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:

Resistance and Design Intervention

First – That’s design not divine, OK? We are talking about outcomes that have to be worked for not wished for…

In a Wall Street Journal Irving Wladawsky-Berger discusses an idea pulled from a series of four articles in the September Harvard Business Review on the Evolution of Design Thinking.

I am just going to pull a few quotes here because he says it well and you can follow the link to read it all.

“When first introduced, disruptive innovations are likely to encounter stiff resistance, both within one’s own organization and in the marketplace, otherwise we wouldn’t call them disruptive. The article argues that we should apply design thinking to the launch of the disruptive innovation itself – a process they call intervention design.”

And later:

“The concept of intervention design is brilliant but even harder to explain unless, you’ve personally gone through the experience of trying to introduce a new, disruptive idea, first to your own colleagues, later in the marketplace.”

And then…

“…when it comes to disruptive innovations, the key to success is generally not the technology itself, but the ability to overcome the cultural and marketing issues that will cause your own organization and/or the marketplace to reject the idea at first.”

So how…

the article suggests, intervention design should be based on the same rapid prototyping principles that play such a major role in design thinking, including continuous experimentation, learning and refining. This requires introducing alpha and beta designs to get early feedback, and steadily improve the offering until the intended users are satisfied.”

The articles is at:


That last para is iterated in the HBR in an article by Tim Brown and Roger Martin titled: Design for Action:

no matter how deep the up-front understanding was, designers wouldn’t really be able to predict users’ reactions to the final product.”

Getting to the Next Right Thing

We used to live in a world where few directed many: where one coach told his players to run this play; where a military general commanded a battalion to take that hill; where a CEO told his team to make those numbers. In that world everyone’s job was to use their skills to do the next thing right, to do things correctly. Today, when everybody is called upon for their qualities, to contribute their full character and creativity, everyone’s job is no longer to do the next thing right, but to do the next right thing. The former requires certain requisite skills and increasingly machines are programmed to provide just that. The latter, however, takes the kinds of character, conscience and consciousness that are uniquely human.

This from a Wall Street Journal article – Why Colleges Must Teach Students How to Pause – on a new report from the World Economic Forum – New Vision for Education, Unlocking the Potential of Technology:

 Our survey of educational technology trends revealed that much more can be done to develop higher-order competencies and character qualities, to align technologies with learning objectives and to develop learning approaches that efficiently and comprehensively deploy technology throughout the stages of instruction and learning

These are both good reads and discussion pieces for getting deep into how are spending our efforts and resources in school development.

 widgets/ Note: The starting point of the chart has been indexed to 1960.
Adapted from Levy, Frank and Richard J. Murnane. “Dancing with robots: Human skills for computerized work.” Third Way NEXT. 2013. Data provided by David Autor at MIT and updated from the original 2003 study by Autor, Levy and Murnane