Monday, July 1, 2013

Network Improvement Communities: Teaching, Researching, and Designing Learning in Newark

Making Meaning with Paint (Robert Treat Academy Central, 2013)
I. Entering

It has been a most amazing year.  I am finally catching my breath and wanted to take some time here to discuss the work my company, Blueprints for Learning, has done with teachers, administrators, students and parents in Newark, NJ and what that work means.

This year we partnered with 7 schools in Newark focusing on K-2 literacy at four of the schools, K-8 mathematics and K-8 literacy at two of the schools, and 6-8 literacy at one school.  On every measure schools used, children at our partner school sites were able to demonstrate very significant gains in literacy and mathematics.  The vast majority of children at all of our sites will enter the next school year having met or exceeded all school and district benchmarks.

So what went right?

II. Working in Network Learning Communities

A principal and teachers from different schools work together to dramatize a scene from
a Barry Lopez essay. (Newark, 2013)

First, we have no set program, but we did create relationships with our clients.  It is in the context of these relationships that community knowledge was made. Making community knowledge allowed us to understand our work as flawed, flexible and (in)formed by emerging situations.  We revised our work so often that we understood this behavior as essential to creating conditions where effective learning most often happens. Alongside community knowledge, commitment arose. (I suspect community knowledge and commitment are co-specifying).

Administrators and third grade teachers from different
sites working together. (Newark, 2013)
One observation an assistant superintendent in the city made that I most prized was that everyone from Blueprints spoke with teachers and children with great respect and clarity.  I imagine this occurred a a norm because we experienced teachers, administrators and children as partners.  These partnerships allowed us to frame and respond to emerging situations.  Because we worked across 7 sites within a city, we also were able to leverage the power of that network, which formed and remade itself as different alliances and commitments grew.  The dynamic nature of network improvement communities allowed us to situate our work in the middle of learning spaces as teachers, researchers, learners, and designers.  I think here David Weinberger's observation that " a networked world, knowledge lives not in books or in heads but in the network itself" (p. 45).

Jal Mehta (2013) in The Allure of Order: High Hopes, Dashed Expectations, and the Troubled Quest to Remake American Schooling writes about network improvement communities (Bryk & Gomez, 2008) as promising practices in education improvement.  He says:

Here the idea is to bring together local practitioners, researchers, and commercial designers around a set of shared objectives and across a number of networked schools. Rather than stage the process in the usual way (first research, then policy, then implementation), researchers, practitioners, and designers work together in real time to develop, adapt, and revise knowledge to solve a problem of practice across a variety of institutions. Learning takes place at three levels: the classroom, the school, and across the network. This model is particularly promising because it expands upon the more familiar idea of individual “learning organizations” and provides a process by which we could capture and adapt knowledge across a diverse network of schools" (5342-5343). 
Teachers observe as a kindergarten teacher teaches
a high intensity literacy lesson to her students.
(McKinley Elementary School, Newark, 2013)
Rather than understand emerging conditions as being uni-dimensional (i.e., a reading problem, teacher x's problem) and solely the 'problem' or 'practice' of a school, classroom, teacher, or child--we were able to understand these situations through a variety of lenses as networked intelligence informed our understanding. This led us to routinely create occasions that situated consultants, administrators, researchers, authors, and teachers from different places alongside one another. This juxtaposition allowed all of us to better learn and problem frame and solve.

III. Looking Toward

As we think about next year, we will privilege designing ongoing occasions where learners (that would be all of us) connect, contextualize, collaborate and create in more idiosyncratic ways with one another, as well as with others beyond the city.  At a workshop I conducted during the last week of school, I was so pleased to hear teachers and administrators in attendance getting one another's email so that they could stay in touch and work together during the summer and next year.  They valued one another's work.  For next year I have tentatively designed the opportunity for 300+ educators to learn in cross-school PLCs focusing on mathematics and literacy instruction.

I'll let you know what emerges from that invitation...

Work Cited
Mehta, Jal (2013-04-02). The Allure of Order: High Hopes, Dashed Expectations, and the Troubled Quest to Remake American Schooling (Studies in Postwar American Political Development). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

Weinberger, David (2012-01-03). Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren't the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest People. Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

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