A “Simple” Way to Save Public Schools

For the last 12 months, I have been on an amazing learning journey with my colleagues at Human Systems Dynamics (HSD) and The Ball Foundation. Together, we have worked with some impressive educators in New Haven Unified School District (CA), to improve learning for all students in their district. We are now looking back on the year, trying to synthesize what we learned. Here’s my most important ah-ha to this point.

Public schools in the U.S. are facing overwhelming challenges. The future does not look good.  To meet those challenges, we must take radical steps, but, contrary to many recent school reforms, the solution may actually be fairly simple. What I’ve learned alongside my colleagues in California this year is this:

Transforming schools is simply about learning. It’s about setting conditions that ensure that everyone learns, individually and together.

We want to see kindergartners dive into new experiences, take risks, make guesses, ask questions, seek patterns, interpret their experiences, and share what they are learning. We want to see 12th graders ask significant questions, observe closely, read deeply, analyze issues thoroughly, draw conclusions, and create compelling reports and essays.  That is precisely  what teachers, educators, parents, and policy makers need to do if we are going to save public schools! There is no silver bullet–no program or policy that will transform schools. Forget  Superman.

It is simply about learning that leads to action–and action that leads to more learning. HSD calls it “Adaptive Action.”

Here is a list of questions educators might ask as they use  Adaptive Action:


  • What patterns do we notice in our system (both desirable and undesirable)?
  • Where are the significant issues? What are the differences that make a difference? What are the tensions? Where are the questions?  Where are the puzzles and anomalies?

So What?

  • So what do these patterns say about our assumptions? our ideologies? our shared goals? our behaviors toward one another? our discourse?
  • So what do these tensions and questions mean for our system, for individuals, and for  the greater whole?

Now What?

  • Now what options for action might help us set conditions that amplify the patterns we want to see? or diminish the patterns that prove less useful?
  • Now what are our new questions?
  • And  how can we tell our story to others?

Once we take action, we begin the process again.

Here is what some of our colleagues in that school district said about the power of Adaptive Action. These are teachers, instructional coaches, and administrators who are standing in inquiry, looking at patterns and trying to solve real problems.

The one thing I always have going through my brain is “What? So what? Now what?”  Like what’s going on with my class right now? I even had it happen in the middle of a lesson where you just kind of feel the lesson isn’t going where you wanted it to go so you ask “What’s going on right now? So what can I do right now to change that?”

As a literacy coach, I think the biggest change for me has been just the idea of standing in inquiry and using adaptive action. . . .  I really am now thinking through things and asking those questions.

On my campus, we talk a lot about patterns and how, if we want to see a change, it has to be at all levels. So when you’re bringing a problem to the table, think about the what, so what, now what in terms of different levels because what might be an issue at your grade level, may also be an issue for the Instructional Leadership Team, or with all the elementary principals. So we’re not just looking at the issue at that one level but looking up and down and across the district.              

In my classroom, we were having a problem with partner talking so I sat with the class and I elicited a bunch of things that were happening — patterns that they saw. What are we noticing? It’s a pattern of a lack of respect for your partner so how can we change that? And my students came up with a few things that they wanted to try and change.  Since then it’s been pretty good.  We still have to go back and remind ourselves, but it’s been pretty good.

These educators are showing us what happens when each individual throughout a system begins to focus on students, honestly makes sense of the patterns in the system, and generates options for acting individually and collectively to support student learning.

We are beginning to see the potential for whole system transformation when individuals and groups throughout the system use Adaptive Action–in classrooms, hallways, cafeterias, teacher workrooms, parent conferences, and board meetings–to focus on their most pressing challenges.

When everyone in the system is standing in inquiry, when everyone is learning, the dynamics shift. The system changes in a fundamental way. We simply ask questions, observe and interpret what we see, and, together, look for answers.

Perhaps Adaptive Action  is the “simple” path to saving our public schools.

For more information about Human Systems Dynamics and Adaptive action see http://www.hsdinstitute.org.

–Leslie Patterson


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