Dr. Beth Holland joined us on episode 026 Perspectives and Networks to discuss the importance of perspective when viewing problems in education. We later explored the phenomenon of networking in education, and how current research might help individual teachers be more effective.
Michael Ralph: Last month we talked to Jenn Binis about the perspectives on the history of school and we read an article by Dr. Beth Holland and she actually gave it a listen. She has joined us to give us some additional context and some additional expertise on some of those topics. Dr. Beth Holland is a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Rhode Island and she serves as the digital Equity Project director at Cosen. She sits right between research and practice and works as a scholar who speaks to practitioners. Thank you for joining us Dr. Holland.
Beth Holland: Well thank you very much for having me and it was quite the surprise because I didn’t know that you had all read that article.
M.R.: I felt like it was a really productive conversation last month. I know there was a lot of things that I had a chance to reflect on in my own practice and think about how it applies broadly but we read another one of your articles to get ready for this month. We read, “The Side Effects of Education: Understanding Perspectives,” which is another another post with EdWeek and you talked about considering some additional perspectives on some of these issues. That’s kind of what we’re hoping to talk about this month. Can you give us a brief overview of what that article was about?
B.H.: Basically, imagine if you could take a problem and sit on a pedestal in the middle of a room. What would it look like from a historical perspective? What does the literature tell us about history so that you build a definition of history and then use that definition to examine your problem. Then what does it look like from sociology? What does it look like from economics? What does it look like from anthropology? What I ended up writing about in that first article was a result of some conversations that I had had with a few people where a lot of times some of them are current writings about education are really from an economics perspective. Based on the literature, an economics perspective, which talks about something like a model of scarcity, so often you hear things like there’s a scarcity of skills or a scarcity of creativity. It’s a scarcity model. You might look at supply and demand. “Oh, These are the demands of skills and these are the available jobs.” There’s been this real linkage of education and economic since, really, The beginnings of like the 18 hundreds. It’s that how do you build that lens, looking as well as things like sociology. How do sociologists view problems and view situations versus, say, anthropologists. The example I had given in that article i,s I know there’s been a lot of talk about Gene Twangy’s work with Igen. I don’t know Dr. Twangy but I know that she’s a sociologist and so understanding that a sociologist would look at the world as large quantitative data sets with a little bit of qualitative interviews or focus groups to explain them. That is looking really really broadly. In that article I compared it to some of the work from Danah Boyd who’s an anthropologist. As an anthropologist you really try to understand what are cultures and beliefs and personalities of different groups of people. Dana Boyd’s book, it’s complicated, is on a same topic of looking at the effects of technology on teens, but she approached it from spending a lot of time in different contexts. It’s really by understanding how do you take these lenses as a way of viewing and examining and studying problems and situations so that you get a much broader perspective than almost getting tunnel vision. As a reader, if I am reading something, how am I very conscious of, “Well, this is coming from an economics perspective” or, “This is coming from a sociological perspective,” and that, in no way, discredits the work. It’s just that you have to be aware of the perspective from which the work is being presented.
M.R.: Something that resonates with me in listening to that description now and in some of the e-mail exchange that we had leading up to this to this episode was emphasizing additional perspectives. I felt like that was a thread that we started with last month with Jenn. I know it got mentioned later in our discussion. The Coleman report came up because that was something that got referenced in your article. Talking about the perspective of the authors of that report and the social context of that time. We only had a chance to get into it very briefly. I think that is an important example of where these different perspectives could be brought to bear.
B.H.: Sure. The Coleman report was actually what we had used in our training when we were first understanding what this looks like. The Coleman report had a really long title, like — The Education Opportunities Something Brothers Long and Thoughtful — but it became shortened to the idea of the common report because it was Coleman who was the lead author. This came out in 1966 and it was part of two sort of merging influencing events. First, remember, 1965 was the Elementary Secondary Education Act. That was the first move to start to federalize public education. It was also in response to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. You got, at this point, President Johnson really framing education as a civil right. The Coleman report was the 1st national sociological study with a really large quantitative data set, meaning they surveyed lots and lots of people to get a relatively representative national sample. Then they looked at achievement measured by achievement test of the day. I think it was a 3rd grade, 8th grade, 12th or 11th grade. It was multiple grade levels, and they looked at it across race, socioeconomics, religion, to try to see what were the differences between these different groups. They found that there were significant discrepancies between different, not just that it was different racial groups, the biggest difference was they found essentially a gap in the performance on the achievement tests by socioeconomics. Now think about the fact that it was in 1966. Stereotypically, most people from the low income area were people of color. What you had was the beginning of what appeared to be this racial gap, though it’s one of those things where you have a correlation between race and socioeconomics. What the report ended up finding is there were differences in teacher preparation, teacher qualifications, teacher skills, resources available, all of that really based on socioeconomics, though correlating to race and that’s the beginning of this documentation of the idea of the achievement gap. From that sociological perspective it’s showing us with a large national dataset, sociology really looks at studying the influence of big picture systems. It’s an influence coming on to culture and community. This was an influence of mostly socioeconomics, but also, as an out product, or as a side product it was a factor of race. It’s really tricky to tie those two things together, just understanding where the world was in 1966. That report though, has held fairly consistent over time. There are those differences between race, there are differences between socioeconomics, the trick being you have to keep the race and the socioeconomics tied together. When there are differences, oftentimes it’s because of the segregation of communities that might put different communities in different socioeconomic strata. It’s one of those things where looking at that report, it still continues to hold true when you look at if you have an underserved community, what’s the performance of that underserved community? How does it compare to a more affluent community? I think that’s really the comparison that continues to go forward. I was just talking to someone recently. There was a news article that came out right around the end of the year, in December, up here, in the northeast. It’s called the Boston valedictorian project. They went back five years and they found all the valedictorians from all the Boston Public Schools, like a “Where are they now.” What they actually found, I can’t remember the statistics precisely, but they were sad. It was something like 20 or 30 percent actually graduated in 4 years from college. It was devastating. Then they were finding what happened to these kids. Some of them dropped out. Some of them managed to get through in 5 or 6 years. Kids were commenting they didn’t feel prepared. They didn’t feel as though they had the academics. Then they went, not just from Boston public schools, but out into the more affluent suburbs. You had this complete shift. The more affluent the community, those kids were through college in four years. They were doing better. They have more connections.It was because of the social capital in the social support of being in a more affluent community. Some of the statistics from that report though that really had shocked me, and I know that you guys had mentioned it. I actually went back and reread the report to make sure I couldn’t put my foot in my mouth, they said that only eight to nine percent of the factors could actually be attributed to race, and then it was a very small percentage of factors that could be attributed to what happened inside the schools. The reason why they’re making those statements, is think about all of the external services that support the development of a child. You know that’s where they started documenting things like summer slide. If you have a student in an affluent community where, in the summer, there’s books at home, there’s people who read with them, they go to summer camp, they do enrichment programs, versus, you might have a kid who spends the summer who doesn’t have those opportunities, and who might also then have food scarcity challenges. If they’re not in school, they’re not fed every day. Summer becomes this real source of stress. Well of course you’re going to see a summer slide, but that has nothing to do with the factors that happened inside of school those are the factors from outside of school. The last piece coming back to all of this is remembering in 1966 that this was part of the civil rights era and it was also part of Johnson’s War on Poverty. President Johnson was really seeing education as an opportunity to reduce the amount of poverty in the country. The Coleman report is one of the reports that illuminated a lot of things that people are already knew and maybe didn’t want to admit but there wasn’t an easy solution. It is much easier to be able to go, “Oh, we just need to add more literacy and math to these schools and we’ll just boost them up. The Coleman report is like, “Hold on a second.” It’s sociology. There are forces and factors at play. There is economics and community and culture that’s influencing this thing.
Laurence Woodruff: Oh man. There’s so much there. We talk about these large sociological systems and these empirical measurements of all of these demographics and all of these things coming together, but I’m a classroom teacher. I teacher in a high school, right? I want to explore what influence and agency that I have in addressing this issue. That’s challenging. Any time there’s an individual that is attempting to accept a systemic sociological problem. One of the things from my perspective that I hear when I hear these kinds of statistics or this kind of data is, “OK. What do I know about education psychology that applies to this. There’s a lot of consistencies. We know Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If your core fundamental physical safety and psychological safety are not met you’re not going to be able to do higher level cognitive tasks. We know that if you do not have consistency and you do not have reliability then you’re not going to trust the leaders or authority figures in whatever system you’re participating in. I have a wide variety of socioeconomic students in the school that I teach in. We have homeless students and we have some of the wealthiest students. A wide variety. When I have a student in my classroom who comes from a background who has not had consistent relationships with authority figures and has not had their needs met physically consistently and is NOT have their needs met consistently psychologically and does not have safe associations with being maybe in school or in a classroom or out in the world, what do I do?
B.H.: I think you just raise my point on lenses really well. Sociology is a lens. It is a lense through which you examine a situation. It relies on large data sets, and it looks at really big picture social structural systems, like socioeconomics, race, gender. Those are probably things that as a classroom teacher you can’t touch. I remember one of the other things you learn as a doctoral student is, “where can you actually move the needle?” Where can you actually do something that would have an impact. Sociology is only one lens. You have to start thinking again, if I take this problem and put it in the middle of the room, how many ways can I walk around it. You started talking about child psychology or developmental psychology. Those are both lenses. Learning science is a lens. Neuroscience is a lens. You have to keep walking around the room looking through those different lenses. You think you have a really deep understanding of the problem. The challenge is to make sure as a classroom teacher that when you’re looking at a situation with a child that you’re aware of those different lenses. You have a child who might have some have food insecurity, who may not have certain trust in authority and in people. Then you start considering it, OK, from a neuroscience perspective. This child might be feeling stressed. If they’re feeling stressed their brains are producing cortisol. What can I do to mitigate stress in this classroom? Then you might think about it from a multicultural perspective. I need to make sure that I’m valuing the different voices and the different ways in which my students communicate and the cultures from which they come and how am I conscious about the types of materials I present and the opportunities I give them as ways of expressing their learning. By having these lenses it’s not to say, ignore sociology. It’s to say, “I’m going to be aware of it,” but that might not be the place where I go right now, because certain things we just can’t fix. Understanding there’s all of these different lenses to which we can examine things and then decide what’s the ones that are actionable within your context.
M.R.: Getting to an accurate representation of what’s going on can help us better address some of the problems in that system but then I started hearing from you, I think it really pushed me to think about, “OK,” even if I have a good perspective, it is only one. It is only one perspective. Make sure that I’m checking for other opportunities or other ways to think about a problem. Make it about getting good leverage on different ways to address that problem. If I’m not then you can end up getting tunnel vision. You can end up getting overly focused on some of the extraneous details that are not all that useful. Hearing from you, if I’m synthesizing correctly, is that making sure that I’m considering multiple lenses on a single problem make sure that makes me more confident and I’m effectively getting good leverage on solving whatever problem I’m trying to tackle as appropriate to a single classroom teacher.
B.H.: I think it’s really important too for defining the problem. When I started my doctoral studies all of this came in with a predefined problem of practice. We all thought we knew what we were doing. You get accepted. You go, “I know what I’m doing. This is what I’m going to look at.” It’s great because by the time you get to your first six months you’ve probably thrown it out and had to admit that you’re wrong. I finally got to December and I was talking to my dissertation advisor. At the time my problem or practice, I’m doing the air quote thing for those of you that are just listening, was I thought the issue with teachers not be able to support students with 21st century skills, knowledge, economy skills, whatever you want to call them, those ideas, I thought the problem was access and opportunity to professional development. At the time, I was working for a professional development company. I had my solution. Like that saying, if have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I had my solution and I had framed it as a problem. Finally my advisor says to me, “If you gave every single teacher in the entire country the greatest professional development on the planet and they all did all the work and everything about it and it was perfect would you solve the problem?” Without even missing a beat I said, “No.” I just said, “No. It would not solve the problem at all.” He says, “OK. Then what’s the real problem?” That’s when you go, I got to start all over because I don’t really know. Gosh Darnit. Then, to come back to your awesome point about what can I actually control. I went huge, to 30000 feet. “Oh my God. System failure. We’ve got all these big things.” At some point, you’ve got to finish this degree. You’ve gotta measure something. The way Henry, my advisor, explained it, you work down the funnel. You keep working down the funnel until some small spits out that you go, “I can measure that.” You just keep getting smaller and smaller and smaller. I had started with, “The system of school doesn’t support instructional innovation.”
M.R.: That is a good question.
B.H.: I had to start getting smaller and smaller and smaller, down to my final little bitty piece, “Was how could I improve the quantity and quality of communication between district administrators and building principals.”
M.R.: We have had that conversation.
B.H.: Put it on the head of a pin right? My logic was, “I’m going to take these people and I may give them a Just-in-time, online training platform, and I’m going to ask them to collaborate digitally. The other super short answer, this one is if people don’t like each other and don’t trust each other they don’t talk. OK, that’s 20 pages summed up pretty short on the theory that if you could get people to talk together more it would lead towards improvement that I still think holds true.
M.R.: That’s sort of a perfect segue, and I’m sorry, but that’s a perfect segue…. to some of the other material that you sent because, that community building, relationship building, because you have expertise in that area, that was the other paper that we did up talking about last month.
L.W.: We read one last month about Social Capital and we also read one this month in preparation about social capital. They kind of slightly covered different topics but both of them were essentially about, “How do individuals choose to network and what are the consequences of how people network for their own practice and the perceptions of the practice they have of the schools that they’re in. I just love that whole topic. I love last month’s article and this one too.
B.H.: Moolinar. I like Moolinar’s work. I’m going to put my scholar hat on for a minute and give a little background. There’s a group of scholars there out on the west coast. It’s Daily, Finnigan, Moolinar, Umakubo, and Che. Not necessarily in that order. I read everything that some combination of those groups of authors have written at this point. They’ve done a ton of studies out in Southern California. They did a lot of work when Common Core was first coming out. What they did is using an empirical strategy called social network analysis. It looks at the advice seeking networks, of who actually talks to who. It’s a quantitative measure. You don’t create a survey instrument. You use what’s known as a validated survey instrument. One that a group of researchers has determined is effective at measuring what they claim it’s going to measure. They use those instruments to figure out who talks to who. Then they use what’s known as a relational perspective. It wasn’t just who talks to who, but how often, and how would you rate the quality of those interactions. Those really cool diagrams that you guys liked. Those are what are known a sociograms. They’re outputs of the statistical analysis of the interactions. Plese don’t ask me how the math works. I have no idea. There is a number of different software platforms you can use and you run these different algorithms that makes the data look the way it looks. You can make the data look like anything. I actually had to meet with some data scientists in the library when I ran social network analysis as part of my study because I was using the wrong models. I’m like, “This is so cool.” and they’re like, “Yeah that’s not the one you want.” Then you have to decide what are the statistical measures that you’re looking for. You might look at the density of connections. How tightly clustered is a network? The denser the connections, the more people are interacting. You might look at what’s called the centrality of a network. Who are the key players that are positioned most centrally in the network? Typically, the people that are central to the networks are the ones that have the most position. Position could be hierarchy or authority or just the value those people thought leaders. This is where you really need a qualitative piece to figure out why the people are central in the network. One that I found really fascinating was from this Blondell. The Blondell algorithm. I have no idea how it worked. It was magic and it came up colors. It would look at what was known as the statistical communities. Statistically speaking, how are people clustered together? Who talks to who? In one of the studies I sent you from Moolinar was the one where they were looking at the dynamics of the networks within more innovative organizations and what did those look like. One of the things I also like about that was the longer people have been working together, you’ve built that relational trust, you’ve built that experience, the more innovative they thought they were, whether they were or they weren’t. They started to feed off of each other, which I thought was really fascinating. I really desperately wish I had found that article, not the week before I submitted my dissertation, because I think I would have changed some things. It was still clutch to find it at the time. That’s where the network is. Now, the last piece, and this is why it is important, understand Moolinar is part of this cohort of researchers. This ties into some work that Meredith Hoenig led at the district leadership lab at the University of Washington. They looked at this idea that there are certain kinds of people in these networks. You’ve got what is called the boundary spanners, the people that go between different groups a lot of times. There’s also a researcher named Swinnertin, who did an anthropological study, again thinking about our lenses, to make sure this doesn’t go completely into outer space. Swinnertin did an anthropological study of instructional coaches in a district. Instructional coaches are really positioned as boundary spanners. They work between teachers. They work between central office. Their spanning back and forth between those groups. There’s also the role of what they call the broker. Hoenig and then also Hoenig and Rainey did some fascinating studies where they looked at, typically the the principal might be a really good broker. They broker policy messages and communication from the central office through to the teachers, but they also have positional power where if I come to you as the principal and go, “I want you to redo the whole way you teach math.” I’m making this up right now. You go, “Great, but I don’t have time.” As the broker I can go, “Tell you what. I’m going to take this off your plate. I’m going to give you this time. This is what’s really important. I’m going to broker some way of doing it. I want you to be an advisor.” “I could be an advisor, but I’m so busy doing lunch duty.” “Fine. I’m going to take lunch duty off your plate.” This is where our policy and our priority is. The broker has that ability to do it. When you have to be careful of, that blocker. The one where the message comes down and the person’s like, “I’m not spread that.” My personal favorite. This is what the district says we’re supposed to do, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to.
M.R.: This makes me think of when I get an instruction, or when I’m hearing a request. “Hey. Do this thing but, also they’re making it very clear they’re never going to follow up on it. They’re never going to check. I’m never going to gety any feedback on it. It’s very, well, why would I do that thing if you don’t actually care whether I get it done.
B.H.: When I launched my dissertation project I was in 3 different districts in the Northeast United States. We are going to keep it there. One of my sites, I went in. I did this hour kickoff meeting. It was a total cluster. Really couldn’t have gone worse logistically. I wasn’t given the right information. All kinds of mess. At the very end of it the superintendent stands up and says, “Well, we’re really glad that that’s here, but we have other priorities. If you get to fine, and if you don’t, fine.” I knew right there. This is going to fail.
M.R.: Yeah. Leave. What do you do with that? Yeah. So getting back to Laurence’s comment about one classroom teacher. I remember some of the flavor of our discussion of that paper last month was I may not have the ability to measure the entire social structure of my building, but I have some intuition about you know generally what that layout might look like. How do I leverage when I think that I can identify a characteristic of that social space? Is there some way that, if I know that I’ve got an effective broker here, that I can do this, and it’s more effective? What are some tips for classroom teachers that try to identify some of the nebulous social structure that they may be a part of.
B.H.: I think the first one was actually a great piece of advice I got from a middle school principal that when I was working I was the director of technology at a small little preschool through eight independent school. As the technology person, I represent change. I was in a fairly traditional environment, and I came in blazing and raring to go. After my first couple of months a middle school principal pulled me aside and he looked to me and he goes, “Does anyone actually like you?” He meant that in the kindest possible way. The point being, you have to start with the people that actually like you and trust you. I was trying to bang down every single door and I wasn’t getting anywhere. The 4th grade teacher likes me and sixth grade socia studies teacher seem to like me. He’s like, “So go play with them and leave everybody else alone.” He’s like, “Start there.” The second thing, I was at our conference a couple weeks ago and I was listening to Pam Moran and Ira Sokoff from Albamar, Virgina. Pam made a really great point. She said, “When as a superintendent, when someone would come to her and said, ‘I have this great idea here’ or, ‘this great thing I want to do,’ she would say, “Absolutely. Who’s your team?” One person just causes problems. One person’s a troublemaker. I was a troublemaker. But when you get a team, now you have a coalition. It’s really about thinking, I think as a teacher, how do you build that coalition? Who’s going to get in this fight with you. Who’s going to be your wingman. I think had I actually been mature before, which I think I just found a shred of maturity in the last 8 months. I’m very proud of myself. I’m only 42. I think I just found it. Had I had some before, I would have recognized that you know you need a team. There’s another great researcher out in northwestern by the name of James Spelain. He’s done a lot of her work where he finds that it’s really fun to say, he talked about this idea of propinquity, I know it’s a great word. The article is called the elephant in the schoolhouse. Elephant in the schoolhouse is being this notion of propinquity, where you’re physically placed, you physically interact more with the people that are physically closest to you. The two classrooms that are next to each other, the person you have to walk past all the time, when we’re all going yeah yeah. I think, “How do you take advantage of that?” Imagine what happens when that whole side of the hallway is doing it. You create that social pressure. I think that comes back to your point on social capital. You need that social capital, the ability to spread those ideas through a network, and that’s how I’m going to define it right now, I can give you a citation if you want. It is really the strength to be able to spread resources through a network. I see you writing it down. It was from Zhaou, Frick, and Boarman, 2004. I’ll send the article if you want. Where you need that social capital if you’re going to spread different ideas through a network.
M.R.: We really appreciate you taking the time to give us feedback on our discussions, you’ve given us so many new references to go read. I’ve got a lot of homework now. If the listeners have really enjoyed listening to your comments they want to read more of what you’ve written or consume more the media if you create, where can they best find other material by you.
B.H.: You can go to my Web site which is brholland.com. I am starting a new blog series with cosen that will start this week actually so it’s on our cosen.org blog. I’ve got some writing there. I’ve also started writing with getting smart, a little bit more. I know I’ve got some articles coming out there. I write from time to time for edutopia. There’s things over there. Unfortunately Edweek shut us down which is very sad. I’m not there anymore. I’m on Twitter as Brholland. You’re welcome to find me there. I’m Brholland on linkedin. I’m Brholland everywhere. I’m a very responsive person. If you don’t hear from me for some reason, please hit me again. It means the interwebs ate it. I will get back to you.