Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The "Good Enough Revolution"

There was a very good article over at wired about the "Good Enough Revolution". The basic premise is eventually we hit a turning point where quality is sufficiently high people suddenly start opting for cheapness or volume.

In education this will be especially significant in terms of student access to computers. In Alberta, as in many other places, the ground work is being sown to prepare the teaching profession for increased student access and use of computers. In talking to some other colleagues about this issue, we wondered if the sequence many schools will face will be as follows:
  1. More access through specialized 1-1 (laptop) projects
  2. Increased use of student owned devices such as ipods, personal lap tops etc
  3. Enough student owned devices in a class that schools deal with the exceptions of have-nots rather than worrying about everyone
  4. Inability to buy "good" machines for everyone
  5. Move to cloud computing to step around having to buy everyone a "good" machine
  6. A limiting of powerful computers to specialized multi-media labs

Saturday, March 07, 2009

SAT scores & favorite books and music

There is an interesting post over at one of the Wall Street Journal Blogs. It talks about a correlational study between SAT scores and favorite musicians. It also talks about the correlations between SAT scores and favorite books. It is kind of funny. Where does "Ender's Game" and Druss the Legend fit in? As for music, I would have to see where Johnny Cash and John Wort Hannam fit in. For the latter, "Chompy the Head Biter Offer" is just too funny a song not to be won over (even if it is a cover from Washboard Hank).

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Can Dissolution Processes Fuel Systemic Change Innitiatives

During my vacation this week I have been trying to jot down steps in my conception of systemic change design process. trying to pull in some psychological tools for group dynamics has ended up being more of a minor technical detail than I had originally thought. The piece that I am finding the most challenging is finding a way to include the dissolution of overly matured & top-heavy group dynamics into the mix.

Most designs focus on the fueling the change process. In some wise designs you can see how the change process itself is meant to mirror an enduring structure. In other words, static solutions are out and the dynamics of the entire change process are repeated, albeit in less traumatic steps.

I personally tend to this two-in-one approach. Why undertake an immense change initiative when all it does is move you to a place where a stable solution can be implemented. I doubt very much there will ever be a feasible window of opportunity for the "final solution".

This leaves me wondering how to frame the natural dissolution of overly mature, bureaucratized structures as fuel in an overall change process?

The usual way seem to involve building on the shadow systems that are already in operation, fueling them with resources, and connecting them to larger contexts. The connection process produce systemic alignment via collaboration creating and implementing a common vision and mission.

This strategy is fine - but, almost by definition - it involves always creating something new. One alternative is to see if refinement of routines can cycle one out of an overly mature organizational space. Munby, Hutchinson & Chin has an article on refining learning routines that deals with this on the level of individual workers. However, the problem is no administrators ever refine themselves out of their own jobs. Thus the learning leaders and collaborative bodies that are created in well user-designed systemic change initiatives end up either 1) fading naturally in a way that doesn't add to larger system dynamics, or 2) morphing into quasi-administrative roles that increase a district's eventual overly mature organizational space.

As we move toward sustainability, we need to keep this tension in mind," [cycling through uniformed professional judgment to uniformed prescription to informed prescription to informed professional judgment back to uniformed professional judgment]. It is the classic centralization-decentralization dilemma. Any solution that aspires toward sustainability must reconcile this dilemma (Fullan, 2000, p. 9)

I've been struggling to find some insight from the life cycle of new religious movements. The question in effect becomes - how would one use something akin to a Protestant reformation to fuel the continued existence of an enduring system? Human dynamics usually rely on radical transformation to sift out free-loaders. D.S. Wilson lightly touches this process in "Darwin's Cathedral", while David Smith's book "Why we Lie" does an overly popularized account that provides some general background to the issue without actually getting to group-level reformations. Scott Atran's "In God's We Trust" approaches things from a fully religious angle. He brings up hard to fake commitments and moral Big Brothers. Moral Big Brothers are embodiments of moral landscapes whose articulation is fuzzy but whose judgements to novel situations dichotomize believers and fakers quite efficiently.

An overly mature organizational system needs to get back in touch with its roots and core work. In a dynamical environment contexts may have changed so much that those on the inside are likely to purge the system in ways which are too reliant on out of date clues. Using newcomers to purge the system is very risky - it has the benefit of having potential to remove overly "mature" leaders, but it has the risk of uniformed tyranny. The only thing I can think of right now that can softly purge a system while adding energy to a system comes from spirit in the workplace field of inquiry.

Part of this field focusses on balance between one's work and one's whole life. One of the ideas is that work is such a large part of our existence that it can't be compartmentalized from other aspects of our life. Thus to improve work we must also improve other aspects of our life and vice versa.

As organizational routines are sustained and refined, I suspect that focussing on balanced life for employees is one way to provide the necessary relaxation for the system in a way that maintains or fuels a larger system. For example, if a district has engaged in a systemic reformulation process, it will have spent some time in a sustainable phase. Eventually factors outside of its control will produce an overly mature system. As this happens, focussing on the larger well-being of employees will assist dissolution while adding fuel to the larger, general mission of education, overall well-being for students. In effect the dissolution process is modeling a soft aspect of education - healthy being and well-roundedness. I'll have to think on this for a bit.

Fullan, M. (2004). Leadership and Sustainability: Systems thinkers in action. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Is systemic change a way to continue pushing the "transformational" reform policies of the 90's

Educational reforms have tended to stall out over the last decade. One way of thinking about this is that older "transformational" reforms burned up a lot of human capital with little to show. Authors such as Andy Hargreaves point to the futility and counter-productiveness of standardized state-wide reforms. As systemic change procedures are becoming more formalized, I think deep questions about purpose are wise. When is systemic change just sophisticated top-down transformation and when is it facilitating a system to find homeostasis with its environment?

The key indicator of systemic change is paradigm change, which means that a significant change in one part of the system is accompanied by significant changes in practically all other parts, due to interrelationships and interdependence among parts (Reigeluth as cited in Richter, 2007)

Obviously paradigm change is very ephemeral measure. I suspect many ideas, like the paradigm distinction, draw on ideas of social critical mass, like those by Phillip Ball. Or does one also need to add in a conception of willingness and intention? I suspect the latter idea hits closer to some conceptions of systemic change. It is change that is more durable and lasting than 90's era piecemeal transformations. If this is the case, what time frames are appropriate to distinguish real systemic change from psuedo-systemic change?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Energy in networks

I was just typing up some annotations from a book I had read last year, and thought I would jot down a couple of ideas. One of the challenges of designing for systemic change is how to treat group dynamics? Do you assume that group dynamics have few causal factors that can be controlled? Or do you assume the environments that influence group dynamics can, generally, be perturbed positively or negatively (depending on one's intended goal).

"There is a fundamental mismatch between the nature of reality in complex systems and our predominant ways of thinking about that reality. The first step in correcting that mismatch is to let go of the notion that cause and effect are close in time and space... Small changes can produce big results – but the area of highest leverage are often the least obvious." (Senge, 1990, p. 63).

No matter which side of the coin one falls on, I don't think one can understate the complexity involved in designing through group dynamics. Precision is, on any substantial time scale, impossible, but does that mean all levels of accuracy are as well? As I have been thinking more about this conundrum, some quotes from Parker & Cross' book on social networks seemed relevant.

In this section they are talking about a rather elusive topic of energy. Do you find it energizing or de-energizing to work with someone? The definition of energy was left open in the surveys, so I think the standard connotation of motivation, worthwhile future effort, etc can be read into it.

Two themes emerged. First, energizing interactions are clearly influenced by people’s behavior, but they are also influenced by certain characteristics of the individuals and the relationships between them. For example, two people – one trusted and one not trusted – can exhibit the same behaviors in a conversation but with different results. Similarly people can be energized by the vision of someone who has integrity and stands for more than his or her own personal gain. Yet the same vision articulated by someone without integrity can be highly de-energizing. Thus energy is not entirely a product of a set of behaviors in a given interaction but is also affected by people’s day-to-day actions. (Cross, Parker, 2004, p . 57)

This seems to illustrate the conundrum behind designing through group dynamics. Two measurable behaviours can look the same but lead to radically different group responses. I think Scott Atran's work on components of religious behaviour shed quite a bit of light on these differences. Numerous heuristics intertwine to produce a sense, as David Sloan WIlson would say, of viable group commitment. The challenge is knowing what non-trivially observable behaviours and actions make the difference. I think systemic designers are right to avoid this difficult problem, but I am not sure it is intractable.

According to Cross & Parker,
Energy lives in a sweet spot in five dimensions of conversations or group problem-solving sessions: a compelling goal, the possibility of contributing, a strong sense of engagement, the perception of progress, and the belief that the idea can succeed. (p. 57-58)

Certainly if network theorists can start to tackle some aspects of this question, then some of those the relevant fields of psychology can - and if they can, is it just a matter of multi-disciplinary training before those in educational change fields can?

Cross, R. Parker, A. (2004). The hidden power of social networks: Understanding how work really gets done in organizations. USA: Harvard Business School Publications.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Genes affect on Social Networks

Piccolinno has a good post up at Gene Expression. Let me grab a long quote.

Heritability estimates are slippery animals, but this recent PNAS paper is a great illustration of how they can be used to discipline theories of social network formation. The authors start by showing that three building blocks of social networks are heritable, namely the number of friends you have, the number of people who name you as a friend, and the likelihood that two of your friends are also friends. They then ask if existing theories of social network formation are consistent with empirical fact that a large share of individual variation in these buildling blocks is explained by individual characteristics. Perhaps not too surprisingly to readers of this blog, a model which allows individuals to differ ex ante does considerably better than models which make a blank slate assumption.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

When Life Isn't Rational

It was nice hearing about a piece Scott Atran has up on the NYT talking about the role of religious or quasi-religious like dynamics play in the logic of peace negotiations. Hat-tip Science and Religious News.

in general the greater the monetary incentive involved in the deal, the greater the disgust from respondents. Israelis and Palestinians alike often reacted as though we had asked them to sell their children. This strongly implies that using the standard approaches of “business-like negotiations” favored by Western diplomats will only backfire.

While your there, you should also check out Salman's posts on Swat area of Pakistan. Try thinking through what a successful educational change plan would look like there. If we fail to account for people's non-rational, but functionally adaptive preferences, I think, over time, we are doomed for failure.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Quandary with Instructional Design Models for Systemic Change

As of late I have been going through a number of articles and books on designing for systemic change in education. I think I’ll just spin off on some ideas raised by a foundational paper by Patrick M. Jenlink, Charles M. Reigeluth, Alison A. Carr and Laurie Miller Nelson. The paper is “Guidelines for facilitating systemic change in school districts” and it is found in the 1998 May- June edition of Systems Research and Behavioral Science.

The paper has some truly excellent thoughts on phases and components which occur in successful district level systemic change. Coming from a district that is, to some extent, re-inventing this process on its own, I found the discrete phases and ongoing processes to be pretty accurate. After taking a step back from the whole design process, one thing I have to wonder about is relative value of re-inventing the process yourself versus following an established design protocol?

Of course in the real world, no design is ever successfully replicated without customization. This leads to a philosophical question, is it possible to make a design process more or less invariant? By that I mean, can you sketch out phases whose precision, or lack thereof, captures what is commonly experienced? I suspect you can, but I would also suspect the benefits of accuracy over precision mostly arise from:
1. the confirmation this can provide about one’s progression along this path
2. the foresight this gives to facilitators

Does following a systemic change model limit the self-emergence necessary to power true alignment within a system? I keep wondering if systemic change designs don’t need to overtly leverage much of the cutting edge work being done in the group-dynamics branches of evolutionary psychology? I suspect too often change designers pick small battles that look easy to win without enough regard to the subtle tides that overtime shape what is sustainable.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Systemic Change in Education Part 2

This is a follow up to my last post on Duffy's and Reigeluth's School Transformation Protocol

Circular-like Requirements for Concurrent Change
Duffy does a nice job laying out three paradigm shifts necessary for systemic transformational change in education (see summary above). While the term “paradigm shift”, may stroke many philosophers the wrong way, it gets at complexity theory’s idea of critical mass & phase change. In this regard it does convey the enormity of the task: how do you concurrently change core processes, social structures and environmental feedback? There is more than a bit of tension here. Instructional designers tend to resort to concurrent processes as a last resort, and even then favor tight recursivity over true parallelism (Kenny, Zhang, Schwier, Campbell, 2005).

When three concurrent shifts are required, it is hard not to analyze contexts and see one component as pre-eminent. I suspect something akin to Charles Sanders Peirce pragmatic semiotics could help illuminate additional facets here (1998). When combined with modern ideas of emergence, like those by Stuart Kauffman (2008), I believe we have strong tools and theories that can tighten up circular problems. Perhaps a quote from Duffy & Reigeluth’s article here will help.

Although the three paradigm shifts (changes along all three change paths) must be made simultaneously, given the interdependencies among parts of a school system, changes in the teaching learning process (the core work process that is part of paradigm shift 1) should drive the nature of the changes created for the other two paradigm shifts, especially for paradigm shift 2. (2008, p. 4)

One of the difficulties with circular/parallel change issues is our natural tendencies for single vision motivation. As a project’s scope increases, the probability of finding people able to maintain and convey a strong unifying central vision decreases. I suspect a practical difficulty in implementing the SST design will involve balancing three concurrent paradigm shifts. I think the SST design will be strengthened as researchers add additional pragmatic insights in this area. SST would benefit from operationalizing a academically rigorous method for concurrent multi-focused paradigm change.

Continual Processes
Modern ideas of emergence tie well with Duffy and Reigeluth’s complexity approach. A fundamental question complexity theory seems to raise is the balance between descriptors and drivers. What phenomena are better understood through context specific descriptions (ie. 18 continuous SST processes) and what phenomena are better understood through drivers and rules (ie. what natural tendencies operationalize adaptive group-level dynamics at work here)? One difference between these two perspectives is their role in forward prediction versus backward description. Descriptors may illustrate necessary but not sufficient factors. This is especially true in complex environments where it is not possible to pre-state all the factors required for a given future state (Kauffman, 2008). However when one looks back at descriptors, it is easy to see causation whose predictive relationship is anything but one-to-one. I wonder if the 18 SST processes mentioned fall into the descriptive trap?

When thinking about practical implementation, is it wiser for designers to think in terms of drivers , or observable descriptors? I suspect forward prediction is well suited to the leveraging of naturally evolved group-level drivers (Wilson, 2002) while summative evaluation is well suited to observable descriptors.

Thus, I suspect, the 18 SST processes will aid reflection on whether a given change has truly become systemic. The 18 SST processes should also give people a “feel” for the depth of change required by Duffy & Reigeluth’s three parallel paradigm shifts. In practice, I suspect those who implement change need to see a balance between descriptors and drivers. One of the main challenges in talking about drivers though, is not shooting from the hip. I think the tools of rigorous evolutionary psychology could be of great help here. For instance, David Sloan Wilson (2002) and Scott Atran (2002) have done an admirable job in teasing out some of the drivers associated with religious group formation. While this is not easy, I suspect similar methodologies in leading educational change may bear fruit.

In this regard, I wonder on what emergent level phenonema associated with systemic change should be handled? Are we better dealing with descriptors or drivers? Do we look at drivers through a traditional affective lens? Or do we start looking at drivers at a deeper level? This question seems to hearken back to the dilemma evolutionary biology encounters: what types of questions are best handled via proximate causes (ie in what ways is reproduction pleasurable) and what type of questions are best handled via ultimate causes (ie in what ways is reproduction selectively advantageous). Tackling these questions force designers to really think about the role of forward prediction versus backwards causation. Forward prediction certainly presents no easy solutions. As Stuart Kauffman suggests, the complex environment in which this is seated requires a reasonable blending of rationality and intuition. In this regard I think we can free up some chips for the ration side of the equation by looking to formalize hitherto abstract group-level drivers.

Atran, S. (2002). In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. USA: Oxford University Press.

Kauffman, S. (2008). Reinventing the sacred: A new view of science, reason, and religion. Philadelphia: Basic Books.

Kenny, R. F., Zhang, Z., Schwier, R. A., Campbell, K., (2005). A Review of What Instructional Designers Do: Questions Answered and Questions Not Asked, Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 31(1).

Parker, K. (1998). The continuity of Peirce’s Thought. USA: Vanderbilt University Press.

Reigeluth, C., Duffy, F. (2008). The school transformation (SST) protocol. Educational Technology. Retrieved Deember 23, 2008 from

Wilson, D. (2002). Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, University of Chicago Press.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Systemic Change in Education

Systemic change is quite a beast to ride. Implementing coherent vision is a moral endeavor that requires confronting both individual and group-level dynamics. Aligning multiple levels simultaneously is a challenging. The spandrelled nature of value systems makes this doubly hard and highly complex.

District level change often lacks the deep rooted intentionality inherit with strong instructional designs. Duffy’s and Reigeluth’s school transformation protocol (2008) lets one see how instructional design methodology applies to the instructional problem of retooling education for modern contexts.

School System Transformation Article Summary

Below is a brief synthesis of their article. They have created an instructional design model for systemic educational change where the target of “instruction” is the school district.
1. There is significant lack of understanding of the meaning of systemic change. There is also robust push back from the school based improvement paradigm.
2. Systemic transformational change 1)alters underlying assumptions, 2) is deep and pervasive, 3) has intentionality, 4) occurs over time, 5) creates a system that seeks an idealized future, and 6) is substantially different from the current system.
3. The preferred level for systemic transformational educational change is the school district. It functions on the level that encompasses all the day-to-day interactions tied to student learning. This unit allows a focus on unique contexts and characteristics needed to create transformational change in lieu of attempting to replicate non-transferable “best practices”.
4. Three paradigm shifts (paths) are needed for systemic educational change: transformation of core work and supporting processes, transformation of internal social infrastructure, and transformation of the system’s relationship with its external environment.
5. Transformational systemic change should start with a naturally networked cluster. While paradigm shifts must be concurrent, transforming core work and supporting processes should be the central driver.
6. Strong leaders with knowledge and skills in complex change processes are needed.
7. A continuous process of formative evaluation and expanding community engagement underlay’s the systemic transformation change model. (18 continuous processes are mentioned)

In lieu of a standard article critique, let me jump right into a couple points I would love to see extended
1) how to tackle circular like requirements for concurrent change
2) how to treat continual processes like the SST protocol
3) how phenomenological emergence should highlight design considerations.