Human-scale at Scale: forever a balancing act

October 17, 2016

by Tom Beresford


As I sit on this CalTrain, rumbling through arguably the most innovative region on the planet, I have a new found respect. Respect for those who have changed the landscape of industries around the world from Silicon Valley, by scaling whatever crazy idea they dreamt up in their respective dorm rooms, garages and quite possibly their restrooms. Because…

…this scaling malarky is hard. In fact, it’s utterly disorienting.

Over the last week or so, I’ve been floating around the west coast, talking to some of the most talented educators around — all of whom are not just designing new models of learning and, you know, running schools(!), but they’re also juggling with what can only be described as the artistry of scaling.

And as if that wasn’t challenging enough, these exceptional, innovative leaders are trying to scale something that is inherently human-centred. Good luck, right?

So how can we support these time and resource poor organisations? Here are a few of my emerging insights from my trip that might be helpful.

1. Cultural change is an inherently human journey — lead it, don’t manage it

Scaling student-centred learning isn’t simply about replicating a new set of structures. Each model often has a unique culture that is significantly different from what most teachers are used to. So when adopting these new models, teachers, school leaders and often learners themselves have to go on a journey of culture change. Such journeys are very personal and cannot be or imposed. So any support for scale should be facilitative rather than done to. This may come at a fidelity cost, but without an authentic ‘innovation-culture fit’ the foundations of adoption are likely to be shakey.

The Big Picture Learning Network is committed to supporting each school’s individual journey. As Javier Guzman, Regional Director at PBL put it, “The BPL philosophy is one child at a time. When we think about adoption and scaling, its really about one school at a time.” Co-creating a journey that works for each school, and helping leaders and teachers to identify bright spots, can seed and nurture a culture change that is far more likely to be transformative and long-lasting.

2. Pillars of culture — scaffolding through common cultural practices

Beyond the core ‘design’ principles that make up the foundations of these new student-centred learning models, many have core practices that are integral to instilling a new culture. Such practices have rituals, protocols and principles at their heart, and often breed particular behaviours and mindsets that can shape a particular culture. Schools investing heavily in getting such core practices right are often able to seed and sustain the culture and principal tenants that are at the heart of their new model.

Having visited two demonstrator sites of the New Tech Network — Bulldog Tech and Katherine Smith Elementary, in San Jose — it’s very apparent that their personalised, project-based learning model has a strong set of cultural norms that underpin everything they do. And to embed and sustain these norms, staff have really invested in a core set of practices that make up the school experience. For instance, students own their own learning through student-led conferences and exhibitions of work as a way to emphasise and elevate self agency as a learning outcome. In a slightly softer way, both of these demonstrator schools ensure that students lead all the tours, owning that opportunity for personal development and self-directed learning.

It’s these sorts of behaviours that School Retool at Stanford are encouraging schools to leverage during their deeper learning ‘hacks’. Such pillars of culture can act as scaffolds/anchors for schools across a network to build from, and begin to individualise and adapt without drifting too far from what makes the model strong.

3. Bringing teachers with you — buy-in and professional agency

Ironically, teachers don’t respond well to being told what to do. And yet professional development has generally become something that is delivered by ‘experts’, to passively-recipient teachers. So, asking even more of teachers to radically unlearn what they know, and take on a brand new model for learning, requires a significantly different tact — one that earns their buy-in and mobilises their value as driven professionals.

Alt Schools — a new network of private micro-schools focusing on a whole-child, personalised education — has put teacher agency at the heart of their start-up-esque change journey. Under a clear vision that schools should prepare each child for their future by developing their self-awareness, nurturing their innate capabilities, and fostering collaboration skills, teachers are active agents in designing and refining the model as a collective. They work with user researchers (as well as tech engineers) to hypothesise, test and analyse their designs for learning, feeding their evolving practice into a ‘playbook’ that’s co-owned by educators across the network.

4. Networked professional learning communities — strength in numbers

Educating young people in an ever-changing complex world is a tall order in itself. But as a profession, educators increasingly know more and more about what works and what doesn’t in different models, different contexts and under different circumstances. Yet as systems — be them networks, school chains or jurisdictions — we are notoriously bad at utilising that knowledge and effectively furthering the profession as a whole.

Sitting down with Tony Bryk at The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching brought to light new ways that teachers as a collective can better pursue rigorous improvement within either traditional paradigms, or new more transformative ones. As with the Foundation’s new Networked Improvement Communities (NICs), its fundamental to start with a re-professionalisation of teachers — the top-down endeavour of ‘mandating the good’ has come at the cost of teachers’ identity as education experts. But more than this, it’s important to go beyond teachers as knowledge and learning experts. We must reimagine the role of teachers as one of designers and researchers of learning. Improvement Science calls for educators to be analytical, empirical and social in their professional learning — bringing rigour and iteration. The same goes for disciplined innovators who are designing and spreading new models of learning.

That’s my starter for 10. More to come.

Follow me on twitter @t_bez12 and #humanscaleatscale.

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