The Future of Education: Reforming Patterns of Teaching and Learning

I just finished reading 5 recent blogs/articles about school reform. Each provided a well written, compelling, research-based perspective on what is needed to reform education. Two articles called for engaging students and teachers more fully in the ecosystem of school life. One described “growth mindset” as key to helping students embrace new learning. One suggested that principals establish a climate of engagement. Finally, one author said that until we change how our culture sees teaching and learning, it won’t much matter what we do to change schools. I read these articles on the day the governor of Minnesota signed a law making bullying illegal in schools.

hands in classChange student experiences. Engage teachers differently. Lead schools more effectively. Change the culture of our society. Create laws that codify how we want people to behave with each other.

All of these pieces are important to the puzzle, and yet, for me, a question remains. If we know so much about what makes the parts of education more effective, why is that that we are still working on school “reform” after decades of effort and billions of dollars of investment?

At Human Systems Dynamics Institute, we don’t believe there is one answer that will fit all situations. The conditions that shape teaching and learning are unique to any given point in time or place. On the other hand, we do believe that there may be one question that will fit all situations. That question is this: How do you shape local conditions for teaching and learning, wherever you work in the system?

We rely on questions as the logical response to the nature of the complex adaptive system (CAS) that we call public education. A CAS is characterized by three conditions that create its unpredictable, uncontrollable, interdependent landscape:

  • Open. A CAS is not protected or enclosed against forces that impact its speed, path, or direction. Multiple forces--both unknown and unknown--impact each CAS in unique and unpredictable ways. At the same time, what happens at one scale impacts patterns at other scales.
    Schools operate in service to students who come from diverse settings, backgrounds, and communities. School districts answer to an elected local school board; to state and federal funding and regulatory agencies; and to communities of parents, taxpayers, and businesses that have varied interests and demands. These multiple forces impact students in classrooms; staff in schools; individuals who provide operational support; the superintendent and board; and other community members.
  • High dimension. A CAS is made up of individual agents, acting in interdependent ways. Each agent in a system is different from all other agents. This high level of diversity leads to high levels of unpredictability and emergence.
    Children are different from each other and from the adults who support them. Each adult in the system brings his or her unique background and experiences to the many roles that support students. Diverse communities have differing expectations and perspectives about how schools should operate and how and what students should learn.

  • Nonlinear. In a CAS, interactions and interdependencies emerge from past histories and understandings that are unique to a time and place. Simultaneously, the interactions and interdependencies that exist today shape the emergent patterns of tomorrow.
    Traditional experiences and expectations about schools shape today’s culture and structures in schools. Today’s world of fast-paced change and information avalanche strains a system that was shaped for a pre-digital world. Tomorrow’s society will require students to develop a different level of skill sets than those that prepared students for the mid-20th century workplace and community life. This ongoing, iterative cycle of learning and change contribute to the complexity of public schooling.

In open, diverse, non-linear systems, no one answer will “fix” the whole. You can’t focus only on one scale of the system--teachers or students or leaders or policy or society. In a CAS, you have to be able to use what you know to make local decisions and to shape local culture at each scale. And you have to do that in ways that ensures coherence from one scale to the next. What happens to students impacts the community. How the board makes decisions impacts teacher performance and engagement. Leadership behaviors model more strongly than public mission statements.

Under these conditions, the only way to move forward is by engaging in ongoing, iterative cycles of Adaptive Action. In open, high dimension, nonlinear systems, each action shapes the next outcome. You literally create your system’s path as you take each step. By starting with What?, you see patterns of interaction and decision making that emerge from the current conditions around you. Asking So what? helps you make meaning of those patterns, see into the conditions that shape them, and identify informed options for action that can alter those patterns. Finally the Now what? moves you to action that moves the system--and leads you back to the next What?

In a CAS that is moving toward greater fitness and shared success, individuals and groups:

  1. Engage in iterative cycles of inquiry at all scales of a system;
  2. Seek similar outcomes; and
  3. Use shared rules of engagement and productivity.

How do you shape local conditions for teaching and learning, wherever you work in the system? For the past year, we have been working with Cupertino Union School District, a K-8 district in the Silicon Valley in California. Using that question to guide our work and to support the work of individuals across the system we have begun changing the conditions of teaching and learning in that CAS. In the coming months, that question will continue to guide their work as they expand the inquiry into classrooms and beyond. This is the nature of their shared Adaptive Action about how to prepare their students to live and work in the 21st century. It is also the nature of our own Adaptive Action about how to re-form the patterns of teaching and learning in an educational system.

Find out more about how you can use this question to design your own reform efforts to shape the future of education in your system. Join us in Chicago October 21 for the day-long Education Pre-conference session before Navigating Complexity: HSD 2014 Conference. In this 8-hour session, join Leslie Patterson, Ph.D., and me to explore this and other questions related to HSD and the future of school reform.

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