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.

From Pedagogy to Sociogogy

I recently watched the video of the  Independent Project and caught some of the commentary like this and this from the NYT .

I don’t know the back story of the project, but I have to say it made me very excited to see a collaborative and supportive model of learning in action.  It boiled down to responsibility and trust for me.

The discussion of the Independent Project’s significance brings me to the term pedagogy and how we have built a system of learning around a very old concept of learning that hasn’t changed much since the Greeks.  A few years ago my colleague Matt Chwierut and I forecast the need to develop social learning platforms and practices that enable “sociogogy” – leading one another.  (The forecast was for KnowledgeWorks Foundation).

The term pedagogy comes from the ancient Greek practice of assigning a slave—literally a leader (agagos in Greek) of children—to escort boys to school and generally supervise them as they prepared for life in Greek society. This paternal teacher-student relationship, of an adult leading a child through a course of study has persisted in basic form since then. The diffusion of Internet connectivity, mobile devices, and participatory media is disrupting this long tradition. The connected, open, and social media context is creating a new context for cultivating relationships among learners and teachers. Like the Internet itself, the structure of learning relationships is flattening, becoming more peer-based and networked than hierarchical, expert dependent, and “command and control” driven. Educator-learner relationships are becoming
more co-creative and self-initiated by individual learners. Many have referred to this learning relationship shift as a move from the “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side,” but in fact the transformation is more fundamental. Indeed the experimentation with networked, co-creative, peer-based relationships among learners suggests a shift from “pedagogy” to “sociogogy”—in which teachers and students are learning “companions” (from the Latin “socius”) leading one
another.

In the video, the principal remarks how the students moved themselves through learning experiences vs being on a conveyor belt of lessons.  I hope the video sparks new ideas, pilots, and more research so that we can move toward a more sociogogical (ugh, combersome word) system of learning.

A Generation of Caregivers

All the discussions about health care reform have reminded me of a workshop I did with high schools students last summer as part of a youth forecasting project with the KnoweldgeWorks Foundation.  I developed a curriculum for teens about key trends in technology, community, health, economy, and demographics and worked with the Center for Digital Storytelling to conduct 3 workshops in which high school students imagined their lives ten years in the future.

The stories were personal, about distinct moments in their future lives, and they revealed issues that mattered to them.  One theme that came through in several stories was their recognition that they would be caregivers – not only to their aging parents – but to their chronically ill peers and to their friends and family members who had become ill as a result of toxic environments and food.  Part of their vision of themselves as caregivers involved developing personal relationships with digital para-professionals (robots), with human medical professionals thorugh social netwokring, and through online markets for medical services.

Here are two of my favorite stories.

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My big take away from these workshops is how capable and insightful the teens were at imagining plausible futures and teasing out the implications that mattered for them.  It was also rewarding to see how excited they got about the present when faced with a set of possible futures. I need to do more of this work!

NLab: Amplified Individuals & Business Resilience

Last year I was fortunate to be invited to speak at the Nlab Social Networking Conference at De Montfort University in Leicester, UK. The day focused on discussing the implications of Web 2.0 tools and applications and social networking for small business.  It was a great event, in part due to the wonderful hospitality of the folks at the University and the Institute of Creative Technologies, but also because we tried to bridge big ideas and concepts with the practical challenges of managing small business.

This year, my colleague Sue Thomas, Professor at DeMotfort University,  invited me to prepare a short video for their NLab event, Amplified Individuals and Business Resilience.  I was sorry not to be there, but at least I got to share some ideas, via video, of the opportunities for using participatory digital media to infuse communities and business with resilience – the capacity to reorganize and recover from crisis – to meet the challenges of a complex and uncertain world.

Here is a link to a page with the video and other audio clips from participants in the seminar.

What is most inspiring to me about this topic is the opportunity for local organizations to gain a bit more agency,  in the creation of information and the discussion around that information, in the ability to create more transparency in local processes and decisions, and in the ability to create, share, and direct resources.

Resilience: Enabling New Patterns, New Agency

I’ve been reading with great interest the posts of John Robb and Jamais Cascio related to resilience. Both make the case persuasively that in a world of black swans, global system shocks and instability, resilience (in communities, institutions, systems) is necessary not only to remain viable, but to thrive.

Jamais offers a clear definition of resilience:  the capacity of an entity–such as a person, an 
institution, or a system–to withstand sudden, unexpected shocks, 
and (ideally) to be capable of recovering quickly afterwards.

I’d like to extend the idea of “recovery” a bit.

I find the significance of the concept of resilience in its adaptive and transformative power—in its dynamic to generate novelty during crisis.  Resilient systems, communities, organizations recover by reorganizing, and possibly even transforming.  (John Robb’s reference to the T-1000 reassembling (through scale invariance) to continue to attack the Terminator is a nice visual of this.)

Fritjov Capra (The Web of Life) argues that a property of all living systems is their capacity to generate new patterns during times of critical instability. Brian Walker et. al., writing in Ecology & Society, emphasize adaptability and transformability as important related attributes of resilience.  They describe resilience as the “capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change” (italics mine).  Sometimes the system transforms.  It creates “untried beginnings from which to evolve a new way of living when existing ecological, economic, or social structures become untenable.” They give an example of the transformation of a rangeland ecosystem from many cattle ranches to a few conservancies managed collectively for ecotourism.

For communities, having the capacity to reorganize and transform to a more viable system seems to be critical for long-term success.  Community resilience is an adaptive practice, enabled by generative capacities to sense, learn, create, and re-organize.  These capacities will support a community’s efforts to generate novel solutions that maintain its distinct identity and wellbeing as it is connected to the global system and subject to global forces.

I think four trends are converging to drive a creative explosion of ways that communities can develop resilience–their capacity to reorganize and generate novel solutions and strategies:

•    Amplification of sensing and cognition through participatory digital media.  New digital media, from camera phones and sensors to social media such as Twitter and wikis are enabling people to create, filter and track data streams more effectively as well as make sense of it.  Citizen science projects, for example, use mobile sensors to amplify a community’s ability to capture environmental data.  Data visualization applications and collaborative gaming are ways to make sense of vast amounts of data.  This amplified capacity could help detect system threshold points (like its getting too big, or too polluted, or too leveraged).  This could help avoid system failures and recognize them more quickly when they do happen.

•    Super empowered groups as a modular social infrastructure.  The ease of affiliation and group formation has increased tremendously with social media. I see this trend as an intersection of Clay Shirky’s ideas in “Here Comes Everyone: The Power of Organizing without Organizations” and David Reed’s point that group forming networks grow exponentially and can rapidly scale as members co-create their own value.   Communities now can grow very user-centric social infrastructures to catalyze collective action and cooperation around issues and needs that matter to them.  The Transition Towns movement exemplifies this as self-organizing groups in communities across the world have quickly adopted Transition Culture ideas and have started to act collectively in their own meaningful ways.  The Interra Community Change Card (a shop local project) shows how social networks comprised of merchants, producers, and residents can boost local economies.

•    Democratized fabrication and the emergence of community-based micro-economies.   Efforts such as TechShop and MIT’s mobile FabLab program have the potential to transform the productive capacity of communities.  Equipped with 3D printers and computer controlled machine tools, these open fabrication centers amplify the capacity of communities to design, prototype, and fabricate stuff – objects, parts, components.  Community members and local organizations like senior centers or schools, and local artisans can create their own micro economies, repair networks, and production webs.  South Bronx residents used the FabLab tools to make furniture and irrigation pipes.

•    The rise of know-how networks and exchange of practical knowledge.  Opportunities to share, and learn from, practical knowledge is unleashing DIY behaviors and creative capacity in various domains.  Local expertise can attain global recognition and support and local organizations can reap the benefit of others’ experience, experimentation, and insight. Some key areas of growth are: artisan networks that share how-to knowledge and instructions like Instructables; open educational resource networks that exchange curriculum methods and lessons such as Curriki and OER Commons;  and R&D and design networks.

Together these four trends can enhance the resilience of individual communities through flexible platforms in various domains (education, food, health, finance) and could begin to create an interconnected web of pioneering communities with increased local agency and more suited to the volatility of the global system.

NOTE: I will be exploring more of these ideas in an upcoming paper published by the online journal of the Institute of Creative Technologies.