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What We're Learning: Our Blog

At C!E, we lean into the concept of “leading with learning” and delight in digging into nerdy topics, lines of inquiry with colleagues, and asking the hard questions. This blog serves as a sandbox, our testing ground, and space for rumination to share out C!E’s work.


Here you can find resources, papers, questions, and conversations we’re having as we strive to learn from and alongside our peers about our ever-changing field.

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By Paul Leather, Director of the Interstate Learning Community

“…I ‘walk out’, further out of my certitudes, ‘walk on’ further into uncertainty… I fear to talk about these things within the framework of academic institutions, I fear to be judged… I believe that the change in academic settings need to start by voicing out the repressed narratives of our community, exposing ourselves in the vulnerability of that fear, which will grow our strength. I want to bring these voices together…”

Within, By Questioning– Cleo Petric

Walk Out Walk On Blog


Ramond has always liked math. The answers come to him easily in class, faster than Juan, his best friend, or better than even Maria, who reads way more than he does. So, last Thursday, when Mrs. Burch announced that she would be giving a test on-line, one that was supposed to be given last Spring, he looked forward to it. Sitting at the small desk that he and Abbi had set up for him in the back bedroom of their little ranch house, he felt he was ready. When she came on Zoom, Mrs. Burch told the class that they would need to keep their cameras on at all times and that they would be recording when the test was given. Ramond didn’t like that part, he liked to switch his camera off when he worked a problem, why should others be staring at him when he did his work?

When she was finished talking, he opened up the test. The directions told him to wait until the teacher started the process. The internet was “spongie” again, that was what Abbi called it when it flickered on the screen and odd messages appeared. Ten minutes went by, still nothing from Mrs. Burch. Ramond wondered what was taking so long? 15 minutes now, Ramond raised his hand on-line, maybe something was wrong.

Mrs. Burch came on immediately. “Ramond, are you doing ok?” she asked.

What does she mean, he wondered? “When do we start the test, Mrs. Burch?” he asked.

“Ramond, we are already 15 minutes into the test, didn’t you hear me say, ‘Get Started?’”

“I’ve just been sitting here, waiting,” he muttered, tears forming in his eyes.

“Well, get going, then, the test will be over in 40 minutes.”

Ramond opened up the first question and took a quick peek ahead. There were 50+ questions. No way would he be able to finish in time, he knew. As he scrolled back to the first question, nervous now to get going as Mrs. Burch had said, he bumped his chrome book, flipping it onto the floor, where it promptly flopped shut.

Tears streaming down his face, he yelled, “Abbi, they tricked me!”

Although the names and certain aspects of this story have been altered, this is essentially a true tale from this Fall about a fifth grader’s experience in a state where it had been decided to administer the state math test, against the advice of the State Technical Advisory Council. They had warned that the resulting data would not be comparable to previous year administrations, and thus not usable for accountability purposes.

When Abbi and Mrs. Burch connected that evening, Mrs. Burch consoled her, saying, “Ramond shouldn’t worry, we have to give these tests but it won’t count for his grade.”

“But he is very upset! He says he now hates math, when it’s always been his favorite!”

“You know he often gets upset when things don’t go right, you know he talks with Ms. Lynn,” shared Mrs. Burch.

“Yes, but this was just our wifi, it got spongie, like it does just about every day.”

“I know, but, just tell him not to worry about it and please know that we don’t take these tests too seriously, we have our own assessments that tell us more about how Ramond is doing.”


We hear stories like this from all across the country. And, aside from the particular difficulties of remote learning and testing in the time of COVID, they are not new stories. When I was Deputy Education Commissioner in New Hampshire towards the end of the NCLB era and during the transition to ESSA, I would attend local school board meetings. There, I would witness District Administrators explaining the state test results from the previous year to their local Board. If the results were good relative to other schools or districts, it was due to the wonderful faculty and hardworking students. Conversely, local adverse demographic considerations were central to the explanations given in communities where the results were not so promising. In all locations, however, the discussion usually ended with how the local Board knew that they had instituted their own assessments and their own set of metrics, separate from the state tests used for school improvement. The staff would extol these locally selected tests and their efforts to improve student performance. It was clear, even then, during the height of the state/federal standards and accountability era, that we had two accountability systems, serving two sets of purposes for two different groups of individuals, at two different levels, state/federal and local.

Psychometricians have called out these distinctions with “Balanced Systems of Assessments.”[1] In such systems there is a recognition that there are different purposes served at different levels and, depending on distinct uses, if the design is both coherent and principled, the whole can be greater than the parts. Serving multiple identified use cases, these systems should be considered at best, “loosely coupled,” where vertical coherence between state level tests and local assessments do not bleed into the others’ purposes, and also do not provide conflicting information to end users.[2] Further, in order to address improvements in the classroom, it is best to be concerned with “horizontal coherence” of curriculum, instruction, and assessments, rather than prepping to the state test, with the hope that intense focus at the this level will result ultimately in state level test improvement.[3]This narrative construct is tough to follow at present, however, as so much state policy and consequential incentives are still based on vertical coherence. For teachers, this may mean that performance evaluations are still tied to state test results, for superintendents, tenure or even the question of a school’s existence may still be based on improved state test performance. Hence, we continue to see state test prep taking time away from deeper classroom instruction and outsized attention to state level results, particularly for schools in lower income communities, where quality instruction is so very important.

During these perilous times, we need to ask the following question -- are we well served by multiple accountability systems where both stakes and impact are overlapping in questionable ways? A further concern is that both systems are essentially internally focused — one with equity of opportunity, the other with system improvement, and the state level pressure and impact on the classroom remains unchecked. As some state Commissioners and boards of education have chosen to implement low stakes state assessments to evaluate learning loss since last March, as done in Ramond’s State, we have observed many students and parents giving evidence to their own decisions with their feet – fewer and fewer students are returning to class or Zoom calls. We are seeing general disengagement from public schooling at levels unprecedented in modern times.[4] Recent findings from our focus groups show that the local concerns of disengaged students, disappearing families, and overstressed educators faced with the day-to-day challenges of multiple choice options for student learning, (in-school, hybrid, or fully remote), are far outweighing the less immediate concerns of meeting federal and state testing and accountability expectations.

Indeed, as we see in broad sectors of society a growing distrust of many governmental institutions, we hear parental and community voices asking, “are these state tests relevant today?” Faced with broad guidelines for opening and/or closing schools during COVID developed by political bodies in the state capitol, local school boards and educators are going their own way. This trend often results in a patchwork of school systems open or closed almost randomly across the landscape. This, in turn, causes other problems, teachers living in one town with schools fully remote, required to report for duty to the school 10 miles away in the next district, caught in an impossible set of choices for their own children and careers.

As we drill deeper, we see paradoxically that trust in local schools is waning simply due to parents and family members finding themselves more and more involved on a daily basis in the delivery of schooling. The one-size-fits-all methods that define many of today’s public school classrooms no longer make sense if we optimally desire to support each individual student’s learning. This truth is ever more apparent today for a mother of two, with one child bored as she completes her online daily assignments in less than two hours, while the other appears to be inextricably lost in grade level work that lies well beyond his learning edge.

If it is not too late, it is time that we reconsider how we think about school accountability, as we shared in A New Path Forward this month. Yes, equity of opportunity across zip codes needs to be addressed. But schools need to be more accountable on a day-to-day basis to the students, parents, families, communities, and educators they serve. Surely, we can find better ways to meld these two purposes. Rather than continue to operate state assessments and accountability measures that were not designed for the conditions and challenges of these times, wouldn’t we be better served by redesigning the system overall?

You may say, “but you’re talking about changing immutable realities at the very core of the infrastructure that define the very shape of the overall system.“ We agree, we have discussed how the core of the fractal of public education is inequitable, systemically racist and we think the only path to equity is THROUGH change in what was initially defined as immutable at the core of our educational system. But you may ask, “are we indeed addressing some things that are not possible to change?” What if this had been Thurgood Marshall’s argument in the opening of the landmark case, Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954, would we even question the existence of segregated schools? You may say, “yes, maybe in an ideal world this should be done, but, well, this will be a hard path to follow. The system as we know it was designed to make education effective and efficient while serving all.” As we previously discussed in Gretchen Morgan’s post, “Origins of the C!E Theory of Action Part 1: Fractals,” this argument denies the inconvenient truth that the current model, core elements first adopted in Thomas Mann’s Prussian influenced Common School design of 1843, and later amended as high schools were re-configured by Harvard President Charles Eliot and the Committee of Ten in 1893, set in place for the ages a system where opportunity is intended to school every child, but to particularly favor “the fit and the able.” By fit, we do not mean “in good health due to exercise,” we mean “of the right size and shape” (and color) most like those currently enfranchised. By “able,” we do not mean “capable of performance,” we mean “most likely to succeed in society as it is currently constructed.” U.S. Public Education as we currently know it is largely an institutional artifact, sitting withIn a society that is rapidly changing demographically. Communities are integrating and socioeconomic redlines are being crossed, if not erased. More and more local leaders recognize the essential need to adapt to emerging complex and chaotic conditions and challenges. Today’s students are not well served by a system where the goal is to meet a set of realities that have become obsolete as they struggle to graduate.

We need to do better by all of our students and our communities. We need to do better by Ramond. Abbi and her family will demand it and Mrs. Burch will need to understand why this is true, how it might be done, and what she will need to make a new order real in her classroom. The system must flex, adapt, and adjust. It needs a full redesign. We, all of us, are called to this work. As the rightful owners of our schools, we can grow strong in the face of fear of failure or judgment. As Cleo Petric muses, we can be safe in our vulnerability. We need to “Walk Out and Walk On,” as Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze have shared.[5]It is time we take this particular journey together, and in so doing, we are responsible to ourselves and to one another. We need to remember Richard Elmore’s admonition regarding the need for reciprocity between teacher and learner, and recognize how it speaks to the need for reciprocity between educators and parents, state and local community -- “For every increment of performance I demand from you, I have an equal responsibility to provide you with the capacity to meet that expectation. Likewise, for every investment you make in my skill and knowledge, I have a reciprocal responsibility to demonstrate some new increment in performance.” [6] Though difficult, Elmore’s challenge to all of us feels today more like the path worth following. The time is now.



[1, 2] A Tricky Balance: The Challenges and Opportunities of Balanced Systems of Assessment. S. Marion et al. Center for Assessment. 2013

[3] Design Principles for New Systems of Assessment. L. Shepard, W. Penuel, & K. Davidson. 2017

[4] School Districts Saw Unprecedented Drop in Enrollment. 60 Minutes. CBS News. November, 2020

[5] Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now. M. Wheatley and D. Frieze. April, 2011

[6] Elmore, R. 2002. Bridging the Gap between Standards and Achievement: The Imperative for Professional Development in Education. Washington, DC: Albert Shanker Institute.

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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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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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