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Origins of the C!E Theory of Action

Part 1- Fractals

Our last blog ended with a declaration that the few blogs to follow were going to get nerdy about why we think local processes of shared inquiry are THE work, and how to go about them in a way that enacts equity as the work unfolds. We hoped a few of you would find that prospect as exciting as we do.

Before we get into the real meat of the nerdiness here, we wanted to briefly explain our warm feelings for the word “nerdy” and how we see it as different from having expertise. To us, being nerdy means being up to learning something. It means being curious and driven in your pursuit of coming to understand. It is a disposition. Our website is “Leading with Learning” not “Leading with Expertise” or even “Leading with Innovation”. This is because the core disposition at C!E is to be nerdy. So, in our effort to seek equity, we do not lead with authority or expertise, we lead with curiosity. And actually, moving a step beyond not leading with it, we have come to believe that professional expertise, including our own, must be re-examined, redefined and repositioned as no more relevant than the expertise of families, teachers and learners themselves.

It is with that spirit that we offer this series of blogs. We offer our thinking, inspired by and hopefully building upon the thinking of others, about this complex situation in which we find ourselves and how we believe we can move forward - not because we seek to demonstrate expertise, but because we are curious to know how much our thinking is like and unlike others’. In dialogue, we can learn from one another.

Ultimately, we hope that there are some local and state teams out there who are curious about what can be done if we inquire with learners, families, and community members about what success looks like this year and how they will monitor progress and ultimately hold one another accountable. We would like to partner with and connect these lead learner communities to one another so that as a group they can help all of us see how key system components such as accountability and assessment can be transformed so that instead of helping uphold racist assumptions held in the origins of our system, they help us enact inclusion, democracy, and equity.

For the last three years, we have convened and supported a learning community of state teams who began their work together because of a shared interest in performance assessment. Some of those teams are interested in building on their work regarding performance assessment by moving in direction similar to what is outlined in an Invitation to a New Path Forward written by Jenny Poon with Gene Eilhoit, Linda Pittenger and Paul Leather last month. They are thinking about how they can support their own state networks that connect local communities of practice to one another to reimagine the broader accountability context within which performance assessment takes place. If your state isn’t participating, or if you want to know if there is a team from your state, email Gretchen Morgan at

That said, let the nerdiness begin.

We begin by focussing on the idea of fractal symmetry. The thinking that follows has come from listening to adrienne maree brown and two of her influencers, Margaret Wheatley & Deborah Frieze. We also find kinship with the Deeper Learning Dozen who observe that symmetry must exist between the view of the learner, learning, teacher, culture, and leadership. And we believe fractals can help explain both why recent reforms fell short of our aspirations and also offer us a way to move forward toward a more equitable future

Fractals are naturally occurring. They are complex patterns, building and building to repeat and expand while keeping utter symmetry with each contour of their core. From “emergent strategy” brown says, “The patterns of the universe repeat at scale. There is a structural echo that suggests two things: one, that there are shapes and patterns fundamental to our universe, and two, that what we practice at a small scale can reverberate to the largest scale.”(brown, 2017, pg 52)

This silver fern frond has the same proportions in the smallest curve as it does in each curve that branches off the main stalk, and on the main stalk itself.

This level of symmetry and repetition, from the smallest scale to the largest, is an essential idea in coming to understand both how to enact future oriented actions in a time of chaos and also in coming to understand why, despite so much effort, our system continues to replicate racial injustice.

Like this silver fern frond, there is a place in which the basic shape of our education system is defined. Our education system has an origin, and in that point of origin the values, beliefs, & assumptions from our shared history establish the pattern of racial inequality which we enact at all levels of scale.

Seeing and understanding that origin is essential to change. When connecting the idea of fractals in nature to human behavior and systems change, brown says, “this may be the most important element to understand -- that what we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system,”(emergent strategy, 2017, pg 53). By changing HOW we do our work, by naming and using equity-seeking beliefs and assumptions to drive how we behave, we can reshape the origin of the fractal, and in doing so, we can change the system.

This work must be done explicitly, intentionally and out in the open because while the behavior of seeking symmetry -- feeling passively compelled to replicate the original shape or of feeling comfort when dissonance is resolved and things fall back into symmetrical alignment, is natural--it was humans that defined the original shape of the public education fractal. Our system’s origin was defined by imperfect, white, and powerful public leaders who sought to educate the masses to enable democracy, but who also sought to explain and justify racial and ethnic hierarchies as though they were naturally occurring.

This history can be seen in Thomas Jefferson’s Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge” and the work of Horrace Mann, his fascination with the Prussion approach to education and what he ultimately created, the Common Schools. The Common Schools are the first implementation of many of the beliefs that still define the shape of the American public education fractal. The Common Schools movement aimed to bring certain American values and the skills required to be an informed citizen to all white American youth no matter where they immigrated from or whether their families could pay for private education. The decision to exclude freed slaves or Native American children seemed normal to these founders because the design and opening of the Common Schools was simultaneous to our nation enacting the “scientific” view popularized in the emerging field of sociology that people of different races had different basic levels of intellect and that if we could really understand these tiers, we could prepare and direct young people to their right place in the workforce (Muhammad 2019). Together these influences shaped the education fractal’s point of origin.

With the advent of “No Child Left Behind” our nation challenged one long-standing belief from that era, it was a belief about learners. Instead of believing that some learners could achieve at high levels and others could not, we determined that all learners were capable, and that the real barrier to equitable outcomes was our willingness to believe in and serve each learner well.

However, the way we enacted that belief reveals a set of equally troublesome and powerful beliefs. We built assessments that would reveal each learner's gaps, understanding that our system of academic assessment was built by eugenicists seeking to use assessment to prove rank superiority of people based on race. We developed best practices and proven tools to provide the appropriate interventions to students with gaps. We established consequences for students ranging from the loss of electives to retention. We established consequences for teachers, schools and districts. We established “supports” for schools that failed to meet expectations, which largely also felt like consequences. We issued report cards for schools that told parents and homeowners how far from expectations their neighborhood school was performing on the set of measures that we could produce with high degrees of validity. We closed schools that failed to become good schools when they implemented the “proven practices” we told them to use.

It is uncomfortable to acknowledge, but as we continue to examine the history of both white supremacy and schooling through reading, discussion, and also an equityxdesign course we engaged in with Caroline Hill at The 228 Accelerator, we have come to believe that the way in which we enacted a belief in the potential of each child reveals a number of other beliefs that continue to define key contours of the fractal core of our system of education. Might our system also be built on assumptions such as…

  • Some people are meant to be leading/deciding. They should be held up and apart from others.

  • These people are usually white men, and in education this also often includes white women.

  • Those who are not leading/ deciding need direction. If they knew how to be successful on their own, they would have done it already.

  • An unfortunate burden of leadership is holding others accountable until everyone goes in what you know to be the right direction.

  • If someone doesn't naturally conform to white leadership norms, it is a personal fault and/or cultural deficiency.

  • Educators with advanced degrees are experts.

  • Students and families are not experts.

  • Experts can measure the distance a student or a school is from “good”. Such data is scientifically valid and should drive decision-making.

  • Using grades and ranks based on this scientifically valid data to report the size of the gap between current performance and good performance drives students and schools to improve.

  • Proximity to the ruling class affords families flexibility and influence. Families farther from the ruling class have fewer choices and means of influence.

Do we still believe things like this? What does it look like when someone who believes they are meant to lead and save others from themselves tries to enact a belief in the potential of each learner? When we questioned our assumptions about the capabilities of learners, but left the assumptions we had about their families and ourselves unexamined, we ended up bringing white supremacy into our design and implementation of a reform effort meant to promote equity.

So, what do we do with this understanding? How do we begin to imagine and create a more equitable and hopeful future? We think we turn right back to the fractal and ask…

  • What work...

  • Closest to the places where children are learning...

  • Done in which ways...

  • With whom at the table...

  • With whom at the center...

...will help us uncover the beliefs that define the fractal and then how will we work together to redefine them in a way that enacts democracy and equity?

We think these questions are best evaluated in a local context. Each place will find there are differences in what to focus on with whom. There are, however, some answers that we think are the same from place to place. The answer to, “with whom at the table,” cannot be our usual blue ribbon group of experts. And the answer to, “who does the conversation begin with,” cannot be the squeakiest wheels, or the people with political connections, or even those who have volunteered the most.

The expertise driving the redefinition of the fractal core cannot come only from those who have been defining it for centuries. And although there is predictable resistance when we do not begin with the needs and concerns of white privileged people in these types of processes, we need to begin by listening to and engaging with communities that have been traditionally marginalized. This means the process itself must be different.

Since last spring, we have had the opportunity to help facilitate teams of educators, students and families in North Dakota, Colorado and Georgia. When we entered into partnership with these communities, we brought with us curiosity about their experience in this historically difficult time and practiced using equity centered design thinking methods to help facilitate the formation of strong learning communities among educators.

We are learning with these communities how to approximate tenets of high quality professional learning communities for use in collaborations that include families and students. Some patterns are beginning to emerge in terms of tenets that help describe HOW we treat one another as even handed members of the learning community. These tenets do not ask educators to pretend they don’t have professional expertise, they just ask them to lead with learning and to both listen and contribute as partners who recognize and respect the experience and insights of others.

A draft of these equity-seeking tenets follows below. As you read them, perhaps ask how might enacting more of these tenets in my team, or in a specific initiative, change the work? What prevents us from behaving this way now? How might we come to work together more like this?

In our observation and practice, staying connected to these tenets helps us enact different assumptions and beliefs. And learning from brown, we believe that working in this way with learners, families and communities furthest from opportunity on anything they identify as important helps transform the core of the fractal and foster the emergence of new patterns, which ultimately grow into transformed equity-seeking systems.

Equity-seeking Tenets

Download a PDF of the tenets below.

C!E Equity Seeking Tenets - Dec 2020
Download PDF • 50KB

In the next blog we will dig into two other key frames that led us to these tenets: the idea of emergence and recognizing and operating in complexity. We continue to learn from Margaret Wheatley, Deborah Frieze, and adriene maree brown in understanding emergence. And we begin to explore the complex quadrant of the Cynefin Framework created by David Snowden. We have found tremendous value in really digging into what this frame says about times of chaos and complexity. Thanks to the National Equity Project for first introducing us to this framework and teaching us that the pursuit of equity is always complex.

Beyond the links embedded in this blog, specific quotations or other attributions in this blog came from:

  • Brown, A. M. (2017). Emergent strategy: Shaping change, changing worlds. Chico, CA: AK Press.

  • Muhammad, K. G. (2019). Chapter 1. In The condemnation of blackness: Race, crime, and the making of modern urban America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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