through the grades on the basis of age and attendance, rather than academic achievement, soon came to be known as social promotion. That was the final, crucial stone in the foundation of math secondary education, for it meant that progress in school was detached from progress in learning” (p.267-268)
  • “The practical curriculum for every day living that he wanted ‘would give both better mental and better social training to perspective college students and they are getting now.’ [statement by Prosser, Harvard president] There really was a perverse populist slant to this educational Babbittry, a democracy of anti-intellectualism” (p.275).

I found this quote fascinating for it’s commentary about “American” life.

  • “After all education is one of our oldest enthusiasms and vast enterprises another. the combination was bound to please. another reason that so many Americans found high schools to their liking was that the institution tied up many contrary threads in the country’s character: great faith in the good work that schools could do but little confidence in most students’ academic interest or ability; Great faith in the transforming power of curriculum but modest budgets, and thus teacher workloads that would defeat most efforts to make classrooms exciting or challenging; great faith in the Democratic extension of schooling to all but an anti- intellectualism that severely limited educational content for most; great faith in the schools potential for equality, but a school organization that created terrific inequalities. These stunning polarities were the fundamental terms of reference for high schools – the treaties, if one likes, that Americans made in order to extend secondary school to all comers. Educators had managed to build a system of secondary schools in which the popular passion for education and popular contempt for intellectual work were woven tightly together.”

Moving on to the 50s-80s…

  • The reforms of the 1950s – denunciation of academic weaknesses, focus on science and math, attack on the Life Adjustment Education that had begun in the 1930s. (p.281)
  • Also in the 1950s huge increase in the number of students attending college. Ironic though that the more that attended they were being admitted to less selective institutions, so there was less pressure on high schools to have rigorous college prep courses. (p.292)
  • Brown versus board in 1954 the movement for excellence soon became an even more intense movement for equality, and this had a counter effect of eroding the sense of schools as fair progressive and open.
  • There was a continued relaxation of course standards and requirements.

The fate of the 1950s reform is that it was vulnerable to forces beyond the control of schools or reformers – the “selective excellent strategy”(p.296-297) saw that it failed but it didn’t really succeed either:

  1. Rapidly changing national political agenda simply diverted attention from high school
  2. Educators responding to all reform efforts in the same fashion: diversify our offerings to accommodate the pressures for new constituencies, and continue to ease standards and invent interesting courses for the still expanding mass of students judged in capable of serious thought
  3. The 50s reformers did not challenge this tendency

“Here is one of the biggest bargains in the brief history of mass secondary education: intellectual quality would be acceptable to educationists and appealing to reformers as long as it was just another small item in that large cluster of accommodations called the comprehensive high school” (p.297)

This can be seen as terrible or admirable – on the one hand students may be have been short changed, but on the other schools are demanded of by so many different factions, without the resources to do it, that they are remarkably adaptive (p.297) 

In the 70s there was a sense that schools created a bad youth culture, so there was pressure to engage with the community and have students experience work – so there were lots of internship programs. “Even a reform that was aimed at reducing high schools dominion over youth was turned to institutional advantage. The notion that experience should replace cooling became the rationale for adding yet another division to the schools curriculum.” (p.298)

“The reforms aim to improve education by ratcheting up school requirements, yet a large fraction of the students now in high school seem quite immune to such requirements. The students are educationally purposeless. They attend for reasons quite unrelated to learning … opinion surveys show repeatedly that most students, like most adults, do not regard academic work as the primary purpose of schools: they give greater importance to social and vocational matters into personal development. And whatever the reasons for being in school, students are frequently hostage to circumstances that tend to defeat learning … Perhaps high schools teach students what they need most to know: how to endure boredom without protest” (p.303).

“Secondary educators have tried to solve the problem of competing purposes by excepting all of them, and by building an institution that would accommodate the result” (p.306).

As I was reading I kept wondering what my dad’s high school in the 50s was like or my mom’s high school in the 60s. Or my grandma’s in rural Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the late 1930s. Who were their teachers? What did they learn? What did they think of all the curricula or was it just about going to school and socializing?

Book Notes & Thoughts: Theory in Practice, by Argyris and Schön (1974)

theory in practice

Why do we do what we do?

In a model where humans are taken to be rational actors, we each have a “theory-in-use,” an internally consistent logic, that guides our actions. Theory of action is about what we believe we should do to effect a particular action. For example, in situation S, if I want C, I do A, given assumptions a1…an. To characterize someone’s theory of action, however, you cannot just ask them: you must observe what they do because their espoused theory may not match what their theory-in-use. Though if the two are the same, this is a state of “congruence” (p.23).

What good is all this?

First, embedded in all this is a theory of learning: by formulating our theory-in-use, we can change it. This change is the learning. The goal of describing is to “produce data that help the individual learn” (p.38-39). This reflects a cognitivist approach: having people articulate their behavior, understand it, then their theory-in-use will change as a result.

Second, making theories in use explicit allows practitioners to share their practices. Argyris and Schön speak at length about the problems with professional education (p.14) and their mismatch between professional education and post-graduation institutional arrangements. This is definitely true in education.

Argyris and Schön contrast the difference between traditional scientific research and practice-based professions. In science, scientists communicate theories, methods, and results with each other so that others will test them to build knowledge. Knowledge is public, explicit, and cumulative. Everyone contributes to this knowledge, pushing us all forward. In the professions, knowledge is practice-based, and the learning is private, tacit, and ephemeral (p.144). Articulating theories-in-use, or making the tacit explicit, becomes a way of building knowledge of practice that all can test.

Argyris and Schön trace the history of professions: how the disciplines split from the church and then again when they split between liberalized and rationalized. Aside from being interesting history, it traces the rise of professional expertise in applied fields. This connects to my interest to understand how research and development works in education. In the industrial age, research and development came about as a place where knowledge was converted from a production environment to an engineering environment. What is the parallel in education? How do we “convert” the production of new knowledge from inquiry to changing practices in action?

This week I was at my second at the Carnegie Summit in San Francisco. Their Networked Improvement Community model is meant to be a “social reorganization of research and development” in education. It is in this space where knowledge is converted from “pure” inquiries to action. I’ve been working to understand what “educational R&D” really meant, but I think I understand that it is a shift in how knowledge is produced and used. Rather than it being a technical process where contextless knowledge flows (via journal articles?) from research to practice, NICs are a social infrastructure where people work together to define problems, articulate how their actions will change the result, bring resources to bear on the actions, and then implement it iteratively in context. In situation S, if I want C, I do A.

Sometimes I wonder why particular books make it into my hands at particular times and I get motivated to read them despite a myriad of other things I *should* be doing. This was one that somehow felt right to read right now, and lo and behold the connection it helped me build.

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.

Book Notes & Thoughts: A New Literacies Sampler (2007)

a new literacies

Edited by Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear, Free PDF here

Like reading Communities of Practice, this work is a foray into new perspectives for me – always interesting and usually completely disruptive to my current, constructed understanding of the world. I have read bits and pieces (and reflected here and Discourses here), but I wanted to read the entire compilation this summer. This reflection is after reading the first three chapters.

The works in this book are firmly in the constructivist paradigm and use a sociocultural perspective on literacy. This latter parts means that “reading and writing can only be understood in the contexts of social, cultural, political, economic, historical practices to which they are integral, of which they are a part.” (p.1) Understanding literacies in this way is the foundation of calling them “new.” It is more than just reading and writing (i.e. encoding and decoding print), but it is the “relationship between human practice and the production, distribution, exchange, refinement, negotiation and contestation of meanings.” (p.2) It is seeing the acts of reading and writing encompass norms, attitudes, values, meaning-making – all of which are as social practices. Continue reading “Book Notes & Thoughts: A New Literacies Sampler (2007)”

Book Notes & Thoughts: Inevitable, Mass Customized Learning


They apparently couldn’t choose a title, so there are three:


Mass Customized Learning (MCL)

Learning in the Age of Empowerment

by Charles Schwahn & Beatric McGarvey

I’ll admit, I did more skimming on this one than usual as it is meant to be a vision to practice manual and I’m not actually working in a school right now. I’ve also been part of a research group studying personalized learning schools for the past year, which means I’ve heard and seen a lot of these stories. I think for teachers and leaders in traditional school settings, however, this could be a powerful book for reimagining what learning can look like. The authors do a nice job of pairing vignettes from multiple perspectives – students, teachers, parents, leaders – with specifics about support systems or assumptions that we make.

One of the most compelling and frustrating aspects of educational change is that “we all know these things. Yet, our behaviors do not support them.” (p.82) When you finally see the disconnect between the way we do school and the way we choose to do the rest of our lives, from shopping to listening to music to hanging out with friends, you can’t stop seeing it. Some people might challenge that school shouldn’t be the same as real life – it’s “work” after all, whatever that means. I was recently reading over an interview with one of the teachers in our study and she said that her former colleagues keep commenting how she looks so much more relaxed and happy this year. It seems we are all perpetuating a system that stresses us out (kids, parents, teachers, and leaders included) just because that’s the way it is and always has been? So much of what we do – one test for all kids, writing papers and getting feedback a week later, sitting in lectures – isn’t actually the best way to do it. If our purpose is to facilitate learning, if this is the function of schools, then the form of our schools needs to follow this (p.78). Capitalizing on the technology and resources that are already at our disposal means that it’s possible.

Continue reading “Book Notes & Thoughts: Inevitable, Mass Customized Learning”

Book Notes & Thoughts: Communities of Practice, Part II


Part II took me a lot longer to read than the reading schedule I had laid out for myself in June. I got bogged down reading the epilogue and life just kept getting in the way!

Wenger uses great examples to illustrate his concepts throughout, whether from his vignettes about the claims processors or everyday life, but the final chapter on education really brought everything together for me with the concepts coalescing around a concrete application. When you view legacy schools through this lens, it is clear how they are lacking possibilities for mutual engagement, material to support imagination, and participatory alignment. (p.183) In contrast, I see many positive connections with the personalized learning environments I have observed in Wisconsin, places where students define their trajectories, explore their identities, and participate in a communities of learning. “Indeed, the mutuality of engagement is a mutuality of learning.” (p.277)

What I liked about the identity component of communities of practice (CoP) is that it explains a lot of my observations and gives them a coherent nature. For example, I worked at a school where my work spanned multiple communities: the middle school teacher, the technology department, the boarding program, and sometimes all-school committees. I could feel my behavior shift in each situation, everything from how I participated in meetings to how I dressed. I negotiated a multimembership identity (and loved it) and brokered many conversations across these communities. (p.255) I could see too how I carried ideas from one to the other, where the technology department meetings almost served as an innovation zone where we shared what happened in other divisions and brought those back to ours. “Boundaries are inevitable and useful. They define a texture for engaged identities, not vague identities that float at the level of an abstract, unfathomable organization.” (p.254)
Continue reading “Book Notes & Thoughts: Communities of Practice, Part II”

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”