“One should never bring a knife to a gun fight, nor a cookie cutter to a complex adaptive system.” — Jarche, (2013)
Educators are designers of learning. Architects of experiences. Creators of discovery. We spend our careers searching for the best way to solve the wonderful problem of how to help young people learn and grow and thrive. It is second nature to seek solutions and to do so at a fair clip! Building planes while they fly is our speciality.
And therein lies the fundamental conundrum for the modern educator.
For, what we are increasingly coming to understand, through contemporary educational research related to learner-centred experiences, is that there are no swift solutions, no silver bullets and no quick-fix solutions.
And there never will be.
To be adaptive is ‘future-focused’
Gilbert and Bull (2015) remind us that if we want to create learner-responsive experiences, and also foster flexibility and ‘processing power’ so our young people can generate their own solutions, we also need to be ready to work in this way: … a future-oriented education system must be led by teachers who are adaptive, intellectual adults, not “consumers” of ideas, or followers of models and templates developed by others’ (p. 3).
The ability to adapt our expertise is one of the capabilities that defines educational fluency. Such educators ‘…tend to spend a greater proportion of their solution time trying to understand the problem to be solved as opposed to trying out different solutions” (Hattie, 2011, p. 6).
As educators, when we identify unexpected anomalies in our data, or when we hear that something is not working, we rush to solve the problem with what we believe is our best solution. It is likely to be based on our own considerable experience — and the best will in the world.
Even when we know that we do this, we still find ourselves falling back to solution seeking. It is challenging when we are surrounded by stories of other educators who appear to have found the solution (particularly the answer to ‘the future’!). In a recent professional session with a large group of principals, we identified a plethora of ‘solutions’ happening across our schools — coding, open classrooms, inquiry learning, BYOD, beanbags — all introduced with the absolute best of intentions, based on what we could see others doing across the sector.
Think ‘theories’, not ‘solutions’
And yet — what we must remind ourselves continually is that each and every one of these ideas is just a theory; an informed idea based on our own experiences and the experiences of others. But, because education — indeed, knowledge itself — is mutable and complex, we must hold these ideas lightly, understand that what worked today may not work tomorrow; what worked for one school or student may not work for us. The minute we become wedded to a certain idea, we fail to adapt to the urgent and changing needs in our community.
As professionals, it is important to not only hold ideas lightly, but also hold the line around what is most likely to make a difference for our own learners and their communities. We need to adopt a robust approach to innovation and inquiry so that the introduction of new ideas is done in ways that help us stay curious about their impact. This approach might be termed ‘adaptive design’ (Bernstein & Linsky, 2016), and it offers us a way to combine deep, rigorous change leadership and innovative design processes.
So, I offer the following five notions or steps as a way to help us all hold our ideas lightly:
1. Future focused ‘solutions’ may just be someone else’s good idea
Behind every intervention is a theory of change — and that theory is ‘…just a set of ideas about what is leading to what’ (Timperley, 2011). These may often be based on years of research, but not always. It is our responsibility to discriminate and understand why we think an approach will make a difference based what underpins it. Just because someone else is talking ‘growth mindset’ or ‘collaborative spaces’ doesn’t mean this will automatically suit the needs of the learners in our own community that we have identified or prioritised.
2. Strive for an ambitious curriculum
Our curriculum documents in Aotearoa — the New Zealand Curriculum, Te Marautanga o Aotearoa, and Te Whāriki — all offer excellent starting points for shaping a future focus and driving innovation. Comparison with OECD reports (such as The Nature of Learning, 2010) that have been published since these curricula were introduced only serve to highlight that our national guidelines are still world-leading in the way they offer us permission to innovate learning. ERO has highlighted that our challenge now is to focus on ensuring that the future- focused values and vision intended by the curriculum documents drip off the walls for our learners every day (ERO, 2016).
3. Innovate from an informed position
How can we resist jumping to conclusions about what we ‘believe’ will work? Crucially, we must remember that these beliefs drive our actions. So, learning conversations that are structured to resist making assumptions and invite views from all involved parties are vital. Double loop learning and Model 2 (Argyris and Schon, 1978) approaches can be useful to guide these co-constructed conversations.
It is useful to think of achievement or attendance data as a ‘canary in the coalmine’, offering just a first glimpse at where we might focus our attentions. Having everyone look across data, without prejudice, can serve to invite multiple theories to the table, as well as make biases visible. Use patterns in your data as an invitation to be curious about the story behind it.
For example, a Community of Learning that has identified an issue in numeracy could look to any number of theories of change to address the issue — do we change the maths curriculum? provide professional learning for teachers? introduce a ‘growth mindset’ approach to learning conversations? clarify learning goals?….each one may work — so a collaborative, co-constructed review drawing on research and expertise is needed to settle on which approach(es) might work best.
4. Define your strong signals
It is well known that we seek to find evidence to prove our strongly held values and beliefs. This ‘confirmation bias’ means that not only do we tend to read data in a certain way, but we also jump to solutions that reflect our own experiences and view — and then look for proof that they have worked! How often have we inquired into our practice only to emerge convinced that what we have tried was successful? How do we know if an idea is working for our learners?
Before we test or pilot any new idea, sit down with colleagues, look at the research behind the idea, and decide on two-three ‘strong signals’ that are most likely to indicate that our idea is effective. These strong signals will add a rigour to the introduction of initiatives and invite you to stay curious about your impact, to not become too wedded to an idea that might not be working.
At the heart of these signals should be what our learners are telling us. Let’s move on from ‘student voice’ as something to be done occasionally — and shift into a partnership space with young people and their communities so we can continuously strive to understand and empathise with what is or is not working for them. Test together.
5. Test lightly and collaboratively
Be courageous. Prepare to give up and walk away from interventions that are not working for your learners or fail to realise the school vision. It is useful to remember that our long-held theories about ‘what works’ are definitely incomplete and possibly wrong!
Be guided by your strong signals and move through cycles of inquiry swiftly. Hold those ideas lightly and work together to innovate with rigour and curiosity.
Argyris, C., & Schon, D. (1978) Organisational learning: A theory of action perspective. Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley.
Bernstein, M. & Linsky, M. (2016). Leading change through adaptive design. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Winter issue.
Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (2016). Six core principles of improvement.
Education Review Office. (2016). Wellbeing for success: Effective practice.
Gilbert, J. & Bull, A. (2015). On the edge: Shifting teachers’ paradigms for the future. Teaching and Learning Research Initiative.
Hattie, J. (2003). Teachers make a difference: What is the research evidence?. University of Auckland Australian Council for Educational Research.
Jarche, H. (2013). No cookie cutters for complexity.
Timperley, H. (2011). The power of conversations: developing adaptive expertise through the analysis of practice. Monograph submitted to the international congress for school effectiveness and school improvement.
- Didriks — Roller and Cookie Cutters (CC BY-2.0)
- Arctic Wolf — Chameleon (CC BY-NC 2.0)
- Jan Miller — Five (CC BY-NC-SA-2.0)