The Blending Edge

We were talking about this curve over a cup of coffee when something struck us – technology adoption is not the real challenge, nor is adopting a new solution.
Adoption curve1 Instead we frame this challenge as the ability to adapt to changing needs and conditions in our schools, of our teachers, in our classrooms and in the minds of our students.

(Everett Rogers Innovation Adoption Curve – captured from “Dissatisfied Yet Optimistic” from New Schools Venture Fund )

For the past few years we have been talking about and reading about blended learning models that are primarily based in effective utilization of technology platforms as tools for moving the needle on instructional effectiveness.  What struck us is that maybe that is not  the right problem to solve, or maybe that the conversation about blended learning needs to take a leap forward from implementing platforms and models to the acts of teaching and learning.

In innovation and technology adoption we often hear about the innovation curve illustrated here.  Out front are those on the bleeding edge, followed by those on the cutting edge, those on the trending edge, those on the following edge and those on the un-involved edge.

We have been exploring a different notion – that blended learning is a great idea and we have spent many years as innovators in blended learning, however it tends to focus on technology based solutions and the reliance of those solution on platforms doesn’t do as good a job as we need them to on the very personal part of teaching – that multi-sided collection of dimensions that go into the teaching/learning relationship between teachers and students, nor the complexity of leading – supporting consistent growth in teaching and learning.

image001The emerging notion we discussed is based in the concept that all learning is blended learning and that a different view of the innovation curve might be illustrated by changing the labels a bit so that instead of thinking about this as an illustration of innovation in education, perhaps we should view it as an illustration of effectiveness in blending current skills and knowledge with new skills and knowledge.  In this case the point where one might locate current status on the curve is in effectiveness in blending prior and current learning resulting in new learning.  This puts the innovators on the blending edge – those who are out front in growing student learning in ways that work for the students’ benefit.

We are most certainly not anti-anything but have worked through enough technology implementation projects to feel certain that technology provides great tools but technology alone doesn’t produce the results we are seeking. The same can be said of any other innovation – better time management, realignment of authority or budgets, rewriting and realigning the standards, adoption of frameworks, etc..  We see the challenge as better blending all of those things in a more focused effort on the learning needs of students – in another word – personalization. Unfortunately many of these efforts end up as functionally renewing the factory model we are trying so hard to displace.

How we might get closer to where we imagine…

One way of thinking about this is in terms of capacity – presuming that where an educator, a school, a school leader finds themselves on this curve is primarily a function of capacity, the challenge is one of developing the skills and understanding to expand capacity to engage in more and better opportunities for blending learning.   Our approach to this has been modeling an inquiry approach to openly exploring the possibilities and methodically, Socratically working through local solutions, focusing on outcomes rather than answers, functionally an organizational and individual capacity growth strategy.

We have walked the halls and talked with the teachers and school leaders of hundreds of schools.  We have worked with this strategy in dozens of schools.  Yet we have yet to see anything approaching a sure fire fix.  The number of failed implementations is disheartening.  The quantity of time, funds, effort, innovative ideas, frustrated teachers, leaders and students, points to how difficult it is to match the scope of the problems with solutions.  But we have also seen it work in schools serving every kind of neighborhood.

In a way, the failure problem parallels the same one we so often hear about students – they aren’t trying hard enough, or don’t have the pre-requisite skills, or the conditions just aren’t aligned well enough to achieve the expected outcomes.  We have seen this as effectively a lack of will to reach far enough, functionally the grit challenge.

How can we engage school teams in effectively taking on building their capacity to reach that far?  This is what we do – walking the halls, sitting in classrooms, offices and meeting rooms, asking questions, sharing thought provoking resources, seeking to blend prior understanding about the tasks and responsibilities of teaching and leading with the growth of new skills and understanding about what is possible and how to make it work to expand the options and possibilities for students.

Part 3: A Catalytic Framework

Foundations for Young Adult Success: A Developmental Framework by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (UChicago CCSR)

This report by the Chicago Consortium on School Research and funded by the Wallace Foundation, is focused on teaching – but not in the way so much discussion of teaching occurs – this is not a list of what we ought to teach but a deep and comprehensive look at the learning needs and approaches to meeting those needs aligned with the developmental needs and characteristics of children as they grow. This deeply researched report provides a new framework for young adult success focused on student development through their school careers. This report should become a classic in our conversations and discussions about where we go from here – a few quotes:

From the Introduction to the Executive Summary:
“Every society in every age needs to grapple with the question of what outcomes it hopes to produce in raising its young. What exactly do we hope our children will be able to accomplish as adults? What vision guides our work? How do we make that vision a reality for all children? How do we better harness what is known in the research, practice, and policy arenas to ensure that all youth have what they need to successfully meet the complex challenges of young adulthood? Preparing all youth for meaningful, productive futures requires coordinated efforts and intentional practices by adults across all the settings youth inhabit on a daily basis.”


And these, quoted from the “Ingredients of Student Success:

  • • Success in young adulthood depends on more than “college and career” success; a definition of success should include the multi-faceted ways individuals may seek meaning in life and contribute to the world





  • • We organize the definition of young adult success around three key factors; these are agency, integrated identity, and competencies—and four foundational components that underlie them: self-regulation, knowledge and skills, mindsets, and values.




  • • The role of the foundational components is threefold: when young people have experiences and make meaning of those experiences, each component interacts to promote the development of the other foundational components and the three key factors; they enable healthy and productive functioning at every stage of life; and they directly contribute to young adult success.




  • • The four foundational components and three key factors are closely interrelated in supporting how young people act in the world and make meaning of an experience. Understanding this interrelationship can help adults provide integrative opportunities for youth to act and reflect in ways that make the most of developmental experiences, rather than targeting only one particular component or factor in isolation.




  • • Noncognitive and cognitive factors should not be con¬sidered independently; they interact with each other to promote and mutually reinforce development and learning. Both are a core part of how students learn.




  • • The experiences that youth encounter are always embedded within larger societal, economic, and institutional contexts that influence how youth perceive the opportunities and obstacles posed by their environments.



Those “three key factors” and “four foundational components” deserve some serious thought in the context of daily school operations and our plans to get to a better outcome (read Page 19 and following of the report thoroughly).

“this report organizes the definition of young adult success around three key factors; these are agency, integrated identity, and competencies. These factors capture how a young adult poised for success interacts with the world (agency), the internal compass that a young adult uses to make decisions consistent with her values, beliefs, and goals (integrated identity), and how she is able to be effective in different tasks (competencies). The three key factors allow a young adult to manage and adapt to changing demands and successfully navigate various settings with different cultures and expectations.”

    “… a successful transition into young adulthood will be supported by the three key factors outlined above. We want to clarify, however, that a person can have agency, integrated identity, and competencies in one setting without being able to automatically transfer those to a new setting. … Indeed, educators in successful urban high schools have often expressed frustration at the difficulty of getting students’ confidence and good habits developed in high school to transfer to post-secondary settings. Ultimately, then, the task at hand for adults who work with youth is to help young people not only build their agency, identity, and competencies in specific domains, but also help them to leverage these strengths from one arena and transfer them to tackle challenges in new contexts”
    “Underlying the capacity for the three key factors are four foundational components — a set of both cognitive and noncognitive factors. The four foundational components are self-regulation, knowledge and skills, mindsets, and values. The role of each of these foundational components is threefold. First, when young people have experiences and make meaning of those experiences, each component interacts to promote the development of the other foundational components and the three key factors. Second, they enable healthy and productive functioning at every stage of life. Finally, they directly contribute to young adult success. The foundational components develop as they are used. Over time, self-regulation, knowledge and skills, mind¬sets, and values can become internalized as lenses for seeing the world or as automatic responses (or habits) that become a core part of one’s identity; this automatic behavior supports the transfer of these foundational components across contexts.”

These quotes scratch the surface of some much deeper work. Read these two papers all the way through with highlighter in hand, discuss range of implications and options, re-consider plans & measures, act. Getting stuck? … call us, this is where we work.

Part 2: Catalytic Learning

Based on New School Venture Fund Blog by Stacey Childress and co-authors – Dissatisfied Yet Optimistic: Moving Faster Toward New School Models (contains link to PDF copy of paper)

A Theory of Change: What it Will Take to Redesign Schooling over the
Next Decade

Everett Rogers developed an adoption curve to explain how new innovations
spread through a community. A few radical “innovators” (2.5% of
the total “market”) create the solutions, and a group of “early adopters”
take them up (13.5% of the total “market”).11

Adoption curve1
Everett Rogers Adoption Curve – from Dissatisfied Yet Optimistic

(from Page 18) Design talent/capacity. Most school teams engaged in this work require additional capacity to develop, build, assess, refine, and codify whole school models. This capacity takes two forms:

  • • “experts” who provide a robust link between accumulated knowledge in critical disciplines and the work of designing and building schools – including learning scientists, technologists, design talent, architects, data scientists, and instructional specialists.
  • • “builders” who do the heavy lifting of developing out all elements of the school design, from instructional curriculum and assessments, to staffing models, to cultural rituals, to technology backbones, and so much more that is vital but often invisible for breakthrough designs to yield results.

Without sufficient design capacity, we will see many great ideas but few that are translated into action in ways that yield replicable results.

The following excerpted from pages 15-16 of the same paper – we read this section as the marketing target and the steep operational/strategic challenge:

  • • Students, families, and communities deeply engaged from the beginning. Students, their families and communities are the most important force for change. They need a few things to be true in order to engage. First, they need a clear and compelling vision of what school can be for their child; one that addresses their interests, aspirations and concerns. Then, they need a clear path to access and potentially shape that opportunity for their child – immediately. In short, they need a compelling reason to change what they are looking for in schools

And this statement as defining the performance measurement challenge:
New measures of broader outcomes. In order for young people to be fully prepared to create and pursue opportunities for long-term success, academic achievement alone is not enough. However, traditional measures of school success rely almost exclusively on student performance on standardized tests. To know whether innovative schools are succeeding along broader dimensions such as student agency, social-emotional learning, and executive function, we need valid, reliable, and agreed-upon measures. This will accelerate the innovation process, both by demonstrating which new designs and practices are most successful and more clearly demonstrating the limitations of the industrial model.

And if we seriously mean to personalize every child’s education in every community, we have some serious instructional planning work to do (that no technology solution will do for us):
Codified lessons. As innovators and early adopters do their work, they will generate significant insights that have the potential to benefit each other and future pioneers. These lessons will include insights about the substance of the new models, the design process, and the change management required to bring new models into being. Capturing and sharing these insights in actionable and accessible ways will be vital for practitioners, communities, and policy-makers to understand what is required for the change to take hold and spread.

A major support need – seriously – do we have this capacity now or do we need to build it if we expect to get any traction at all?
Human capital pipelines aligned to what new models will require from educators. This topic warrants a full paper in its own right, which we will not attempt to undertake here. However, we recognize the essential role of human capital efforts that prepare and develop educators so their skills and mindsets align with what new models will require (which is different from what the industrial model asked of teachers).

And take a look at the Invitation to Action that closes the paper and the resources and stories that follow.

Part 1: Catalytic Flow

We have served many roles in the development of schools. The concept of serving as “Catalytic Agents” in generating “Flow” is a conceptualization of that effort we think fits with our efforts and intent – where our strengths have emerged are in:
• Facilitating development of coherent plans, and preparing materials to explain and support that plan
• Supporting implementation of those plans (primarily through coaching but also drawing on other resources such as collaboration tools)
• Assisting with measuring and monitoring and applying those results in recursive processes in both the strategic plan and the implementation plans.

What we mean by Catalytic Agency:
A. Much of what we think of by Catalytic Agency grows out of what Csíkszentmihályi refers to as ”flow” something we think of as multiple forces moving together with synchronicity toward a coherent and well understood common outcome.
B. The other concept embedded in Catalytic Agency comes from chemistry – where a catalyst serves in a role of speeding up and/or reducing the energy required for a chemical reaction to occur. One characteristic of many catalysts is that they are self-refreshing – the process of catalyzing the reaction restores the catalytic capacity of the agent (some chemists may argue with this oversimplification but it’s a metaphor, ok? Visualize its implications as you will… same could be said for “flow”)

• Increase capacity to generate “flow”
• Stabilize + Build Coherence + Accelerate Focus Finding
• Measure What -> ? When -> ? Then Do What
• Strategic Phasing
• Identifying which factors are adaptable
• Identifying factors which have minimal flexibility (and whether this state can change)
• Identifying where scalability is most complex (intersection of complex factors)

Catalytic map1

Wikipedia on “Flow”
In positive psychology, flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does. Named by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields, though has existed for thousands of years under other guises, notably in some Eastern religions.[1] Achieving flow is often referred to as being in the zone.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand.

As we reflect on our experiences across a spectrum of schools with an array of stripes and challenges in communities that cross many of the economic, geographic, political, theoretical, operational, and countless other educational “boxes”in our country, we are firmly rooted in our thoughts and feelings about a few things:
1. In this century, we must provide our students with a personalized education – this is not a product, a technology, an assessment; it is applying what we know about learning, what we know or could quickly learn about our students, and how we could better utilize all of this to support every student’s success in learning – going far beyond the minimums and boundaries embedded in the adopted content standards. Does this require a redefinition of the teaching profession and the role of school support operations? Probably – while every school district, and organization we have worked with has devoted resources to having that conversation, progress most often is diverted by other priorities.

2. Malcolm Gladwell suggested around 10,000 hours of focused practice (in Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow zone”) is a fair general guideline for what it takes to utilize one’s talents in innovative culture changing work. This poses a significant challenge when viewed through the lens of our current capacity building efforts in education. Do we even have a measurable sense of how the daily professional practice in our schools, classrooms and school management offices, or how the investment in developing new capacities through our professional development opportunities is even approaching “flow”, let alone having any chance at all of impacting the cultural development of our schools and students?

3. Learning is the pathway to everything, that pathway is open to everyone who has access to it, accelerating progress on that pathway frequently requires support, our challenge is to ensure equitable access and support.

Two papers released last year reflect substantial thought and effort in providing clarification of the challenges we face in schools from two different perspectives. The next two postings feature some clips and thoughts from each which seem to correlate with our notions of catalyzing opportunites in schools. These are definitely recommended reading – we’d lend you ours but they are all dog-eared and marked up.

Catalytic Engagement in Three Parts

When, where and how can we most effectively engage in delivering positive outcomes for students, teachers and school leaders?  We devote much of our time to thinking about the challenges presented by instilling better outcomes, not directly, usually, but it is what emerges when we get reflective about what, when, how. Our latest trio of thoughts and reflections: