Book Notes & Thoughts: Organization Theory

org theory

Over the last few days, I read a textbook. And if I’m honest, I loved it. Graduate school continues to feel like a privilege and a luxury, to learn about ideas that I find interesting, do engaging and meaningful work with teachers and other researchers, and try my best to write in a way that captures my thinking.

I remember a high school English teacher telling me that the easiest (and therefore worst) way to write a summary is to do so chronologically: “And then, and then, and then.” It’s the easiest to write, because it’s also the easiest way to understand. This is what I needed to wrap my head around organization theory, which I want to use for the conceptual framework for my dissertation.

This book, Organization Theory, by Mary Jo Hatch, gave me an entry point into the scope of study, both chronologically (from classical, modern, symbolic/interpretive, to post-modern) and topically (core concepts, decision making, power, politics, change, and learning). Not only did this give me an entry point into this field, but it also allowed me to see where my interests are. What does thinking about schools through the lens allow me to see, understand, and say? And of course, how do I limit my view by seeing it through these theories?

Classical period, 1900 onward; Modern, 1950s onward; Symbolic/Interpretive, 1980s onward; Post-Modern, 1990s onward. Theory = a system of ideas; Social theory = a perspective on reality. Continue reading “Book Notes & Thoughts: Organization Theory”

Book Notes & Thoughts: How Organizations Develop Activists, by Hahrie Han


The author of this book, Hahrie Han, is a political scientist who gave a riveting, heartfelt, and compelling keynote address at last year’s Carnegie Summit (which I wrote about here). I finally got around to opening the book, which I had out from the library since last spring, in order to get more details.

Over the course of two years, she investigated two civic associations. One thing I liked best about her methods was that she spent a year learning about them and drawing on quantitative data and ethnographic fieldnotes, then returned the next year with small trials to see if her theories played out.

Her goal was to find out why some chapters had high-engagement from their members and others didn’t. She goes to great lengths (which I won’t here) to articulate what she means by high-engagement and how she paired the comparisons.

Ultimately, she describes three different “models of engagement”: lone wolves, mobilizers, and organizers. L0w-engagement sites combined lone wolves and mobilizers, whereas high-engagement combined mobilizers and organizers. Lone wolves are just what they are called: they have individuals who are “star volunteers,” who work alone, power themselves, and do great things, alone. Their focus is on the issue, not the organization. Mobilizers get more people involved. They capitalize on the interest people already have on an issue and get them to show up. For example, this might mean really long email lists that go out with information, which may or may not pay off in terms of people taking action. Finally, organizers focus on developing leadership and capacity. They invest in volunteers by giving them opportunities and support for leadership.

Particularly relevant in the context of civic organizations, a healthy democracy requires that people have a voice. Having the opportunity and knowing how is part of this. How organizations get people to come out and vote, protest, and lead is critical. “By bringing people together for collective activity, associations teach people the basic skills of democratic citizenship while advocating for their members’ interests in the public arena … Through the ways in which they reach and engage people, these associations can become engines of activism that propel people to higher levels of involvement” (p.28).

Reflections: While this book is outside of my field, it was instructive in terms of the methods and formulation of an argument. I’m not sure whether some of these concepts (lone wolves, mobilizers, organizers) will apply directly to my research, but that is why I write about them here, in commonplace book in the commons.

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”

Chapter 2 of Organizing Schools for Improvement

This is a follow up post to yesterday’s introduction & chapter 1. I’ve been enjoying this reading immensely because it quantitatively presents an understanding the support systems of a school and shows interactions between them. Many of the questions that I have had around emergent properties like how innovation affects school culture could be approached with these methods. The primary phenomena investigates is “how to better organize schools to support improvements in student engagement and learning” (p.48).

I find myself drawn to this more descriptive approach to research rather than as an interventionist. I think this is because the questions that I ask are on a large scale, so the idea of creating an intervention to “test” them would take years. It makes me think of the Hertzpring-Russell diagram, a plot of the absolute magnitude and temperature of stars, revealing the “main sequence” of stellar evolution. I wonder if I could make something like that for restructuring of schools… Hmmm.

Chapter 2: A Framework of Essential Supports

In this chapter the thrust is to explore the framework that emerged from the data. It’s worth noting that the criticism of business in the mid 80s was that large bureaucratic organizations were failing because they did not “respond well to local needs, had little capacity to learn, and stifled rather than nurtured innovation” (p.46). Sounds like the Chicago Public Schools, thus the Chicago School Reform Act. With more autonomy for restructuring at the school level, it makes sense to look at the school as the unit of research. This departs from some reform efforts at that time, which focused exclusively on instruction and the role of the principal as instructional leader.

The stated goal of the “theory of school organization and its improvement” (p.44) is to be grounded in practice. The tension between theory and practice is longstanding. (I have seen theory and practice best unified through design, so it will be interesting to see if there are similarities there. Also, it is hard for me to both approach this work as a practitioner and as a researcher, but if that is the goal it will be important to evaluate it from both perspectives.)

Second, the framework is meant to be analytic, in the sense that a practitioner could use it as a tool to guide school improvement. (This resonates with me after what I said above about creating a H-R-like diagram of school characteristics that creates a “main-sequence.”) The framework is based in organizational theory but also informed by contingency theory, given that this is an analytic tool meant to guide school improvement rather than a recipe for how to do the best school improvement.

They get at this with the “baking a cake” analogy to the concept of “essentiality.” You have to have certain ingredients (e.g. flour, sugar, eggs, baking powder, and salt) to make a cake, but the exact ratios are a little flexible. This is like school improvement: without one ingredient, the improvement isn’t going to happen. On the other hand, focusing exclusively on the exact right amount eggs also isn’t going to make it happen if you’ve got no flour. This is why it’s emergent. All ingredients need to be there.

Figures 2.1-4 – these give the four levels of organization.

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(I debated whether to post these because I don’t want to violate copyright, but seeing them next to each other is really helpful. In the book they are separated on different pages and this way you really get the zoom out of each level and a sense of just how complex the system is!)

An interesting component that they notice was missing from their data collection is the managerial dimension of school leadership. The researchers note that this became obvious after 1996 when the focus was on non-improving schools and found that there were schools where just the basic routines were not getting done. Management is a necessary but insufficient condition for improvement.

5 subsystems: School leadership, parent-community-school ties, professional capacity, student-centered learning climate, instructional guidance. There are 14 indicators for these subsystems developed to “capture the degree to which the essential supports developed in Chicago elementary schools” (p.71).

Up next, Chapter 3.

Middle School Technology Handbook

I think a lot about how 1:1 programs share information. When I first became technology coordinator, I was desperately searching for resources in how to organized and articulate the program norms and policies to parents. Thankfully, the program itself had thoughtful foundations already in place from my predecessors and colleagues, Angela Hancock and Brad Baugher, and I was able to build one what they had already written. I also got a lot from Kim Cofino and Jeff Utecht. I eventually wrote it all down in the form of the MS Tech Program Handbook, that I shared with everyone from our technology website. (I realize there is a bit of irony in calling it a “hand” book.)

This also goes along with our Responsible Use Agreement, which we show as a short, Common Craft style video that I made at the beginning of the year and then students fill out a check out form. I also sometimes review this with each grade during the year.

All of these resources have all been publicly accessible at some point, but I thought I would put them together here in case it is helpful for other 1:1 programs and coordinators. (Please reuse, remix, & attribute through twitter @pdxkali – Thanks!)