Post-Semester Teaching Reflections

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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.

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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.

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From Consumer to Producer


This summer I’ve started doing podcast interviews for the New Books Network. I just produced my first interview with Jim Rickabaugh of the Institute for Personalized Learning. I’ve worked with Jim for the last 3 years on our research project, so this was a natural way to start. Now I’m starting to line up more fabulous academics that I want to talk to. I listen to more and more podcasts, and it’s pretty exciting, though not without apprehension, to make this switch.

Educators are increasingly asking students to find authentic audiences for their work. As I sat preparing for Jim’s interview, I was nervous, unsure of some of the details, frustrated that some of the logistics of the audio recording studio didn’t work, and knew that I’d have to listen to my own voice on the recording! But, I knew that I would enjoy talking to Jim, the interview itself would be meaningful to others, that doing it would improve my interviewing skills, and that it is a good way for me to connect with scholars in my field.

In other words, there was interest, meaning, and personal value in my learning. I read about interest-based learning (like Brigid Barron or Nichole Pinkard), Connected Learning (Mimi Ito), and participatory cultures (Henry Jenkins), and now I’m doing it!

Reorienting the Search

Lost amidst journal articles, textbooks, and ideas, I decided to go back to the personal statement I wrote to get started on this graduate school journey, hoping it would help me find direction.

Pursuing research in education is my opportunity to circle these big questions, square my experiences, and dig deeper.

My vision for education was that we need to cultivate hopeful individuals, who think deeply and creatively, who develop their strengths and pursue their passions, who feel safe to take risks, who work effectively across cultures, and see opportunity in change. It is these aspirations that give direction to our actions.

What professional, social, and administrative support structures do teachers need to be innovative in their practice? How can a system-wide framework be designed to inspire personal investment? How do great leaders envision, design, and introduce large-scale initiatives when there is resistance? Is cultivating passionate and engaged teachers enough to shift an institution, school district, or nation towards change?

How do practitioners identify the problems that they need to solve? What tools do they use to solve them? What do they do with their solutions and how does that scale to the rest of the district? How do you study a multi-level, systemic process? How can schools change to meet the needs of their students, constituents, and society? How does this scale?

My commitment and passion for education is fundamental to who I am, and it is precisely this love that drives me to improve it. The world can be a better place if we are intentional in our actions, aware of our environment, and seek joy in learning and play. Living this at all levels – students, teachers, and administrators – will cultivate agency. After all, life is about possibility. If we see education as a set of rules that do not work or even include us, why bother? But if we live learning as a way to discover and transform, the possibilities are endless.

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)

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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.

Org Theory Reading Reflection 2: Teacher Turnover and Teacher Shortages


This week’s assignment was to choose one article to summarize and analyze.

Ingersoll, R. M. (2001). Teacher Turnover and Teacher Shortages: An Organizational Analysis, American Educational Research Journal. 38(3): 499-534.

Having not yet taken Intro to Quantitative Methods, I still feel like I don’t quite grasp the full picture of articles like this because I don’t understand all the methods, but it helps that the article’s argument is clear and laid out logically from the literature review. Ingersoll articulates how his research is a departure from what has typically been done, which has been studies of the characteristics of teachers, versus a study from an organizational perspective. Essentially, he asks whether there are organizational conditions of schools associated with turnover. He uses data from the Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) and the supplement, Teacher Followup Survey (TFS). Importantly, the TFS is a subset, those who had moved from or left their teaching jobs, were contacted after 12 months later to fill out a second questionnaire, along with a representative subset of teachers who stayed in their teaching jobs.

Some key findings:

  • Hiring difficulties were not primarily due to shortages in qualified teachers.
  • Demand for new teachers more often due to “preretirement turnover.”
  • School-to-school differences in turnover is significant: “Schools that do report difficulties in filling their openings are almost twice as likely to have above-average turnover rates” (p. 515)
  • Private schools have higher turnover rates than public schools.
  • Predictors of turnover, after controlling for teacher characteristics, are likely to be teachers under 30 or over 50.
  • In public schools, higher raters of turnover in high-poverty schools as compared to more affluent schools.

In particular, I liked the approach he took of distinguishing between “movers” and “leavers” because both have an impact on the schools they leave. I will say that quantitative articles always leave me hanging when they make interesting conclusions: but did you talk to any teachers? It feels like a first step in the study but an incomplete story in the process of understanding what is happening.

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Org Theory Reading Reflection 1: Loose coupling of educational systems

Get it? Loose coupling...  From
Get it? Loose coupling… From

This summer I’m taking one class, Organizational Theory, and doing an independent reading credit with my advisor. My first writing assignment is already due tomorrow (summer classes go fast!). To be honest, it feels good to write for a class again and Org Theory is one of the classes I am most excited to take while I’m in graduate school. I know I know: #edugeek. And proud of it.

Educational Organizations as Loosely Coupled Systems, by Karl E. Weick.

Prior to the readings this week, I already associated the phrase “loose coupling” with Karl Weick, but had not read much about it. After the readings this week and last, I have a better idea both what is meant by it, its origins, and its application to the current state of public K-12 education. What I find most compelling is the way a term, meant to be descriptive of organizations, was taken up as negative and used to push remedies (as described in Firestone, 2015), perhaps without full consideration of whether it was actually a bad thing to begin with.

Weick, like organizational theorists before him, are attempting to describe what happens in organizations and predict outcomes based on actions. Rational descriptions and theories, predominant at the time, of how organizations function were incomplete and didn’t help people make sense of their experiences. The idea of “loose coupling” was meant to describe a mechanism by which we can understand “events that are responsive, but that each event also preserves its own identity and some evidence of its physical and logical separateness.” (p. 3) In other words, things happen that have a relation to each other, but it is not necessarily straightforward and logical in the way that can be rationalized. I see this as similar to thinking about multiple variables or systems thinking.

Educational organizations have a long track record of interventions or reforms that don’t go as planned. Loose coupling helps explain that, since we tend to plan with the assumption that what our intentions are going to have certain results, but if the elements are not rationally connected in reality, it doesn’t work.

It is easy to feel like loose coupling is a bad thing because it thwarts reform efforts. Nonetheless, Weick attempts to describe it in ways that are neutral or might actually be beneficial to the organization. He gives seven reasons why loose coupling might exist in an organization:

  1. “allows some portions of an organization to persist”
  2. “provide a sensitive sensing mechanism”
  3. “good system for localized adaptation”
  4. “retain a greater number of mutations and novel solutions than would be the case with a tightly coupled system”
  5. breakdowns are “sealed off” from the rest of the system
  6. “more room available for self-determination by the actors”
  7. “relatively inexpensive to run because it takes time and money to coordinate people”

To me, the most interesting of these is the benefit of localized adaptation. This allows teachers to adapt their instruction and the environment of their classroom to the needs of their individual students, but this has been much reduced with the movement towards standards and accountability. Firestone (2015) elaborates on this, describing the accountability movement as largely aimed at reducing the problems of loose coupling. I find it ironic that even as testing and sanctions have been applied to reduce the loose coupling, they themselves have not been as effective as hoped, as the policies were rationally designed and applied to a loosely coupled system, perhaps without full understanding of the system itself. To me, this leads to two conclusions: one, you have to focus on the people in the organization and how they learn, not just doing interventions to them, and two, you have to pay attention to context.

I think this is what I like so much about design-based research, in which feedback on the design is integral to the process, and what I like about the Networked Improvement Communities (Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, and LeMahieu, 2015), where feedback is gathered early and often, doing small testing in context and reducing variation in implementation by paying attention to what works when and where, rather than assuming something that is well designed will work. NICs also use root cause analyses to elucidate variables that contribute to the problem and then focus action on those variables and measure results. I can see now that this is essentially a strategy for improving interventions in a loosely coupled system. In some ways, you don’t have to know the mechanism for why the improvement works if you have measurements to show that it does and pay attention to context.

Also interesting is Weick’s sixth point that loose coupling may allow individual actors more self-determination, giving them autonomy and agency over their work, thereby a sense of professionalism and internal motivation. Again, Firestone’s article helps put this in relief, where this was good and bad: teachers want the autonomy but also feel isolated. Thus, teachers might want the movement towards “professional learning communities” or other programs that provide resources for collaboration and break down the silos of individual classrooms, but this comes along with threats to professionalism. Can you have both collaboration and individual agency? I think so, but perhaps not in the traditional school set up.

Firestone concludes that after 40 years of tightening the system, it isn’t working, except in exceptional cases. So my questions is then, is whether loose coupling, this idea that Weick wrote about 40 years ago, is actually helpful in the goals of educational research to understand organizations, predict how they will react, and thus shape them? Meyer and Rowan (1977) go into more depth why systems decouple as a result of the conflict between categorical rules and efficiency: “Thus, decoupling enables organizations to maintain standardized, legitimating, formal structures while their activities vary in response to practical considerations.” (p.357) Maybe loose coupling allows us insight into why things are the way they are, but is the theoretical construct of loose coupling really valuable if the practical considerations ultimately have more control over what actually happens?


Byrk, A., Gomez, L., Grunow, A., LeMahieu, P. (2015). Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better. Harvard Education Publishing.

Firestone, W. (2015). Loose coupling: The “condition” and its solutions? Journal of Organizational Theory in Education. 1(1).

Meyer, J. Rowan, B. (1977). Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony. American Journal of Sociology. 83(2): 340-363.

Weick, K. (1976). Educational Organizations as Loosely Coupled Systems. Administrative Science Quarterly, 21(1): 1-19.


GLS11 – Reflections

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I FINALLY made it to the Games+Learning+Society Conference! I heard about it probably 4 or 5 years ago and it was always held right at the end of the school year. GLS was a big reason that I wanted to come to Madison to graduate school.

My takeaways:

  • I love the people and the ideas and discussions they have. Game designers, academics, teachers, and lots who bridge all three communities. That said, games are not a core piece of my research, so I was able to do the “slow conference” thing: not rushing to every session, picking sessions at the last minute, not furiously taking notes to remember everything that was said.
  • My reading list just got longer. First, Seymour Papert’s Connected Family. Also, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (on audiobook narrated by Wil Wheaton???). And maybe, The Game Believes in You, by Greg Toppo.
  • Definitely a thread running through the conference about whether schools are the answer or the problem. Clearly some have given up on schools as a place to create change, which is disheartening. (Someone said: “[It’s] such a pain to get technology in the classroom.”) My question to them: If you don’t think schools, then who? You? The game design companies? Maybe schools aren’t universally where we want them to be, and goodness knows change is hard, but I still think they are a critical player (pun intended) worth paying attention to in making society better.
  • The keynotes were great – Sean Dikkers on Tuesday, Nichole Pinkard on Wednesday, and Brenda Romero on Thursday:
    • Seann‘s presentation reminded me that I really need to start crafting my personal story that translates the importance and drive of my professional work. The most compelling talks always seem to come through these personal stories (“When I was a kid…”). I also need to dig out some good (read: embarrassing) pictures of me as a kid.
    • Nichole spoke about her work with YouMedia in Chicago. As I’ve become more interested in the Cities of Learning initiatives, it was exciting to hear her take on using informal learning spaces to create pathways for learning across content and sites. She proposed three questions:
      – How do we follow the opportunities, follow the kids, and try to connect them?
      – How do we understand organizations and how they connect? Because kids can only go to things that exist.
      – How do we know what kids are doing, particularly in out of school time? Digital badges?
    • Brenda was funny, serious, and real. She talked about being a game designer and being a woman. The most interesting part, though, was sitting behind three white guys clearly uncomfortable with how to react or process the (sometimes) rant, particularly when she mentioned breastfeeding, pregnancy, or reproductive parts. There were eye rolls and sideways glances to each other while they read their email and surfed the web.

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The World Really is Changing

I couldn’t resist FINALLY a reason to link to one of the best West Wing scenes:
“Nothing is where you think it is.”
“Yeah, but you can’t do that, because it’s freaking me out.”

This week’s reading:

Guy Standing – excerpt about the Precariat from Eurozine. Entire PDF here.
Diana Hess – chapter from More Controversy in the Classroom.
Beth Simone Noveck – chapter from Wiki Government.

Two notes: 1) I love that I can just link to the book on Amazon and not have to type out the APA citation. 2) I just discovered the paste text toggle off feature and it will save me from having to type

into the code to format my documents, which I write in Evernote then transfer. #smallvictories

This is my last course reading reflection of the semester. Hooray! If you haven’t already read my wikipedia page that I wrote for the class (although at this point it is a mixture of my writing + copy edits by another wikipedian), then you should check it out at

The Future of School Leadership

I get caught in between wanting to believe the world is radically changed, which is why schools need to change, and wanting to believe that things are the way they’ve always been. Standing and Noveck, this week, both made me feel like the world is radically changed.

Standing’s article about the precariat made me wonder how much education responds to the changes going on socially in the world. Clearly teachers all live in society, so they experience it and are part of it, but the process of educating kids can feel so insulated (in a bad way) from the world. (I think Dewey said something like this.) I would see new teachers as fitting into the “proficians” category, in the sense that I don’t think most young teachers look at going into teaching as a life-long career. It is something they are interested in and will do for awhile until other interesting opportunities come along. I think this would also mean they lack a “work-based identity,” and learning the craft of teaching is not seen as a lifelong endeavor in the same way that it was for my parents.

Standing ends with a brief mention of commodification, “a central aspect of globalization…[that] has been extended to every aspect of life,” including the education system. By this, Standing means “everything can be bought and sold, subject to market forces, prices set by demand/supply, without effective ‘agency’ (a capacity to resist).” How does this work for information? It seems that the expectation for information is for it to be free, of which many examples are seen in Noveck’s chapter excerpt from Wiki Government. It made me think about Open Educational Resources, where people share a commodity for free.

Noveck mentioned Delver, the network based search engine. Unfortunately it does not appear to have continued to be funded, but thanks to the internet archive (, I got to see a video of their CEO, Liad Agmon, explaining it. Maybe it was before its time because people still do not see their social network as something they could mine for helpful connections.

I like the idea of every piece of information as a potential community, where data is seen in relationship to the groups who use it. This reminded me of our early discussions of data creating a Discourse (Gee). “By making information more visual, we make it easier to understand” (Noveck, p.127). This made me think of some of the work I did collaboratively with our art teacher around visual culture. Most of us know when we see a graphic we understand but we often don’t know why we understand it. Take a look at how terrible most research posters are. Clearly they do not follow a functionally transparent model of making sense! Who researches and teaches about the properties of how visual displays communicate? Artists.

The world is a dramatically different place than when our schools were founded, and yet schools still look very much the same. How much are we, as educational leaders, really willing to change? We read about double loop learning (Argyris) where single loop was feedback on what we did but double loop was how we did what we did. Maybe we need triple loop that puts how we did what we did in contemporary context.

Finally, a quick story came to mind after reading Hess’ article about discussions of controversial ideas in the classroom as a foundation of our democracy. One of my strongest and earliest teaching memories was a spontaneous debate with my first class class of 6th graders. We were discussing hunting as a way to manage wildlife populations. After they had all shared their views and counterpoints, they kept asking me what I thought. Instead of telling them, I asked them what they thought I thought. They started debating what they though I thought! I never told them my views, and I remember a sense of victory that I facilitated the discussion in a way that I could push from both sides while letting their voices be primary. When they walked out of class, they were still questioning the right answer, rather than putting the thinking away with my opinion.

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