Making Progress When There's No Right Answer

The moment you realize that you have been wrong about something for a long time can feel disheartening or energizing.

This week I attended the Learning Innovations Laboratory (LILA) Summit at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. I expected to have my understandings challenged and to walk away with new ideas - ideas that could guide my work in school improvement. I didn't expect to find a different truth.

I used to think that we needed to overcome barriers to improve schools; now I understand that we need to navigate paradoxes to transform schools.

I began my work in school improvement in Baltimore City in 2002 helping schools empower children to read, write and find a voice through a balanced literacy approach. While this was a change for schools that had used one of a number of scripted literacy programs, there were clearly defined outcomes in mind. My role was to convey these while helping schools identify and overcome the barriers to change.

Fast forward to 2016. We're still working on helping children to read...and we're also deeply concerned with issues in the world around us. I often ask myself a question that could put me out of a job: Do schools actually need to innovate? The answer is, it depends. If we stay focused on improvement, we can seek to make incremental changes that will deliver a better education for children. We don't need to innovate much at all in this case. But, if we hope to transform schools into places that will grow and nurture the citizens our world needs and the innovators and job creators of the future, then we do need to innovate.

At LILA we were reminded of David Snowden's Cynefin framework which details the characteristics of five contexts: simple, complicated, complex, chaotic, and disordered. Most of what we do to reimagine education falls into complicated and complex contexts.As Dr. Katie Heikkinen summarized in Managing Complexity: How Organizations Navigate Strategic Paradoxes, "Complicated contexts are characterized by relatively clear cause-and effect relationships, but these relationships require greater expertise to see. There may be many right answers or many good ways of moving forward... Complex contexts are characterized by a lack of a clear relationship between cause-and-effect; the causes are multiple and hard to discern, the effects are often far-removed, and both cause and effect impact each other in feedback loops. Causes may be unknown, multiple, and interconnected..."

Teaching children to read is complicated. And there are barriers along the way to overcome - providing robust teacher training, ensuring that children's basic needs such as food and safety are provided, ensuring that every classroom has access to high interest books.

Preparing children for active and ethical participation in a VUCA world is complex. This week, a seventeen year old was shot in Boston when students evacuated for a fire drill. Close to one thousand refugees died last weekend crossing the Mediterranean. A sex offender was all but pardoned because he was privileged. The presidential election is showing the world what happens when fear and short term thinking take over the psyche of a nation. The answers to these problems are deeply unclear. And, if our children will need to be involved in developing solutions, so too will our schools.

Paradoxes in schools abound...
  • Needing to both improve upon and innovate in schools.
  • Teaching basic skills - which we know and understand - while preparing children for a world we can't even fully envision.
  • Enabling children to perform at a high level on state exams while ensuring that THEY are developing critical 21st century employability skills.
  • Helping teachers and principals who are constantly evaluated by short term performance develop long term practice.

Many well-intentioned school improvement efforts have failed. For schools to truly change, we must shift our attention to understanding and navigating these paradoxes. To quote the physicist Niels Bohr, "How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress."

...and I feel energized.