Last week, as I was pulling weeds in my flowerbeds (as always, amazed by the tenacity of dandelions and crab grass), I reached under a shrub to pull a particularly stubborn root. I felt a sting and drew back my hand to see dozens of fire ants scatter. I had disturbed their mound, and the ground was alive with tiny workers scrambling to rebuild their fortress. Somehow, those many individual ants worked as one in response to the disaster. Read more . . .
In a complex system, we can’t always point to clear, direct causes for the results we want to see. Root causes, influences, triggers, sources–life is too messy. Our actions and reactions are too massively entangled for us to sort out those direct causal paths. Ron Schulz points to “adjacent opportunities and the failure of simple answers.” In a recent post in Emergence: Complexity and Organization, he describes how this shows up in the work of an excellent science teacher–Laura Schulz–who also happens to be his wife. This is a compelling description of the complexity of teaching . . .
The favorite teacher — posted December 30, 2014
How do you set conditions for powerful learning? How do you look for “adjacent opportunities” for your students?
What are your biggest frustrations as an educator?
- Are you overwhelmed? Too many demands; too little time?
- Do you feel fragmented? Pulled in a hundred directions at once?
- Do you feel isolated? Not enough opportunity to work with colleagues?
- Do you feel pressure? Seemingly contradictory mandates and unspoken expectations?
You are definitely not alone. What can we do to simplify? What can we do to build more coherence in these crazy systems we call school? Scientists tell us that a short set of simple rules can set conditions for surprising outcomes in complex systems. Check out this brief explanation: Simple Rules for Governing Complex Systems by Brian Sauser.
Clearly, schools fit the definition of a complex system:
- Open to inside and outside influences
- Diverse across multiple dimensions
- Interdependent in nonlinear and unpredictable ways.
So what are the simple rules that might set conditions for coherent, adaptive, and generative learning in schools? We doubt that one set of simple rules would work in all situations. Here are three possibilities.
Whitney Young is a kindergarten teacher who taught her students this set of simple rules:
- Teach and learn in every interaction.
- We all contribute a piece to the puzzle.
- Pay attention to patterns in our classroom.
- Notice, talk about, and change patterns we don’t like, and keep patterns we do like.
- Take risks.
Mandy Stewart is an assistant professor at Texas Woman’s University. In a 2014 summer literacy program, she worked with eight adolescent students who have recently come to the U.S. Most of them are actually refugees whose families are settling into a new life here. To build on their first language and to support their emerging bilingual/bi-literacy proficiency, Mandy used these simple rules to guide her instructional decisions:
- I learn, you learn.
- I teach, you teach.
- I write, you write.
- I read, you read.
- I care about you; you care about others. (And maybe me, too.)
Cupertino USD is a Pre-K – 8 school district in California. A new superintendent joined the district in 2013-14 and introduced a short set of simple rules from Radical Rules for Schools by Patterson, Holladay, and Eoyang. Since then, leaders throughout the district have participated in deep training related to the use of tools to support these simple rules. Even the school board has adopted these simple rules for their decision-making:
- Teach and learn in every interaction.
- Pay attention to patterns in the whole, part, and greater whole.
- See, understand, and influence patterns.
- Recognize and build on assets of self and others.
- Seek the true and the useful.
- Act with courage.
- Engage in joyful practice.
North Star of Texas Writing Project is a local site of the National Writing Project. As these teachers work together to enhance the writing instruction in their classrooms, and as they provide in-service support for teachers in area schools, they have agreed that they want to set conditions for seven generative patterns of learning in classrooms and in professional development teams. For each pattern, they point to a simple rule that seems to generate that pattern in the system.
- Empathy — Take multiple perspectives, imagining how others think and feel.
- Deep Content Learning — Build capacity to make sense of the world—the past, present, and future.
- Inquiry — Embrace uncertainty—notice and interpret patterns at the whole, part, and greater whole.
- Authenticity — Eagerly engage in tasks you see as significant.
- Apprenticeship — Work with peers and teachers as you build confidence and expertise.
- Re-visioning — Reflect, assess, and take informed action to adapt to changing conditions.
- Dialogue — Engage in conversations about your learning.
We are learning that a set of simple rules like these make our shared agreements explicit and that we can begin holding ourselves (and one another) accountable for acting in coherent and collaborative ways. We are also learning that the exact wording of the rules is less important than the conversations we have about the rules and what those rules mean for the patterns we want to see across our complex systems.
Which of these rules resonate with you? Which of these rules would help set conditions for the patterns you want to see in your classroom? on your campus? in your district?
Last week, I heard a passionate conversation between a teacher and an administrator about how to transform learning in their school district. The conversation circled around questions familiar to school reformers. Who has the power to make significant change? Who needs to be thinking outside the box? Who needs to listen to the other side? In other words, who needs to transform first, to make system-wide transformation possible?
The subtext in this familiar (and sometimes painful) debate is this: What is the teacher’s role? What is the administrator’s role? And also, whose fault is it when transformation gets stuck?
That conversation made me think about other conversations (debates? arguments?) I have engaged in over the years. They usually involve a whole list of “if only” statements:
- If only teachers would let go of those methods that aren’t working . . .
- if only administrators would listen to teachers . . .
- if only teachers would respond to individual students’ needs . . .
- if only administrators would come work alongside me in the classroom for just one day . . .
You get the idea. The blame game.
The problem with this kind of talk is that each perspective is focusing on only one “place” in the larger system—either the classroom or the administrator’s office. They are, however, parts of the larger whole. So where do we begin if our goal is to set conditions for systemic, transformational change?
- at the classroom–where teachers are the most likely to help individual students learn?
- at the campus–where an innovative and perceptive leader can make a huge difference to both students and teachers?
- at the district–where leaders can set conditions that shape interactions up and down the system?
- in the policy arena–where decisions about resources and priorities are powerful levers?
And those are just the formal layers of the system. What about other networks of influence?
- advocacy groups?
- the business community?
- publishers and software companies?
- researchers and teachers in higher education?
- community-based organizations?
- foundations and others who might fund our initiatives?
Whew. Clearly, we are not just dealing with one big, unified system. We are working in many systems simultaneously—and those systems are nested, overlapping, and massively entangled! They are also constantly moving and changing, adapting and self-organizing in unpredictable ways. Schools are made up of large numbers of highly diverse, interdependent individuals, groups, and communities. Each one plays a particular role in how the system functions, and each brings unique agendas and histories.
So where do we begin?
We begin anywhere. We begin everywhere. In complex adaptive systems, patterns emerge from the way individual agents in the system behave—in the ways they do their jobs and in the ways they communicate with one another. And if our goal is to transform the system—to encourage patterns like innovation, responsiveness, adaptation, and joy—we cannot expect school change to begin only in the classroom or only in the boardroom. Everyone in the system needs to behave in coherent ways. Everyone in the system needs to follow a short list of “simple rules.”
Everyone needs to set conditions for others to engage in innovative, responsive, adaptive, and joyful behaviors.
Transformation doesn’t move from the top down or from the bottom up. It emerges from individual actions throughout the system. So let’s move beyond those arguments about where to begin. Let’s just do it. All together. Now!
Learning may be a natural and necessary meaning-making process, but it can also be messy and frustrating, especially when we get “stuck” — when we face a seemingly intractable problem. Seth Horwitt, who teaches 5th graders, tells about how he and his students make sense of their sticky issues with Adaptive Action — a three-step inquiry/action cycle (What? So What? and Now What?)
Often, one sticky issue is “nested” in a larger issue. Finding and addressing that larger sticky issue is what brings system transformation. I have to say that I find myself constantly going through Adaptive Action cycles, large and small. It seems that these cycles flow from one to another. . . I have come to describe sticky issues as nesting dolls.
I agree. It is sometimes hard to tell where one inquiry ends and another one begins. Here — in Seth’s words — are some of those messy but necessary learning cycles.
Adaptive Action Cycle #1
This year our district lost all class-size-reduction funding. As a result our classrooms are minimally at 30 kids per room. This has had a dramatic impact on student behavior, especially during recess and lunchtime. The biggest problems arise at kinder lunch. My principal got very frustrated and shared that frustration in an e-mail to the staff. She stated that teachers need to “crack down” on the kids’ behavior. But I thought there had to be a different way (than cracking down) to approach this problem. Students are not behaving as they should. This has caused frustration and this frustration will be communicated downward to the kids.
So What Does This Mean?
We have tried this in the past. “Cracking down” (whatever that means….) is the usual way that school systems respond to discipline issues. What methods and models could we apply to this situation that might give us insight into creating a novel solution? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Has cracking down on student behavior been tried before? If so, what were the results? Did this action provide the results that we were looking for? Were these results lasting and sustainable? What could be tried that has never been tried before?
Now What Shall We Do?
One pattern that we as a site and as a district have been trying to establish is one of student engagement in critical thinking and problem solving. So, how can we look at this “problem” as an opportunity to amplify that pattern–to invite students to think about it? I decided to turn this problem over to my class by engaging it in an Adaptive Action.
Adaptive Action Cycle #2
I presented the class with the problem: kids are not walking in the hallways. We made a three-part chart: What is the problem? Why do we think it’s happening? What can we do to solve it? After discussing the issue at length with the class, the kids were ready to report their findings. My students and I collaborated on an e-mail to the faculty. As I wrote the message, taking their input and projecting it on the screen, the students saw the text being typed, and they negotiated the content to get it just “right.” The kids were totally empowered by the experience. . .
Our discussion was all about asking questions…particularly “why”…in order to understand how things “are” so that we could help make them better. I wanted to make sure that it was NOT intended to blame anyone for anything. I sent this message to my colleagues:
Dear Teachers, After reading the principal’s note about running in the hallways, I asked myself what I could do to help the situation. It occurred to me that I needed more information about the problem in order to address it in a meaningful way. So, I decided to take a risk and ask my class what they thought. I didn’t have a lesson planned; we just had a discussion. Wow, was it eye-opening!
Here is what my kids had to say: Big Picture: We have a lack of respect problem at our site. While we say that our school rules are, “Be safe, Be respectful and Be responsible” that is not how kids are treating each other at recess.
So What Does This Mean?
As we talked, it became a clear possibility that the reason that kids aren’t respecting the rules, it that they don’t feel respected by one another. This is not a teacher/kid issue, it is a kid/kid issue. I asked my class to think about why kids were ignoring teacher’s requests to walk in the halls after lunch. They were extremely clear about why kids were motivated to run. We only addressed two main reasons. There could be more, but I wanted to share these with you now.They are very solvable.
The first issue the kids mentioned is that there aren’t enough red flags to play “Space Invaders” or Capture the Flag at lunch. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant. This is what kids believe. According to my class, kids are running to make sure that they get to play. A possible solution that my class suggested was for grade levels to take turns—maybe a 3rd/4th grade day with the flags and 5th grade playing on the grass and then switch. Or, maybe, more red flags?
The second issue is much bigger. According to my class we have SERIOUS issues at four-square. Basically kids are making up their own rules. The most detrimental “rule” that the kids have come up with is that whoever gets the ball and court is in charge. In essence if you get there first, you get to control the game for everyone for the entire recess. That is why kids are running!
The rules being made by the kids are neither safe, respectful or responsible. An example of a “rule” that kids have made up is “GOD POWER”. God power is more powerful than “punchies”, “spinnies” or “slammies”. A possible solution for this problem that my class suggested was a four-square rules refresher course. The kids also suggested training kids to help solve four-square problems, using a printed copy of the rules as reference. The crux of the issue, according to the data that I collected from my students, is that we have a pervasive pattern of disrespectful competition between kids. It seems highly likely that this is starting to spill over into kids’ interactions with teachers.
Now What Shall We Do?
I believe that if we start to address the issues kids are facing at recess, we will start to ameliorate the overall “behavioral” problems that we’re seeing at the site.
On a pedagogical note, the process that I went through with my kids to come up with this information has really impacted me. We, as a site, have spent a great deal of time and energy encouraging our kids to be independent thinkers and powerful collaborators. I now understand that I need to put those skills to work to solve real life problems, not so that I can get a grade for them, but so I can empower kids to actively engage in decision-making about their lives.
Kids may be causing “problems” but they’re also our best asset in finding “solutions.”
Sincerely yours, Seth
So those are two of Seth’s “nested” cycles of inquiry and action. The next cycle is all about how his colleagues —and campus administrators—responded to his message. Stay tuned for that post.
The point here is that authentic learning (and problem-solving) is all about asking “What? So What? and Now What?” — over and over again! In curriculum documents, the inquiry process can look fairly linear, predictable, and pristine. In the real world, as Seth’s stories illustrate, it’s messy—messy, but not hopeless.
And maybe the messiness is where we can learn the most!
Eoyang, G. H. and Holladay, R. (2013). Adaptive Action: Leveraging uncertainty in your organization. Palo Alton, CA: Stanford University Press.
Some weeks ago, I was driving my two granddaughters home after dinner. It was only dusky-dark, but the full moon was already visible. Five-year-old Claire saw it first: “See the moon! It’s so big tonight! Is it a full moon yet?” When two-year-old Brooke spotted it, she squealed, “Moon! Moon! Moon! Ball! Moon! Ball!”
They were both—from different perspectives—noticing, naming, interpreting patterns. They were learning without paying attention to the process.
Learning happens whether we pay attention or not. The brain is a learning organ, and the healthy brain must learn—that’s what it does. When human beings engage with the world, we learn. We notice, name, and make sense of patterns in our experiences.
If we think of “learning” in this way, we can see it daily. Hourly. Minute-by-minute. Learning doesn’t have to be a deliberate (or painful) process, but in schools, where our business is learning, we need to make the process more visible and deliberate. We need to set conditions so that learning can happen. The question is this: How do we ensure that this natural and necessary learning process happens every day, for every student?
This is not a new question. (John Dewey had quite a bit to say about it, for example.) But across the complex landscape of teaching and learning in schools today, educators and policy-makers have yet to answer that question in a coherent or systemic way. We see “best practices,” mandated programs, and accountability schemes, but none of those have yet answered that question in a coherent or sustainable way.
Here’s an alternative. It’s not an answer, but it’s a way to search for answers—Adaptive Action. Adaptive Action is a deceptively simple inquiry/action cycle that makes learning a systemic function in complex system.
With Adaptive Action, we try to frame a deliberate learning process with three questions:
- What? — What do we notice? How do those experiences, observations, perceptions create patterns?
- So what? — So what do these patterns mean? to us? to others? What might have caused these patterns to form in this way? How might they trigger new patterns?
- Now what? — Now what shall we do next? Now what are our new questions?
Adaptive Action is not about conducting a long-term inquiry before taking action; nor is it a series of action steps before a summative evaluation. It is an iterative cycle that integrates inquiry and action at each moment. It’s about always and ever taking an inquiry stance. What is happening? So what does it mean? Now what shall we do?
Just a few days ago, I was again driving the granddaughters home after dinner. This time, we couldn’t locate the moon. . . “Where’s the moon?” Brooke wondered. “Where’s the ball moon?” she demanded again, almost in tears. Uh-oh—an interruption to the pattern that had been so noticeable just weeks before. What happened to our moon?
Older sister Claire tapped on the window and asked a passing car: “Excuse me. Have you seen the moon?”
It was another Adaptive Action cycle at work. And another lesson about learning.
Eoyang, G. H. and Holladay, R. (2013). Adaptive action: Leveraging uncertainty in your organization. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
Patterson, L., Holladay, R., and Eoyang, G. (2013). Radical rules for schools: Adaptive Action for complex change. Circle Pines, MN: Human Systems Dynamics Institute.
If we are truly interested in school reform, we have to decide what to do about that pesky old pendulum. In each wave of reform, we see policies swing from one extreme to the other: from critical thinking to the “basics;” from inquiry to direct instruction; from process to product; from standardization to individualization. And back again. Even more frustrating is when the pendulum swings back and forth for day-to-day decisions on our campuses. When the pendulum swings from one extreme to the other, the inevitable contradictions can confuse and, ultimately, paralyze us.
The problem with that old pendulum swing is that a pendulum moves back and forth, back and forth, with no forward movement. It covers the same ground again and again. Or, as in Poe’s short story, its razor-sharp edge swings lower and lower with each pass, threatening to destroy whatever it touches.
No wonder educators are cynical about the potential for genuine and lasting reform.
This maddening focus on first one extreme and then another is grounded in a simplistic understanding of teaching and learning. It comes from incomplete and insufficient models of how human beings work together. When we don’t know how to deal with the complexities inherent in human thought and action, we tend to divide experiences into polarized categories, like those in the list below. See if this list of extremes is relevant to the pendulum swings you see in your school.
Figure 1. Extremes (Interdependent Pairs). Each of these dimensions represents two opposite extremes. The school reform pendulum tends to swing back and forth from one extreme to the other.
When we don’t understand how complex systems work, we tend to see these as either-or choices. We choose sides. We cite the research that supports our version of the world, and we quote the authorities who agree with us, whether John Dewey or Arne Duncan.
From a complex systems perspective, however, we think of these as interdependent pairs, each one naming opposing ends of a continuum along a particular dimension of the system. But they are not separate. Each extreme gives meaning to the other, and both are potentially useful to sustaining the system.
The answer to most questions about generative and sustainable instruction and educational policy should be, “It depends.” Reformers who understand how complex adaptive systems work know that individual actors, intentions, resources, and context are critical. Whether it is better to focus on standardization or diversity, for example, depends on many interdependent issues—identities, intentions, objectives, and current practices. Usually, the best path is whatever proves most appropriate at a particular point in time. The question is “What fits here and now?” Or “What is our next, most useful step forward?”
Often, for example, the most appropriate fit for some procedures is standardization; yet other decisions can focus on the diverse range of unique resources each teacher and learner brings. But how do we decide what is “most appropriate” and what will sustain the patterns we want to see in our system?
Glenda Eoyang and her colleagues who use principles from human systems dynamics (HSD) suggest the Landscape Diagram as a way to think about what actions are the most appropriate points between any two extremes. Think of the Landscape Diagram as a two-dimensional space within any system. One dimension is about the degree of agreement about specific options. The other dimension is about the degree of certainty that this path will lead where we want to go.
Take a few minutes to look back at the chart above. Think about how each of those extremes can map onto the Landscape Diagram—either toward more “Organized” or toward more “Unorganized.”
Figure 2. Landscape Diagram. This diagram helps us think about how to avoid extreme “pendulum swings” by making decisions appropriate to particular issues or situations.
In situations where we all agree on the course of action and we are certain that a particular action will achieve what we need, we can choose more “top-down,” “convergent,” or “standardized” approaches. Here are some examples that may make sense:
- payroll procedures
- bus routes and schedules
- fire drills
- tardy policies
- documentation of differentiated instruction
- learning math facts
- procedures and reports in science lab
- writing a “how-to” paper in language arts.
In situations where there is less agreement on one right way to proceed or when the outcome is not certain, more flexibility (less organized or constrained decisions) is appropriate: • writing poetry
- writing poetry
- project-based learning
- inquiry-based approaches
- professional learning communities focusing on student achievement
- attempts to shift the culture of a campus or faculty toward shared inquiry
- transitional support for special needs learners into mainstream classes
- supporting English learners who each have unique strengths and needs.
Figure 3. Options for Rejecting the Extremes. These guidelines can help educators take action to avoid the swings from one extreme to the other.
This approach, grounded in complexity thinking, absolutely rejects that old pendulum metaphor. This approach requires, instead, that we have shared agreements, that we pay attention to what is happening in the moment, and that we think together about what makes sense to support student learning. In other words, it calls for “Adaptive Action” (Eoyang & Holladay, 2013; Patterson, Holladay, & Eoyang, 2013).
Please join me in this conversation:
- Does one or more of these options for action fit your situation?
- Do any of these make sense for your work?
- Can you think of other options?
- Eoyang, G. H. and Holladay, R. (2013). Adaptive Action: Leveraging uncertainty in your organization. Palo Alton, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Patterson, L., Holladay, R., and Eoyang, G. (2013). Radical rules for schools: Adaptive action for complex change. Circle Pines, MN: Human Systems Dynamics Institute Press.
I have just moved my home office, which meant I packed and re-shelved boxes and boxes of books. I was able to part with a few boxes, donating them to good homes where they will be well used. But I still have hundreds more that I couldn’t find the strength to give away. I might need them tomorrow or next week, you know. And there is that emotional connection. These books are who I am, and who I might become, if I just read them again and again.
Of course, not everyone feels that connection to the printed text. The debate about the future of the book goes on . . . Here is an intriguing essay about that by Annie Murphy Paul, a journalist and consultant I’m following these days, “Are Readers an Endangered Species?”
Recently Glenda Eoyang, Human Systems Dynamics Institute added a tag line to her e-mail messages:
If at first you don’t succeed, iterate and iterate again!
That’s good advice, no matter who we are or what challenges we face.
Human systems are infinitely complex. They are continually in motion. They are diverse. They are open to influences from the environment, which is also infinitely complex, changing, diverse, and open.
We cannot predict what any individual will do in a particular situation, but we can note patterns over time. We can analyze what is happening, and we can make judgements about what our next most promising step might be. We can try it out; watch how the system shifts; and then take another step. This cycle is iterative, and the only way we can move productively within a changing system is to iterate. And iterate again and again.
Glenda Eoyang and her colleagues are developing a field within complexity science she calls “human systems dynamics.” A central model or method within that field is an inquiry/reflection/action cycle that facilitates this kind of iteration. She calls it Adaptive Action. Adaptive Action is and inquiry/action cycle framed by three questions:
- What is happening?
- So what does it mean?
- Now what shall we do?
For a deep dive into that concept, see Adaptive Action: Leveraging Uncertainty in your Organization.
The “problem” with this approach is that mistakes (failure) are a necessary part of this process. In each iteration, we make mistakes, learn what might work better, so that we can move forward into a new iteration.
When we want to make a long-lasting difference in our work, we have to take action. But we also have to be patient–iterating over and over again–as we try to adapt to the unpredictability of this world.
- Eoyang, G. H. and Holladay, R. (2013). Adaptive Action: Leveraging uncertainty in your organization. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Patterson, L., Holladay, R., and Eoyang, G. (2013). Radical Rules for Schools: Adaptive Action for complex change. Circle Pines, MN: Human Systems Dynamics Institute Press.