Convening learning partnerships

These notes are part of a series for the book. IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) is a US law that requires free public education for students with disabilities. To help support the implementation of this law, the IDEA Partnership was formed. It helped communities of practice — representing over 7 million stakeholders — form partnerships and constellations of communities through which knowledge and learning could be shared and developed. This chapter discusses how that processed worked.

Cashman, J., Linehan, P., Rosser, M., Wenger-Trayner, E., and Wenger-Trayner, B. (2015) ‘Ch. 8: The IDEA Partnership: Convening learning partnerships in the complex landscape of special education’, in Wenger-Trayner, E., Fenton-O’Creevy, M., Hutchinson, S., Kubiak, C., and Wenger-Trayner, B. (eds) (2015) Learning in Landscapes of Practice: Boundaries, identity, and knowledgeability in practice-based learning, New York, Routledge.


  1. The IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) Partnership
  2. A landscape with multiple dimensions of complexity
    1. Multiple levels of scale
    2. Multiple domains
    3. Multiple sources of knowledge
    4. Multiple sources of authority
    5. Multiple sources of influence
    6. Multiple stakeholders
  3. Communities of practice at multiple levels of scale
    1. Launching the national community of practice on school behavioral health
    2. Building a state community of practice in Hawaii
    3. Working across public and private partners in Pennsylvania
  4. Convening as an approach to learning
    1. Learning through shared work
    2. Complex landscape, simple questions
    3. Communities of practice as an infrastructure for collaborative learning
  5. New habits of interaction, new identities
  6. Convening roles in a complex landscape of practice
  7. Looking back and moving forward


Basic structure of the IDEA Partnership

IDEA Partnership: A federal project that ended in 2016, which was designed to support the IDEA law by ‘build[ing] connections between federal investments, national organizations, and state education agencies’ (Cashman et al., 2015, p. 147). This meant bringing together over 50 organizations, representing ‘policymakers, administrators, practitioners, families, and youth’, (Cashman et al., 2015, p. 133), or more than 7 million stakeholders that crossed levels of authority (federal, state, local, district, school), sources of knowledge (personal experience, policy, research), sources of influence (national and local chapters of professional organizations).

National level: This project first focused on bringing together communities of practice (COPs) at the national level. The stakeholders were asked to identify common areas of interest and work that could be shared (more about this later). As they grew, they created a dozen practice-area group to look at specific issues. These practice groups host an annual conference, and they also created state-level groups.

State level: Hawaii is one state that had a state-level group. They had fallen short of legal requirements and by federal court order they were monitored until they met minimum standards. After meeting those standards, they felt that the monitoring had been useful but they wanted to take their efforts a step further — thus, the state-level COP was important. They formed partnerships at the state level and created programs that garnered national attention, and so the learning and sharing crossed back and forth from national to state levels.

Local level: Pennsylvania offers an example of COPs created at a local level. In their case, the state-level COP wanted to work at a more local level with community efforts. School districts partnered with community programs, and the effects were felt state-wide.

Process of convening in this project

Conveners: After discussing some of the basic structure of the IDEA Partnership, the authors of this chapter then discuss how they were conveners in the process. This is picking up a term defined in an earlier chapter by Wenger-Trayner: ‘System conveners is the term we are using for people who forge new learning partnerships in complex landscapes’. They ‘see a social landscape with all its separate and related practices… [and] spot opportunities for creating new learning spaces and partnerships… across boundaries’ (Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner, 2015, p. 99).

The project’s goal was to bring about sustained change in practice. They believed the best way to begin this process was to engage with people within the groups they are already members of, to help them identify specific issues on which they could work in common, and to be sure to include both decision-makers and the people affected by the work as stakeholders in the project.

They recognized that working together would feel risky to the existing groups due to different mandates and feelings of mistrust among the groups. One key was to bring together the right people, with the right strategies, and provide specific and real work that they could share and experience early wins with.

To identify the work they could share, they asked four questions that helped them identify common issues, themes, venues, possible funding streams, and messages; and boundaries and different vocabulary. The four questions were:

(Cashman et al., 2015, p. 140)

The Partnership supported the constellation of COPs by facilitating annual meetings, regular conference calls between COPs, projects and activities in the practice groups, and a website on which all members could collaborate online. By encouraging the COP members to cross the boundaries of other COPs within the constellation, state agencies were able to inform their policies with by understanding practice, and practitioners were better able to understand the policies that were enacted. People shared documents and tools among each other more quickly, and discussed how policy or practice could change given their new learnings. Ultimately, the members changed how they view and perform their work.


The Leading by Convening framework, as discussed in this text

Dimensions of leading by convening (Cashman et al., 2015, p. 143)

One important aspect of the IDEA Partnership was that they supported the “leading by convening” process within the COPs. They encouraged them to adopt this framework, which brought together people around specific issues, made sure the right mix of stakeholders were involved, and shared work on specific issues that deepened their relationships with each other (this is the top level of the above image).

They found three specific areas around which people interacted: They addressed problems with expertise (technical element), identified areas where accommodations could be made (adaptive element), and made decisions based on the adaptive and technical interactions (operational element).

The depth of engagement people had based on these interactions ranged from informing people about their positions to transforming their practice. The deeper their engagement and the more they collaborated and crossed boundaries, the more they saw their identity as being collaborators.

Conveners play several roles:

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