The Deeper Learning Dozen


There are several organizations with whom we have worked over the years whose work we feel aligns very well with the purpose, mission, and principles of the Deeper Learning Dozen, and especially because all of them are deeply committed to equity in education. Some work at the pedagogical level, some with adult learners, some work at the leadership level, and some are networks whom we aspire to be like. We recommend working with any of them if your work is about deeper learning.

The National Equity Project

The National Equity Project is a leadership and organizational development nonprofit committed to increasing the capacity of people to achieve thriving, self-determining, educated, and just communities. Their mission is to transform the experiences, outcomes, and life options for children and families who have been historically underserved by our institutions and systems.

We’ve worked with NEP since it was the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools (BayCES) back in the small schools movement days in Oakland, and have engaged directly with them recently as a part of their being chosen by one of our funders to provide equity leadership coaching and training for their grantees. They provide the highest quality, most deeply researched, and most theoretically grounded leadership practices around leading for equity in complex systems of any organization we know. They are helping us to enact all three of our principles, because they rightly see that leading for equity requires engaging with equity discourse, interrogating and changing inequitable systems and structures, and supporting equity pedagogy in pervasive and persistent ways in district redesign efforts.

Adaptive Schools

We’ve known and worked for years with the folks from the Thinking Collaborative, first with Cognitive Coaching trainings going back to the early 2000’s, and then more recently with the Adaptive Schools approach to school leadership and team development. John participated in CC trainings with Suzanne Riley while he worked with Partners in School Innovation from 2000 to 2002, and then asked Suzanne to return in 2015 to help develop the foundational coaching skills for a community of practice of Linked Learning Pathway Coaches in Oakland Unified School District. John asked Carolyn McKanders to help the Linked Learning Pathway Coaches develop their team coaching capacity a few years later. We can think of no better way to support individuals to become effective collaborators, inquirers, and leaders, and organizations to become self-directed, and in turn, self-managing, self-monitoring and self-modifying, than this research-based approach.

Engaging Schools

Engaging Schools has produced some of the best books we know on creating collaborative classroom cultures, developing engaging pedagogical practices and activator strategies, crafting powerful advisories, conflict resolution, and getting classroom management and guided discipline right. They also provide engaging workshops on these same practices that are excellent modeling experiences of the very strategies they promote in their books. Underlying it all is solid research and a deep connection to the teachers who develop and use these approaches.

High Tech High Graduate School of Education

The National Writing Project

The National Writing Project focuses the knowledge, expertise, and leadership of our nation's educators on sustained efforts to improve writing and learning for all learners. Writing in its many forms is the signature means of communication in the 21st century. The NWP envisions a future where every person is an accomplished writer, engaged learner, and active participant in a digital, interconnected world. Unique in breadth and scale, the NWP is a network of sites anchored at colleges and universities and serving teachers across disciplines and at all levels, early childhood through university. They provide professional development, develop resources, generate research, and act on knowledge to improve the teaching of writing and learning in schools and communities. The National Writing Project believes that access to high-quality educational experiences is a basic right of all learners and a cornerstone of equity. They work in partnership with institutions, organizations, and communities to develop and sustain leadership for educational improvement. Throughout their work, they value and seek diversity—their own as well as that of students and their communities—and recognize that practice is strengthened when we incorporate multiple ways of knowing that are informed by culture and experience. The core principles at the foundation of NWP’s national program model are:

  • Teachers at every level—from kindergarten through college—are the agents of reform; universities and schools are ideal partners for investing in that reform through professional development.

  • Writing can and should be taught, not just assigned, at every grade level. Professional development programs should provide opportunities for teachers to work together to understand the full spectrum of writing development across grades and across subject areas.

  • Knowledge about the teaching of writing comes from many sources: theory and research, the analysis of practice, and the experience of writing. Effective professional development programs provide frequent and ongoing opportunities for teachers to write and to examine theory, research, and practice together systematically.

  • There is no single right approach to teaching writing; however, some practices prove to be more effective than others. A reflective and informed community of practice is in the best position to design and develop comprehensive writing programs.

  • Teachers who are well informed and effective in their practice can be successful teachers of other teachers as well as partners in educational research, development, and implementation. Collectively, teacher-leaders are our greatest resource for educational reform.

Zaretta Hammond is the online hub for equity-focused educators committed to improving outcomes for racially and linguistically diverse students who are being under-served. Based on the bestselling book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain by Zaretta Hammond, our focus is on building will, skill, knowledge and capacity through access to online resources and information as well as in-person seminars and workshops.

John has participated in and observed Zaretta Hammond’s work with teachers and schools for almost a decade and a half now, first in the small schools movement in Oakland, and more recently in her support for teachers in developing Linked Learning Pathways, also in Oakland. Zaretta brings a deeply passionate commitment to improving instruction for traditionally underserved students and the teachers who are committed to teaching them. Her work supports the possibility for those traditionally left out of the world of academic success to build their capacity to be independent learners through the construction of counter-narratives and mindsets that highlight who they are authentically, and supported to become successful in the social and academic world of school and the society beyond.

Shane Safir

For more than 20 years, Shane Safir has been a devoted and passionate teacher, administrator, and coach in the public school system. At each level, she has actively pursued educational equity, driven by a belief that school systems can and must provide every child with the resources he or she needs to learn and grow. 

Her on-the-ground experiences have taught her that we need leaders of all levels who are fearlessly dedicated to closing opportunity gaps for students, and firmly rooted in the values of listening and relationships. Through the powerful practice of listening and an unwavering commitment to equity, we can reimagine our schools as places of opportunity for every student.

Besides being the author of the new book, The Listening Leader: Creating the Conditions for Equitable School Transformation, Shane provides a variety of services, including speaking engagements, coaching, consulting, workshops, and retreats that challenge the paradigm of the outside “expert” who aims to solve your problems. She and her team invest in building leadership capacity at every level of schools and organizations as they work to create more equity-driven systems.

We have worked with Shane, as well as been a participant in her workshops, for a number of years. Her work has engaged us deeply, personally and professionally, in meaningful interactions around a powerful commitment to equity-driven leadership.

Selected Readings

Selected Readings for the Deeper Learning Dozen

Curated by John Watkins, Amelia Peterson, and Jal Mehta

This is a list of blogs, short articles, and an occasional book that we feel represent some of the most relevant thinking across several domains that are at the heart of the transformations districts will need to make in order for deeper learning to become the norm for all students (deeper learning, equity, leadership, adult learning, complex systems change, and inquiry cycles). We have selected a broad range of writing that we hope you will find intriguing and inspiring. We have double starred (**) those we feel are a good place to start and highly recommend. We have included more possibilities for those who want to extend their reading in different areas. We would welcome your contributions to this list, as we hope to continue to develop it as a resource for our community.

About Deeper Learning:

From our perspective, there is a lot about “deeper learning” that is in common with older ideas about constructivism, “problem-posing education,” “higher order thinking,” and other previous educational writings, going at least back to Dewey. What is really new is that economic, social, and civic changes have increased the importance of bringing this kind of education to all students. Thus in recent years, there has been a spate of writings under the label of “deep learning” that is trying to get increasingly precise about what kind of learning we are seeking, and what systemic changes would be needed to accomplish that.

We also want to be very clear that “deep” learning is not synonymous with student-centered learning, blended learning, or project-based learning. Those are modalities, which can be deep or shallow as they are enacted in practice. We do think the system needs to change to give students more voice, agency, choice, and control over their learning, but only because we think that those structural shifts are more likely to produce the kind of learning that we are seeking.

Hewlett Foundation definition

Succinctly describes deeper learning competencies, including academic content and 21st century skills, the things that students should “know and be able to do.”

The Why, What, Where, and How of Deeper Learning in American Secondary Schools, Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine.

A comprehensive overview of the history and contemporary landscape of deeper learning in public education, including current challenges to and opportunities for building a new system to support deeper learning.

Learning That Lasts: Challenging, Engaging and Empowering Students With Deeper Instruction, by Ron Berger, Libby Woodfin, and Anne Vilen,

This book offers a concrete approach to what it looks like to do “deep instruction” in core disciplinary classes. It includes examples on DVD, as well as rubrics that can be used to assess whether instruction is challenging, engaging, and empowering. Ron Berger also runs first class PD, if folks are interested in working with him directly.

Deep Learning: Shaking the Foundations, Michael Fullan, Peter Hill, and Santiago Rincón-Gallardo.

What is deep learning? Why does it matter? The current scene, to quote Mehta and Fine, is one with “startling gaps between aspirations and realities.” “We had hoped to be inspired but instead we felt profoundly disheartened.” The authors discuss barriers to change, micro levels of practice, roles of districts, coherence strategies, collaborative inquiry practices, macro-level change, future scenarios. (Michael Fullan’s website, new pedagogies for deep learning, is a helpful resource for this work.)

Several blog posts by Jal Mehta:

**Blog: No One Has a Monopoly on Deeper Learning:

Where do we find deeper learning? This blog describes how it emerges in settings where mastery, creativity, and identity come together. “There is more deeper learning going on in the ‘periphery’ (extracurriculars and electives) than the ‘core’ (core disciplinary classes).” “[In] these domains … students are playing ... the ‘whole game at a junior level’...”

Blog: A Pernicious Myth: Basics Before Deeper Learning:

Mehta argues that “If there is one prevalent assumption that stands in the way of deeper learning, it is that you have to do ‘the basics’ before you can engage in deeper learning.” He adds, “There is also the fact that the ‘basics first’ approach also tends to reproduce inequalities in schools.” He goes on to describe effective alternatives to this view and practice. A frame for this changed perspective includes seeing Bloom’s as a web rather than a ladder, and re-engaging learners in the process.

Blog: Deeper learning in other settings as a model for schools:

The authors set out to write about powerful learning in core disciplinary classes, but found instead that those spaces were often full of passive and bored students, in contrast to extracurriculars like dance, theater, sports, newspapers, and more that were full of student passion and apprenticeship-style learning. They argue the need for purpose and audience, choice, community, interdependence, an “arc to learning,” apprenticeship type learning; overall, an approach that fosters mastery, creativity, and identity, and plays “the whole game at the junior level.”

About Equity:

We are all aware of the importance of equity in making the kinds of shifts that would be required to enact the “for all” part of “deeper learning for all.” To the degree that there has been opportunity for deep learning within our systems, it has mostly occurred in private schools, or upper tracks of public schools (or outside of schools entirely). While we are all familiar with these inequities, we may be less familiar with the expanding set of resources, tools, and thinking that is helping leaders work to lessen these inequities. Many of these come from, or have been curated by, the National Equity Project, which is one of the leading institutions in the States in doing this work. Our work together will take on the challenges of leading for equity in discourse, structure, and pedagogy.

Blog: Deeper Learning Has a Race Problem—And It May Have the Solution, Sam Seidel.

The author’s summary may best describe this blog: “In the end, perhaps the most important question we can ask about deeper learning and race is: What educational model will most effectively prepare our children to dismantle the racism that plagues our society?  Will it be the factory model in which students are told a particular narrative about the history of their country and the world, and then trained to regurgitate it? Or will it be a model that encourages critical thinking, collective dialogue, and problem solving? Deeper learning is impacted by the same race problem the rest of our society suffers from: racism. Deeper learning is also our best hope at dismantling it.” Seidel suggests four (from among many) strategies that are already being done, and must be done by more of us, to address this racism.

Systems Thinking and Race, john powell, Connie Cagampang Heller, & Fayza Bundalli.

This workshop summary explores systems thinking ways of analyzing structural racialization. Structural racialization “connotes the dynamic process that creates cumulative and durable inequalities based on race.” Some aspects explored include communication and implicit bias, the faces of oppression, patterns of racialization, opportunity structures, and situatedness and transformative power. The summary ends with a discussion of “targeted universalism,” a concept developed by the author that “acknowledges our common goals, while also addressing the sharp contrasts in access to opportunity between differently situated subgroups.”

**The Lens of Systemic Oppression: Applying a Racial Equity Frame, The National Equity Project.

NEP leads workshops on all aspects of equity leadership. The authors frame the lens of systemic oppression this way: “As leaders for equity, our primary concern is to interrupt those rules that serve, either implicitly or explicitly, to perpetuate opportunity gaps for vulnerable students. To become agents of change who make strategic and courageous decisions, we must learn to run a set of filters, or lenses, that shift our vantage point and uncover what the ‘naked eye’ cannot see.” This way of seeing “allows us to uncover the structures, policies, and behaviors that sustain unequal outcomes for children.” They “seek to challenge individualistic thinking and interrogate the complex interactions of people, practices, institutions, and ideology that perpetuate inequity.”

Developing a Racial Justice and Leadership Framework to Promote Racial Equity, Address Structural Racism, and Heal Racial and Ethnic Divisions in Communities, Deborah Meehan, Claire Reinelt, Elissa Perry.

This article highlights lessons learned from community-based collective leadership efforts and racial equity work in order to provide a framework for investing in leadership that can bring about greater racial equity in communities.

Racial Equity Tools.

Aptly summarized in their own introduction: “Leadership can play a critical role in either contributing to racial justice or reinforcing prevailing patterns of racial inequality and exclusion. In an ever-changing multicultural society, filled with racial complexities, the role that leadership plays requires continual re-examination and reshaping…we need to change our leadership development thinking and approaches in order to become part of the solution to racial inequities.” This section includes resources about leadership and supporting individual and collective leaders for racial equity work, as well as some examples of approaches aimed at interrupting and transforming dominant cultural leadership ideas and development processes.

Changing the Discourse in Schools: Discourse I & II, “T” Chart from the National Equity Project.

A chart contrasting reproductive vs. transformative discourse about equity and school transformation: “Schools are a major part of society’s institutional processes for maintaining a relatively stable system of inequality. They contribute to these results by active acceptance and utilization of a dominant set of values, norms and beliefs, which, while appearing to offer opportunities to all, actually support the success of a privileged minority and hinder the efforts and visions of a majority.” — Eugene Eubanks, Ralph Parish, and Dianne Smith

About Leadership:

We believe that realizing the above goals will entail a different kind of leadership. In particular, the challenge is that you have to stimulate different modes of thinking and working, and you need people on the ground to help develop and own these changes. This means moving away from familiar models of command and control, and towards models where the center exercises leadership by supporting the development of shared purpose, unleashing energy on the ground, and then carefully listening and noticing what is working, what is not, and trying to feed those learnings back into the system. These models of leadership are in progress; part of what we hope to do through our community is to make them more concrete and learn what works and what is wishful speculation.

**The Work of Leadership, Ron Heifetz and Donald Laurie.

This article lays out the differences between technical problem solving and adaptive change, and describes leadership moves that support adaptive change. “Adaptive work is required when our deeply held beliefs are challenged, when the values that made us successful become less relevant, and when legitimate yet competing perspectives emerge. We see adaptive challenges every day at every level of the workplace.” Heifetz has a long history of work on leadership. See also, Heifetz, Ronald, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky. (2009). The Practice of Adaptive Leadership.

**The Six Circle Model (“above and below the green line”), Meg Wheatley & Tim Dalmau; Watkins Slide Deck on the 6(7) Circle Model:

This slide deck describes in short, and then more extensively, an heuristic and diagram for understanding organizations differently, developed out of the ideas of Wheatley and Dalmau. In particular, the “above the green line” aspects derive from how natural systems operate, while the “below the green line” aspects add in what is particular to human systems. The model makes the case for paying special attention to the human dynamics of identity, information, and relationships in any effective organizational process. The seventh circle adds the overarching lens of systemic oppression (see NEP article above in the equity section). The above and below the green line idea connects quite nicely to the Heifetz technical and adaptive distinction.

**The Listening Leader: Creating the Conditions for Equitable School Transformation, Shane Safir.

This book supports teacher leaders, administrators, and district leaders to tackle complex equity challenges, resulting in lasting change. It focuses on strategies for listening deeply to colleagues, families, and, students; cultivating relational capital—the interpersonal currency that fuels school transformation; addressing structural barriers, interrupting unconscious biases, and changing the conversation about equity; and fostering a thriving culture of improvement that promotes leadership at all levels of your organization.

Shane’s blog site:

A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making, David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone.

Snowden and Boone discuss the implications of complexity and chaos for leadership decision-making, using the Cynefin Framework as the theoretical foundation. What is the difference between simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic contexts? How might a leader manage in each of these domains of action?

Blog: Goodbye Command and Control, Margaret Wheatley.

“We still think of organizations in mechanistic terms, as collections of replaceable parts capable of being reengineered. ….Over the years, our ideas of leadership have supported this metaphoric myth. We sought prediction and control, and also charged leaders with providing everything that was absent from the machine: vision, inspiration, intelligence, and courage…. [However, it turns out that] productivity gains in truly self-managed work environments are at minimum thirty-five percent higher than in traditionally managed organizations.” This blog describes the process of leading self-organizing as opposed to continuing to attempt to control for quality and productivity.

**Blog: Vertigo and the Intentional Inhabitant: Leadership in a Connected World, Bill Traynor.

One of the best explanations of a radically new way of organizing. Traynor describes the leader’s role in the creation and maintenance of flexible and responsive network-centric organizations. “In a connected environment, the leader has to understand that the power of these environments comes from the space, not the forms that populate the space. Therefore, the critical function of a network’s leader is the recognition of—and the creation preservation, and protection of—space. Think of pool or chess or constant-motion sports such as soccer or hockey. In all these environments, space—and the mastery of space—generally determines the outcome.” He uses the acronym FOLKS to state these ideas in their simplest form: F (form follows function), O (open architecture is best), L (let it go), K (keep it simple), S (solve the problem).

About Adult Learning:

A big theme of our work is symmetry -- the idea that what you want for students has to be enacted with adults. These readings may be more familiar, but building the right kind of adult culture is arguably the most important thing that you do as a leader, because everything flows for good or ill from whether the system supports the adults collectively to grow and learn.

Cultivating Communities of Practice, Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, William Snyder.

We think this book is so central to our work in the Deeper Learning Dozen that we are giving a copy to all our Superintendents. We hope you will enjoy, read, and pass along the book and its ways of thinking about social learning and how to organize for that.

**Communities of Practice: Learning as a Social System, Etienne Wenger [Excerpt: Published in the "Systems Thinker," June 1998]

An excellent summary of what a community of practice is, how it operates, stages of development and how to nurture those stages, and how it can be a useful way to organize learning and practice within organizations.

Blog: We Are Not Newtonian Billiard Balls! The Need for a New Approach to Adult Learning, John Watkins.

Watkins explores how tacit Newtonian, mechanistic beliefs about organization and learning inhibit our capacity to create adult learning environments (and school district systems) that can sustain the deeper learning that teachers collectively need in order to create consistent and pervasive deeper learning environments for students. He then proposes newer heuristics that derive from constructivism, natural systems, and complexity theory.

Blog: Communities of Practice: An Organic Approach to Organizational Transformation? John Watkins.

Building from Mehta’s analysis of the historical and philosophical foundations of our current educational system and the reasons that it no longer supports the kind of learning that is needed today, Watkins proposes communities of practice as the organizational form and process that is most appropriate for the new professional organization.

About Complex Systems Change (including readings about emergence):

This section of readings builds on the previous ideas about leadership and connects to work on systems change and particularly “emergent systems.” Part of the key idea here is that in any complex system, change efforts will unleash lots of unpredictable interactions amongst the people inside of it, and the job of the leader is to understand these interactions and help people manage constructively how to move forward amidst a lot of uncertainty. Inherent in these writings is a new way of thinking about how to create organizations that are effective, humane, and support ongoing learning and improvement.

See also, A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making, David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone, described above.

**Summary: Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity, The Systems Thinker, Vol. 21, no. 10, Peggy Holman.

Holman initially describes the natural process of emergence as involving disruption, differentiation, surfacing innovations and distinctions, interaction, and then new, more complex coherence arising. She explains why acknowledging the reality of emergence matters, and then asks the questions, How do we disrupt coherence compassionately? How do we engage disruption creatively? How do we renew coherence wisely? She goes on to discuss the role of the leader/facilitator in engaging emergence: welcome disturbance, pioneer, encourage random encounters, seek meaning, and then simplify. The leader/facilitator does this through preparing the space, hosting, engaging, and iterating. Includes some very useful graphics. A longer version is her book by the same name.

**Systems Thinking: A Means to Understand a Complex World, Linda Booth Sweeney

This piece by Linda Booth Sweeney provides an introduction to systems thinking, which is a tool that we will use in our work. The core idea here is that we tend to think in rows, lines, and implementation chains, whereas complex systems tend to work in loops, cycles, and spirals. She suggests that if we can see these dynamics within our systems, we will be more able to channel them in productive directions.

**Blog: Lifecycle of Emergence: Using Emergence to Take Social Innovation to Scale, Wheatley & Frieze.

Another source for this article is:

“...our work is to foster critical connections…. When separate, local efforts connect with each other as networks, then strengthen as communities of practice, suddenly and surprisingly a new system emerges at a greater level of scale. This system of influence possesses qualities and capacities that were unknown in the individuals.” This article discusses the role of leaders to “Name, Connect, Nourish, Illuminate. We focus on discovering pioneering efforts and naming them as such. We then connect these efforts to other similar work globally. We nourish this network in many ways, but most essentially through creating opportunities for learning and sharing experiences and shifting into communities of practice. We also illuminate these pioneering efforts so that many more people will learn from them.”

**Video: The Two Loops Model, Wheatley & Frieze, The Berkana Institute.

Another source for this video is this:

The two loops model has been a fundamental piece of The Berkana Institute’s theory of change. As one system culminates and starts to collapse, isolated alternatives slowly begin to arise and give way to the new. In this video Deborah Frieze, Berkana’s former co-president, explains the two loops theory and speaks about the way that their work to name, connect, nourish and illuminate has fit into this model. She also identifies some of the different roles we might play to hospice the dying system, usher in the alternative system, and make clear the choice between the two.

Cultivating Flows: How Ideas Become Thriving Organizations, Russell, Jean M. & Wagter, Herman E.

Building on the ideas of David Snowden and the Cynefin Framework, the authors describe an “Action Spectrum” for decisions and actions: those (few) things you can control, those that you guide, and those you can only nurture (as contexts become more complex and further away in time). They then present a new way of thinking about organization that derives from network theory, based on the idea of nodes (people, teams) and flows (of information, ideas, practices) between them. This is a fairly radical, but useful, way to conceive of emergent organizational development.

**Blog: Growing the Impact of New Solutions: Trapped on site: Scaling new practices in Australian schools, David Albury.

Challenging the traditional - mostly technical, mostly failed - ways we have conceived of scaling innovation, Albury states: “What we do know about how to create the enabling conditions required for the adoption of new practices has not been absorbed into education policy or systems.” Innovation and scaling go hand-in-hand; engagement: grow communities of practice and work with early adopters; dissemination is not a scaling strategy; don’t just reward innovators - recognize early adopters; build demand from parents, learners, and communities. Albury also develops the ideas of “nested communities:” communities of practice, communities of engagement, and communities of interest.

Blog: Bringing Life to Organizational Change, Meg Wheatley.

“Since human organizations are filled with living beings (we hope you agree with that statement), we believe that life's change process is also an accurate description of how change is occurring in organizations right now. This process can't be described in neat increments. It occurs in the tangled webs of relationships--the networks--that characterize all living systems. There are no simple stages or easy-to-draw causal loops.” This blog describes four principles of living systems that we might apply to how we design our organizations. One of the most powerful is this: “To create better health in a living system, connect it to more of itself. When a system is failing, or performing poorly, the solution will be discovered within the system if more and better connections are created. A failing system needs to start talking to itself, especially to those it didn't know were even part of itself.”

Blog: MYTHS AND MECHANISMS: a brief note on findings from research on scaling and diffusion, David Albury.

This article explores the myths of scaling and diffusion of innovations, and then offers alternative powerful mechanisms that include nested communities (communities of practice, engagement, and interest), mobilization techniques, and enabling conditions in leadership and the policy environment.

About Inquiry Cycles:

A framework for transforming learning in schools: Innovation and the spiral of inquiry, Timperley, Helen, Kaser, Linda & Halbert, Judie.

This paper introduces the spiral of inquiry, an inquiry process used by teachers, schools, and system leaders in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, and increasingly also in England and Sweden. The spiral is a particular approach to inquiry that starts from close engagement with the experience of students, and builds confidence to take on larger changes. This approach also reiterates important leadership practices that Shane Safir describes in “The Listening Leader,” listed above, as well as the “empathy” and “observation” phases of the design cycle.

Are you reading something great that you think we should know about? Let us know! Email us at

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