For the past five years, I have co-directed the Deeper Learning Dozen, a community of practice of senior school and district leaders from school districts across North America (US and British Columbia) focused on district transformation to support equitable deeper learning for each and every young person and adult. Using innovative theory and practice from the field about communities of practice as spaces for collective learning and practice change; complexity theories such as Cynefin, emergence theory, emergent strategy, and the Six Circle Model; equity and racial justice work from the National Equity Project’s Liberatory Design process and Caroline Hill’s equiryXdesign; cutting edge performance assessment systems design from the work of the Assessment for Learning Project and the Center for Innovation in Education; and deeper learning pedagogy along with trauma informed classroom and school culture practices from such organizations as Lead by Learning, Engaging Schools, and Adaptive Schools, and the SoLD folks; we created innovative, playful, and powerful learning spaces for adults to challenge and support the development of their transformational leadership.
We focused our work in the community of practice on three principles: 1) (In)Equity is Structural, (2) Adult Learning and Student Learning are Symmetrical, and, (3) Leadership Accelerates Emergence.
Note: I wrote this essay in April of 2018 at the beginning of the work to create the Deeper Learning Dozen. I might change a few words around, but for the most part, it all still rings true.
Fullan (2016) and Elmore (unpublished) both tell us that systemic improvement will not occur simply from the development of individual teacher or leader capacity; it results from a strategic focus on the growth of collaborative capacity, the ability of adults to work together in sustained and complex interactions, focused on the ongoing improvement in the quality of their practice. That adult work must mirror the complexity of the interactions that they wish their students to experience in the instructional core, which Elmore refers to as “system symmetry.”
Elmore emphatically states that we must focus our effort on improvement in the quality of practice and experience in the instructional core first, and only much later on student achievement. Change in the instructional core will happen only if the kind of change in adult collaborative learning described above is strategically led in educational organizations. We believe that ongoing communities of practice in expanding dense social networks creates the kind of settings where this change in adult collaborative learning can occur.
What we need is an emergent and qualitatively different learning and leadership experience of participants that results in emergent and qualitatively different practices and actions.
The Learning Model:
Communities of Practice, the “curriculum,” that is, the focus of the collective learning, emerges in communities of practice through an inductive process of development:
The Growth Model:
We focus on the development of Collaborative Capacity and System Symmetry (“Quality first, then scale”). Communities of practice emerge and expand among an innovative core of people, with appropriate support and guidance. At their periphery, a community of engagement can be nurtured, people interested in the innovators’ work and potentially wanting to try out some ideas. Further “out,” a community of interest can develop that should be kept informed and increasingly engaged as they are ready (David Albury). See below for more on this idea of nested communities.
This raises the question of the need for more broadly distributed dense social networks, and ongoing networks, beyond periodic summer institutes and professional learning convenings, within which sustained relationships might develop, and teacher and leader professional growth and collaborative capacity building might occur and continue to develop. Social network theory, rethinking how community-based organizations can more effectively meet the needs of their communities, identifies key principles for network-driven improvement (Making Connections – Denver Social Network Project, 2007):
The Change Model
Implicit in both the ways in which “curriculum” (that is, the focus of the collective learning) develops in communities of practice and “growth” (scaling) occurs in social networks is the idea of emergence. Emergence is an inductive process of development, not a deductive one, that, to quote the work of Meg Wheatley and the Berkana Institute, “names, connects, nourishes, and illuminates,” “making visible the possibility of abandoning the old and jumping to the new.” This involves “hospice work, pioneering, and illuminating… and quietly protecting the space for those who are doing the pioneering work.” Inductive learning processes in social networks cannot be designed with pre-determined curriculum or assessed with pre-determined metrics for growth and impact. They must be facilitated with an eye to nurturing emergent ideas and involvements, that are “controlled and designed from the bottom-up,” where the focus of learning emerges in the social interaction of participants, and growth is driven by densely networked interactions of participants’ demands as they learn. This requires a fundamental change in the culture of learning from how educational organizations have traditionally structured or measured that culture…
This is why we quote Fullan et al. on Changing the Culture of Learning:
“The change lesson here is that we need to change the culture of learning not simply the trappings or structures. It cannot be done by policies or mandates. Transformation will only occur when we engage in the work of facilitating new processes for learning [our bolding here]. Once we have agreed on the [student] learning outcomes or competencies described earlier in this chapter, we need to provide rich opportunities to: work collaboratively; build new learning relationships; and learn from the work. No amount of pre-planning is better than the common experience of learning together while doing the work, because it builds capacity and ownership simultaneously. Simply put, we learn more from doing than thinking about doing so if we want deep learning we need to get started [our bolding here]. Thus, leadership for change is crucial—leadership that comes from all quarters” (Fullan, Quinn, McEachen, 2018 page 26).
What Fullan et al. are describing is exactly the paradigm shift that is needed and that communities of practice embedded in dense networks can provide. Thus, when we think about the learning environment we want to create, we are thinking about an emergent curriculum and emergent knowledge and skills shared within communities of practice, driven by the participants, and distributed through mutual exchange across wide networks of communities of practice that grow based on the demand of participants, not by any predetermined mechanism of control. The metrics are qualitative, not quantitative.
Terry Bailey, The Piton Foundation. Ties That Bind: The Practice of Social Networks.
Richard Elmore. Chapter Two: The Strategic Turn in School Improvement.
Fullan and Quinn. Coherence.
Fullan, Quinn, and McEachen. Deep Learning: Engage the World, Change the World.
Hi Howard, The Piton Foundation. Four Principles of Social Networks.
Meg Wheatley, The Berkana Institute. Our Theory of Change. http://berkana.org/about/our-theory-of-change/
Peggy Holman, Engaging Emergence
Beyond Communities of Practice and Social Networks, is the idea, developed by David Albury, of “nested communities.” Albury describes three nested communities that are the focus of different kinds of strategies, and have permeable boundaries between them: at the center, and involving the early adopters and increasingly apprenticing others into it, is a Community of Practice (the protected space of pioneers, in Wheatley’s terms). The next layer out is a Community of Engagement, where those who might want to try out some of the ideas of the pioneers as they see the pilots and prototypes happening. Further out is the Community of Interest, people who need to be kept in the information loop and in relation to the others, who may take awhile to adopt the new ideas, but must not be left out of the process.
There’s a blog about applying them in a school project in Australia here: https://www.innovationunit.org/thoughts/trapped-on-site-the-problems-of-scaling-powerful-new-practices-in-australian-schools-and-beyond/
And he wrote a little more about it here in a piece on healthcare: https://www.innovationunit.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/MYTHS-AND-MECHANISMS-1.pdf
(The “scaling innovation” frame is rather a different one from organization/system change, but there may be some interesting overlap).
I can’t count the number of times I have heard leaders in all types of organizations state that they need to develop a vision or solve a problem before they involve their staff or community, and then disseminate it and get “buy-in” from the rank and file after they’ve crafted something awesome. “They have other work to do, and this will just stress them out,” is one excuse. Or, “they don’t have a broad enough view of what is going on to make a meaningful contribution.” Or, “it takes too much time, and costs too much!” These are short-sighted views that will inevitably result in it taking more time down the road to align vision and action, gain people’s commitment and build their motivation to engage, or really solve the problem they had failed to solve in the first place.
People misunderstand participation. On reason is that we have bad metaphors for how people work together. “Buy-in” and “ownership” have really very little to do with how people think of themselves in relation to the work they do. To believe that you are going to get “buy-in” down the road once you’ve crafted a great idea assumes that the people who work for you don’t have their own ideas, or that yours are inevitably better than theirs, and that your job is to “sell” your great idea to them. Sure, they may like your idea, but if they have not been involved and had a chance to engage in conversation about the topic along the way, the likelihood that they will really understand it and that it will be meaningful and motivational to them is low. Another bad metaphor is the “top-down, bottom-up” image of organizations we seem to be stuck in. We seem to believe that some ideas should flow “top-down” and some information should flow “bottom-up,” but the reality is information is exchanged, meaning is made, and engagement and commitment are generated, in interactions at the intersection of identity, information, and relationships, as Meg Wheatley describes it. That occurs in the “space” of participation, which we either cultivate or resist, though it will happen anyway if we resist, and the results may not be what we hoped for. When we are talking about organizational vision, as Peter Senge has pointed out, shared vision is created by leaders recognizing and guiding the coalescing of individual passions about the work into visions that drive their engagement and their motivation. Leaders can champion this coalescing, but cannot very effectively legislate, command, or disseminate it. Vision is an emergent process that leaders can support by recognizing that emergence and building enrollment and commitment from that coalescing.
Another reason is that we assume that technical experts are better at solving problems than the people who are doing the actual work. Those experts can then train the workers to apply their solutions to the work. There are so many bad assumptions built into this way of framing problem solving and work that it would take days to explore them all. Many of them are left over from early views of work on assembly lines pushed by Taylor and others in the scientific management literature. But central to this approach is the failure to understand both the people nature of work (work is done by people working together) and the capacity of those doing it to be reflective and see possibilities that experts removed from the actual processes might not see (they are not merely unskilled laborers with no thoughts, nor machines). So those closest to the work see how they work together and what they do that accomplishes the work, and can be very creative in exploring ways to improve both the social and the technical sides of the work. Of course, it is possible that those closest to the work can get into binds due to unexamined collective assumptions and beliefs, group think, but that just suggests the need to expand participation beyond small homogeneous groups, and that gets at the need for examining the boundaries of participation, and the need for networks of innovators. But those are topics for future blogs…
A valuing of participation also implies a different notion of how we know things, both epistemologically and methodologically. We have many old ideas about what an organization “knows” and how that knowledge is stockpiled and used to drive the work of the organization left over from Modernism. Most of those have to do with there being one right answer, often a technical one, and one objective and generalizable foundational knowledge base that is inert and drives the work and the structure of the work we do. That worked for the early assembly line, because it was based on fixed designs and quality control. When changes were needed, experts had already developed the new ideas and the assembly line was modified to accommodate them. A slow and stable process. But we are not living in a world where slow and stable will cut it anymore. And the one perfect, objective idea that is always true turns out to be somewhat of a myth anyway.
It turns out that we will gain more and better ideas through gathering the varied experiences and perspectives of as many people as we can and creating a space for their interactions that is a little wild and wooly, but also respectful. Etienne Wenger, the creator of the term “communities of practice,” describes how organizational members with a shared sense of purpose create communities that focus on their shared practice and take group responsibility to “steward” their knowledge toward higher levels of the practices of that organization. They also apprentice newer members into the community and support their development and participation. This is participation at its most organic, and potentially most powerful. Beyond “buy-in” and “ownership,” beyond “top-down” and “bottom-up,” even beyond “authorship,” true participation implies a distributed yet collective sense of agency. That agency can be powerful, efficient, effective, and even transformational.