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.

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

Context Sensitive School Design

Applying Context Sensitive Variables in Schools and School System Design

A core element in using Context Sensitive Variables in design of schools and school systems is the intentional establishment of an instructional environment that is defined by the “context” variables that are key to achieving your intent.

Context sensitive design involves identifying and recognizing those variables and the impacts of changing those variables with the intent of creating an environment where those variables are key features.

Reality contains multiple variables, some controllable, others not in our control.


Context, Tools, Will

Do we have the will to become expert enough in utilizing our tools to achieve our intentions within the weather of context?

Can we utilize our tools and talents skillfully enough to manage achieving our intent by strengthening the contextual variables?


What are context variables?a map

First they are variables – so they change with the context, and have properties  associated with and prescribed by the properties of the context.  This means context and variables are co-dependent and highly interactive – the context defines the variables and the variables define the context.

They are the things that change – they are the weather in which we work – some intentional, some situational.