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).

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”

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 https://knowledge.insead.edu/blog/insead-blog/how-to-distribute-leadership-4189

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)”

Presenting at the Carnegie Summit 2018


I’ll be returning to San Francisco again this April. It’s my yearly escape from the winter-is-not-quite-over dreariness of early spring in Madison. This year I’m presenting in a session titled “Social Network Analysis in Phases of Networked Improvement,” as well as a poster about how teachers and students engaged in the design work that we did through PiPNIC, the Personalization in Practice Networked Improvement Community.

It’s not an overstatement that the improvement work that the Carnegie Foundation is doing through Networked Improvement Communities is what I had hoped I would find when I came to graduate school three and a half years ago. I have been fortunate to work with an advisor to get to test out some of these ideas. I’m looking forward to another summit, to share what I’ve been thinking about and learn from all the other ways people are making things happen!

Book Notes & Thoughts: The Sciences of the Artificial, by Herbert Simon


The Sciences of the Artificial, First Edition, by Herbert A. Simon

This book has been on my reading list for a long time. I started keeping a reading list in Evernote when I started graduate school. I’m making progress!

Screen Shot 2018-01-23 at 4.36.16 PM

Now that I have focused my dissertation topic on looking at instructional leadership through the lens of design, which builds on my advisor’s framework of education as design for learning, Simon’s book is usually cited as the foundation for design as a separate endeavor from the natural sciences.

To my delight, this book was wonderful to read – straightforward language, clear logical arguments – not like most of the older texts I have picked up! It was originally a series of lectures, so I could almost hear it as I read, thinking of how he is making his point to the audience.

Continue reading “Book Notes & Thoughts: The Sciences of the Artificial, by Herbert Simon”

Spring Writing Group & Semester Goals


For the next 12 weeks, I’m meeting weekly with a group of graduate students to work through this book by Wendy Belcher. The book walks you through – day by day, week by week – developing a publishable paper from something you have already started. I’ll be working on the social network analysis proposal that I had accepted to AERA, the American Educational Research Association conference in New York this spring.

Our writing group started meeting last summer and fall as many of us transitioned out of coursework and into the pre-dissertation abyss. I struggled to structure my time, I didn’t have the intellectual stimulation of hearing about other people’s work, and I needed the informal but practical information from others about committee members, deadlines, credit registration, etc. So we started meeting every Thursday afternoon. This became a time to both connect and work together. I have blocked it off on my schedule and look forward to it every week. (One colleague and I also started another group across campus on Wednesday afternoons!)

That said, I needed a little something more than just showing up to write together. I wanted accountability to getting work done and a sense that we were all working on something together (though on separate tasks, obviously). I heard about this book and had the idea to use this with our writing group and AERA papers, which I knew I wanted to turn into a journal article. I started floating the idea to a few others, and pretty soon we had a group of 7 graduate students interested.

Generally, we’re planning to structure the time as follows:

  • 12:30-1:30: informal checkins, lunch, workshop ideas
  • 1:30-2:30: debrief the previous week, I’ll preview the coming week
  • 2:30-onward: write

I think what I am most excited about for her book is that she emphasizes doing a little every day. I tend to want 5 hours to work on writing tasks, which doesn’t usually happen with lots of meetings, commutes, and small children! This spring I’m committing to writing in shorter chunks of time and working on more writing projects at a time.

Her website also has a lot of the forms that you might need, and I also created this spreadsheet that has the topic for each day and allows you to print a weekly schedule.

My goals for this semester, May 15th:

  • Physical spaces paper is accepted to a journal
  • Social network analysis paper is submitted to a journal
  • Dissertation proposal drafted
  • PiPNIC how to guide written
  • 6 blog posts

Other big conferences and tasks this spring:

  • Presenting a session and poster at the Carnegie Summit in San Francisco in April
  • Presenting a paper at the annual AERA conference in New York
  • *hopefully* Presenting a paper and participating in a symposium and doctoral consortium at ICLS (International Conference of the Learning Sciences) in London in June
  • Working on formative assessment rubrics for personalized learning (IES and Joyce Foundation grant work)

I’m thankful for lots of good work to do and good people to do it with!


Book Notes & Thoughts: Organizing Locally, by Bruce Fuller

org loc

Organizing Locally: How the New Decentralists Improve Education, Health Care, and Trade, by Bruce Fuller.

It’s been a full semester since my last post though I have certainly done a lot of reading in that time! My desk, nightstand, and bookshelves are perpetually stacked with library books or cheap used paperbacks from Amazon that I intend to read. And while I do read (or “Harvard“) most of them, I always intend to blog about them, but I don’t.

This first week back at work in my office, I sketched out my spring writing syllabus, made my plan for using Wendy Belcher’s “Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks” with my writing group, and stacked up six books I intend to read this semester. It all feels very productive – good new year kind of stuff.

My goal is to blog about 6 books this semester, and as part of that, to remind myself that these blog posts are NOTES and THOUGHTS. Mostly they include quotes I like or want to remember, thoughts or reflections that come up in the moment.They are not reviews, arguments, or critiques. This is my commonplace book in the cloud. One of Belcher’s strategies, if you are struggling to start writing, is to write down quotes from someone else. So I’m trying to put my blogging at the beginning of the semester – a way to warm up my fingers for typing the many things I need to write this spring!

With that, here are my notes and thoughts from reading Organizing Locally…


Continue reading “Book Notes & Thoughts: Organizing Locally, by Bruce Fuller”