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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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The author and researcher Mark Moore asks leaders endeavoring to improve society to consider how clearly and effectively they can articulate the public value of their enterprise, whether they have the legitimacy and support to pursue that value, and how much operational capacity they can muster to create that value. Leaders in the public sphere are left then to wonder:

  • What strategies are likely to create the most substantive public value at the greatest scale?

  • What ways of implementing those strategies mobilize the greatest support and legitimacy?

  • What approaches effectively use existing capacity and unlock additional capacity?

The C!E System Transformation Framework claims that the traditional answer to these questions have often started with leaders establishing policies and implementation plans. These policies and plans would then dictate the system’s habits and behaviors. With a wholesale change in habits and behaviors of everyone related to the strategy, the instructional core would surely shift in alignment to the desired change. The linearity of this approach makes it easy to define the value the public should expect to see from the endeavor. The clarity of policy documents, action plans and benchmarks is meant to build critical legitimacy and support from an important subset of stakeholders, often those who hold the pursestrings and political power. The presumption of a linear cascade of learning through management and professional development channels lays out an elegantly efficient use of capacity. While there are notable successes that have come from this kind of approach, this way of doing business has too often had far less than the desired impact.

The System Transformation Framework grew from observations of what happened when leaders departed from this traditional model for change. The framework defines an alternative approach where policymakers, leaders who oversee prevailing habits and behaviors, and the leaders who enact the instructional core come together in a different kind of partnership and collaboration. The framework claims that when siloed actors come together for planning, decision making, testing, learning, and iterating, the endeavor has greater impact, scale and sustainability. We hypothesize that this way of working changes who gets to decide and communicate the public value, garners deeper legitimacy and support from a broader set of stakeholders and unlocks operational capacity that systems didn’t even know was available.

The journey from a linear and hierarchical model of change to one that encourages and supports radical collaboration to test, learn, and iterate involves many leadership choices. The story of New Hampshire and Hawai’i illustrate some of the decisions leaders make while seeking equity for their communities, and how those decisions can shape the way the system operates. As you read the case study, please consider the following questions:

  • What does the case study illustrate in terms of equity-seeking systems and system transforming leadership?

  • In this case study, where do you see examples of these coalitions creating a different kind of claim of public value?

  • In this case study, where do you see examples of these coalitions building different kinds of legitimacy and support among different stakeholders?

  • Where do you see examples of these coalitions developing new sources of operational capacity?

New Hampshire and the Work-Study Practices

New Hampshire has long been a pioneer in competency-based education and the inclusion of skills and dispositions into a vision for desired student outcomes. An early member of the Innovation Lab Network sponsored by CCSSO, the state has focused on innovative instructional techniques meant to serve traditionally marginalized students. At these convenings, New Hampshire sat with other innovative peers wrestling with questions of how to better align systems with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions students need to succeed after high school.

Initial efforts in New Hampshire to codify skills and dispositions suffered a backlash from legislators, who believed this kind of work deprioritized academic knowledge and skills. Savvy leaders, working with allies in the legislature, reframed skills and dispositions as “Work Study Practices” to make them more politically palatable. In the eyes of state leaders, renewing the effort to establish a framework state-wide and cultivating support among the legislature also required situating the effort within a national research and policy agenda focused on postsecondary alignment. Many local districts had frameworks for skills and dispositions in place, but before this initiative, there had not been a state-wide codification of these competencies. State leaders empowered a task force of educators to decide which centrally codified framework would be adopted. The panel chose a framework for the Work Study Practices largely informed by Dr. David Conley and Sarah Lench of the Educational Policy Improvement Center (EPIC), a leading research organization with deep expertise on College and Career Readiness.

After the adoption of the Work Study Practices, there was tension between the state education agency and the state intermediary, the New Hampshire Learning Initiative, in how to approach implementation. State education agency leaders saw this is as an opportunity to “roll-out” the Work Study Practices, building on the successful implementation of performance assessment through the Performance Assessment for Competency Education (PACE) program. The leaders of the New Hampshire Learning Initiative, however, were hearing from districts that insisted that their local work on skills and dispositions be included in the process. Additionally, Sarah Lench from EPIC, who was advising the implementation process, saw the opportunity to learn from the variations in local implementation across a network of districts. In response to all of this, leaders at the NHLI convinced the leaders at the department to take the approach of nominally adopting the nationally-informed Work Study Practices statewide, but encouraging local districts to adapt and approximate them based on their own work. Because this grew out of a legislative priority, state leaders had to figure out how to talk about this less directive approach with key lawmakers who needed to lend their support. Education leaders had cultivated a critical ally, the Republican chair of the House Education Committee who was a former teacher and administrator. He was able to make the case to Tea Party members within the party who were resisting the inclusion of these skills and dispositions.

The New Hampshire Learning Initiative, and its Director of Innovation Jonathan Vander Els, faced a challenging landscape of building capacity in places that had not previously attended to skills and dispositions or only done so in a shallow manner, while simultaneously iterating and improving upon the deep existing work of some districts to align better with the state framework and its underlying research base. The approaches taken with the Work Study Practices mirrored the performance assessment work done through PACE. They chose to provide entry points into the WSP work that were sensitive to local contexts and existing work. They created lateral networks where schools and districts learned from one another. In support of this locally contextualized, but nationally-informed implementation, the learning network districts included teachers, administrators and district leaders in their implementation teams. The intentionally chosen members of these teams brought different expertise in different aspects of the Work Study Practices, however, the first iterations of these teams did not include community members.

In support of the implementation of the Work Study Practices, the teams went through multiple cycles of iteration, coming back together at convenings to share learning and creating informal connections they would maintain during the periods between meetings. Strong practitioners from the early efforts were developed into exemplars and leaders that encouraged new participants. The leaders of convenings were careful to set “guardrails” to guide learning, but not to set them so tightly as to constrain their ability to authentically and effectively place this work in their distinct local contexts. For example, they asked teams to focus on how the Work-Study Practices played out in the domains of instruction, assessment, professional capacity, and conditions (contexts and policies), very broad buckets that still gave some direction to the teams. They frequently left an “other” option available also, to allow for ideas that wouldn’t fit neatly into the guardrails they established. In the case of the WSP, districts were allowed to explore an “innovation of your choosing” even if it didn’t fit into the stated guardrails.

With these structures in place, state leaders and representatives of the New Hampshire Learning Initiative found that their primary role in supporting districts was often “giving permission”. Through recurring engagements with district leaders, principals and teachers, leaders reminded those in the field that the Work Study Practices legislation provided them with policy cover to explore new ideas related to competency-based learning, performance assessment and the work-study practices.

Through these processes, practitioners at every level built up habits of collaboration, storytelling, and managing ambiguity that resulted in a depth of implementation of the Work Study Practices that felt profound to everyone involved. In the words of one state education official, “Once I saw the degree of local ownership in the emerging local processes, I learned that the more diversified system was going to be both more productive and scalable, and encouraged the state to back off the more traditional implementation of the state-defined Work Study Practices.”

The New Hampshire network of districts was also building muscles that would support new innovations as leaders engaged in learning with other states in the networks sponsored by the Center for Innovation in Education.

Hawai’i and HA

At the same time the New Hampshire was looking to codify a broader definition of student success, Hawaii was engaged in similar efforts. They were part of a ten-state learning community convened by the Lumina Foundation called Core-to-College that was supporting stronger alignment between K-12 and postsecondary education. The foundation charged members of that learning community with creating a state definition of college and career readiness.

The Hawaii P-20 Council adapted David Conley’s Four Keys to College and Career Readiness to include a culturally specific concept of wayfinding. The locally adopted frame for wayfinding used a metaphor of ocean navigation that honored Hawai’ian seafaring traditions, supporting students to understand the skills required to navigate the known versus unknown waters of their post-secondary plans. The adaptation was an initial response to an ongoing tension within Hawai’i education systems, where agendas and frames were imported from the mainland with white dominant cultural underpinnings, with local leaders then attempting to adapt them. “Wayfinding” was a culturally relevant metaphor for college and career readiness, but did not address a bigger issue with the push for “college and career readiness” itself: The dominant frame was all about individual achievement, whereas Hawai’i culture prioritized community well being.

The board initiated a review of the policy that defined the desired student outcomes for the Hawai’i Department of Education. The leaders of the review empowered a committee from across the educational and non-profit sectors, including leaders from the community. Leaders emphasized that instead of trying to retrofit externally created frameworks to fit Hawai’i, they should start with “Hawai’i at the center”. The committee aimed to create something reflective of Hawai’ian context and needs, but also informed by examples from many communities around the world. In seeking to live out this charge, the committee articulated their developing framework first in Hawai’ian and translating to English after.

As they began to crystallize a framework, members of the committee went out to the community to gather feedback and check for resonance and commitment. Through multiple rounds of validation and community engagement, the Hawai’i Department of Education surfaced the six key outcomes captured in the Nā Hopena A‘o, shortened to HĀ. HĀ also translates to BREATH in English, which serendipitously is the acronym that arises from the english translation of the six outcomes. The HĀ framework captured a vision for college, career and community readiness deeply situated in the context of Hawai’ian culture. The leaders of this process began to sense, however, that what began as a locally contextualized way of defining a vision for student college, career and community readiness could be much more.

This process resulted in a seismic shift. The board decided to adopt HĀ not only as a set of outcomes for students, but as a set of system-wide outcomes for all of the Hawai’i Department of Education. In the words of the policy, HĀ provided “a framework for the Department (HIDOE) to develop in its employees and students the skills, behaviors and dispositions that are reminiscent of Hawai‘i’s unique context and to honor the qualities and values of the indigenous language and culture of Hawai‘i”. Leaders across the system called for HĀ to inform how all employees engaged with students and community members and work in concert to develop these skills in students.

Kau’i Sang, who served on the committee to create HĀ, was tapped to lead the implementation as the head of the Office of Hawai’ian Education at the DOE. As the leader of implementation, she oversaw how HĀ was introduced to communities, which was always by invitation, rather than by mandate. Her approach brought together educators, students, families, community members and elders to co-create their community’s vision for the purpose of education, supported by the six elements of HĀ. She set in place an ambitious agenda of organizational learning that gathered insights from “early adopters” in the field. The DOE would identify patterns, introduce practitioners to relevant research and connect innovative implementers. Working with practitioners, community members and the broader education community, Sang was able to put her office in the role of learning alongside practitioners in the field. She encouraged local groups to interrogate the newly codified practices and deviate from them where they felt it was necessary for their context.

Creating this local “why” simultaneously created space for educators to try new behaviors and pivot away from mis-aligned practices. The community-driven purpose for education served as a call to action for new approaches, with the community poised to provide accountability for follow-through on implementation. For many educators, living up to the new aspirations also meant facing the inadequacy of their previous approaches. A new and revolutionary vision rooted so clearly in their local community allowed educators to acknowledge that their previous efforts had been limited by a myopic and constrained vision of student success. Investment in a broader vision allowed teachers embrace new techniques with enthusiasm.

New Hampshire Learns from Hawai’i

Jon Vander Els and other members of the New Hampshire team would learn about the the HĀ work at an Assessment for Learning Project (ALP) convening, where Kau’i Sang and the Hawai’i team were presenting their work. Their work helped Jon realize that the Work Study Practices and HĀ work had a number of similarities in both purpose and process. However, he also realized that while the implementation of the Work Study Practices had mirrored many of the same practices of shared learning through the networking of locally contextualized implementation, the community had rarely been involved and engaged at the level he was seeing from Hawai’i.

The New Hampshire team studied how the Hawai’i team engaged communities and students in co-design of a shared purpose of school. Jon and the team realized that in their implementation of the Work Study Practices, they had not co-created a“why” for their integration of these practices that was contextualized in the communities across the state. Based on their learning about the core features of both the HĀ process and outcomes through the ALP network, they developed the “What is Our Why” project. In the same way that they invited districts into the implementation of the Work Study Practices, the New Hampshire leaders started by inviting a small number of communities and districts to test out early ideas for how co-construct a community-driven “why” of education. Within a community, citizens and educators learned and built shared meaning together. Communities across the state learned and iterated together, studying each others’ approaches to the shared endeavor. Both learning processes were supported by the New Hampshire Learning Initiative and state education agency leaders who provided common language and a blueprint of an approach that could be adapted to meet local needs, much like in Hawai’i.

Operating in equity-seeking ways demands that leaders develop new skills in establishing public value, building legitimacy and support, and uncovering sources of operational capacity. The cases of Hawai’i and New Hampshire demonstrate how these capacities can be developed through a learning agenda that allows leaders to share their endeavors for others to learn from and approximate those innovations in ways that fit their local contexts. This kind of approximation in a learning community works best when it happens within and between communities and when the learning communities include policy makers, managers, practitioners and community members. Close study allowed Jon and Kau’i to better understand the underlying principles and values that enabled their innovations and to approximate approaches that allowed those principles and values to flourish in their respective states. This inter-state learning mirrored the systems Jon and Kau’i put in place between communities in their states, which in turn mirrored what districts did with their communities. A shared learning agenda based on approximation then becomes a critical lever for scaling innovations both within and between states, rather than a luxury that sits beside a traditional implementation “rollout”. Approximation via shared learning validates the tremendous effect of local context on the success of an initiative and the power that can be cultivated when people are respected as learners.


Reflection Questions:

The C!E System Transformation Framework is rooted in a core belief about learners, establishing that “All children are capable and curious people with multi-dimensional identities who belong to local and global communities, who learn in different ways, and who need to be prepared for a wide range of societal, civic and professional possibilities."

We also claim that equity-seeking systems that are more likely to reach this aspiration for children...

  • Recognize the historical origins of the system and seek to help individuals reflect on their personal histories and experiences and move to productive action based on what they see

  • Seek to help all actors build relationships across lines of difference

  • Seek to help each learner build academic and essential skill competencies

  • Seek to help each learner build a healthy identity both as an individual and member of local, connected and global communities

  • Seek to help each learner grow in their agency

We believe that equity-seeking leaders create coalitions across the circles of policy, habits/behaviors and the instructional core for a different kind of collaboration. We also claim that in doing so, leaders of innovation endeavors can unlock new forms of public value, legitimacy and support, and operational capacity.

  • What does the case study illustrate in terms of equity-seeking systems and system transforming leadership?

  • In this case study, where do you see examples of these coalitions creating a different kind of claim of public value?

  • In this case study, where do you see examples of these coalitions building different kinds of legitimacy and support among different stakeholders?

  • Where do you see examples of these coalitions developing new sources of operational capacity?

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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


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.



[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

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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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