Cultivating a Long Now Mindset in Education

How might we envision education transformation when we take the long view and think in terms of centuries rather than in months and years typical in most educational planning and visioning?

About a year ago the KnowledgeWorks Foundation, the Long Now Foundation, and Saveri Consulting collaborated to explore this provocation with a diverse group of public and private K12 educators.

This short video captures the essence of our workshop and the educators’ views on how pace layer thinking can be liberating and help stretch the time horizon for considering meaningful transformation in education.

Over the course of the year we created four blog posts to share more detail and the biggest insights from our day long workshop:  Reframing Education for the Long Now.

As one of our participants summed it up, the pace layer framework is fundamentally a thinking tool of hope and possibility. By expanding perspective to the breadth of civilization and timeframe to include centuries, pathways for positive change become more abundant and visible.

How might we lengthen the now in education to create a more equitable, sustainable and life affirming system of education?



Reframing Education for the Long Now (Part IV):

Reflections on Cultivating a Long Now Mindset in Education


Insights about how Pace Layers contribute to a long now mindset in education


This article is Part Four of a four-part series, Reframing Education for the Long Now, based on insights from the Long Now Educators Workshop on August 1, 02017, hosted by the Long Now Foundation and KnowledgeWorks Foundation.

This series explored how as a society we might develop a long now mindset to examine and reframe education challenges. The culminating discussion of the Long Now Educator Workshop provided a time for participants to reflect on their insights about the benefits of using the pace layers and long-term thinking in education.

One theme throughout the conversation is the uncertainty about the purpose of a compulsory public education system. Public education lives in the slow layers of governance and culture, resulting in fragmentation of approaches and interventions. Promoting diversification of education reform strategies can be useful for system-wide learning as well as for identifying effective innovations. However, the lack of shared cultural guideposts to steer change is causing resistance, politics, and other obstacles to consume attention and prevent real transformation. It is also enabling the commerce layer to have undue influence over education reform. (as described earlier).

Jason Swanson, KnowledgeWorks Foundation

At first, this dynamic may seem deeply troubling. But the pace layer framework places this complex interaction in a longer timeframe. What might appear in the short view to be ossification of the public education system is in the long view really just temporary stasis. The current dynamic of education reform will shift when new pathways to change are built and are connected across the pace layers. The long now mindset cultivates the connection of the long term with the present moment to guide change. As mentioned in earlier posts, aligning expectations for change to the distinct pace of each layer might encourage more patience when change doesn’t happen quickly in the short term. It also helps to focus actions on achieving long term goals. As Stewart Brand suggests, we need to appreciate and engage the “many-leveled corrective” capability of the pace layers to stabilize negative feedback in the system.

Megan Simmons, Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management


Benefits of Pace Layer Thinking

The workshop participants reflected about the ways that the pace layers might contribute to their thinking about systemic transformation in education. They identified several specific benefits:

Supports systemic narratives. The pace layers encourage big storytelling across many layers and time periods that has the potential to reveal deeply embedded cultural values and their manifestation across societal dynamics. This creates the potential to shift cultural values that may no longer serve broader educational goals for society.

Encourages perspective taking across the system. A pace layer lens exposes motivations and intentions of diverse stakeholders and their deep histories. This opens up the possibility to build empathy for stakeholders and hope for the future. It also sets up education leaders, designers, decision-makers, policy-makers, and philanthropists to look for connections and opportunities to coordinate strategies for maximum impact.

Frames complexity. Big systemic narratives can help illustrate multiple cause and effect relationships of actions across the pace layers and how they connect to stakeholder intentions. Pace layer-driven narratives and analysis helps make complexity concrete. They help education decision-makers hold a complex picture of change in their minds and make sense of the apparent messiness of the system.

Clarifies expectations of outcomes. A pace layer framework for analysis can help set reasonable expectations about the scope and time frame for outcomes. Pace layers can become a shared language to form questions and discuss projects, outcomes, and partnerships. Example questions include: What layer is the focus of your program/project? What outcome can we reasonably expect from this layer? What if we focused on a different layer?

Re-contextualizes failure. Building on outcome clarification, pace layers have the potential to reframe failure and provide a richer language to discuss negative outcomes. What might have been considered a failure may just be a focus on the wrong pace layer or metric.

Diversifies innovation and problem-solving. The pace layers provide six domains of activity to explore solutions and interventions for transforming education. This allows for additional perspectives and prompts for brainstorming and prototyping new ideas.

Mark Kushner, education strategist and innovator

Now Lengtheners

To wrap up the workshop, participants playfully brainstormed and prototyped actions that might lengthen the now in education. Specifically, they considered the kinds of aspirational images, projects, or activities would shift the mindset in education to a longer term societal context.

Some compelling examples include:

The long view of human learning. What if we showed human learning in the context of the learning of the species? How would this expansive time frame influence system priorities outcomes?

Big data perspectives. What if we used big data to develop scale models and maps that let individuals put their experience into this bigger, longer perspective?

Learning legacies. What if we based our designs of education keeping mind the education needs and aspirations of our grandchildren’s children? What could be our individual and societal learning legacies to future generations?

Global/generational challenges. What if we trained students to solve intergenerational problems with intergenerational solutions? Many of our most complex challenges require strategies that endure centuries. Some examples include: interstellar space travel which requires generations to complete a mission; preserving the redwoods which requires an institution and people who understand the problem to span generations.

Values shift immersive game. What if we could immerse people in future scenarios that are guided by different societal values to show long term impacts? The experience might help reveal long term benefits and consequences to education of specific decisions, actions, and inaction.


Nasif Iskander, San Francisco University High School

Fundamentally, the pace layer framework is a thinking tool of hope and possibility. By expanding perspective to the breadth of civilization and timeframe to include centuries, pathways for positive change become more abundant and visible. One participant summed it up well.

“Each of these layers, while they have their own pace, each have their own values and motivations. And in all our conversations about school we tend to focus on what effectively is one layer and one set of values, and wish the others didn’t exist. The realization that all of this is at work all the time, and all this is necessary, and that this is a part of a functional system of the evolution of civilization is actually quite liberating. And I start to think of these different paces and different motives and values as opportunities rather than obstacles.” — Nasif Iskander

Reframing Education for the Long Now (Part III) Leveraging pace layer strategies for system change in education

This article is Part Three of a four-part series, Reframing Education for the Long Now, based on insights from the Long Now Educators Workshop on August 1, 02017, hosted by the Long Now Foundation and KnowledgeWorks Foundation.

Long Now Educators Workshop, August 01, 02017.

As explored earlier in this series, the pace layer framework honors the messiness of society and provides a tool for revealing apparent contradictions across societal domains in ways that create opportunities to shift systemic interactions toward long-term health. As a tool for understanding such complexity, the pace layers offer a useful lens for identifying strategies for system change in education.

The total effect of the pace layers is that they provide a many-leveled corrective, stabilizing the negative feedback throughout the system. It is precisely in the apparent contradictions of pace that civilization finds its surest health.
— Stewart Brand, Long Now Foundation Founder

The various layers and their distinct paces of change reveal interests and interconnected relationships that emerge when different domains of civilization interact. Each pace layer offers a distinct perspective for developing strategies and interventions with the potential to trigger actions and responses across stakeholder groups. Brand suggests that, if we want long-term change, we need to engage the slow layers and pay attention to dynamics when layers intersect.

Source: The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility, Stewart Brand, 1999.

As we find ourselves with a very dominant commerce layer shaping the direction of change in education, how might the pace layers provide inspiration for creating an education system that is a robust intellectual infrastructure for our society?

A pace layer perspective offers a way to frame questions that help us focus on interactions across stakeholders and over time. For example, in education, we can ask:

  • How we might we leverage the distinct pace and job of each pace layer to contribute strategies for bringing positive transformation to education?
  • How might interventions at one layer engage the other layers in contributing toward positive system change in education?
  • Are there actions we could take that would lengthen the “now” in education and help us think in terms of generations and centuries, instead of months and years?

These general pace layer questions serve as a guide for more specific questions that help explore and uncover new stakeholder actions and relationships to drive systemic change.

What if teachers were supported as disruptors to drive the creative churn of new ideas and innovations in education?

What could it look like if teachers led and drove creative, disruptive education research and design? Online collaborative platforms such as The Teachers Guild provides one form of support for teachers as designers of collaborative solutions to education challenges. How might we harness the fashion-art layer to make educator-centered innovation the driver of education research? What strategies might leverage the attention-grabbing possibilities of this layer to grow the public image of teachers as designers and innovators of learning experiences?

Chance The Rapper attends XQ Super School Live, presented by EIF, at Barker Hangar on September 8, 02017 in Santa California.

The recent XQ Superschool red carpet launch of their reimagine high school initiative on primetime television is one example. Building upon that, what might an award show for educators look like? What are other ways that schools of education, districts, and communities might partner at the fashion-art layer to support and recognize teachers as drivers of innovation and design? How might such a partnership need to be supported at the infrastructure and governance layers to be sustainable?

What if educational technologies and resources were predominantly open source, with its development and testing done via collaborative, peer-production communities for feedback and improvement?

Commerce is about exchange among people to create value — it helps sort and filter the abundance from the fashion-art layer. What kinds of collaborative platforms could expand development and testing to broaden access to new educational technologies, ideas, and resources among educators? Open educational resource platforms, like OER Commons with its OpenAuthor tool, lets teachers develop and share curriculum, assessments, and other instructional materials. This type of platform and community of teacher “peer developers” could expand to become a platform for testing, feedback and iteration of new open source tools and applications.

A graph describing the evolution of OER.

Crowdsourced, collaborative design communities, like Open IDEO share data and ideas to generate feedback on innovations and on solutions to design challenges. How might these approaches expand to develop a more open source, peer development approach for innovating new school models, assessments, and education policy? How might new platforms for exchange bring education stakeholders together to revitalize education research and development and innovation to support a culture of change? What would it take to shift education to a culture of openness?

How might a responsive education infrastructure support dynamic teaching and learning ecosystems?

Infrastructure is intimately linked to governance and culture as these slower layers must justify the longer slower investment required to sustain infrastructures. What might education look like if it were modeled after the nature layer? How might ecological concepts such as resilience and adaptive cycles reframe our thinking about equity and shift our time frame to make metrics less punitive? How might the government pace layer support education in becoming more unbundled and more integrated within geographic communities? What might stewardship of a learning ecosystem look like? How might a diverse range of stakeholders manage a portfolio of public and private, in-school and out-of-school learning options that shared a common vision? How might a learning ecosystem respond and adapt to change?

How might we reinvigorate the conversation about the purpose of public education?

As explored earlier, commerce currently controls much of the narrative about the purpose of education. Driven by the uncertainty of future work, the purpose of education has shifted over the decades from its fundamental role of preserving and facilitating democracy to fueling the employment sector. As a result, the benefits of learning accrue to the individual and not necessarily to society. How might education change if we uncoupled notions of success from labor force participation? We’ve already seen GDP grow without an expansion of labor due to widespread application of digital automation and augmentation and other labor-saving or labor-replacing technologies in workplaces. What purpose might be served by education if the economy were to become much more automated? How might we “lengthen the now,” as Stewart Brand puts it, in our thinking about education to cultivate systemic goals and approaches that link individual gain to collective health? Looking even further down the pace layers, how might we link education to nature to create aspirations for education that serve both humanity and the planet?

Taking a pace layer perspective to examine and strategize about long-term transformation in education offers multiple ways to frame intention, outcomes, and metrics. In a sense, taking a pace layer perspective helps relieve the pressure on education decision-makers to solve everything immediately. Some interventions, such as a shift in pedagogy, learning space, or assessment strategy may take years, while changes to education structures, leadership and governance models and learning cultures may take decades.

Using the pace layers allows us to slow down and take the long view. Hopefully, this lengthening of perspective may calm some of the anxiety around education reform and transformation, help stakeholders operating at different layers empathize with one another and lead to sustainable solutions that support the ultimate success and wellbeing of all students.

The next, and final, blog post will reflect on the potential benefits of the pace layers as a tool for cultivating a long now mindset for education.

Educating Students for a World of Accelerating Technologies: Opportunities for Schools

A shared challenge facing educators, parents, and community leaders today is how to prepare students for a future that is becoming transformed by accelerating technologies, specifically artificial intelligence. As one recent headline reports, “Teachers want to prepare students for the jobs of the future—but feel stymied.” They’re stymied because they are focusing on a rapidly moving target. Jobs are undergoing an extreme makeover due to accelerating technologies. Entire categories of jobs are disappearing, while new ones are emerging in their place. The prescriptive approach by schools and career development programs that match discrete, present day skills with potential, future jobs won’t work in this emerging future. The direct connection has been broken.

The rise of artificial intelligence, data mining, machine learning, robotics, and algorithms requires us to re-organize around another model for developing K12 graduates for future success in work and life. To navigate an emerging future shaped by AI and automation, students need to be the best humans they can be— creatively adaptive and strategic, with the ability to imagine future possibilities. The orienting focus of schools needs to shift from job – centered, skill requirements to student – centered, human development. As creative advisor Marc Zegans writes, educators must focus on “developing our students’ capacities as creative, adaptive, self-aware, collaborative, emotionally autonomous individuals—people who will take the helm in shaping lives that are distinctly and uniquely theirs.” To robustly navigate an emerging era of AI, students need scaffolding that helps them engage in an authentic process of imagining future selves and creatively adapting to unfolding worlds.

Saveri Consulting convened a workshop, Readiness Redefined from the inside Out, for a group of 30 independent school educators to discuss the components of a new framework for readiness and its implications for the strategic priorities of their schools. Some highlights include strategic re-framing of the following issues:

  • Technology Integration: Help students partner with digital devices to augment their unique human performance.
  • Social – Emotional Intelligence: Each learning experience should contribute to building a strong inner, core self.
  • College: It’s a part of the journey, not the final destination.


Technology Integration: Help students develop more purposeful and intentional relationships with digital devices to augment their unique human performance.

Advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, and other forms of automation are leading to a rise in smart machines that will increasingly perform tasks that people carry out today. Once limited to performing routine, cognitive tasks (such as finding the lowest price or filing a claim) smart machines are getting better at performing non-routine, cognitive tasks (such as writing a quarterly earnings report or driving an autonomous vehicle). This shift toward more complex cognitive tasks will reshape the workplace and have profound impacts on middle class and professional jobs.  Employers are rationalizing how to deploy technology and human contributions based on what each does best.

Rationale for Reconfiguring Jobs with Digital Technologies 

Technology implementation strategies should be designed to support students in performing complex cognitive work, rather than routine tasks. The economy will value individuals who demonstrate the ability to augment and leverage their unique human capabilities (creativity, persuasion, interpersonal relating, intuition, decision-making) through highly productive partnerships with powerful digital tools.

Schools need to focus on helping students become the best humans they can be in an increasingly technology-mediated world. This means helping students learn how to relate with technology in ways that augment their performance and fulfill their purpose as high-valued, human contributors. Students will need to be able to identify and harness the distinct technical capabilities of digital tools to help them achieve operational goals, such as increasing efficiency, reducing risk, and fulfilling mission critical objectives. They will need to learn how to intentionally select and partner with digital devices and robots in collaborative efforts that expand their knowledge, insight, and impact.  And they will need to learn when and how to defer to AI and algorithms, and cede control of decisions, when digital computing and processing can outstrip human capacities.  The ability to form such a range of human-machine relationships will be important for future student success at work and in navigating social and civic institutions.

Implications for schools:

Technology strategy should expose students to a variety of human – machine relationships that augment their performance.  Schools need to examine carefully how their technology integration strategies help students develop various relationships with digital technologies that accelerate and expand their performance.  Engagement with digital devices, robotics, software and algorithms should focus on helping students learn how to harness and apply powerful computation to achieve goals, to partner with technology in collaborative efforts that amplify human capacities, and to defer to computationally-based judgments and decisions.  Students should learn how to select and apply digital tools, forming diverse   relationships that support their personal, academic, and social development.  What kinds of productive relationships do your students have with digital tools? How is the technology shaping the way students at your school think deeply, create novelty, relate with others, and reflect on their work and relationships?

Focus on computational thinking. STEM/STEAM programs should focus on helping students learn foundational problem discovery and solving skills, computational thinking, and not focus primarily coding which will be increasingly automated. Computational thinking involves four key techniques: problem decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction, and algorithms. As educator Shuchi Grover suggests, these techniques can be integrated across subject matter and don’t necessarily require use of a computer. How well are the components of computational thinking embedded and integrated across various subject matter and learning experiences at your school?

Social – Emotional Intelligence: Each learning experience should contribute to building a strong inner, core self.

Foundational social-emotional skills and practices — individual awareness, social awareness, and self-discovery — are the engines of personal and professional growth, as well as essential contributors to wellbeing. Students will need to develop a strong social and emotional core to thrive in a future characterized by rapid technology-driven change; digital automation and augmentation; and globally connected markets and cultures. This foundation is essential for mastering many cognitive and meta-cognitive practices that facilitate success in the emerging workplace — such as navigating uncertainty, creating inclusive communities, self-advocacy, and creative thinking.

The recent report by KnowledgeWorks Foundation describes a framework for developing foundational skills and practices to help graduates leverage their unique human attributes in a world of increasing AI. The framework assumes a much larger vision, role, and curricular scope for social-emotional learning beyond discrete tools such as meditation or breathing practices. While these tools may be beneficial they are not sufficient for developing the full range of emotion-based skills necessary to manage the complexity and volatility of future social, civic, and professional life.

Millennial workers today rely on their capacities for individual awareness, social awareness, and continual self discovery to succeed in life and at work. These foundational capabilities will be increasingly important in the future.

I had no guidance other than ‘Go figure it out.’ What makes you a valuable employee is the ability to champion something that you aren’t necessarily comfortable with and succeed outside your comfort zone.”

Senior software engineer, Digital Music Company, KWF interview.


Confidence is important. Not just confidence in what you know, but confidence about what you don’t know. Being able to say, ‘I haven’t done this before, I have no idea, but I am going to figure it out.’”                                                                                                     Mobile engineering manager, Cognitive Game Company, KWF interview.


Successful graduates will need a fine tuned internal compass of emotion skills to drive their aspirations, assess their situations and choices, and guide behaviors in ways that propel them forward on learning journeys.

Implications for schools:

Social – emotional learning needs to be at the center of academic programs and school community life. Students will benefit most when they are immersed in a school community that values and teaches emotional intelligence as a core curricular component rather than an add-on activity. This means teachers and parents should learn, practice, and model emotion skills. Students are more likely to achieve their goals if they learn how to recognize the ways their emotions shape their thinking, relationships, and behaviors and how to harness them in order to develop more positive social and academic outcomes. These stories from schools implementing the RULER program, developed at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, demonstrate how an entire school community can become involved in building its emotional intelligence. Does your school approach SEL as an added enrichment or as a central component of student learning? Is SEL programming exclusively for students or does it include the entire school community? How might roles such as advisors, mentors, coaches, and wellness directors help promote social-emotional intelligence?

Robust SEL curriculum is agnostic to subject matter. SEL learning can be integrated across curriculum and incorporated into classroom and school-wide rituals and activities. Whether in literature or through collaborative math projects, students can practice their emotion skills and begin to use them as foundational elements in their academic and social growth. Teachers can facilitate this process by modeling social-emotional skills and by providing opportunities for students to use and reflect on these skills. How does your school integrate skills-based social emotional learning across its curriculum and school community? How might it be a through line across learning experiences at your school?

College: It’s a part of the journey, not the final destination.

College admission has become the de-facto goal of K12 education, narrowing the definition of, and metrics for, student success. The result is increased pressure on students to conform to a prescriptive high school path and one standard of success. The Stanford University based organization Challenge Success argues that, “society has become too focused on grades, test scores, and performance, leaving little time for kids to develop the necessary skills to become resilient, ethical, and motivated learners.” By focusing on college as ultimate destination, rather than part of the process of a longer journey, students lose the agency to create their own authentic narratives of success. And college becomes another stressful requirement to satisfy that is making students sick rather than a platform to learn the skills and practices to engage in emerging opportunities, explore unknowns, and take risks to build meaningful, healthy lives. Such practices are critical for success in a world of AI that is rapidly transforming the role of human contribution at work and in civic life.

Implications for schools:

Take college off the track. College preparation and counseling tend to place students on a tightly prescribed track of coursework, testing, and extracurricular activities. It is easy for students to lose their authentic ambitions and aspirations in the high pressured world of college admission standardized tests, low acceptance rates, and competition for financial aid. It appears to students that there is only one way to successfully progress after high school and college. Gap years have had some success in presenting alternatives, but more diverse post-secondary pathways would be even better. Shifting to a concept of building personal and professional development webs frames college and career options as more organic, abundant, and meaningful. As Kurt Fischer states, “There are no ladders. Instead, each one of us has our own web of development, where each new step we take opens up a whole new range of possibilities that unfold according to our individuality.” How are post-secondary options and pathways discussed and valued at your school? How well does your school prepare graduates to have agency in their lives and develop their own webs of resources and relationships for personal and professional development?

Extend the timeline beyond college and first job. Students today will be continuously learning, re-skilling, and creating their jobs and roles across industrial and professional ecosystems. Developing a big picture of work, civic life, and aspirational goals will help students create and seize opportunities. Personal and professional visioning, mentors, and apprenticeships can help students imagine and try out future selves. For one young millennial worker, her aspiration to help entrepreneurs has catalyzed her agency and motivation to take responsibility for her professional development, training needs, and job choices.

Giving me the time to really think about what I was passionate about has allowed me to keep that guiding light of ‘I like helping entrepreneurs.’ This is what I enjoy doing. That’s why I’m in a position today where I love what I do and so I’m lucky in that way.” Marketing team member, Crowdfunding company, KWF Interview.

Schools could help students think longer term about their lives by helping them connect with people at various stages of their work lives and hearing their personal and professional development stories. Roadtrip Nation offers one example of this type of future work-life visioning. What opportunities do your students have to explore their future personal and professional selves through mentors, apprentices, job shadowing, visioning, and passion projects? How porous are the boundaries for your school community with the larger community and “real world” issues and events?


School leaders who stimulate open discussions about these three issues with their administration, faculty, parents, and students will begin to develop a shared vision of how their school can support meaningful student success in a rapidly changing world.

Reframing Education for the Long Now: Education as Intellectual Infrastructure

Long Now Educators Workshop, August 01, 02017.

This article was previously posted on Medium. It is Part Two of a four-part series, Reframing Education for the Long Now, based on insights from the Long Now Educators Workshop on August 1, 02017, hosted by the Long Now Foundation and KnowledgeWorks Foundation.

Looking at education through the lens of the pace layer framework provides several insights about the dynamic of education as intellectual infrastructure in the U.S., and where long-term transformation might emerge. In The Clock of the Long Now (01999), Stewart Brand describes education as intellectual infrastructure, situating it in the middle of the pace layers.

The Pace Layers diagram at Long Now Educators workshop, August 1, 02017.

There it is bracketed by the turbulent, questioning, and disruptive forces of fashion and commerce on one side, and by the stabilizing constraints and forces of constancy and preservation from governance, culture, and nature on the other. In this middle pace layer position, infrastructure is capable of moderately-paced change — which should be measured in decades. As a form of intellectual infrastructure, education is well-positioned to take advantage of both the rapid testing of new ideas and approaches from the fast layers and the ability of the slower layers to purposefully integrate selected, meaningful disruptions.

As intellectual infrastructure, education represents society’s approach to developing its future generations with the purpose of ensuring its sustainability. It is society’s platform for developing its people — its human creativity and acumen—which in turn feeds the faster layers of fashion and commerce and supports the stability of slower layers of governance, culture, and nature.

The challenge of education as society’s intellectual infrastructure is to provide reliability and effectiveness to its constituents. That means being receptive to the propositions from fashion-art and commerce layers, even sometimes encouraging disruption and shock, while also seeking continuity and holding to society’s deeper values and principles. Any form of infrastructure requires large investment to do its job well, producing high but delayed payout over future decades. As Brand reminds us, societies need to be able to span these delays of payout and reward:

Hasty societies that cannot span these delays will lose out over time to societies that can. On the other hand, cultures too hidebound to allow education to advance at an infrastructural pace also lose out.

— Stewart Brand, The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility (01999).

This is the delicate dance of education as intellectual infrastructure: to cultivate societal patience in order to set innovation free and to use deep purpose to filter and integrate disruptive propositions in ways that make education more relevant to new societal circumstances.

The Effectiveness of the Slow Layers for Education Transformation in Finland

Finland seems to be striking this balance well, with culture and governance acting in partnership with educators to guide and evaluate innovation in schools at a steady pace. Its current adaptive innovation is intended to enable more fluid, integrated learning. That approach combines open-space layouts for learning environments with multi-age learning cohorts and the elimination of rigid disciplinary boundaries between subjects.

A Finnish school. Source: Kuvatoimisto Kuvio Oy

The approach is built on trusting educators and students. It allows teachers to drive curriculum, rather than follow a standard set curriculum. The benefit is the ability to effectively create ways to integrate competency development freely across subject matter and collaborate across grade levels to create higher-level thinking and multidisciplinary learning experiences. Students navigate physical spaces and social groupings to support their own learning. To effectively implement and achieve the benefits of this innovation, Finnish educators have broader society’s trust.

The kind of freedom Finnish teachers enjoy comes from the underlying faith the culture puts in them from the start, and it’s the exact kind of faith American teachers lack.

—Chris Weller, Business Insider

Operating at the infrastructure pace layer, Finnish teachers drive change in the education system with the support of the culture layer and enabling structures established by the governance layer. In the U.S., the culture layer has become fragmented with competing narratives about the value and purpose of education creating churn at the infrastructure layer that the governance layer struggles to help manage.

Pace Layer Tensions in U.S. Public Education

Change in public education in the U.S. is strongly shaped by the dynamics of the commerce layer, with market values, business rationales, and global economic imperatives shaping education decision-making. Commerce is rapidly introducing new educational technologies and pedagogical approaches at a pace that outstrips the capacity of other layers to engage effectively and exert their influence. This dominance of the commerce layer has been recasting education with language, values, and purpose that serve commerce stakeholders — business interests — but not society at large. The result has been a shift form treating education as the public service it should be to treating it as a market good.

Exacerbating this imbalance, accelerating technological change has created flux at each pace layer and has heightened uncertainty about the future.

Long Now Educators Workshop, August 01, 02017.

Workshop discussion about the impact of an unchecked commerce layer on education included the following insights:

The market determines the value of education. Both hyperconnected global markets and increasing automation and digital augmentation are challenging established economic and business models, the structure of organizations, the notion of work, employment patterns, and even the nature of what it means to be human. The cultural narrative emerging from this context is that people are human capital — an asset whose value is determined by the market. Our societal definitions of success and how we determine student readiness to navigate society have become tightly tethered to the global market. Education critics have written about the link between the origins of compulsory education and the factory model school with the needs of early industrial society, so this link is not necessarily new. The challenge is whether the purpose of education continues to be narrowly evaluated in terms of serving the requirements of commerce rather than broader societal needs, such as the needs to support pluralistic society, democracy, and a sustainable planet.

“Solutionism” shortens the time frame and scope of reform. The education technology sector has grown rapidly, shaping the process, language and expectations of education reform. The ed tech rationale argues that the way to “fix” education is to configure the right suite of applications and devices without much concern or understanding for the root causes of education’s most pressing challenges such as achievement gaps, inequity, teacher support and professional development, and student engagement. The language and process common in Silicon Valley of “solutionism”—promising quick fixes, profitable return-on-investment, and scalability—has a stronger role in guiding decisions about education investment. Solutionism has permeated the education reform space in ways that has shifted mindsets and expectations about the timeframe and scope of change. Linking such activities to longer and slower processes of transformation in the governance and culture layers is lacking.

Mismatched metrics. The spillover effect of technological solutionism is that the expectation for change is measured in months and years rather than in decades. While it may be appropriate to measure reading and mathematics performance yearly (or more often), measuring social and behavioral practices and cultural shifts in meaningful ways takes longer and require metrics that span years and decades. Carol Dweck, the pioneer of the popular “growth vs fixed mindset” concept, has written articles and changed her book to warn against the “the false growth mindset” to counter simplified, shortcut, ineffective implementations of her concept. She reported that teachers were not able or willing to commit to the longer time frame to integrate fully and develop the growth mindset practice in their classrooms. The allure of quick solutions is that they make us think that there are immediate outcomes.

Implications for Long-Term Change

While the commerce layer seems to drive decision-making and innovation in education in inappropriate ways today, this pace layer does do well at absorbing disruptions and responding quickly to immediate needs. A challenge for education decision-makers today is to find ways to better harness commerce to provide a more equitable system and one whose purpose serves broader society. The venerable Peter Drucker reminds us about the link between the tension of short- and long-term interests:

“Building around mission and solutions is the only way to integrate shorter-term interest.” — Peter Drucker

Brand also warns that any meaningful long-term change will need to integrate the slow layers of culture and governance.

Source: NASA

In the current education narrative, nature is largely left out as a significant influence. However, this layer may provide inspiration for reframing education and designing interventions across the pace layers to shape a new purpose for education that speaks to our collective humanity, global interconnectedness, and shared responsibility to steward our delicate relationship with nature.

The earth photo from the moon showed that national solutions were not sufficient to solve global ecological challenges. Education solutions may also need to transcend national borders, taking their cues from a globally interconnected and planetary context.

The next blog post in this series will explore the possibilities for leveraging pace layer strategies to create system change in education.

Reframing Education for the Long Now: Balancing immediate needs with long-term transformation

This article also appears on Medium  as part of a series done in partnership with The KnowledgeWorks Foundation and The Long Now Foundation

“Now” is the period in which people feel they live and act and have responsibility. For most of us, “now” is about a week, sometimes a year. For some traditional tribes in the American northeast and Australia, “now” is seven generations back and forward (350 years). Just as the [first] Earth photographs [from space] gave us a sense of ‘the big here, we need things which give people a sense of ‘the long now.’

— Stewart Brand, Long Now Foundation founder

Education is inherently a long-term proposition. Just as species adapt by learning and thereby ensure their survival, so too societies educate their people to ensure longevity through the ingenuity of future generations. As a system, education straddles the pressures of individuals’ and society’s immediate needs and inequities on the one side with desires for long-term positive outcomes and sustainability on the other.

For many U.S. schools and districts, this bridging might translate into reconciling immediate goals such as ensuring that all children read at grade level in the elementary years and helping students with trauma learn to self-regulate with longer-term goals such as rethinking curriculum for a future employment landscape that will be automated and digitally augmented. Yet even when education stakeholders see the value of addressing both time horizons, it can be incredibly difficult to imagine and pursue true transformation.

As Stewart Brand describes in The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility, after the Apollo program began returning color photographs of the earth from space, the earth’s problems lived in a new context, “the big here”, and took on new dimensions, stakeholders, and rationales. Having planet-scale perspective on atmospheric health, ocean health, and climate stability made national approaches obsolete. What might a similar context shift for education be? When considering education as a long-term proposition, what might the “long now” in education look like? What forces and dynamics might shape it? How might we cultivate a “long now” mindset in order to reframe pressing education challenges in ways that reveal purposeful approaches and thoughtfully-scaled solutions?

Long Now Educators workshop, August 1, 02017.

This was the domain of discussion and collaboration at the Long Now Educators workshop on August 1, 02017, hosted by the Long Now Foundation and KnowledgeWorks Foundation at the Fort Mason Center for the Arts. Insights from the workshop will be presented in a four part series of blog posts over the next four months.

The Dynamic of the Pace Layers

The Pace Layer framework is a thinking tool developed by Stewart Brand that effectively stretches the “now” to make long-term thinking (decades, centuries, and millennia) more concrete, accessible, and relevant to the present. It shows how different parts of society (its pace layers) act and change at different speeds, with the fast ones at the top and the slow ones at the bottom.

Source: The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility, Stewart Brand, 1999.

The fastest layer, fashion-art, moves in minutes and months. It is irreverent, engaging, and self-preoccupied. At this layer, a society’s culture is set free to experiment, albeit sometimes irresponsibly, learning through creativity and failure. It’s where we find relatively trivial phenomena such as fidget spinners and Lady Gaga’s meat suit, but also more significant developments such as ride-sharing and the breakthrough neo-expressionist painting of graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

The barrage of ideas and propositions generated from the fashion layer gets sorted out at the commerce layer. Whether at age-old bazaars or modern-day stock markets and digital crossroads such as Etsy and eBay, commerce brings people together to make sense of new ideas that capture our attention. Commerce tames and harnesses the creative energy of fashion so that society can benefit from it.

In turn, infrastructure changes more slowly than commerce. It is high-cost, high-yield, and delivers delayed payback to society. It provides foundations and platforms for society to operate—among them transportation, communication, energy, and education. It is refreshed and modernized through the innovations from lower layers while being protected and validated through governance and culture. For example, Elon Musk’s company, TESLA, captures our attention through the fashion and commerce layers with its innovative electric cars and batteries, but ultimately aims to transform the transportation infrastructure. Despite its allure at the fashion layer and its transactions in the commerce layer, TESLA is really an infrastructure play, using the various pace layers to support the transformation.

Moving down a layer, the job of governance is to serve the larger, slower good for society. It provides stability. It preserves what we hold to be necessary and true. As Brand points out, social and political revolutions want quick change, demanding that governance moves faster than it is capable of, frustrating society. The constraints of governance force reflection and pause, which can be paralyzing or empowering.

Even slower to change, culture is the essential work of people as they gather to make sense of and integrate the many facets of life together on earth. It includes religion, language, and the enduring behaviors and social norms that help to provide constancy across centuries and even millennia. Nature is the slowest-changing layer, with the earth and the human body changing slowly over millennia. Nature’s power is immense when unleashed, whether as the processing capacity of the human brain or as the magnitude of earthquakes and hurricanes.

In healthy societies, the pace layers exist in relationship, communicating with each other, pushing and checking, yet moving independently, each at its own pace. This “slippage” between layers allows each layer to do its respective job and creates dynamic interactions that drive a society’s adaptability. Fast layers propose, disrupt and learn. Slow layers preserve, constrain and integrate. The dance between fast and slow layers can create adaptive strategies and societal resilience.

Source: The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility, Stewart Brand, 1999.

Events occurring in one layer may force another layer to move faster or slower than its typical pace of change. The popular acceptance of same-sex partners put pressure on legal and infrastructural supports to change more quickly than is customary, helping to resolve tension and conflict in workplaces and hospitals regarding issues such as rights to marriage, benefits, and visitation. Conversely, regulators in the governance layer can slow the pace of releasing disruptive new drugs or genetic therapies to allow for more informed integration into society. The way these disruptions are resolved determines a society’s health and resilience.

Educators using the pace layer framework at the Long Now Educators workshop, August 1,02017.

Cultivating the Long Now: Pace Layers as a Guide to Education Transformation

For educators, the pace layer framework provides a powerful thinking tool that can help re-contextualize pressing issues and questions, such as equity, and achievement, and the purpose of school. Using them can help stakeholders take a broader, longer view of solutions and interventions. It can also put education’s transformation into the context of a civilization’s transformation. When viewed through the pace layers, solutions for the achievement gap or the dropout crisis may come from unexpected layers with varying time frames for outcomes. The pace layer framework enables such possibilities by providing perspectives from multiple layers of society with distinctive stakeholders, intentions, and time horizons. The pace layer framework can help tease apart the complexity of education, revealing actors and events across societal domains and across time. It helps us ask:

  • From which layer of society is this challenge originating, and what is does its pace and process of change look like?
  • At what layer might a solution emerge, and how might the other layers be enlisted to support it?
  • What outcomes should we look for at various layers?

The next blog post in this series explores education as intellectual infrastructure to aid in understanding possible origins and drivers for long-term transformation in education.

A New Vision for Education: From Career to Creative Life

Education stakeholders currently share a common vision of preparing students for career and life. However, the transformation of work driven by accelerating technologies is challenging our understanding of readiness and the very nature of career itself. Indeed, as digitally automated and augmented work diffuses across industries and reshapes the productive contributions of humans, traditional notions of career may actually limit opportunities for success. Rather, a more robust process of cultivating a creative life may be more effective in helping students develop the capabilities, motivation, and self efficacy to thrive in the emerging era of smart machines. Educators, counselors, parents, and other stakeholders would benefit from an understanding of the shift from career to creative life in order to effectively support students for long-term well-being and success in the future.

The Need for Passion and Creativity at Work

The rise of smart machines, global production networks, and technological acceleration are transforming the work landscape. Technological job displacement through automation is widely accepted, yet the pace and scope of its impact are still unfolding. A University of Oxford study reports that 47% of current US middle class jobs are at risk due to automation over the next twenty years. While the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that 45% of the activities that workers do today could be computerized. Others forecast that technology will redefine work and create new jobs rather than destroy them.

Central to the evolution of jobs and meaningful productive work in the future will be the demand for human creativity, curiosity, imagination, and emotional intelligence. Indeed a key element of success in an innovation-driven economy is the ability to leverage human passion and imagination in the pursuit of new ideas and possibilities. Supporting and amplifying these uniquely human capabilities will bring success and competitive advantage to organizations across industries. And as smart machines perform more cognitive, “knowledge work” tasks, these human super powers will be critical for a fruitful professional and personal life. As John Hagel, co-chair for Deloitte’s Center for the Edge advises,

Find a passion. Find something you’re really, really passionate about, and don’t stop until you find it. Once you find it, find a way to make a living out of it because that’s the only way you’re going to thrive in the new world.

In the emerging work environment, the productive individual is a creative producer of original ideas and approaches, building a portfolio of work that is the unique personal and professional signature of the individual. This means more than cultivating a personal brand. It means discovering and developing an expression of the individual’s creative identity applied to the problems and challenges of her broader productive community.

As automation permeates work, the uniquely human meta-cognitive strengths will form the basis of new jobs, work projects, and lifelong productive pursuits. Educational institutions (including those serving K12, postsecondary, and higher education students, and lifelong learners) will need to prioritize and re-orient around two insights:

  • Effective educational preparation and readiness will need to prioritize its focus on the development of a strong human social-emotional core and self-concept to provide an engine for curiosity, creativity, lifelong learning, positive relationship building, and resilience; and
  • Career development processes and supports will need to shift from an external orientation based on short-term market needs and static job requirements to a focus on cultivating a creative life.

These two insights are critical guiding principles for educators as they design learning experiences and programs intended to prepare students for long-term success in an increasingly automated world.

A Social-Emotional Core for Readiness

An effective readiness approach for the emerging world of work will be built on a strong inner social-emotional core. As described by the KnowledgeWorks Foundation in Redefining Readiness from the Inside Out,  attending to the fundamental human capabilities of self discovery, individual awareness (emotional regulation) and social awareness (perspective taking and empathy) is essential to effective progress  in other foundational cognitive and meta-cognitive capabilities that are critical to the emerging world of digitally automated and augmented work.  Failure to address and develop the fundamental human capabilities will constrain success and well-being in the future world of work.

Among foundational practices (see figure above), problem-solving, thinking differently, creating with numbers, making friends with people and machines are critical capabilities for creative production and innovation. These capabilities draw heavily on a deep sense of self and resilience that grow from skilled awareness, understanding, regulation, and management of human emotions. Individuals without these skills will not be able to weather the rapid change and volatility of the workplace. They will struggle to effectively respond to the imperative to build productive relationships and maintain the agility and motivation to learn.

A Focus on Cultivating a Creative Life

While automation is elevating the importance of bringing uniquely human capabilities to work, it also is disaggregating work from institutions causing it to become distributed across online markets and platforms. Employment will be increasingly arranged, evaluated, and coordinated by algorithms enabling the growth of online talent platforms, contingent work contracts, algorithmically managed project-based work, and professional nomadism. In the context of fragmented employment and projects, how might individuals construct a narrative of their professional lives and make choices that contribute to a fulfilled life?

The desire to learn and continue on a journey of self development will propel successful individuals through the job and work choices of the emerging era of work. Individual initiative and self efficacy will be essential for building coherent work strategies through potentially turbulent and rapidly changing employment environments. The traditional notion of career — with its predetermined, linear path of work and codified skill development — is not robust enough to help to organize a professional life. Likewise, most career management models are aligned to industrial era work and are not sufficient for the kinds of personal and professional development necessary to be successful in a creativity and passion driven economy.

The table below describes the shift from managing traditional careers of the industrial era to cultivating creative lives in an era where human contribution at work is derived from imagination and creativity.

Source: Saveri Consulting, 2017; derived from Marc Zegans, Arc and Interruption

Strategic Implications for Educators

Education leaders have an opportunity to re-examine their school models, programs, services, and learner experiences to understand how they might support their students in developing a creative life in the rapidly emerging world of smart machines and digitally automated and augmented work. Specifically, educators should identify and focus on ways to support students in developing a robust self-concept with tools and capabilities necessary for professional creative production and practice.

Below are some opportunity areas to consider for supporting students in developing a creative life, with examples of current programs and initiatives.

Help students build robust inner selves
Schools that fully integrate social-emotional learning across curriculum and school community life will provide students daily practice in building and integrating essential emotion management skills. This will help students recognize and appreciate emotion management as a core tool for self care, creative engagement, and identity development as they encounter the joys and challenges of learning in a socially dynamic school community. Comprehensive social-emotional curriculum programs such as the RULER program and other CASEL programs are evidence based programs that work with educators to develop their social-emotional skills and implement curriculum into preK-12 classrooms and after school programs.

Develop multidisciplinary, thematic learning that drives self-examination
Creative production emerges from discovery, uncertainty, conflict, challenge, emotion, and expressive desire. To develop their creative thinking, expression, and problem solving capabilities students need to engage in relatable experiences and real world issues. Particularly in middle and high school years, they need to care and be activated by real world phenomena that spark awe, compassion, outrage, and joy. With greater self-discovery students will find passions that direct their creative energy and learning.
Schools such as SF BrightWorks, Tahoe Expedition Academy, Big Picture Learning, and Finland’s approach to phenomenological learning are examples of multidisciplinary, thematic, learner-centric education that puts individual student discovery and sense-making at the center.

Develop assessment frameworks that reveal uniqueness not averages
Most students experience assessments as competitive comparisons with their peers that highlight their deficits. Report cards and transcripts focus on reporting average and reductive scores (GPA, SAT, ACT) rather than unique strengths, experiences, and possible future directions as a creative individual and learner. The Mastery Transcript initiative is a collective of high schools collaborating to develop an alternative model of assessment, crediting and transcript generation that serves students by creating a unique, visual graphic that illustrates a student’s individual learning, growth, and experiences. Students demonstrate their mastery of skills, knowledge and habits of mind by presenting evidence of their work that is institutionally assessed. The electronic Transcript allows college admissions, counselors, parents, or students themselves to click through any part of the graphic transcript to get a deeper story about the individual student’s body of work. The Mastery Transcript has the potential to shift a student’s school experience (and college admissions) toward more authentic engagement around and discussion of a her personal development and expression as a learner and creative thinker in the world.

Support teachers as creative designers
Teachers create learning experiences, inquiry-based project engagements, social and emotional climates in their classrooms, and various growth opportunities for their students every day. As creators and designers, they are important role models for their students. Teacher professional development and training should shift toward supporting their growth as creative designers of social-emotional, academic, and community/civic experiences. ISKME’s Action Collab program and the Teachers Guild are dedicated to developing the capacity of teachers as creative designers and innovators by offering training and a peer community for user-centered design and problem-solving techniques that they can bring back to their schools and classrooms.

Refocus teacher preparation programs on human development
Teacher training institutions need to re-examine their programmatic approaches and priorities to ensure that new teachers gain a meaningful understanding of the shift to the emerging era of digital automation and its implications for human learning and ongoing self-development. With this background they will be able to design learning experiences, assessments, and communities that best support student wellbeing in the future. Specifically, new teachers should be well equipped with social-emotional intelligence skills. It will be necessary for them to create appropriate and productive emotional climates in their classrooms and apply emotion-based skills to manage their own professional practice as well as guide students through their social-emotional self-development. A recent CASEL study shows that SEL is lacking in most teacher certification policies and in the coursework of colleges for teacher education. In particular, they note that teacher self-awareness and self-management skills could potentially contribute to improving the rate of teacher burnout.

These are just a few concrete examples of the ways that schools can begin to support students as creative producers in an increasingly automated world. School senior administrators, principals, trustees, and school boards should consider the shift from career to creative life in their strategic planning, communications, and marketing efforts to ensure their schools are aligned with the future of work and professional life.

To learn more about the implications of Redefining Readiness for your school or organization’s strategy, and the rise of creative production click here.

Unleashing Innovation in Teachers

“In the future I am going to do something that scares me more often.”
Big Ideas Fest 2014 Participant


Reflections like the one above are what keep me coming back every year as a designer and facilitator of ISKME’s Big Ideas Fest — an annual immersion in collaboration and design for educators around the world looking to make meaningful change in teaching and learning.

As someone who works behind the scenes, as well as in the midst of the action, I am always thrilled to see the diverse collection of educators arrive with enthusiasm, some with a degree of healthy skepticism, and leave Big Ideas Fest as experienced BIFniks— open, collaborative, and hopeful education change makers, equipped with new tools and concepts, and inspired to put them into practice in their own learning environments.

The Action Collab—ISKME’s design thinking process— frames the Big Ideas Fest experience as it gives BIFniks a chance to immerse themselves in an innovation and collaboration experience in order to learn it and apply it to real world education challenges. It provides a common language for the way we interact, pose questions, and look ahead to post BIF engagements.

We asked BIFiks to reflect on their Big Ideas Fest experience at its conclusion to learn about the impact of the BIF and Action Collabs on their work. Three important outcomes, listed below, emerged from their comments about their Action Collab experience.

It demystifies and democratizes innovation by breaking it down into practical activities
BIFniks leave with a grounded experience in creative problem-solving and with an understanding of how to set themselves up for innovating at home. They learn to become open collaborators less concerned about perfection and more focused on generating possibilities to explore.

Today I learned:
“How to move forward from a juicy question to a specific innovative solution.”
“Letting go of my own outcome leads to new discoveries.”
“The design process is messy but generative.”

It instills fearlessness and confidence in their own abilities as creative problem-solvers
They learn how to trust their own creative instinct and gain an appreciation for the uncertainty and surprise factor that accompanies true innovation.

My biggest take-away is:
“There’s something productive behind frustration!”
“You can’t predict where an idea will go.”
“I can’t be wrong, my ideas matter.”

It gives them skills and practices to act on right away
BIFniks walk away with clear, practical tools for collaborating and unlocking creativity in themselves and their colleagues.

In the future I’m going to:
“Live ‘Yes, And’ more often.”
“Resist suppressing my creativity.”
“Listen in order to receive”
“Use student collaboration right away in my own work.”

I’m looking forward to our upcoming Facilitator Training for Action Collabs on April 27-28, 2015 in San Francisco. If you want to learn how to facilitate an Action Collab process in your own organization, ISKME is offering a 2-day immersive training where you will learn the Action Collab process and its rationale, by participating in an Action Collab, and learning how to set up Action Collab modules for your own groups. Check out the following announcement for more details, and email if you have additional questions.

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.

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 2.23.46 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 2.23.08 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 2.22.44 PM

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.








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.