a group of people sit in a circle on chairs in a big, open room
April 13, 2023

Partnership as Relationship

A Tang Institute project serves as a case study for strengthening partnership work more broadly
by Eric Roland
A post from the Tang Action Research Program*

An astute colleague recently remarked that the community, network, and partnership initiatives that feature in Tang Institute work ultimately boil down to substantive and sustained relationships. The observation was compelling, as the core of our engagement efforts focus on cultivating meaningful human connections in order to promote impactful teaching and learning. Often, the degree to which we are able to connect with others—to learn about teaching and learning practices in other contexts, to collaborate on specific work, or to share our practices or research findings—determines the extent to which our projects reach their desired outcomes.

Across a suite of more than four dozen projects since the Institute’s launch in 2014, hundreds of internal and external actors—campus colleagues, external educators, and others from the surrounding Merrimack Valley and beyond—have participated in project development and execution by engaging with innovative curriculum and offering insight and ideas on pedagogical practice. The great majority of Institute projects have involved intentionally constructed links to other educational institutions. The feedback gathered from partners on project effectiveness, whether through formal surveying or informal dialogue, has been positive. Still, though, I wonder, “Are we fully engaging partners in project work?” That is, do our exchanges with fellow educators, whether through Institute convenings or collaboration on specific initiatives, lead to changes in teaching or learning behavior, both on our campus and in other contexts? Further, are we meeting the needs of our partners through the (co-)creation of relevant programming and helpful resources? There is more we could know about how Institute work translates beyond Andover. It would be reasonable, therefore, to gain deeper insight into the Institute partner experience and make sense of the power of those aforementioned relationships. With a desire to better understand if our partnerships are indeed transformative—or not—I was compelled to participate in this year’s action research program.

The ethi{CS} project, in place since 2019, represents a perfect case study as it is a highly networked initiative. Deliberately built around a community of practice, the project marries the fields of ethics and technology in order to explore and share reliable ways for students “to be engaged ethically in their technical learning.”[1]

The ethi{CS} project is led by Institute fellows Kiran Bhardwaj, instructor and chair of the Philosophy and Religious Studies Department; and Nick Zufelt, instructor in Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science; with participation by various colleagues over the years including our Tatelbaum Visiting Scholar in Ethics and Creating, Ryan Ravanpak. The project team has diligently designed ways for fellow K-12 and university educators to learn ethics pedagogies. These vehicles include different types of publicly available, synchronous and asynchronous resources: sample curriculum, pedagogical reflections, periodic workshops, and annual conferences.

By studying the ethi{CS} project’s interactions with its community of educators, I hoped to get a sense of the efficacy of this engagement. Eventually, I wanted to identify ways of improving the project’s connection with educators so that as they learn themselves and seek to teach their students in impactful ways, their needs are better understood and met. The ethi{CS} team is guided by a desire to offer meaningful support to teaching colleagues—their pedagogical ideas are eagerly received at conferences and educators nation-wide show excitement for developing ethically oriented technology teaching competencies. As the project team develops new training opportunities and resources for the community of interested educators, the quality of the project<>community relationship will determine how effectively the project serves the development of educators, and ultimately, the development of students.

This exploration, though, has been anything but a linear process. Leveraging the insight and practical toolkits offered by Dr. Stilwell through the action research program, my early attempts at understanding the project “system” led me to sketch the universe of “ethics and technology”, including its various actors (much too broad), and, later, to develop a rendering of current and potential project resources (helpful, but out-of-scope). Ultimately, the ongoing whiteboard sessions and project-reflection conversations helped surface some cogent advice: consider your sphere of influence.[2] I was reminded to identify the boundaries of change within my purview and operate within that domain. As the partnerships and outreach lead for Institute work, I honed in on the relational dimensions of the ethi{CS} project and sought to make sense of the community’s needs and experience through a network-wide survey. I designed questions to learn what resources have been used, how useful those have been, and how the community prefers to receive communication.

My learning had just begun.

An early rendering of the ethics and technology universe
A capture of project conferences and events
A map of ethi{CS} project resources

Outreach to the nearly 200 members of the project community generated a disheartening response rate (2%). The lack of meaningful response was jarring, but after a fuller post-mortem, I recognized that the feedback—or lack thereof—served as a helpful indicator that we can do better in terms of community connection. Further, it sharpened the question at the center of my action research project: “How do we bring (back) into the fold those partners who are not engaged in project work?” The prompt reflects a point of deliberation not only for the ethi{CS} project, of course; building and maintaining community, with real relationships, is central to all of our Institute work.

From there, I pivoted to research on effective external engagement tools that could be tested and measured in the context of the ethi{CS} project. Appropriately, the search for innovative practices has led me beyond our campus environs and to a series of conversations with community and network leaders. So far, these have included people affiliated with a Washington, DC-based teacher professional development community; a Massachusetts North Shore leadership development program; a Greater Boston economic development-focused non-profit; and a learning network in Pittsburgh. The prompts at the center of these listening and brainstorming sessions—How do you measure engagement? How do you equitably design community programming? How do you engage the disengaged?—have elicited valuable, practical, and impactful ideas. Among them:

  • Celebrate the “superuser.” Seek ways to support those who have expressed energy and enthusiasm for a project or program by providing leadership and network- or program-enhancing opportunities.
  • …but not just the “superuser.” There is a wealth of information, insight, and valuable feedback sheltered within those who are not engaged (including compelling explanations of why they are not engaged!); seek ways to tap into that hidden knowledge and ensure there are ample opportunities for all members to have a voice.[3]
  • By all means possible. Email, text, phone calls, social media pings, friend-of-friend connections, coffee klatches, and in-person focus groups are all touchpoints and feedback-gathering means. Use them all.
  • Engage ambassadors. In the spirit of a network or community not being “owned” by any one individual, seek opportunities to identify those who will represent the program and advance the purposeful interests of the group. Effective ambassadors will recruit engaged members and future ambassadors.
  • Recognize that people will come and go. We are all human beings with competing interests. Make sure to keep the door, or doors, open for community members to rejoin programming as their schedules allow.

The throughline of the last few months offers guidance on next steps for both my action research project—particularly, a focus on employing new community engagement practices with an eye toward increasing programming participation and content “read” rates—and the community dimensions of Institute work more broadly. Notably, the improvement science concept at the center of the action research program, by which regular, iterative, and measured progress guides programmatic development, will continue to inform the design of Institute project work. As well, it provides a helpful starting point for the design of new and emerging projects led by Institute fellows. By offering a full menu of potential engagement practices from the start (with recognition that approaches may evolve over time), a project will have outcomes for all members, both internal and external, of its network.

Whenever we collaborate, whether with campus colleagues or external partners, asking how we can do better deserves central consideration. Recalling that our partnership work is rooted in relationships, we ought to employ any means necessary—even surveys!—to open up channels for conversation, critique, and connection.


[1] “the ethi{CS} project." https://tanginstitute.andover.edu/ourwork/interdisciplinary-teaching-and-learning/teaching-ethics-in-computer-science. Accessed 28 March 2023.

[2] Considerations of power and the power dynamics in a given context represent necessary dimensions of understanding one’s potential for influence and to affect change. Among other available tools, the Commons Social Change Library’s “Power and Power Mapping” literature offers helpful tools in this vein: https://commonslibrary.org/power-and-power-mapping-start-here/.

[3] I note in particular the importance of “transforming power dynamics," as identified by Katherine Milligan, Juanita Zerda, and John Kania in “The Relational Work of Systems Change," Stanford Social Innovation Review (https://doi.org/10.48558/MDBH-DA38).


*Eric Roland is a participant in the Tang Action Research Program, which provides a year of training and support to educators who wish to improve an area of their school. Educators apply the principles of Improvement Science, using rigorous inquiry and testing to guide development. Eric serves as the Precourt Director of Partnerships for the Tang Institute at Phillips Academy.



I am grateful to the insight and ideas offered by Jim Reese, Director of the Professional Development Collaborative at the Washington International School; Stephanie Lewis, Director of Relationships with Remake Learning; Derek Mitchell, Co-Founder and President of LEADS MA and former Executive Director of the Lawrence Partnership; Jen Merriman, Global Head of Research and Design at International Baccalaureate; and Blake Kohn, Executive Director of the National Network of Schools in Partnership. Thank you as well to Susannah Reed Poland for her steady guidance throughout the action research process and to my “astute colleague,” María Martínez, for her helpful project feedback.

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