Starting a NIC: Resource Round-Up


One of my goals for attending the Summit this year (that I wrote about last week) was to bring back an understanding of starting a NIC. What I’d like to do here is compile my notes, link resources, and highlight key ideas from the sessions. I’ve attempted to categorize them roughly into foundational/big ideas, what to do first, and then later considerations.

Foundational/Big Ideas

1. Formation of the network initiation team

  • Develop a theory of practice improvement
  • Understand the problem of practice – be there to observe, user-centered – take the test! What actually touches students as they learn?
  • Decide on a common and measurable aim (craft aim statement, more detail below)
  • Specify high leverage drivers (root cause analysis tools)
  • Attend to power relations (particularly supervisor/evaluative relationships) and other contextual politics
  • Do we have people from outside education?
  • Learning to use improvement research methods: the NIC team needs to support each other in building common practices. everyone gets the book!
  • Get an office staff person – someone to book rooms, schedule site visits, manage calendars, order coffee… this is a key role.

2. Focus on the Problem, or face “solution-itis.” Resource: Carnegie blog post

  • Solution-itis = get more enamored of a particular approach or philosophy with an unclear way that this will address the problem
  • The problem is the “anchor”
  • Not all questions are worthy of inquiry! (Ex. Having students turn homework in on time is not a meaningful problem to work on.
  • What is the unit of analysis? Okay to have it be one teacher’s classroom.

3. Crafting a “Network narrative”

  • Metro-map activity – help people talk about how they got here
  • Narrative as a way to mobilize people for the work (it’s not always just about the problem)
  • Networks are about influence, not control: Who we are and why we exist must be compelling

4. Thinking about Meetings

  • Improvement science as a social practice (Tony Bryk, opening keynote) – the meetings are where the network is instantiated
  • Meeting in person at first (commonly a multi-day summer institute) gives people opportunities to connect, around more than just the focus of the work – give people money to go out to dinner in inter-organizational groups
  • Schedule regular times, like weekly google hangouts
  • Use meeting protocols – this prevents one person from always speaking for a group or those traditionally empowered from dominating/controlling the conversation
  • Provide actuation spaces. We generally do not have problems that can be solved by more information. People need time and space to make sense together.

5. Building a Measurement System for Improvement

  • Evaluate short term needs, long term goals
  • Measurement is attached to the change process
  • Noncognitive measures resource from the Chicago Consortium on School Research
  • Traditional research methods (video/audio recording + coding) vs. 5 minute survey
  • Limit the amount of data

6. Role of the content expert

  • Bring in information to guide action once the problem is defined, ex. bring in literature
  • Balance between research, capacity building, and implementation
  • Role is different – need to provide opportunity where experts want to get involved (i.e. they get something out of it) but where they get on board with the direction it’s going and not just where they want it to go

7. Role of the network hub

  • Everyone needs to learn to use improvement research methods, but it’s the role of the network hub will be to support network members
  • Lots of strands running
  • Do the analytic work
  • Attend to social motivation

8. Leadership thoughts

  • You invent the work as you do it – being open about the complexity
  • A paradoxical mindset – engage with opposing interpretations, suspend judgement
  • Be eclectic about methods
  • Attend to both social pieces (facilitating a meeting) and technical pieces (cycles, due dates, action steps)
  • “Definitely incomplete and possibly wrong” mantra
  • This is the ANTITHESIS of strategic planning!

What to do first

Get into the schools!

  • Bias towards action. Get out and do something. Anything that gets done is going to be incomplete and partially wrong, so get started.
  • Test something – hunches, theories, ideas. Scale comes later.
  • This test might just be with one classroom – have initiation team be there

While you’re there,

  • Listen. This is a social practice. It’s about people and relationships first.
  • Listen to students!
  • Ask questions to understand the problem of practice

Research has to be rapid: 90 day cycles

  • First 30 days – be user-centered
  • Next 30 days – what does the literature say? Pareto 80/20 principle. focus on good theory with empirical warrant.
  • Last 30 days – PDSA begins – small interventions. where did it work, for whom, and under what circumstances? Report out

Later considerations

Build structures for local ownership

  • The role of the network hub may change over time. Think about a gradual transfer of leadership – building the agenda may be housed at the university at first, but eventually want to transfer this to the school.
  • Sometimes, get out of the way and let teams do their work

Build cross-team connections

  • make the network visible, reiterate the aim statement
  • find a common language, be sensitive to and aware of local politics
  • develop team norms, ex. assume everyone is doing the best they can
  • measure network health, ex. social network analysis – quick survey after every meeting with simple list of people asking who they have interacted with and how – trackable over time

Build “intervention bundles”

  • Everyone tried different things… what shows promise? How can these be combined?

Other resources

R+P Collaboratory webinar series – I have to go back and watch these! They cover topics such as “getting a partnership started” to “negotiating roles”.

Obviously, the Carnegie blog has a ton of resources, but they specifically have a series on starting a NIC. The first one by Jennifer Lin Russell  offers a framework and cool diagram. Also coming soon in article format: Russell, Bryk, Dolle, Gomez, LeMahieu, Grunow – A framework for initiation of NICs, Teachers College Record (in press)

Book Notes & Thoughts: Connected

Connected: How your friends’ friends’ friends affect everything you feel, think, and do, by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler.

My summer reading list is quite long… I hope I’ll get to read and blog all of them, so here we are, starting strong, with the first one: Connected. As per usual, this is not a formal essay on the book but rather some quotes I thought were interesting and my reflections on reading.

  1. Networks as a “superorganism.” (p.xvi) This makes sense to me. The properties of the network that are emergent. They don’t exist in the individuals but exist only in the relationships of the parts. This book is a study of the structure and function of human networks. What’s the point? If we understand this, we can use a networked approach to understand and solve problems. This is hopefully where my doctoral research is heading within the context of education.
  2. Network diagrams are really beautiful pictures (p.12), but it’s quite hard to determine their shape. Yet determining the shape is important because we affect it and it affects us. Mobile technologies and interesting websites (like give interesting insights, but it’s never complete. Yet somehow I feel like this is the size of the ruler and coastline paradox. Networks are infinitely complex, so what’s actually important is knowing how you bring it into focus. I’ve thought some about open and closed networks this year with my Carnegie reading and summit, and that’s one of the things I continue to find interesting. Open networks allow space for innovation but closed networks give you the feedback you need to understand your participation.
  3. “Social networks, it turns out, tend to magnify whatever they are seeded with.” (p. 31) Hmmm… this sounds very powerful and very scary.
  4. There are several interesting chapters about characterizing the shape of networks through tracking diseases and money, among other things. I was most interested when they began talking about networking creativity. (p.162) In an analysis of Broadway musicals that succeed or fail, researcher Uzzi (1996) concludes that teams who had never worked together failed because they were not well enough connected but teams where everyone had worked together also failed, presumably because there were no interesting ideas. Ultimately, he concluded that there was a sweet spot with diversity of new people and stability of previous relationships. This has significant implications for how one might about assembling a team of people to work on a project together.
  5. Possibly my favorite chapter was “It’s in Our Nature” with the biologist in me coming out. I find fascinating the idea that we have evolved a society where there is a balance between the number of cooperators, free loaders, and punishers. Robert Axelrod’s study of a cooperative strategy, where you cooperate the first time, see what people do, and then copy what they do after that (i.e. if they don’t cooperate, you won’t cooperate again, but if they do cooperate, you will again). This might be a mechanism by which humans tested out a strategy and then evolved cooperative societies or doomed them to not survive. The punishers enforce social norms for people who try to free load on the system. All these roles together, Hauert and his colleagues showed, would produce the conditions where you have a mixture of these three types of people that was always in flux. Maybe I should have been a sociologist, except that I always want to know how we apply this information. I think it comes down to understanding that there are different roles in a network. As the authors say, “some people will be well connected to the social network, and others – the loners – will not.” (p.221) So how you focus networked action must be based on the roles of the players in the network, the level of resolution you want to see, and structure of the network at that level.
  6. The Hyperconnected chapter is not that new anymore. As I was reading, this chapter could have been in a number of other books. What I did pick up here, though, is something that goes along with It’s Complicated, by danah boyd (which I wrote about here). It’s not that people are different today, but our new technologies have new affordances, and these affordances change what the behavior looks like, but not necessarily the motivators or biological drives. Another piece that I would argue is that the authors over-idealize the ability to assume an avatar and have it treated as just the avatar. I don’t remember and can’t find the source (so if you know it, please add in the comments) of where I read this, but the text that you type is gendered, from the structure of sentences, the frequency with which you agree with the other person, the way you frame questions or statements, the vocabulary choice: all of that is gendered and cultural. There is less distinction between you and your online avatar than I think they make it sound.
  7. The last chapter, The Whole is Great, gets as the good stuff, getting back to the human superorganism and what we do with all this information and understanding. Social networks do not belong to people – they are properties in between us – and we can share these as a resource for public good. Public goods are available to all and not diminished by people’s use, but they are difficult to start and maintain, mostly because it’s hard to get people to pay for them. Of course, the authors point out, not all networks produce good things, with obvious examples like drug or sex trafficking. The point that I took away here is that they need to be considered both as a factor and a resource. In education, this might be as simple as recognizing that the teachers are connected to each other, and this network will mediate whatever efforts are made to maintain or change schools. It also means that taking a networked approach is more than just “networking,” where you get a lot of people’s business cards at an event. Networked actions work with or build the structure and function of the social network, something that is already built into our lives. I find this approach hopeful, in that doing good work can be spread through a network and can positively affect friends’ friends’ friends.

Reaction 9: Professional Learning in a Digital World


Reading this week:

  • Education at Pinterest:
  • Bryk, A. S., Gomez, L. M. & Grunow, A. (2011) Getting Ideas into Action: Building Networked Improvement Communities in Education. In M. Hallinan (ed.) Frontiers in Sociology of Education. Springer Publishing.
  • Morris, A. K. & Hiebert, J. (2011) Creating Shared Instructional Products : An Alternative Approach to Improving Teaching. Educational Researcher 40 (5). 5-14.

I have to be honest: I’m not really sure what Morris and Hiebert were actually writing about. They used the word “products” 89 times, without ever giving an example. These “instructional products” are supposed to guide teaching, help students “achieve specified learning goals,” and improve “performance.” Performance of what? Learning goals decided by whom? They do give a nod to context, saying that “it makes sense to study standardized instructional treatments across variable settings, examining the data to learn about the effects of the contextual variables in the settings.” Continue reading “Reaction 9: Professional Learning in a Digital World”

Reading Notes: Ch. 1 & 2 of Social Network Theory and Educational Change


Daly, A. J. (Ed.). (2010). Social network theory and educational change. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Education Press.

As part of my research this fall, I am making my way through this 2010 primer on Social Network Theory. I am going to try to blog summaries and reactions as a way to understand what I’m reading.

The big questions I’ve had over the past few years have all, in one way or another, been related to understanding “change trajectories,” to use a term that Judith Little uses in the Forward (p.xiii). I’ve observed top-down change be inspiring but ineffective at changing classrooms and bottom-up change also be inspiring but fade when the individual runs out of steam or moves on. This has drawn me to educational change that is facilitated by networks, where individual work moves toward a common goal in a way that feels coordinated and supported.

My big question: How do we understand educational change trajectories?

“Organizations are inherently relational. They are social systems consisting of people with differing interests, goals, and preferences, interacting, communicating, and making decisions” (p.29). It’s amazing how often this is ignored by proponents of a particular program who want to focus the product or goal rather than the relationships. I think what appeals to me in particular about SNT is the ability to use it’s theory and method at all levels and phases, whether it is situated practice, district curriculum goals, student graduation rater, etc. Our networks impact everything we do – it is the interstitial human stuff – and our “positions in a social structure have consequences” (p.17). Continue reading “Reading Notes: Ch. 1 & 2 of Social Network Theory and Educational Change”