Staying in Wonderland: The possible futures of education

Merely expanding the current educational development model is not a viable route forward. Our difficulties are not only the result of limited resources and means. Our challenges also stem from why and how we educate and the ways we organize learning today. We need a new social contract for education that can repair injustices while transforming the future. We face an existential choice: continue on an unsustainable path or radically change course.” 

Reimagining Our Futures Together: A New Social Contract for Education (UNESCO)

You might recall the moment in the Matrix that launches Neo’s awakening. Morpheus presents a choice. “You take the blue pill… the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill… you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” For sixteen seconds Neo sits in indecisiveness, then takes the red pill, choosing the “truth of reality”, one much harsher and more difficult. UNESCO’s report offers us the same life-defining moment.

I put the following together for our leadership team as a means to generate dialogue for what is possible for our community. I share here in the hopes one more person might pick up this conversation with their own teams to challenge the current “grammar of schooling.” (Refer to Jal Mehta’s latest to expand this conversation ).

Dear Leadership Team,

I know we would all agree that multiple alternative futures are possible and that no trend is destiny. It’s also difficult to establish a timeline, as a school can potentially change more quickly than an education system. To support our conversation, I’ve curated a few resources. I invite you to share others that can help stretch our imaginations beyond the status quo. To the extent that is possible, I’ve summarized and synthesized and then included the originals as a reference. For that reason, I don’t do a great job of citation. It’s a bit of a mash-up.  

I also focused on education, rather than the future of learning, specifically.  There is no doubt that how we learn must be determined by why and what we learn. Shifts in education will undoubtedly lead to shifts in pedagogy. Much like the UNESCO report highlighted, I lean towards the research that suggests future pedagogies “require participatory, collaborative, problem-posing, and interdisciplinary, intergenerational, and intercultural learning”(50). Although this has implications for how we organize, I tried to leave out commentary on learning for this stage of our conversations. (You can only imagine how challenging that is for me.)

It’s hard to begin without some reflection on the WHY of education. Systems shift when the purpose of the system shifts. The purpose provides the point around which people, activities and resources are organised. I recently read UNESCO’s report from the International Commission On the Futures of Education, “A New Social Contract for Education.” The whole read is worthy of your time.  As this is a provocation, I’ll lead with their call to action and one that personally resonates.   

Our humanity and planet Earth are under threat. The pandemic has only served to prove our fragility and our interconnectedness. Now urgent action, taken together, is needed to change course and reimagine our futures.  We need a new social contract for education that can repair injustices while transforming the future. 

… given the grave risks we face, we must urgently reinvent education to help us address common challenges… 

Constructing a new social contract means exploring how established ways of thinking about education, knowledge, and learning inhibit us from opening new paths and moving towards the futures we desire...Merely expanding the current educational development model is not a viable route forward… We face an existential choice: continue on an unsustainable path or radically change course.” 

A New Social Contract for Education,

Although we completed a local analysis of factors that may impact change, here are additional global trends that may inform our conversation. You will see in the reference the various sources I used to build the list. Although our context is unique we are part of an interconnected, interdependent global system.  These factors could add up to many different scenarios – and at the very least – impact curriculum, assessment, and learning facilitation, which highlights a need for different skills and experiences of educators in the future. 

[HOW] Possible Scenarios

Education will respond to the drivers in some way. Since COVID, which highlighted both the possibility and fragility of our schools, opinions about the future of schools and education are running rampant. I find it more helpful to consider a scope of scenarios. Scenarios are designed to capture the continuum of possibility based on priorities and uncertainties. The use of scenarios is not intended to set a path but to see the paths that are possible. To start, I found Neil Selwyn’s matrix highlighted in OECD’s Back to the Future of Schooling a helpful grounding. (In this case, schooling is more akin to education – the organization of teaching/learning.)

Below, I pulled some descriptors from the report to give a bit more context to each of the models:

  • Massive schooling: This implies the continuity of both schools and schooling as we know them. Although modernised by technology, learners and teachers continue to operate within rather uniform structures and standardised processes. 
  • Virtual schooling: Here “virtual” is not restricted to digital learning only. Schooling continues, but learners do their learning and teachers do their teaching outside the confines of conventional physical schools, within a context of flexible relationships and greater choice.
  • Re-schooling: Schools continue, but schooling changes. The attainment of shared core academic knowledge and skills may endure, but these are not necessarily pursued through common processes. Traditional roles and relationships in schools change, including those of and between teachers and students. 
  • De-schooling: The structures and processes of both schooling and schools are disrupted. This future has completely transformed teaching and learning as we know it and traditional notions of physical infrastructure, curriculum and qualifications are all overridden. 

This set of additional narratives from the OECD’s 2020 update may be helpful in understanding in greater detail how Selwyn’s model plays out based on the specific drivers of change. OECD projects 15-20 years for these possibilities. I pulled details that suggest the role schools may play in these possible futures. The scenarios are more robust than what is represented below.

Scenario 1: School Extended: Participation in formal education continues to expand. International collaboration and technological advances support more individualised learning, yet the structures and processes of schooling remain.

The organisation of instruction and student-teacher relations remains generally impervious to change, although there is room for innovation. Schools continue to operate under a classroom/individual adult model but schedules are more flexible with the adoption of blended instructional methods and rigid boundaries between traditional academic subjects have softened. More marked division of tasks and greater diversification of professional profiles in schools has emerged. A reduced but distinct, well-trained teaching corps remains in charge of designing learning content and activities, which may be then implemented and monitored by educational robots along with other staff employed under diverse working arrangements (voluntary/paid, part-time/full-time, face-to-face or online), or directly by educational software. New roles, such as learning data analysts, grow strongly, employed in school networks or “learning industries” elsewhere.

Scenario 2: Education Outsourced: Traditional schooling systems break down as society becomes more directly involved in educating its citizens. Learning takes place through more diverse, privatized and flexible arrangements, with digital technology a key driver.

In this scenario, diverse forms of private and community-based initiatives emerge as an alternative to schooling. Highly flexible working arrangements have allowed greater parental involvement in children’s education, and public systems struggle with families’ pressure towards privatisation.The abandonment of rigid structures of traditional schooling (i.e. year groupings, educational stages) provides learners with greater flexibility to move at their own pace and potentially combine formal learning with other activities. In this sense, greater choice in learning programmes (length, scope, cost, etc.) translates into learning solutions that are more adaptive to individual needs and, potentially, more aligned to the goal of lifelong learning.

Parents of younger children, rely on public care services or participate in self-organised community networks or market-based services brokered by digital platforms for their care. As learners grow older and more autonomous, and their learning involves more sophisticated tasks, specialised learning platforms and advice services (digital and face-to-face, public and private) play a larger role. Employers become more involved in the business of education, including large corporations but also small and medium sized enterprises.

Scenario 3: Schools as Learning Hubs: Schools remain, but diversity and experimentation are the norm. Opening the “school walls” connects schools to their communities, favouring ever-changing forms of learning, civic engagement and social innovation.

In this scenario, strong schools retain most of their functions. They continue to look after children and hold activities that structure young people’s time, contributing to their cognitive, social, and emotional development. At the same time, more sophisticated and diverse forms of competence recognition in the labour market liberate education and thus schools from excessive pressures of credentialism. 

International awareness and exchange is strong, but power shifts to the decentralised elements in the system. Local actors come up with their own initiatives to achieve the values they consider important. Schools are defined as strong where intense connections with the community and other local services are developed. School activities are planned and designed in the context of broader education planning beyond their own walls, resulting in flexible structures (physical infrastructure, schedules) to accommodate blended learning activities supported by digital information systems. Schools are in this sense the centrepiece of wider, dynamically evolving local education ecosystems, mapping learning opportunities across an interconnected network of educational spaces. This way, diverse individual and institutional players offer a variety of skills and expertise that can be brought in to support student learning.schools are open to the participation of non-teaching professionals in teaching. A prominent role for professionals other than teachers, community actors, parents, and others is expected, and indeed, welcomed. 

Scenario 4: Learn as you go: Education takes place everywhere, anytime. Distinctions between formal and informal learning are no longer valid as society turns itself entirely to the power of the machine.

This scenario builds on the rapid advancements of artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality and the Internet of Things. Learning opportunities are widely available for “free”, marking the decline of established curriculum structures and dismantling of the school system. Digitalisation has made it possible to assess and certify knowledge, skills and attitudes in a deep and practically instantaneous manner, and the intermediary role of trusted third parties (e.g. educational institutions, private learning providers) in certification is no longer necessary. 

As the distinction between formal and informal learning disappears, massive public resources previously devoted to large-scale schooling infrastructure become liberated to serve other purposes or education through other means. Similar to scenario 2, alternative “childcare” arrangements may be necessary with the demise of physical schools. In this scenario, digitalisation and “smart” infrastructure favour the creation of safe and learning-rich public and private spaces. Building on surveillance systems, digitally connected, interactive infrastructure, such as intelligent playgrounds, can now look after children while proposing them with learning activities and fostering behaviours towards the satisfaction of certain goals (e.g. healthy lifestyles).

The end of schools?

Like you, I find some futures more inspiring and exciting than others. As I continued to dig into scenarios (not all of which are included) many highlight the decreasing need for a school building. This is an interesting tension. UNESCO’s report provides another perspective. A chapter focused on Safeguarding and Transforming Schools opens with, “if the school did not exist, we would need to invent it Essential educational work takes place in many times and spaces, but the public time and space of school are unique. Education and learning simulate human interactions, dialoge and exchange, and schools should be purpose-built to nurture this… Schools are one of the few institutions intended to protect and provide opportunity for the poorest and most vulnerable. As centres of community life, schools can offer powerful support for self-reliance and for cultivating sustainable relationships within local communities and with the natural world. Intentional pedagogical encounters make schools irreplaceable. To bring about profound change, however, the future school’s organizing principles should centre on inclusion and collaboration… Schools should model the futures we aspire to by ensuring human rights and becoming exemplars of sustainability and carbon neutrality. Students should be trusted and tasked with leading the way in greening the education sector (95).”

Schools need to become places where everyone is able to form and realize their aspirations to transformation, change and well-being.

Reimagining Our Futures Together: A New Social Contract for Education (UNESCO)

It is not the first time education sits at a crossroads. It is clear we have a conscious choice to make. Will we take the blue pill remaining in a state of ignorance and denial or will we choose the red pill and do the hard work of elevating a different purpose for education, radically shifting course?

References
2021 Educause Horizons Report:  Teaching and Learning Edition (link)
Envisioning Pathways to 2030: Megatrends Shaping the Future of Higher Education (link)
Education in 2030: Five Scenarios for the Future of Learning and Talent (link)
Future Forecast 5.0:  Navigating the Future of Learning, KnowledgeWorks (link)
UNESCO’s A New Social Contract for Education (link)  
OECD’s Four Scenarios for the Future of Education (link)

A Hopeful Subversion

I have been pondering culture and the meaning of community a lot these past few weeks. A recent bout of journaling has led to thinking about our approach to strategy. In my brain, strategy is a learning agenda; it’s a hypothesis of the value of learning. Typically, you choose a goal that you think is going to matter. Then, to achieve that goal you often need to do something – and doing something often requires learning (or unlearning/re-learning) something. For me, it comes down to did we learn (then acted) on what we needed to learn and did it have the value (impact on the learner’s experience) we predicted. 

So what does strategy have to do with culture and community? The obvious answer is everything. 

I imagine you’ve heard the alleged Peter Drucker quote as often as I: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” This quippy statement, often met with chortles and chuckles, has been pulled out in almost every strategic workshop I’ve been in over the past decade, and yet, my experience suggests it’s problematic to pit one against the other in any way. Rather, I believe culture is strategy. Full stop. So, following my “strategy is a learning agenda” one could surmise that why, how, and what we choose to learn is key. All of these processes, decisions, and behaviors shape and will be shaped by culture. Who decides and who does the learning is also critical. Who is the community. (I’ll move on. This is heading into an Abbot and Costello’s Who’s on First bit).

Strategy is a tough nut to crack with decades of assumptions of what a strategy should be and do within an organization. It’s often the operating system that drives the priorities and behaviors of the school if anyone is paying attention to it at all. I’ve been trying to figure out a strategic approach that is more generative in nature, creating space for the “what ifs” to emerge within a model that acts as a reinforcing feedback loop between strategy and culture, with one generating more possibility in the other.

Seeing Possibility

In 2019 I introduced an Objective and Key Result (OKR) model of goal management as our strategic framework. [New to OKRs? Head here or to Doerr’s latest – and hopeful- application of OKRs to solve the climate crisis for some real inspiration]. I had experience with the model when working at AltSchool whose executive leadership team brought it from their days at Google. I appreciated the impact it had on the culture of our teams in aligning and directing efforts to achieve something purposeful.

It’s clear, concise, and drives measurable outcomes – just what a strategy is expected to do, right?

What I experienced as an effective model at a product-driven, market-dependent company, however, is falling short of what I hope for our school. We’re not quite there, yet

Let me back up for a moment. WHY we chose this strategic framework matters. We shifted from a multi-year strategy so we can continue to be responsive to our community’s needs and learning. Certainly, our school is not an outlier in this shift. Covid has highlighted how unpredictable and ambiguous circumstances really are in reality. More importantly, I’ve come to appreciate that this sense of unpredictability can lead to possibility when and where you least expect. The OKR framework is simply a tool to create alignment and engagement around shared goals on a more dynamic timeline. I believe it also can shift the relationships and power structure within the organization. Yes, leadership is responsible for illuminating a direction, but our OKRs are designed to turn our leadership team into stewards and project managers, acting in service of the efforts of our teams and students. At our school, I see the greatest value of OKRs is the transparency and the coordination of these efforts so they can add up to something valuable for learners. 

OKRs signal a different way of valuing and doing work together. It is a completely different mental model of how the school has been operating. Schools are infamous for “top-down” initiatives. In my mind, the inter-relatedness of institutional transformation and individual work are significant. At the early stages of our development, my hopeful connection was our community would see that “my work and my learning matter.” Surely, this new approach would signal a shift. Not exactly. 

In introducing this approach, we took the time to gauge our faculty’s response. Why? Only when the system can see itself can it begin to change itself.  We did a few things that fed our learning early in the process:

First, we surfaced how we each associate with things differently by playing a simple word association game. (“When I say morning, you say…”) This highlighted that there is an entire “file cabinet” of experiences and emotions that leads to our reaction. We also emphasized that their reaction is rational and informed by a mental model that has been built over time. A moment’s reaction is the sum of our past. We made this visible by creating an iceberg model in teams.

This activity made visible WHY we think the way we do when a strategy is introduced. The iceberg highlights how patterns of behavior and structures reinforce beliefs. Not only can we see the system more clearly in the icebergs, but their reflections also unveiled what we need to attend to over time.

As you can see from this team’s model, feelings of disconnect and lack of trust proliferate the community. “Same shovel with more snow,” basically says it all. We accepted and acknowledged current mental models with compassion and without judgment. Although we did our own iceberg as a leadership team and predicted much of what would surface, admittedly, it was emotional to read some of the responses.

We also didn’t take full responsibility for a solution or a clear way forward. (Yes, you read that right.) I believe we hold onto stories that serve us and we all share in perpetuating the current culture. Yes, it is important for administrators to acknowledge the experience of staff, and staff shares equal responsibility for our learning culture. This is about our personal growth and the internal dialogue we perpetuate. Things are not likely to change until we each make a choice to engage differently with each other as a community and to accept collective responsibility for bringing our school’s potential to life.

What’s Clearer To Me Now

The source of the strategy came from multiple channels of feedback across our community and more importantly from tuning in to the energy of current efforts. Although I believe we have a valuable start, I trust we can do this process better. Where we seem to be failing (in all the right ways) and where I’m finding tensions is naming the outcome of the key results before engaging in the learning with learners. The pressure is coming from the mental models we hold true for strategy. I’m often asked, “how will we measure this?” and I think many are beginning to tire of my benign smile and “it will make sense soon” response. In reality, I am beginning to sweat this one a bit, too. 

Currently, we can only imagine what it is we don’t know and what it’s going to look and feel like after we’ve worked like this for a year. The challenge with the OKR framework is it assumes a certain level of predictability, but students are not a product. We’re working with a complex, living dynamic system. If we map the entirety of our learning for what our efforts could look like, it will be a very static application on something that is organic. It will be a quick way to shut down real wonder or to listen to what is growing in our community and in the work of our learners.  

What is becoming clear is we need to have some integrity with the intent of this approach. This is where I come back to community and culture. Alongside this structure, we put in place advisers and critical friends to be sounding boards and provide feedback on each other’s efforts. We have educator competencies sketched out as a terrain for faculty’s reflection and we have learning principles in place to define the impact we hope to achieve with and for learners. This model sits in a larger system designed to help shape a new culture of learning together. 

Our strategy – our learning agenda – is my bet on this community. In three weeks, key result teams across the school will come together with artifacts of learning to reflect and tell us- based on the trajectory of learning they see in their teams – the impact we should expect. Then our job as a leadership team is to help hold us accountable for that vision.

What is clear is this model of a strategic framework for our school is my hope for the learning environment of our students, one that represents a shift in power structures and a sense of collective responsibility.

These questions I ask of our organization are the same I ask for the experience of our learners. How can we do a better job of creating multiple channels of feedback to shape the collective learning agenda alongside our students? How can we help students connect their purpose to a project that plugs into cultivating potential and holds value for their community? How do we help students develop plans and access resources to support their development? How do we match students with critical friends and advisers to expand their network of support and stretch what they believe is possible? How do we enlist their perspective to determine if we, as a community, are having the impact we hope and believe possible? 

This is why my ponderings of culture and community landed me on strategy. How we do the work and who chooses it is as important as the work that we do. Perhaps this is a bastardization of the OKR framework for the purists out there, but I’m wondering if subverting a structure that holds limits for learning at an organizational level will help us confront the structures we have for limiting the learning of our students. I’m finding the tensions incredibly helpful and hopeful when translated to a living system. In Part II, I’ll break down an example of a project and its inter-related parts in case you’re wondering how this looks on the ground.

Combatting Cognitive Myopia: Traveling the ladder of inference

“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

Mary Oliver, Upstream

One line, captured in my journal, has my attention today.  Again.Our habitual way of showing up will get in our way.” It was wedged on the side of some notes tracking the conversation on a Zoom call with the team from the Center of Systems Awareness and a cohort pursuing our master practitioner certification.  At the time, Senge was leading an exploration of the Limits to Growth archetype, and I was spinning out on how my way of showing up was possibly getting in the way of other’s potential. What is becoming more clear is regardless of my intentions to help amplify the possible, my assumptions, judgments, and opinions could be sabotaging the future I am seeking to cultivate. 

This is the tricky thing about assumptions, right? You have to take a bit of time to surface them or you march along, blind to the fact that these beliefs are not necessarily true. If Kegan and Lahey’s work on immunity to change taught me anything, it is that only by surfacing assumptions can we examine them objectively instead of living through them – and, hopefully, in this examination, can we perhaps remove whatever barrier may be getting in the way of really listening, of shifting to learning that is generative in nature. 

So all this pondering about how to “hang our assumptions in front of us” as physicist David Bohm would say, has me itchy for action, especially in light of my obsession with ACT (covered in the last post) and my attempt to see with new eyes. This is where Bucky’s brilliance and the Compassionate Systems Framework intersect. 

“If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool, the use of which, will lead to new ways of thinking.” 

Buckminster Fuller

In my last post, I admitted to abandoning all the typical ways I’ve engaged with educators in the past. In this case, I didn’t feel a need for a new tool. Instead, I simply opted to immerse and observe – and to withhold any conclusion or labels. Ha! It’s amazing how much easier said than done this is… how my lens of learner-centered environments often blocked the view of what was happening right in front of me. What I quickly discovered is I needed something more tangible and concrete to break the habitual thoughts, to move beyond my eagerness to help with instructional ideas and resources, to move beyond coaching and questioning, to move toward surfacing the assumptions that were getting in the way of seeing a current reality.

Meet the ladder of inference.

Chris Argyris developed a Ladder of Inference to describe how people form and sustain mental models. Image clipped from Foresight Design Initiative and all the notes are my own, based on reflection.

Without dragging you up the ladder step by step, I’ll call out a few things of significance that may be beneficial in work beyond my own.

  • Slow the heck down. Taking the time to fill out the tool combats lazy thinking and the lightning-quick conclusions that happen by default. I’m reflective by nature, but it wasn’t until I slowed down and traveled the prompts did I honestly appraise my own thinking and thought process.
  • Attention and intention go hand and hand. Although the tool falls short of helping to examine the realities of assumptions (the Immunity to Change maps are far better for that) it does serve to open the aperture and provide space to shift attention to more dynamic, organic ideas. Without creating this visualization I couldn’t see the gap between where my attention went when I was with educators and my intention to help surface possibility.
  • The more expansive the observable data, the more expansive the action. Observation takes time. The more data one can collect, the greater the terrain to choose from when it comes to adding meaning. When I could select different data, I attached different meaning — which led to a shift in a set of assumptions. In previous structures, I noticed we were limiting ourselves to data that perpetuated our existing beliefs about kids and learning. All of this to say, taking the time to gather more data opens up the thinking and the possibilities.

I can only speak for myself, but I imagine it’s true for all of us: It is difficult to grasp how entrenched our beliefs and practices may be until we choose to consciously break from a “cognitive myopia” that may be perpetuating our actions regardless of our best intentions. I’m trying to walk a more balanced inquiry between advocacy (what I hope and want) and investigation (what the data is telling me). Leaders need to work much harder at taking the time to collect data. In this way, I increase awareness of my thinking and reasoning. More importantly, tools like this make my reasoning visible to others, inviting dialogue around how they may see things differently, and why. It is in this space of dialogue where potential unfolds.

Every darn time.

Today I return to why I write. While many may write as a form of rhetoric, to persuade or inspire, I write to deepen my understanding of a subject, as a way of navigating and honoring complexity and truth. Sometimes my writing lies dormant longer than I’d like, awaiting a spark that combats all resistance. This is such a moment.  What I am grappling with right now is the thinking found in one of the finest articles on leadership and change I have encountered in a long time: Quinn, Spreitzer, and Brown’s Changing Others Through Changing Ourselves: The Transformation of Human Systems. So much of it resonates and stretches my belief of what is possible that I want to sit with it beyond a single reading and a single post, so beware… I’m enjoying wading through some mud right now. 

I feel there is no doubt – regardless of logic, intention, or need – that most efforts to bring about change fail. Why? In a nutshell, we fail to appreciate the complexities of human systems and underestimate the degree to which a change is adaptive vs. technical. (Need a reminder? Technical change, while often challenging, can be solved by applying existing know-how and current problem-solving processes. Change that is adaptive in nature requires individuals to alter their ways and seek solutions beyond their current tools and expertise. Want more? Adaptive Work, Ron Heifetz). 

I believe the changes we need in education are undeniably adaptive in nature if we are to transform the system. Not only does this mean we need to bridge a significant gap between a new state of possibility and current reality by going beyond existing approaches, but it also means we need to accept that we ourselves are the problem. 

Quinn, et all highlight what is truly at the heart of adaptive change – and it is so much more than I had defined previously:

“In adaptive change, people… must surrender their present self and put themselves in jeopardy by becoming part of an emergent system” (147). 

Changing Others Through Changing Ourselves

It’s worth reading that sentence again… surrender their present self and put themselves in jeopardy by becoming part of an emergent system. In this brief article, the authors seek to answer, “How can an individual engage others in a change effort when doing so requires them to make painful adjustments and put themselves in jeopardy?” And the answer is straightforward: Changing others requires changing ourselves first. 


The authors present a set of principles that comprise what they call Advanced Change Theory, “a strategy less observable and more complex than the traditional change strategies of rational persuasion, coercion, or participation” (148).  [I’ve summarized it in the table below] What is significant for me is even at our “best”, such as engaging in models of change that are co-created and collaborative, our approach will continue to fall short of truly meeting the potential and possibility of this moment.

The ACT principles [the final column above] articulates a journey I’ve been traveling for some time, especially this curiosity around building an awareness of the realities of the emergent system. The authors highlight the importance of creating a new social reality, adjusting away from self-interest, to building an emergent community that can learn, adapt and grow (Quinn, et al. 150).  What this highlights for me is an essential question worthy of pursuing: How do I act from a place of integrity to my own values and beliefs, while being able to suspend those beliefs and engage the current context with an openness to new and emerging patterns?

This exploration of “lands that are foreign and uncharted in Western thought” (Wheatley, 139) has challenged many of my assumptions about change and put a lot of pressure on the typical frameworks many of us have employed (ie. Kotter’s 8-Step Process, McKinsey’s 7 – S Framework, Lewin’s change model, ADKAR, C-BAM, etc). Until we experience a new social reality and a true community of inclusion, we can’t recognize how powerful, how hopeful, an education can be.

Well, now what? What does all this swirling lead to when I go to work tomorrow morning? How can I consciously and continuously continue this dance of discovery, expanding and narrowing my gaze between the whole of the organization and the individuals who live, work, and learn there?

“Nano origami” @ Singularity Hub

For those who have been reading along, these pages have served to anchor me in a growing set of new practices as a leader seeking to be immersed in an emergent system. So, today, I’ll add just one: building on my capacity to see with fresh eyes. This means disrupting my habitual way of thinking and perceiving. Neuroscientist Francisco Varela calls this “suspension” – and as esoteric as this may sound, I’ve experienced tangible steps that are adding up to an ability to become aware of my thoughts, loosening their influence on what I see. It started here: I have completely changed my “protocol” of classroom observations – to no protocol at all. I show up early, stay for entire classes, linger in hallways and with teachers, going beyond the boundaries of the class period. I’ve let go of using our competency framework and referencing our learning principles and simply observe without forming conclusions to what those observations mean and I try to listen to what is beyond being said. I listen a lot. I sit with, sometimes draw, all the seemingly unrelated bits of information and every darn time, I’m amazed by the fresh ideas and the fresh conversations that emerge — and how things are connecting, how patterns are emerging. This is the shift in the generative social field. This is the practice I will take to work tomorrow – and the next day.

Reference

  • Wheatley, Margaret J.. Leadership and the New Science Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.
  • Changing Others Through Changing Ourselves (linked)

A Tale of Two Meetings: Practicing Presence Over Planning

In this time of continuous scenario planning, adaptation, ambiguity, and shifting sands, I feel like I have many opportunities for the “do-over.” For readers that have been following the story, this blog-folio is really a quest to lead differently. And holy cow, that is easier said than done. Let’s take a moment to see how it’s going by examining two different meetings focused primarily on the same outcome: how do we sustain a quality learning experience for our students?

Meeting 1: Oh, the possibilities!

I walked into this meeting pumped up. This was the moment. The challenges of COVID were putting pressure on education systems across the globe. My career of dreaming and working towards new models of schooling was prime for prototyping at this special little school in central Switzerland. Our task was to rethink how we would come together as a community now that the stay at home order had been lifted. In advance of the 3-hour meeting, I encouraged principals to sketch out possibilities to start the conversation. I crafted a flow of engagement for the team to help unveil critical uncertainties that we needed to consider in the development of scenarios. Tossing one design structure in after the other, I landed on a set of protocols to shape the dialogue as we moved through a PESTLE analysis unveiling the external factors that could impact decisions made inside our organization. I knew they were tired. I didn’t want to waste a minute of their time. I made sure to intentionally structure the meeting for optimal impact on the lives of learners

We always begin our meetings with a check-in – sometimes extended, sometimes with a quick question to bring us into the space together and to build relationship. I can’t remember the exact question, but it was in the spirit of “what is a possibility you see at this moment?” Their answers, as expected, highlighted key lessons we were learning at this time — the importance of community, of seeing learners through a multi-dimensional lens, of partnering with parents in new ways, the importance of agency… I was so excited for the conversation. From the check-in, we moved to partners to share their initial ideas as a starting place. I imagined from here, we would dip into experiences that would stretch that reality, returning to the starting place to revise, expanding our model of learning.

But that’s not how it went. At all. We would transition into some of the tasks, conversation rich with ideas, then return to their plans. I anticipated the translation of their creativity to integrate into the initial structures, but instead, they defended the original plan. They dug their heels in, they raised their voices. They were frustrated. And, I was crushed. We weren’t really going to change much at all. Three hours later, they left with the exact same plan they walked in with, and, admittedly, I walked to my office and cried. All those plans, and no difference at all.

Meeting #2: Oh, the possibilities! (Take 2)

I walked into this meeting curious. The challenges of COVID continue to put pressure on education systems around the globe, and school leaders everywhere implement, shift, cajole and cheer educators, families, and children hoping to sustain a quality learning experience for all students. This time we were building scenarios for a possible closure, for hybrid models, for alternative schedules based on the rising cases in Switzerland. As before, I asked them to sketch out ideas to start our conversation. I knew they were tired. I didn’t want to waste a minute of their time. I made sure to intentionally structure the meeting for optimal impact on the lives of learners. The only thing I did to prepare was to explore digital tools that would ensure that all participants, in and out of the room, had equal opportunity to contribute. [I landed on mural, which I love, by the way].

As always, we began with a check-in. Instead of priming the pump, I just wanted to know how they were stepping into the space. I wanted to know how they were really doing. And I needed to take a moment to acknowledge how I was stepping into the space. Using Junto’s Wheel of Emotion, we shared our words and what was leading to the emotion. “Hopeful, proud, excited…” I was surprised. My word? “Nervous.” The last meeting wasn’t great. From the check-in, we moved to partners to share their initial ideas as a starting place. Then, I asked them what they needed next.

The blank digital whiteboard filled up with post-its, highlighting what would make this time a win for them. Dot voting led to prioritization and we dug into the conversation, working through the co-constructed agenda items one by one, solidifying agreement, raising questions to tackle, pushing back on each other’s ideas. I worked the board. I captured their ideas, continuously shaping new pictures of a response system, altering it as they worked through different schedules and alternative decisions. A continuum emerged that would serve as the foundation for community communication, next steps with teams, and a guide for our own decision making moving forward. It took 90 minutes.

I was relieved they found the time effective and valuable. I was satisfied that there was shared clarity. I wasn’t inspired. I didn’t see the seeds of innovation taking root, but compared to the last meeting, I felt a little bit of triumph. I got up to leave, thinking they would as well.

Instead the conversation continued. Not at that moment, but in the meetings that followed. They started asking how a hybrid model might push us to think differently about the curriculum. They started thinking through new schedules to carry into the “next normal.” This meeting opened up a conversation we’re still having that landed on the same possibilities I’ve been eager to explore.

When reflecting on these two experiences, it’s clear how much of a barrier I can be in the cultivation of a generative social field. For decades I’ve been building a toolbox of facilitation strategies, from design thinking activities to visible thinking protocols. I pull from pages of ideas I’ve been collecting over time, planning and crafting an experience. The protocols themselves lend to collaboration, to critical engagement in ways that I’ve always felt were successful and are often celebrated. What I haven’t been cultivating as much is trust. What I haven’t been cultivating is the balance between my own vision (full of blindspots), with the hopes and aspirations of a community. What I haven’t been cultivating is patience and presence. A protocol is not going to sufficiently change education. People authentically working together might.

Uncovering Blind Spots of Experience: Facing Urgency with Patience

We make the road by walking.

Paulo Friere and Myles Horton
Photo by Jeremy Lishner on Unsplash

I’ve been facilitating professional learning for the bulk of my career, beginning as a school designer and instructional coach with EL Education in 2004. What I learned in those early days of working with teachers and principals is the importance of “wearing the student hat” in our own learning, of experiencing the role of a student when expanding pedagogy. Friend and former colleague Meg Riordan and her writing partner Emily Klein highlight the research behind the experiential professional development model in this article exploring the four key components that contribute to the success of transferring their learning to the learning experience of students. Over the years I’ve learned an experiential model of professional learning does lend to meaningful change.

Now we find ourselves in need of urgent change, not only because the systems and structures of education fall short of serving all students, which has been true for a long time, but because so many teachers, students and families have been catapulted into new environments for engaging in learning.

We’ve always held high expectations for our teachers, and over time we’ve piled more and more on their plates without really removing anything. Now we’ve placed on them the need to revolutionize an education system brilliant in its design – but certainly not its outcomes – resilient to change in so many ways. We bombard them with webinars; we drip-feed new instructional strategies via twitter; we cheer from the sidelines, changing their job descriptions and expanding their roles. Until we rethink how we will approach change, our efforts are likely to fall short of achieving a future that is possible.

So where might that leave us? Last week I wrapped up the first stage of what will be a year-long commitment focused on Compassionate Systems, a mindset and a set of tools that helps uncover blindspots of both individuals and communities. This global team of forty educators and community leaders, led by Peter Senge, Mette Miriam Boell and the team at the Center for Systems Awareness, has been invited to grow into master practitioners who can develop an organizational climate and culture that ultimately ensures people within the community (students, parents, teachers and leaders) are adept at integrating the inner and outer dimensions of systems awareness.

Dustin Yellin’s Psychogeographies invite viewers to engage with the legions of their own consciousness and its embodied emotions as well as that of our shared collective society and its infrastructures. To me, his work is a perfect representation of the social field. (Courtesy, https://dustinyellin.com/)

After five days immersed online with this community, it’s interesting that I found my way back to what I’ve believed to be true for most of my career: experience is the ultimate teacher. Much like my days with EL, I recognize how important it is that we don the learner hat and experience the shifts intimately for ourselves. What is becoming clearer, however, is how we experience things. Yes, reflection is critical, but over the last five days I recognized there are additional dimensions to experience I hadn’t considered both personally and in my role as a leader. There exist dimensions that will allow us to move beyond historical approaches and replications of “better”, yet similar, systems of bias and inequity.

At this stage, I barely have the language to capture what is emerging. The closest I can find is the work of neuroscientist Francisco Varela. Verala’s work highlights the importance of an awareness of our lived experience, not just reflection after the fact.

What is becoming more clear is the role the Compassionate Systems tools play in deepening this awareness – an awareness perhaps that allows us to break the patterns of the past and make space for a very different future to emerge.

I see implications on my (well, anyone’s) work based on Verala’s insights. The first is a commitment to modeling meta-awareness. In this moment’s urgent need for change, I recognize speed will only diminish the potential of the school. I’m committed to stepping into this space of change conscious and careful so as not to reduce the transformational promise of this moment. Not only does this demand a patience I often struggle to employ, it means cultivating both the vulnerability and the discipline to make visible my own attentive state and my emergent thought process. This is sure to be an interesting ride.

Three Actions to Challenge the Status Quo of Change

The symbol of the dandelion: resilient. resistant. regenerative. decentralized
(brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy, 34)

Emergent Strategy is about shifting the way we see and feel the world and each other. If we begin to understand ourselves as practice ground for transformation, we can transform the world.

brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy, 143

I have learned again and again (and again) the importance of transparency as a leader. I believe in its importance but sometimes struggle to make transparent the layers of my thinking and intention when working with organizations. That is why I am so grateful for the work of Peter Senge, Meg Wheatley, Bob Kegan and a line-up of others who both inspire and inform my work. I depend on their voices to help shape and share my own narrative of change.

Recently, I have been exploring a new voice that resonates deeply with my approach and belief about change. That voice is adrienne maree brown. brown is an American author, doula, women’s rights activist and black feminist based in Detroit, Michigan. At the heart of all her work is facilitating, within and beyond the organizations she served. Her 2017 book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds challenges change models that stem from linear organizing based on a belief that constant growth and critical mass is the only way to create change. Instead she highlights that “emergence shows us that adaptation and evolution depend more upon critical, deep, and authentic connections, a thread that can be tugged for support and resilience” (brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy, 32). Emergent strategy mirrors my hypothesis that we need to shift from a mechanistic view to a living-systems view of organization design if we are to create the conditions where every individual within schools can thrive.

So what is meant by emergence? Emergence is the way complex systems and pattern arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions… Emergence is a system that makes use of everything in the iterative process.

brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy, 11,12

Principles of Emergent Strategy

I found that brown’s principles of emergent strategy provide a strong guide to anchor my efforts and tune my attention. (brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy, 32)

  • Small is good; small is all. The large is a reflection of the small.
  • Change is constant; be like water.
  • There is always enough time for the right work.
  • There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have. Find it.
  • Never a failure, always a lesson.
  • Trust the people.
  • Move at the speed of trust. Focus on critical connections more than critical mass — build the resilience by building the relationships
  • Less prep, more presence.

These principles, alongside the six elements she uses to inform her own work provide a sharp framework for challenging the status quo of change. Included in the book is a “quickie assessment” for measuring one’s embodiment of emergent strategy at this moment (brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy, 135). Through the assessment and reading, reflecting and simply meandering through her book (which is as poetic as it is pragmatic) I landed on three actions I believe will advance my ability to cultivate a model of leadership that drives a new paradigm of change.

Challenging the Status Quo

Work to identify, “What is the next most elegant step?” Like brown, I love, love, love this question. Too often I am steps ahead in a plan, jumping into conversations with the intent to get people where I am now. This stems from my intention to support people, to provide them with a clear path so perhaps they won’t feel anxious or burdened. It also stems from history – the expectation that I know, as the leader, what we need to be doing. This, I realize, only perpetuates the current, short-sighted view of leadership. brown highlights, “an elegant step is one that acknowledges what is known and unknown, and what the capacity of this group actually is. An elegant step allows humility, allows people to say “Actually we need to do some research” or “Actually we need to talk to some folks not in this room” or “Actually we need a full day to build this plan out into something realistic and attainable.” (brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy, 163). The goal instead is to look for the next step as one that is possible and strategic based on who is taking it and where they are trying to go.

Add to my listening repertoire. Once upon a time I would have said I am a poor listener. In various situations I would find my mind wandering, tuning out or even worse, turning in to listen for the moment I could enter to build on my case, responding before I had any real sense of understanding. My habits of listening were closing the space of possibility. “At the human scale, in order to create a world that works for more people, for more life, we have to collaborate on the process of dreaming and visioning and implementing that world. We have to recognize that a multitude of realities have, do, and will exist” (brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy, 115). I continue to deepen my practice of listening (and it does take practice) to amplify what is emerging within a conversation. I recognize now it’s not just about being a “good” or “bad” listener; instead, it is about what level of listening do I engage in, and when.

Recently, I had an experience that elevated my awareness of the levels of listening. As part of a cohort of change leaders across the globe, I had the opportunity to use a case clinic protocol to investigate what would typically be a problem of practice. Unlike other protocols I’ve used to help a colleague think through and respond to a challenge they may have, this format invites a level of listening that requires stillness and mirroring back through imagery what was heard. It’s the first time, I understood the power of Otto Scharmer’s four levels of listening, especially in the space of collective creativity.

For more, check out Kelvy Bird‘s beautiful visuals and write-ups on this work in practice.

Utilize proposal-based decision making. There is little that frustrates me more than a group spinning around a decision, unsure if a decision has been made or if they even know what they are deciding to do, or if they are making a decision at all! (Perhaps it’s just a conversation.) Reaching consensus on ambitious proposals aiming for big results can be a daunting task, and I often go about it all wrong. This tool for facilitators leading proposal-based decision making creates the opportunity for equity by making space
for everyone to provide input and is used to get decisions that stick, decisions that everyone can support and that lead to action. I’ve had varying success so far with this approach. When the process does fall short, it is because I’ve failed to devote enough time to the conversation, I don’t have the right people in the room or I’ve set inappropriate expectations for the level of consensus that is needed. As brown points out, however, “eventually in most groups, you develop your own rhythm and code for this. Some groups only move forward when everyone is all in. Others do modified versions of consensus. The key is cultivating transparency, honesty in the decision-making process” (brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy, 174).

brown’s book is more than a treat for leaders seeking new ways to empower and elevate possibility. It is a treatise on how deep attention lends to emergent acts that can impact a learner’s experience in fundamental ways.

Mission, Meetings, and Muda

It’s been a while since I took the time to gather my thoughts. The end of last school year was such a relief that I ran, both literally and figuratively, from so many of the realities that remain. While the pandemic continues to sweep the globe, impacting millions and racial pressures continue to bubble above and below the surface, I feel choked up with emotions and words unspoken. Silence and inactivity, however, are not a solution.

So, I return to chisel away at the fixed, industrial age of education that seeks predictability and uniformity to reveal a system that honors and grows the uniqueness of each individual.

As we know, this fundamental change of how we “do school” cannot be approached as yet another “change initiative.” We cannot combat challenges such as systemic racism nor learning for our complex future by inserting online instructional strategies or adopting a new project-based management tool. As Senge et al, highlighted in The Dance of Change “the sources of these problems cannot be remedied by more expert advice, better consultants, or more committed managers. The sources lie in our most basic ways of thinking. If these do not change, any “input”, will end up producing the same fundamentally unproductive types of actions” (pg. 6).

The thinking I’m challenging at this time is the use of time itself. Our school leadership team launched the school year in typical fashion: a retreat to both ground ourselves and calibrate direction based on the spring’s learning. Plans were in place to use Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, our summer read, to reflect. Interestingly, however, we ended up in a very different place than we first imagined. Instead of doubling down on improving the processes of our team as predicted, we started by questioning why we even meet as a team.

Aside from admitting every school we’ve worked at had a leadership team that met weekly, it became less clear if coming together with any regular cadence was of greatest service to the organization and actualizing our mission. Instead, we committed to coming together only if there was an explicit purpose that required us to be in a room together and that this meeting would be the best use of our time.

Time, or lack thereof, is always noted as one of the greatest constraints of change. Senge underscores that “the fundamental problem, in the end, is not lack of time per se, but lack of time flexibility... Often, people’s time is so consumed with tasks and goals forced by management, they have little discretionary time to pursue what might be much more important for them, and the organization, in the long run (Dance of Change, 68). To this, I would add we are so consumed with tasks and goals not only forced by management but also by sheer momentum and routine as well. Until we consciously disrupt “business as usual”, we will fall short of creating the generative space that allows for new possibilities to emerge.

So how do we do this? I’m quite taken by lean improvement processes and have spent years exploring how other industries approach change. Toyota Production Service is a model I return to again and again. Through systemic structures, Toyota’s organizational culture includes cultivating an awareness of “Muda.” In simplest terms, Muda means wastefulness, uselessness, and futility. (There are complementary concepts – Mura and Muri – which I’m sure I’ll be eager to explore here at a different time). If we are to open up time not only for leadership but more importantly for educators and students alike to pursue emerging ideas, what are we asking people to do that does not bring value to the learner’s experience? Without taking you too far down the rabbit hole of Taiichi Ohno’s management philosophy, there are seven wastes recognized in Muda. I’ve taken what are typically manufacturing wastes and translated some of them into questions I’m exploring as we start the year.

  • Unnecessary movement between stages of a process: How do I support ISZL in amplifying small powerful acts to develop and test in the simplest way possible? What triggers the move from one state to the next?
  • Idle tasks. The Muda of waiting is easily the most obvious form of waste. There is no doubt that ISZL is peppered with potentially transformative ideas, left idle. Commonly this exists because people lack the capacity to pull the ideas through the queue into exploration and action. How might I create flexible spaces to invite the willing and the curious to build skills and understanding that may translate across the system over time?
  • Doing more than is necessary. The over-processing Muda often comes from defining success for your “client” too loosely. For example, team members strive to deliver 100% when one might only need 75% to reach their goals. At ISZL, what is the smallest unit of change that would inspire and engage learners in new ways?

The leadership meeting, when left without revisiting intention, each and every week, was slipping into Muda. I discovered it was easier to let go of our leadership meeting because other elements and behaviors within the system had already begun to change. We could identify waste because we sharpened our focus on ISZL’s mission and vision. This focus allowed for a strategic approach that included shorter timelines modeled after Grove’s philosophy made famous by John Doerr’s OKR framework at Google. This shift from the 2-3 year strategic improvement plan enabled us to identify essential projects and the people best positioned to tackle these projects. We quickly discovered those projects required different people in the room than us.. Anthony Kim and the team from Ed Elements have unpacked this responsive approach beautifully in The New School Rules. It wasn’t until I rethought how we approached strategy and questioned my fundamental belief about who drives change that I could let go of inefficiencies I once believed necessary.

Push Pause: The Compassionate Pre-Mortem

[Before you start reading. I committed to posting weekly, so I’m posting. It’s a reflection I started early last week, before May 25. It is hard to ignore what is happening in the US right now, and quite frankly, the world. The pain and injustices of black people – marginalized people – is all of our responsibility. I post today not blind to the inequities that exist but because of those inequities. I went into education for a reason and that reason has never been more clear. If we don’t think differently about how to cultivate a system where everyone has a right to thrive, then we are the problem. Perhaps what follows may provide a step to honoring the communities that we serve, wherever they may be.]

Wherever I seem to turn these days, people are posting plans for reopening, redesigning, or reimagining school for August and September. I get it. It’s a critical time in education. It’s during such moments, however, that stepping back can make a huge difference when it comes to creating a possible future. Unless we pause during this planning stage, “we will fail to see the blind spots of our change efforts, which are often based on rigid assumptions and agendas. We will fail to see that transforming systems is ultimately about transforming relationships among people who shape those systems.” (Peter Senge)

What could that look like? A key tool I return to again and again is the process of the pre-mortem. In brief, a pre-mortem is a meeting before a plan is implemented or a project starts in which a team imagines what might happen to cause it to fail. The team then works backward to create a plan to help prevent potential obstacles and increase the chances of success. This technique is recommended by behavioral psychologists and neuroscientists as an especially effective way of combatting cognitive bias and reducing project risk. I was introduced to the pre-mortem by a colleague during my days at @AltitudeLearning while designing an onboarding experience for teachers new to our platform. Since then I’ve used it for things such as developing our professional learning framework, in-service days, schedules, and projects with students. There was even one awkward moment that I tried to use it with my husband to plan an especially complicated climbing trip.

From Gamestorming

What do you do? The process is deceptively simple.

  • Prepare: Before you start the pre-mortem, make sure everyone is clear on the plan. And by everyone I mean a team of representative stakeholders. It’s best to have a full range of perspectives. I’ve messed this up before. For example, the first pre-mortem of our professional learning plan was with our senior leadership team. However, when I reran the process with a few teachers, I discovered a whole pile of challenges we couldn’t even see. Once everyone has the plan, drop the bomb and let them know the project was an epic fail.
  • Why Did the Project Fail? Give the team an hour or more to identify why the project failed. I usually start with individual brainstorming then shift to small groups. Tell them to be as imaginative as they can, capturing all their ideas in writing.
  • Share Reasons for Failure: Ask each person to share one item on their list and continue to go around the room until everyone has exhausted their lists. Record all reasons on a white board or a shared digital document. Depending on how long the list can get — and sometimes it’s overwhelmingly long – if need be, spend some time prioritizing which ones feel like challenges that significantly impact the success of the project.
  • Brainstorm with solutions: Get back into those small groups and begin to tackle possible solutions, mitigating risks to success and strengthening the plan through adding or revising their original step.

Here are a few prompts I’ve used to get the ball rolling:

Describe the failure.

  • What important stuff did we not do?
  • What unimportant stuff did we do?
  • What current problems remain?
  • What new problems emerged?

Consider Symptoms and Causes.

  • How will we know we failed?
  • What got in the way?
  • Was there something we lacked?
  • Was it not well coordinated? Communicated? Supported?

If you get this far, then it’s a win. You’ll get a whole bunch of mileage from this process. However, recently, I’ve added a new dimension to the pre-mortem using a lens of the Center for Systems Awareness’s Compassionate Systems Framework. It has elevated the process and guided me in considering more systemic outcomes. I haven’t played with this a bunch yet, but by simply reflecting on the the three core capacities of system leaders as part of this process, I noticed not only better plans but more authentic work.

The three capacities represent an inter-related set of competencies (as Peter would jokingly refer to as, “the three sides of the same coin” or, more practically, the three legs of a stool) for a deep commitment to learning.  As a result, they engender an alternative set of behaviors needed to allow a  group of people to work at their best so that the organization creates the results that matter to them. The first is a the spirit of deep intention.  The Learner/Leader crystallizes their vision of what actually are we trying to accomplish. The second leg represents the capacity for reflective conversation. The third leg is about seeing the larger system to understand complexity.  

Where does it fit? For the most part, the process is similar, but I’ve integrated additional reflective prompts to use during the pre-mortem stage to help uncover blind spots and pursue a more generative social field. I noticed in the first round of prompts, I focused teams more on reactive problem solving without acknowledging long-term value creation.

Additional Prompts:

  • Do we allow people to orient themselves toward what they truly care about?
  • Do we provide the space for people to change in ways they want to?
  • How does this align to our shared vision or help us continue to deepen our understanding of a shared vision?
  • Have we identified what we can do with the new thinking that emerges?
  • Do we build on our habits of reflection and inquiry?
  • How have we enabled that we all learn from the insights of individuals?

These few “simple” questions led to a big shift in my plans for a faculty conversations last week. Originally designed more as a workshop model where I had planned to solve what I perceived as a school-wide challenge, I completely shifted the structure to invite people to explore their own challenge, offering up shared tools as a lens to see if it helped them make sense of things they cared about. I shifted the bulk of the meeting from whole group to small group dialogue, bringing people back to share reflections and insights.

It was an interesting (good?) first step in re-orienting myself. So many of us are eager to step into this time of possibility with dreams that perhaps were seeded decades ago. (At least that is true in my case.) Yet following the approaches to change we’ve always followed is unlikely to lead to the potential we see, and likely to perpetuate the same systemic shortcomings. As Peter points out, “organizational self-interest becomes re-contextualized, as people discover that their and their organization’s success depends on creating well-being within the larger systems of which they are a part. This typically happens gradually as leaders help people articulate their deeper aspirations and build confidence based on tangible accomplishments achieved together.”

…. creating well-being within the larger systems of which they are a part. Right now, it feels like we have a long way to go.

Learn More

Please stop using the term “non-essential worker” and think about the job to be done

If I’ve learned anything about schools during this most unusual time, I’ve learned school is about community. This isn’t a new insight for many, I’m sure. Yet, in all my work of thinking through how to do education better, I failed to place the right amount of value on this fundamental truth. Without a doubt, there’s a lot to unpack when it comes to the complexities of community. But for now, the questions on my mind are how do we support our communities? More importantly, how do we value everyone in the community through honoring all they can contribute?

This is why I bristle at the term “non-essential worker” and applaud schools that are rethinking the role people play when taking responsibility for the education of children. (For example, I applaud the districts, like Austin ISD, who are using school buses to establish wifi hotspots for students that don’t have access to the internet). During this time of crisis, I’ve had to shift my thinking away from the jobs people were hired to do and instead focus on the jobs that needed to be done.

I first learned about the jobs to be done theory when I was lucky enough to work on a project with Michael Horn. For me, the jobs to be done theory (JTBD) is best defined as a perspective — a lens by which one understands some area of life where a customer is at the center of a struggle, and they want some help solving the problem. I use this lens a lot because it helps push my thinking beyond typical solutions so I can serve others better. In this case, the customer is our school community and the job to be done is simple. It is connection. Now more than ever, the connection of community is critical to well-being.

With this lens in place, with this clarity of what people were struggling with in this moment, I recognized that those that had the time, like our transportation manager who couldn’t do the job she was hired to do, were invaluable, not non-essential. She, along with 27 other invaluable members of our staff, organized to reach out weekly to every family with a phone call asking how they were doing. They weren’t asking about a missed assignment. They weren’t updating them on reopening plans. They were simply checking in on how they were experiencing this time as people. And the results blew me away. I discovered talents on our team that only came into play because we were able to see beyond their everyday role and instead, shift their efforts and offer the support to ensure they could address a clear need.

Clay Christensen’s Jobs to be Done Framework

I’m finding the JTBD lens a crucial tool at this time. There is a thundering call for change in education based on challenges we cannot turn away from and opportunities that are emerging. It’s both exciting and daunting. As a leader, I’m beginning to sort through the possibilities that are emerging for our community. This framework is especially helpful when you begin with the end. What are we trying to achieve and more importantly, for whom? How does understanding the struggle of students and teachers especially give us greater clarity on how we employ the talents of a community and refine – even transform – our services? Michael’s latest book Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life was a good catalyst to return to the JTBD theory to sharpen our school’s strategy. I worry that all the chatter about change, although well-intended, is disconnected from the jobs our students and our community are trying to accomplish. What is emerging for me is the tension between what our community is hiring our school to do and what I think should be done. This, I suppose, is the challenge of Servant – Leadership. What is helpful at this moment is to be crystal clear on who I am here to serve and whose struggle I can help solve. Right now, our community is in need and the tool led to a solution that expanded beyond the boundary of what we were hired to do. Ultimately, however, I am here to serve learners. In what way might the tool lead to a solution that expands beyond our current traditional jobs at school? That is what I’ll tackle next.