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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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: 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: 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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Design, Learning, and Data, Oh my! … (or how not to make people be defensive)

Readings this week:

Argyris, C. (1991). Teaching Smart People How to Learn. Harvard Business Review, (May-June).
City, E., Elmore, R., Fiarman, S., & Teitel, L. (2009). Chapters 4-6. In Instructional rounds in education: A network approach to improving teaching and learning (pp. 83-131). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Education Press.
Lieberman, A. (2000). Networks as Learning Communities: Shaping the Future of Teacher Development. Journal of Teacher Education, 221-227.

Design projects and data are not familiar language to educators, even though (hopefully most) teachers are literally engaged in design every day as they modify the local learning environment to fit the needs of their students. We rarely see it as such, though, as the emphasis is on students and their work in relation to the teacher’s design, not the reflection on our own thinking. This mirrors Argyris’ single-loop vs. double-loop learning. As Argyris notes, he was working with people who were “well-educated, high-powered, high commitment professionals,” which I think would describe a lot of graduate students in education. Argyris (1991) writes, “People can be taught how to recognize the reasoning they use when they design and implement their actions.” When faced with a design project that tests our thinking, where the likelihood of failure is high, fear creeps in.

It is through the very act of design, feedback, and failure that requires us to bypass our own interpretations because we’ve literally put our thinking outside of our heads. This act of dissociation of our emotional, judgmental selves from our practice is exactly what City et al. (2009) refer to as separating the practice from the person. Likewise feedback systems, whether they be user testing in design or observational notes in the classrooms, are what bring in the feedback, or data, on our design. When we can use the feedback to redesign, rather than defend, we can learn.

As we have heard in many readings this semester and again this week, professional community stems from “conversations about their work” (Lieberman, 2000), but clearly these conversations need data about practice, not about teachers, and the people conversing need guidance in using the data. City et al. (2009) refer to the “culture of nice” as an improvement-impeding norm, because it clouds the distinction between practice from person. People are unwilling to offer feedback for fear that it will be taken as criticism and elicit defensiveness, so they just avoid the conversation all together. The Instructional Rounds protocols offer such guidance for school leaders on how they help teachers in “learning to see, unlearning to judge” and offer clear expectations for how to discuss practice in a way that pushes people to think rather than defend.

On a more practical note, for the field work we are just beginning for the DRP class and on personalization in practice, I found many things helpful in the Instructional Rounds piece. At least for me, it will help me orient myself to conducting an observation: keeping it descriptive rather than evaluative, asking open questions to kids, not discussing with fellow researchers in the hallways but waiting for a time to debrief, and examining my own assumptions or biases about what good teaching and learning looks like.