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  • Writer's pictureC!E

Origins of the C!E Theory of Action

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

Part 2: Cynefin and Tenets

Building on the previous blog’s discussion of fractals, and how they both help explain why recent reforms fell short of our aspirations and also offer us a way to move forward toward a more equitable future… this blog focuses on the idea of emergence and introduces the Cynefin framework as tools that continue to help us answer the question: how can equity-seeking people shape the future in chaotic times?

There are a few ideas from the fractal blog that we want to be sure are fresh in your mind:

  • Fractals are natural phenomena. Seeking and sustaining symmetry is natural.

  • The beliefs and assumptions we hold form the origin of the fractal. The beliefs and assumptions we hold about learners, families, communities, and ourselves influence our actions in every setting.

  • In addition to our beliefs about these actors, the constructs about race, gender and power first seeded by Jefferson and Mann in the founding of public education still shape how we behave. The fathers of public education sought to prepare white children to participate in democracy, and a select group of white boys to lead it.

  • It is human for us to replicate the shape of the core in everything we do in the endeavor of schooling.

  • When we redefine our assumptions about learners without examining our assumptions about families and about what our own roles should be, we continue to enact some inequitable values in how we try to enact equity -- and it falls short.

Like the concept of fractals, coming to see and understand emergence and engaging with the Cynefin framework have helped us identify and make sense of what we have been observing.

Both adrienne maree brown and the team of Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze offer insights regarding emergence. Like fractal symmetry, emergence is also natural and human. In Walk Out Walk On, Wheatley and Frieze walked out from home and away from their own assumptions about, “what people are capable of and how change happens.” (Wheatley and Frieze, 2011 pg 3). They traveled to seven different places, to see seven different groups of people to seek to understand. In the end, a number of patterns emerged.

The first of which is that systems change is itself emergent. “System change begins when a few people step forward to act on behalf of what matters to them, when they start with a problem that’s right in front of them. They don’t start with the ambition to solve their community’s toughest problems, nor do they wait to develop a five-year plan. Instead, they start with whatever problem grabs their attention.” (Wheatley and Frieze, 2011, pg 220). Readers of our previous blog will remember that brown has a very similar observation saying, “what we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system.”(brown, 2017, pg 53)

In an emergence frame, change begins when someone begins taking action. When we engage in emergent change, we, “make our path by walking it.” We see that problem right in front of us and begin to take action. Then we learn and the learning shapes our future actions. In emergent situations, members of the community turn to one another, unlikely people find their way into leadership, ideas and perspectives no matter how varied are welcome, and the general assumption is that everyone wants to learn and contribute. (Wheatley and Frieze, 2011, pg 224-225)

Incidents of local change create the foundation for scaling great ideas. But scaling itself is also something Wheatley and Frieze see differently than most, and in a way that aligns with our observations about the spread of good ideas across school sites by means of approximation as described in our Systems Transformation Framework. They describe scaling as something that happens across, rather than up. Scaling up is what those in authority do when they find the answer and then lead and incentivize its replication. Such leaders assume a monocultural frame and rely on standardization, promotion, compliance, incentives and punishments (Wheatley and Frieze, 2011, pg. 35) Scaling across, however, happens when people from one place go and see and learn about something great in another place. Then they figure out how to bring the core of that good idea to their home, to their context and adapt it in whatever ways make sense given the resources, beliefs, needs and strengths of the people in their community.

When good ideas emerge from within local contexts, and communities foster the flourishing of those ideas, and then those ideas spread across rather than being scaled up by benevolent leaders with the answers and expertise -- then we think the Cynefin framework would suggest we are in a complex situation.

The Cynefin framework tries to help people accurately identify what kind of situation they find themselves in, so they can then act in ways that are effective in that kind of situation. Specifically, it identifies five domains: confused, clear, complicated, complex and chaos. The graphic below can be found here, the site for David Snowden and his colleagues at Cognitive Edge, The Cynefin Co. If you wish to go a little further, we recommend the video at the bottom of the page linked to here, in which Snowden offers an introduction to the Cynefin framework.

When we first engaged with the framework (way back before the confusion and chaos of 2020) we mapped experiences and examples onto the frame and began to notice that educators, much like most people probably, prefer to be in the Clear or Complicated quadrants. We want the problems to be known, we want the optimal solutions to be known, we want to break optimal solutions down into best practices that everyone can learn and use to solve the well understood problems. We also like governing constraints and generally write policy and procedures to provide actors in the system with governing constraints. They mitigate risk and help ensure fidelity to the best course of action.

The problem however, is that some aspects of the education enterprise are, in fact, inherently complex. We have tried treating the achievement gap as though it was a complicated problem, we have done the same trying to ensure each learner reads fluently by the end of third grade, and we have tried to treat teaching complex content like a clear phenomenon by writing “teacher proof” curriculum. It is no wonder that as a sector, in this time of chaos and complexity, we earnestly try to lead in the way we know works best, which is to sense, analyze and respond as experts who can make this complicated time better for everyone.

While nothing is complex forever, and not all aspects of schooling are complex, there is some complexity in this enterprise at all times. And this year, we have been dealing with unprecedented amounts of both chaos and complexity.

Leaders who are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with complexity are relying on the tools of leadership that fit clear and complicated times, technical expertise, proven practices, analyzing inputs, determining the single response, building an inflexible long-term strategic plan. They are finding that they cannot please everyone, some feel they can scarcely please anyone. They are finding families and teachers are each acting with more agency than they have seen before, and they do not know how to respond to families refusing to comply with remote learning plans, or teachers creating their own grading policies. When people ask them for something different or more, they feel defensive. Why is this happening?

In the frame offered by Wheatley and Frieze, these leaders are enacting the typical assumptions of those with expertise to find and bring answers to other people’s problems. To operate this way, Wheatley and Frieze argue, is to assume humans work like machines, which despite our best efforts just rarely turns out to be the case. They say, “In a machine, nothing happens without an external designer, without manipulation and control.” Machine-minded leaders, “have to take control, assert their will, use their political power to push ahead to get results. How the leader uses power can be either subtle or brutish, but is unquestioned that such power is necessary to accomplish anything to bring order out of chaos.” (Wheatley and Frieze, 2011, pg. 62)

Education leaders maintaining a machine view of humans, or who in the Cynefin framework continue to act as though this is a complicated time, are working very hard, trying very hard, doing a lot each day, and feeling very little appreciation for their efforts. In our observation, It is not that families and students do not appreciate the volume of effort, it is that a lot of district decisions and educators’ hard work are not aligned with what families believe they need.

In response to this lack of appreciation, it is natural for skilled leaders of complicated endeavors to become even more committed to their current course of action, because they believe their expertise makes them uniquely aware of what is truly the problem and what is truly important. And they are well intended people willing to take a few bruises to do what they are sure is right for the children in their care, even if from their perspective families cannot understand and no one will appreciate it until much later.

Which brings us right back to what lies in our education system’s point of fractal origin. What values and beliefs do we hold about ourselves and our expertise that cause us to believe our assertion of what is most important is the “truth” -- even when families tell us explicitly, or through their lack of enthusiasm and appreciation, that they do not see the situation in the same way? When we as leaders assume that it is our responsibility to have the specialized expertise to solve problems for students or families, we do not have an authentic reason to probe with families. Because, as the expert, we already know what families and students need.

When we lead this way, we only probe with families to learn how to sell them our solution. And if we are approaching leadership this way it is very difficult to imagine that we could expand, rather than lose, credibility by acknowledging the complexity of the situation and saying openly that we do not have the answer. But if we can make that leap and then follow that acknowledgement by probing with families, students and teachers to get a sense of what everyone needs, we find that we expand trust. Which then creates opportunities to work with families, students and teachers to determine how the school should respond.

To make that first leap, we must really view families and students as partners with insights and expertise about their children that are as important and as valid as our own professional expertise. Which sounds easy, but we find we are incredibly reluctant to do.

We just observed this in a process we have been supporting in which four school based teams of students, families and educators have been trying to work together in inclusive ways to probe, sense and respond to the challenges of schooling this year. After two months of work that began with empathy interviews and has taken real care to attend to power dynamics within the team and also in who both conducted and participated in interviews - the teams recently reached the phase of problem identification. And at this phase, in three of the four teams the families and students had a view of the core problem that was different from the educator’s view. This dissonance was difficult for the educators. Educators in these three teams said things like, “I hear what everyone here is saying, but I am having trouble because it just doesn’t match what I see. I am not sure whether this is where we should focus.” Or, “I really don’t like what I am hearing because families are saying that they do not feel we are communicating or connecting well. I know we are trying so hard to do this well, so I really don’t like hearing this. But I heard it from five different places, so I have to believe it.”

It is easy to say we value the insights and perspectives of families. In our hearts we probably all believe we value the insights and perspectives of families. It is harder to suspend our view of what is true or right, to set aside our own identity as experts and instead believe and respond to families when they see things very differently, or tell us that our efforts aren’t working.

It is worth noting that when these educators were willing to reflect, willing to be honest and share how difficult it was to hear and believe what their teams were saying, it did not diminish how others viewed them as leaders. In fact, the dynamics among members of these teams feel closer and warmer since that conversation. We don’t think leaders risk credibility when they model humble reflection and confusion, but we understand why educators feel that way. If our frame is that the knowledge and expertise we built through formal training is THE value we bring and the core of why we are revered or respected, then we may feel afraid that if any flaw in our knowledge comes to light, we will lose the power we have to lead in our role. But there is another way, if we recognize we are in a complex situation, and if we let go of our own expectation that we should be able to fix everything alone, then we can find new confidence and expand trust by probing, sensing and responding with learners and families.

We know the layers of logic are getting deep here, but we want to make one more connection, back to one key insight from the fractal blog. We have observed that when we were willing to question our assumptions about the capabilities of learners, but still unwilling to interrogate the assumptions we had about their families and ourselves, we brought white supremacy into our design and implementation of a reform effort meant to promote equity. If we rush to return to normal this year, and in doing so we continue to rely on our professional expertise to independently manage this complex situation, without time or support to interrogate our assumptions, without entering into partnership with families, or centering our problem-solving on the needs the students and families farthest from opportunity in this moment identify for themselves...might we accidentally be doing the same thing again? We think the risk of continuing to lead as though we are in a complicated time, and continuing to assume that people work like machines, is that we will uphold and reinforce assumptions of white supremacy within our schools.

For leaders willing to grapple with complexity, and who are curious about the power of the fractal, and hold a commitment to equity-seeking transformation, this is a moment of unique opportunity. In the face of this unprecedented complexity, we can use an inclusive process of probing, sensing and responding to work with students and families to intentionally reshape those same parts of the fractal core that have driven us to replicate limiting assumptions we have about ourselves and the expertise of families and students. As we said in the first blog in this series.

Right now, in the throws of COVID, with less risk than in any other recent time, local education leaders can change their approach to leadership. They can...

  • Acknowledge that this situation is too complex for any one field of expertise, let alone one person or one leadership team, to solve alone.

  • Acknowledge, without too much vulnerability, that families have always had essential expertise about their children and, now that they have been supporting learners as much or more than teachers, they have even deeper insights that are essential to finding a way forward.

  • Point out that COVID has revealed disparities in opportunity with starker contrast and that we must all feel compelled to learn about and address these inequities.

  • Introduce the idea of targeted universalism, that by creating solutions for the problems of those farthest from opportunity we are also creating strategies that benefit a lot of students and families.

With that frame, local educators can invite a group of families, students and teachers to work together to determine what to do next. This group can begin shaping the very core of the fractal by enacting an inclusive and equity-seeking co-design process in which each person’s expertise is valued, each person’s view of what the real problems are is believed and their view impacts the design of the solution.

We have had, and continue to have a number of opportunities since the onset of COVID to join communities of families, learners and educators who seek to be in a community of learning with one another, and to enact equity in HOW they work together. We have read and sought help in understanding the frames that BIPOC offer us to create spaces in which reflection, empathy, and shared understanding become both the work and the product of the work when collaborating across lines of difference.

As we introduced at the end of the fractal blog post (and provided again below), we have begun to identify tenets we can use to help us enact inclusion and reform some of the core contours of the fractal core. We are certain these tenets aren’t 100% right. We are certain there is no single “right” set of tenets and that local approximations are essential to supporting work from place to place. We are certain we will continue to learn through both listening and practicing. We are also certain that more important than these being right, is the commitment of a group of people to try to enact inclusive tenets and to spend the time pausing and reflecting to see how they are doing, and how each person is feeling. We believe that the act of seeking to change the basic tenets of our interactions while trying to collaborate in addressing a local issue of importance is the system changing behavior that Wheatley, Frieze and brown are all talking about.

In our next piece Paul Leather asks why we have two misaligned systems of accountability - state and local. And connects this vision for local shared inquiries that enact these tenets to the idea of local accountability.

Beyond the reference links embedded above, specific quotations in this blog come from:

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

  • Wheatley, M. J. (94612). Walk out walk on: A learning journey into communities daring to live the future now. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Download a PDF of the equity-seeking tenets below.

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

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Apr 11

I have a different perspective. I would like to offer an alternative view on this issue.

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