System transformation: What the Heck?

This last week I joined an 8am call with a design firm to talk about how we might scale a set of tools that were built for “system transformation”.   Some of the tools are in our “Tools Being Talked About” list that includes a snapshot of tools being used by teachers, schools systems, and school teachers. The question the designers posed: How might we make these system transformation tools more widely available? System transformation tools is a bad name for sure and I wondered if they were asking the wrong question too. I think the question (or our problem) is less about availability and more about will and skill (capacity). How might we help systems (in our case states/districts/schools) articulate what shifts are needed and what kind of capacity they need to ensure the changes “stick”? The diagnostic tools we have supported are a starting place to have those conversations for sure. But they are not self-service; they have typically come with technical assistance even they appear self-service (you can download them for free and use them tomorrow if you want). As we talked, I reflected on whether or not there is something to learn from scaling the Literacy or Math Design Collaborative tools. Our secret sauce (no surprise): good design. Four qualities that stand out: (1) neither prescriptive or anything goes; (2) focused on student work and feedback; (3) designed and improved by the users (in our case teachers); and (4) the right “grain size”—not too much that any teacher couldn’t pick it up and make a go of it and see immediate changes in student work. But was LDC really self-service?

The systems tools are a different beast for sure—they can’t be scaled as easily through individuals or networks that haven’t been part of the tool design. I don’t think traditional vehicles like a clearing house or the formation of a community of practice will be sufficient. And the strategies that I used with the Literacy and Math Design Collaborative are not quite right. I can’t say for sure but because we were talking about tools that would primarily be used at the district level, the conversation raised three tensions in my mind that anybody in social change work asks:

  • What should the unit of change be for the best chances of success?
  • What is the highest leverage lever? (Say that ten times fast. Maybe it’s not a diagnostic tool no matter how good it is.)
  • And how much should be top down vs. bottom up?

The bottom up question in particular has been on my mind as our work with teachers is entirely a bottom up strategy, and the question is what role they play in spreading effective practices and influencing so called “system transformation”.


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