Even as growing numbers of people worldwide are getting secondary and post-secondary education, disillusionment is a common theme in our work in this sector. Many things seem inadequate: what’s being taught and how, the format, access, resources, affordability. It feels impossible to keep up with the shifting demands of the 21st century and its workplaces — demands that are making the need for education more pressing than ever.
Among the obstacles to progress are outdated assumptions, ideological rifts, and economics. Administrators don’t always recognize that today’s student populations have different needs. Some countries are grappling with deep ideological disagreements that all but preclude movement forward. In low-income countries, funding is falling far short of what’s needed to achieve basic education for all.
Meanwhile, lack of access to quality education is feeding societal problems such as unemployment, poverty, drugs, violence, and high incarceration rates.
Policy-led, top-down approaches are clearly failing traditionally marginalized populations in many countries. How do we make progress on education?
Here are some of the mental, emotional, and process shifts that in our experience — 20 years of global engagement in systemic change initiatives — enable the necessary breakthrough thinking, collaboration, and coordinated action.
Embrace (and teach) complexity
When people are faced with overwhelming complexity, they tend to either shut down or try to simplify the problem with a linear, compartmentalized approach. The results are usually narrow at best. So what better way to begin addressing the multifaceted, interconnected challenges of education than by helping both teachers and students learn to navigate complexity?
Camp Snowball, a US programme that Reos Partners helped launch in 2011, is designed to build students’ and educators’ capacity in systems thinking, education for sustainability, organizational learning, and youth engagement. Now an annual event, it brings together teams of students, parents, educators, and business and community leaders.
“Because of the new skills our team gained, they are starting to see and think about their work differently — how does it fit with what others in the district are doing,” said Steve Martinez, superintendent of Twin Rivers Unified School District, California. “These tools can be used by everyone.”
The whole-systems approach is a radical departure from the traditional pedagogical paradigm, in which learning comes from dissecting the whole into its component parts. By embedding the tools of systems thinking in classrooms, schools, school districts, and communities, Camp Snowball aims to not only create better student outcomes but also create a generation of literate “systems citizens.”
Slow down with a purposeful detour
Given the urgency of so many education challenges, the natural impulse is to work faster. Further, politicians often press for results before the next election cycle. While short-term problems do need to be addressed, long-term progress on education or any complex problem requires that stakeholders develop a complex understanding — and that takes time.
Transformative scenarios are one way to develop a complex, and shared, understanding. The structured yet open-ended process is an example of what we call a “purposeful detour.” Over the course of about six months, we guide diverse stakeholders in constructing several possible futures around the issue at hand, combining both rigour and imagination. The resulting stories suggest strategies and initiatives for shaping the future.
Consider the case of Brazil, whose education system has been struggling for decades. Many countries face similar issues, such as scarce resources and unequal opportunity, but in Brazil these are compounded by sheer scale: 50 million students, 200,000 schools, 2 million teachers. A youth incarceration rate that’s among the highest in the world is just one ripple effect of the failing system, whose drop-out rates are high.
Patience is understandably in short supply. Indeed, frustration in Brazil has peaked in the last few years, with huge student-led occupation movements closing down schools. Yet we believed that a “purposeful detour” could provide a way forward, and in 2014 we facilitated the National Scenarios for the Future of Education in Brazil.
The project’s four scenarios, with their horizon of 2032, were widely disseminated. They continue to provide an invaluable rhetoric-free foundation for critical thinking and public debate around education even in the midst of the country’s economic and political challenges. As the scenario team wrote in a public letter, “Thinking about the future helps us reflect and act in the present.”
Collaborate with people you don’t agree with
Building collaborative relationships is usually prerequisite to sustainable change. This too takes time. It’s not always easy to collaborate, even with people you agree with. But the complex problems facing our education systems often ask even more of us: to collaborate with people we don’t agree with, like, or trust. The parties may never agree, but they must find ways to move forward together anyway.
We call this “stretch collaboration.” As Adam Kahane, a director at Reos Partners, describes in his book Collaborating with the Enemy, we have learned how to help diverse, competing stakeholders move forward with no expectation of harmony or even any definitive agreement on the problem, never mind the solutions. It’s the hallmark of our work.
Take the Brazil example described above. The level of ideological conflict in the country is such that important stakeholders in the system refused to participate in anything that committed them to actually working with each other. They did, however, agree to simply imaginethe future together — transformative scenarios are an excellent starting point when there is severe conflict.
Merely by forming this group, Reos Partners “did the impossible,” said one member of the convening alliance. But further, the work shifted the relationships among key stakeholders, most of whom had previously met only in adversarial contexts. With people sitting at the same tables, going on paired walks, and brainstorming together, the scenarios process enabled and stimulated real dialogue.
Said one scenario team member, “We created partnerships and friendships, relationships. It was a profound learning process. The experience we had together, a group of diverse actors, was very rich.”
These new relationships are building blocks for addressing the challenges ahead.
Many of the people and organizations we work with struggle to set aside linear, top-down approaches for an open-ended experimentation that allows forward movement even when the path is unclear. We help them practice by facilitating labs that devise and test initiatives that might shift the situation.
In the United States, for example, the Emergency Aid Lab (EAL) is looking at the problem of college completion. While a long-term push to get more lower-income and first-generation students into college is succeeding, too many never graduate. Similar mixed-success situations can be found elsewhere, including Brazil: as growing numbers of traditionally marginalized people enter secondary or post-secondary education systems, the systems struggle to support the new and larger student populations.
The EAL is focused on the fact that an estimated three million US college students drop out each year due to a relatively small but time-critical financial crisis. How can schools get aid to students who need it, when they need it? What would comprehensive, integrated emergency aid programmes look like? The EAL is finding out by launching numerous experiments across the country and seeing what works.
For many in the field of education, launching something that’s unfinished doesn’t come naturally. But the EAL, like other lab teams in diverse sectors around the world, has discovered that prototyping, iteration, and collaboration paves the way forward, sometimes relatively quickly. One university launched a new emergency aid website in a matter of weeks. It’s a prototype, but students began using it right away.
“We sometimes drive ourselves into the ground by saying we’re going to do a survey, and we’re going to get all the answers, and then we will create the product or program around all of the answers, and it’s going to match all of them,” said lab member Melissa Richardson Curtis, associate vice president of enrollment management at Austin Community College, Texas. “We’re learning that moving forward in our work without stopping ourselves to make a perfect product first will support the most students in the end.”
Give everyone a voice
It’s a simple principle: only with a multistakeholder approach can we hope to create something resembling the full picture of a complex system, and subsequently, create initiatives that enable progress. A diverse spectrum of voices and viewpoints is the foundation of any Reos Partners process, including those in the education sector.
The EAL has been reaping the benefits of this way of working with cross-functional teams of administrators, educators, counselors, other partners from higher education, and students themselves. By interviewing student members and walking through real-life examples, the lab teams gained new insights on how to make emergency aid programs work better. Said Curtis, “The lab has challenged us to test our assumptions about what it means to be a student in need.”
It’s been a novel experience for the students as well. “This is probably one of the only times that I’ve gotten a real experience of helping to solve serious student issues,” said lab member Alexandra Moen, a community college student. “It’s a really great feeling as a student to be able to talk to faculty and staff of the college … and be treated at the same level as them.”
Step into the confusion
Facing the challenges of education head on, slowing down in the midst of crisis, collaborating despite ongoing conflicts, thinking and working in new ways … People at every level of a system can find all this difficult, confusing, even distressing at times. But as practiced guides, we design our processes to give everyone the support and the time they need to feel their way through. On the other side, as we have seen again and again, is a more successful response to the complex challenges we face.
We invite you contact us about making progress together.