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Virtual networked improvement community reflects on lessons learned in the use of rapid inquiry cycles to improve teaching and learning

Virtual NIC reflects on lessons learned
Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUImages

By Maggi Ibis
July 22, 2021

Networked improvement communities (NICs) are grounded in improvement science, which uses rapid Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycles to test and refine strategies to inform practice (Bryk et al., 2015). During the 2020/21 school year, researchers and facilitators from Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest and participants from three area learning centers in rural Minnesota formed a virtual NIC with the overall aim of positively influencing rates of credit recovery, credit accrual, and graduation. In support of these aims, the NIC implemented and tested student goal setting as a strategy to improve students’ engagement, ownership over their education, attendance, and sense of accomplishment.

The virtual NIC held its fourth and final meeting in May to discuss lessons learned. The NIC’s REL Midwest facilitators—Cortney Rowland, PhD, Fausto López, and Jessie Kerr-Vanderslice—shared their reflections on some of the takeaways that can inform similar efforts.

Takeaway 1: Communicate and understand NIC expectations upfront

Improvement science principles, such as the rapid-cycle testing of change ideas (strategies and interventions) and the use of data to monitor progress, are essential components of NICs. Before convening a NIC, facilitators should make certain that potential participants understand the amount of time involved and the disciplined approach required to carry out PDSA cycles.

Prior to kicking off the virtual NIC, REL Midwest facilitators discussed the time commitment and expectations involved in a NIC with school leaders at the three area learning centers. This step enabled the leaders to make informed decisions on whether a NIC was a good fit. For example, an essential and recurring step in effective PDSA cycles is the collection and documentation of improvement data. Although REL Midwest facilitators looked for opportunities to reduce the burden of these tasks, NIC participants had to contribute to data collection and documentation to sustain the work.

The COVID-19 pandemic also challenged the virtual NIC’s ability to pursue its goals and objectives. For example, attendance at NIC sessions varied, as members struggled to juggle the needs of their students and families with their own professional growth and the demands of the NIC’s disciplined inquiry cycles. This challenge emphasized the importance of gaining a strong, upfront commitment from school leaders to serve as ambassadors of the work.

Takeaway 2: Support the ideal conditions for a successful NIC, including time to plan and reflect on improvement data

Disciplined inquiry cycles involve not only collecting data but also reflecting on and making meaning of the data to inform NIC discussions about how to improve practice. REL Midwest’s virtual NIC facilitators encouraged members to go beyond completing the steps of the PDSA cycle as a compliance exercise and to think more deeply about how they could use the data to inform and improve their practice.

As with many NIC activities, this type of reflection requires time. The REL Midwest facilitators found that teachers were more likely to engage in the virtual NIC when school leaders provided time and support for them to participate in network activities, including time for planning, collecting data with integrity, and engaging in meaningful reflection. Such support also may help sustain the PDSA work over time.

Providing this type of support may require putting in place school structures that enable NIC participants to attend meetings consistently and to reflect on and use data intentionally, particularly in teams. For example, one school leader from an area learning center helped the team create space in the agenda during a common “advisory time” with students to implement the goal setting routine. In this way, implementing the change idea (the “Do” of the PDSA cycle) was not “one more thing” that teachers had to figure out in addition to other instructional responsibilities. This same team met regularly, with and without REL Midwest facilitators, to discuss the change idea and how to use the data collected during the goal setting process.

López, one of the virtual NIC facilitators, often uses the metaphor of physical fitness when describing NICs. “I think of the facilitators as the fitness trainers,” López said. “They have the gym space and all of the fitness equipment on hand to provide the structure and support, but the results emerge from the participants who follow the exercise regimen.”

For their part, the virtual NIC facilitators provided tools and structures to help participants reflect on and make meaning of data to inform practice. Lessons learned include the following:

  • Emphasize the importance of using evidence, not hunches, to inform decisionmaking and practice. Although using structured and intentional inquiry cycles and reflecting on the results can be challenging, this process is a key component of improvement science and NICs. Several virtual NIC members commented that the NIC process helped highlight for them the value of using data, versus “shooting from the hip,” to improve teaching and learning.
  • Codesign improvement measures that provide the necessary information for next steps. The virtual NIC facilitators found that when the measures were done well, they were able to support educators in understanding how to adapt their existing practices.
  • Meet NIC members where they are when it comes to measurement, data collection, and data reflection. Because the virtual NIC members were new to the PDSA process and were conducting the work during a year of virtual learning, facilitators decided to begin the data collection and reflection process (the “Study” of the PDSA cycle) slowly and strengthen it over time. The virtual NIC began the school year by collecting data on student participation and engagement with the goal setting activity. Over time, members incorporated a deeper measure that focused on identifying changes in student perceptions and behavior related to goal setting.

    A screen capture of a virtual networked improvement community convening via Zoom, which includes an overview of the virtual NIC’s aim and driver diagram used to facilitate the meeting and a video thumbnail of REL Midwest facilitator Dr. Rowland.

Takeaway 3: Center the NIC on continuous learning and relationship building

In reflecting on their experience with the virtual NIC, the REL Midwest facilitators said one of the most important priorities for their future NICs will be to incorporate promising strategies and activities that cultivate a growth mindset among network members. The facilitators noted the value of encouraging members to be open to growing in their practice and willing to engage in the process. For example, the facilitators had participants practice stepping outside of their comfort zone during the PDSA work by selecting and modifying change ideas to meet the context of each area learning center and finding data-driven ways to make small adjustments in their instructional practice for improved outcomes.

Several virtual NIC members shared how the process helped them see the benefit of fostering a growth mindset when communicating and connecting with students through goal setting. Members also reflected on ways they can transition from using a deficit-based and reactive approach for measuring learning and success to an asset-based and proactive approach that promotes students’ strengths and opportunities for growth.

“It’s important to become more asset-based when speaking with students about their academic goals,” Dr. Rowland said. “Continuous improvement doesn’t work well unless educators believe in the achievement of their students.”

Participants also discussed the importance of relationships with students in the success of the goal setting change idea (as with most anything in education). In March, the virtual NIC hosted guest speaker Patty Larsko of the Guadalupe Alternative Program in St. Paul, Minnesota, who shared her experiences with using student goal setting as a change idea to improve graduation rates. Larsko emphasized the importance of meaningful, caring relationships to build personal connections with students through goal setting. Dr. Rowland agrees that relationships are at the root of changing teacher practice and improving student outcomes. As teachers, administrators, and students return to fully in-person learning next year, re-establishing connections and relationships will be a vital foundation for teaching and learning.

Virtual NIC participants generated several interesting strategies for how they might cultivate relationships with their students and strengthen student agency as part of the goal setting process moving forward. For example, some participants suggested codesigning the change idea with students to incorporate their voice and feedback into the work. Participants also considered letting students “behind the curtain” by allowing them to see and discuss the PDSA data.

Related resources


Bryk, A. S., Gomez, L. M., Grunow, A., & LeMahieu, P. G. (2015). Learning to improve: How America’s schools can get better at getting better. Harvard Education Press.

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Maggi Ibis Staff Picture

Maggi Ibis

Research Associate | REL Midwest


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