The Power of the Ripple

Last week I also had the opportunity to attend an event sponsored by Education Week — “Leaders to Learn From.”  This event honored 16 district leaders who are making a difference in the lives of students. They are setting conditions in their systems ftransformation. One interesting thing about this group is that they are not all superintendents! The list also included people who work in curriculum, food services, nursing, family-school involvement, union leadership, and technology.  My take-away was that transformation can emerge and spread  anywhere in the system.

To be honest, district-level administrators cannot control what goes on in classrooms. They can only set conditions that make it possible for campus leaders to work in generative ways with their staff and stakeholders. Campus administrators set conditions that make generative teaching and learning possible in classrooms, in the media center, in the cafeteria, and on the soccer field. Teachers, coaches, nurses, counselors and librarians set conditions for students to engage in collaborative inquiry, deep reflection, and action.
But transformation can move up and out from the classroom, too. Teachers and students can use informal channels to set conditions for others as well.

We (simply) need to think outside the hierarchical box.

Scientists tell us that healthy and sustainable human systems are scale-free networks. Patterns can emerge from conditions set at any place across or up and down the system. No matter where we stand in the system, we can see the patterns and we can take action to influence those patterns. No one person or group is in control on how the changes. But we each have influence on the parts of the system we can touch.

In complex systems, patterns of the whole emerge from interactions among the individual parts—not from edicts or mandates or absolute fidelity to a particular method. Sometimes people call it “distributed leadership.” That emergent, distributed leadership does not guarantee that we all live happily ever after, but it does mean that the blame game will never set conditions for transformation.

We must each work hard—wherever we are. We must set conditions for the patterns that we want to see around us. But that is not enough. We must also pay attention to how our actions might cause ripples—ripples that might be amplified across the system and eventually make a larger difference than we expected. Work locally (in your classroom; on your project; with your staff). But think systemically.

I’m looking for examples where that emergent work at the local level triggers change throughout the system!


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