Notes on Conversations of Education Transformation: Frames Shaping the Stories and Solutions

As I participate in discussions about the future of education, I listen for how the conversations get framed.  Underlying most discussions about innovation and transformation in education are assumptions that tend to set the boundaries of discussions.  Sometimes these frames are overt, sometimes hidden, but in any case they influence the kinds of questions that get asked and shape the solution space.  They highlight some players over others and may orient towards particular solutions.  Ultimately they shape how we view opportunity and visions of what is possible.

Here are three frames that I have noticed.  I’m sure there are others out there too.  When I sense that we are moving into one of these frames, I draw it out so that we can be explicit, work the frame to deepen our conversation, then move to another frame.

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The performance frame is typically technology driven.   It frames discussions by focusing on innovations that drive what teaching and learning could look like.  (Time on the x-axis and performance on the y-axis.) These conversations tend to focus on what is possible from innovative ideas and new technologies.  Questions focus on how emerging technology clusters and new conceptual paradigms enable improved system functionality and value.  The key here is how performance is measured.  It could be increased access (as with MOOCs) or greater affordability and relevance (as with competency-based education programs). Over time, as incremental gains decline and are exhausted a new set of technologies comes along and boosts performance to a new level.  The benefit of this frame is that it can serve as a springboard for imagining new constellations of innovations that collectively could increase the performance of the system.  It also focuses on highlighting definitions, measures, and values for system performance.

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The adoption frame originates from Everett Rogers’ early work on the diffusion of innovation and recently is described as the “two curve” challenge, in Ian Morrison’s book, The Second Curve.  (Time is on the x-axis and penetration rate is on the y-axis.)  This frame is more human, and organization centered.  It focuses on the threats and opportunities of innovations to specific users and stakeholders.  It helps orient conversations around what might enable or inhibit adoption of innovations.  For example, who doesn’t want to move to the new curve and what economic or political drivers may be the reason? Are there other barriers in the market or within an organization?  This frame also is a good way to discuss what kinds of risks emerge, and when, from remaining on the existing curve too long or leaving it too early.

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The concept of the adaptive cycle is at the root of the ecosystem frame.  This lens on change in education helps us look at the breakdown and disruption of the traditional education system as part of an adaptive process to a newer system that is better aligned to its context and conditions.   After a mature forest experiences breakdown and loss from fire, it re-generates itself by opening itself to unknown possibilities from potentially new species and relationships among plants, insects, wildlife, and nutrient flows.  Productive relationships thrive and over time the ecosystem rebuilds itself in response to its new conditions.

The ecosystem frame is particularly useful for orienting education system discussions around new opportunities, potential value, and relationships.  The frame highlights the generative dynamic of relationships and novel responses to threats and disruptions. Rather than resist disruptions (such as new technologies and innovative organizational models) or fall back on existing (ineffective) responses, the ecosystem frame points out adaptive responses by examining opportunities created by the release of resources, re-organization of relationships, and exploitation (leverage) of new niches in the ecosystem.

We’re currently in the early period of exploitation in which novel combinations of players are testing the ground and seeing what kind of sustainable value they can create.  Content and curriculum development is proliferating among open educational resource spaces that support new combinations of teachers, experts, and learning agents like librarians. New ideas like blended learning and competency-based assessment are attracting experimentation and pilots.  The most damaging action to the education ecosystem now would be to stifle experimentation (the exploitation of opportunities presented by new ideas, technologies, and players) and the learning obtained from successful and failed initiatives.

The adaptive cycle is nature’s learning process that supports its resilience over time.  For this reason, the ecosystem frame is a useful one for challenging the rhetoric around experimentation and failure (as in “don’t experiment with my children”) and creating a more productive conversation focused on learning and system improvement.

See my earlier post for a detailed explanation of the adaptive cycle.

Benefits of an Ecosystem Frame for Understanding the Future of Education

Using the adaptive cycle to imagine sustainable transformation of teaching and learning systems

The word ecosystem is used a lot in education today to talk about new ways of organizing teaching and learning. Often the term is used to refer to more network-styled relationships (rather than hierarchy) among a diversity of players and roles (rather than a single bureaucratic system) using various modes of organizing learning experiences (rather than one-size fits all approaches).

The concept of the adaptive cycle is at the root of an ecosystem frame and worth exploring to understand more deeply the possibilities for transformation in education. The ecosystem lens on change in education helps us examine disruption and breakdown of the traditional education system as part of an adaptive process to a newer system that is better aligned to its context and conditions.

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Source: Saveri Consulting, derived from Hollings, Radford, Weeks, Rodriguez, and Blakeslee.

Mature, tightly connected ecosystems can become rigid as they accumulate resources in their conservation phase.  And while they may be efficient in their exchange of resources, they are inflexible and susceptible to breakdown when confronted by threats and disruptions, such as fires, invasive pests, drought, and pollution. These shocks drive a release of energy and nutrients as trees and plants burn, wildlife scatters, soil erodes (or floods), and resources become disconnected from their traditional relationships.  Release leads to re-organization as gaps in the ecosystem invite new species and resources.  Loss of low growing, dense plants may allow more circulation and sunshine to penetrate a forest and sets the stage for new plant species.  New plants species may attract new kinds of wildlife—perhaps new insects and other creatures that create new relationships and resource connections.  Re-organization of existing ecosystem inhabitants and new entrants enables a period of exploitation—a time of rapid experimentation by ecosystem inhabitants to learn what relationships are most productive and sustainable.  Some new species fare better than others.  Some may get crowded out by invasive species (weeds) while others may benefit from the stabilizing effects they have on the soil.  As successful combinations form, they grow and accumulate more resources and reach and begin to define the transformation of the ecosystem over time. (see this for a detailed explanation of the adaptive cycle).

The ecosystem frame is particularly useful for orienting education system discussions around new opportunities, potential value, and relationships.   The frame highlights the generative dynamic of relationships and novel responses to threats and disruptions. Rather than resist disruptions (such as new technologies and innovative organizational models) or fall back on existing (ineffective) responses, the ecosystem frame points out adaptive responses by examining opportunities created by the release of resources, re-organization of relationships, and exploitation (leverage) of new niches in the ecosystem.

Shocks to the traditional bureaucratic education system in the past few decades include disruptive technologies, increasingly diverse learning populations, new workforce requirements, soaring costs, and economic crisis (declining budgets).

Traditional responses from existing players seem to have only driven greater breakdown and release in the system, as student and new teacher dropout rates have increased, schools apply for charter waivers and reduce connection to the public system, and neighborhood schools close.  This may not be a bad thing as breakdown and release have created openings for new ideas and players.  Ed tech innovators have entered the teaching and learning ecosystem, as have community organizations such as libraries and museums.  Venture capital firms, crowdsourced funding platforms, and employers are playing new roles as funders and partners.  New individuals are finding their way into the teaching and learning field as professionals or para-professionals in new kinds of spaces of learning like media labs, techshops, maker centers, and learning hives.  New school models are attracting new providers.

We’re currently in the early period of exploitation in which novel combinations of players are testing the ground and seeing what kind of sustainable value they can create.  Content and curriculum development is proliferating among open educational resource spaces that support new combinations of teachers, experts, and learning agents like librarians. Foundations are seeding more cross-boundary partnerships and novel pilot projects. New ideas like blended learning and competency-based assessment are attracting experimentation and pilots.  And schools themselves are beginning to open to more experimentation among its faculty and staff. The most damaging action to the education ecosystem now would be to stifle experimentation (the exploitation of opportunities presented by new ideas, technologies, and players) and the learning obtained from successful and failed initiatives.

The adaptive cycle is nature’s learning process that supports its resilience over time.  For this reason, the ecosystem frame is a useful one for challenging the rhetoric around experimentation and failure (as in “don’t experiment with my children”) and creating a more productive conversation focused on learning and system improvement.