Stepping into an Uncertain World

curious take action exploreThe future is not certain. Weather forecasters make general predictions based on past trends and current conditions, but weather is complex and unpredictable. No one can determine precisely when and where the next snow will fall.

We try to make plans for our children’s future, but human life is also complex and unpredictable—for each individual, for our families and neighborhoods, and for international communities. No one can predict when or where the next recession will hit and how particular families will be able to cope.

This has always been true. Human beings have survived precisely because they have learned to cope with the unexpected. Human beings learn from experience. They generate new responses, new tools, and new strategies to deal with changing realities. In fact, most of us thrive on uncertainty. The unpredicted twist transforms a story into a joke; the unpredicted risk transforms a journey into an adventure. If our lives are basically safe and secure, unpredictability can bring excitement, joy, and (if we navigate that uncertainty with success), a feeling of accomplishment.

What Is the Challenge?questions

Today, however, uncertainties overwhelm us on many levels. What were mere challenges last year are threats today. Communication and technology advances that promised to make our lives better now threaten our health and safety. We don’t feel safe in our homes and in our communities. We don’t know whether we will continue to be able to earn a living or obtain medical care. We feel that our cultures, our languages, our ways of life are at risk. We don’t have confidence in our leaders to handle social and political challenges here or around the globe.

Mass migrations, global terrorism, deadly epidemics, and unending war are just a few of those global threats. The most critical threat of all is, of course, that rapidly accelerating climate change threatens the very future of the planet.

But we are literacy teachers. We have the opportunity and the responsibility to set conditions for children and young adults to use language and literacy to step into this uncertain world.

  • How are we doing that?
  • How do our students see these uncertainties?
  • What challenges are most relevant to them?
  • What are we doing to set conditions to help them navigate the most urgent and troubling of these uncertainties?
  • How can we tell these stories to one another and to our neighbors around the world?
  • How can we learn from one another what works and what doesn’t seem to work as we prepare our students for this changing world?

How Do Teachers Respond to the Challenge?

As practitioners and researchers, we have experience that can frame our investigation into these questions about the uncertainties our students face. Collectively, we have a sense about the kinds of learning experiences that can prepare students to face the unknown. Many progressive educators from around the world have been doing this work for many, many years.

For the most part, however, these are initiatives focused on particular populations, particular content areas, or particular contexts. Some are more widely networked than others, but, in terms of global influence, … might call these “pockets of excellence.” Here is a list of a few of many such initiatives:

So What Do We Know about Generative Teaching and Learning?

We know that human beings are complex adaptive systems.What does that mean?

In a complex adaptive system, the elements or participants join in interdependent interactions, sometimes, but not always, with shared tasks or goals. From these self-organizing interactions, patterns emerge—patterns of meaning, behavior, and language. Over time, some of those patterns sustain the system and become more pronounced or amplified. As that happens, those patterns, in turn, begin to shape or constrain the interactions among the elements or participants. Here is a simple diagram that represents how this pattern forming cycle has generated those uncertain and threatening patterns we mentioned earlier.CAS with color

These systems are essentially open to new ideas and influences. They are diverse because they are made up of different elements or participants. They are interdependent because each interaction can influence those close to it. And the interactions are nonlinear, which means each interaction changes the system, and the next interaction changes it even more. We can never run time backward because each moment has essentially changed the system.

The only way we know to navigate within these complex systems is to be aware of the interactions around us, notice and name the patterns that we sense are most relevant and influential, and take action that is most likely to tweak the conditions that generate those patterns. We watch the patterns to see whether they will shift. If they shift in a useful way, we try to sustain the new pattern. If it doesn’t shift, we try other actions. We call this Adaptive Action.

Slide1Adaptive Action is essentially a learning process. Learning is about our ongoing engagement in this process– noticing the patterns aroound us, making sense of them, and taking action to shift those patterns in an appropriate way—a way that fits what the system needs. Or framing new questions that can help us gather more information and see the patterns around us in a more useful way.

This is “generative learning.” We use the word “generative” because it communicates a sense of growth, adaptation, creativity, and possibility. They ask insightful questions. They problem-solve. They can come up with creative ways to deal with challenges. They are aware of the world around them and strive to support other.

long term AA

Generative teachers and learners know that human systems are open, diverse, and unpredictable. They know (and continue to learn more) about how complex systems work as a spiraling process involving inquiry, reflection, and action.

In other words, generative teachers and learners can deal with uncertainty.

Now What Shall We Do?

We are confident that thoughtful and compassionate teachers around the world are already setting conditions to help their students—tomorrow’s citizens—build the capacity for dealing with unpredictable and frightening realities. How can we learn from those teachers and spread their insights to others who deal every day with similar challenges?

Here are four questions that we are inviting you to answer. Please comment below to share your response with colleagues.

  • What are some of the most urgent or troubling uncertainties facing your students—now or as they enter adulthood?
  • Is one of these more urgent or troubling than the others? Can describe or explain more about it?
  • What do you do to set conditions to help your students prepare for these uncertainties?
  • Can you tell a story related to such an experience with one or more of your students?

Cosmic Stories to Make Sense of Complexity

Skillful teachers can shape even the most complex content into engaging stories that plant seeds of wonder—stories that invite students to investigate the world beyond the classroom door.

Mary Beth Wertime tells that kind of story. Mary Beth worked in international development and most recently as a Montessori teacher in a public school in the U.S. We met Mary Beth at the 2014 Human Systems Dynamics Conference and discovered our shared passion for generative teaching and learning in public schools—and our shared frustration with the current high stakes testing regime.

In this post, Mary Beth explains how five stories (called “Great Lessons” in Montessori schools) are told to children at the beginning of each year. She explains how these stories engage children in interdisciplinary explorations. She also addresses the structural difficulties of this inquiry-based approach in public schools where local, state, and federal testing requirements require frequent interruptions throughout the year.

The following post is based on the transcript from the January 4 HSD in Education Webinar led by Mary Beth Wertime.

What Are the Montessori “Great Lessons”?

Maria Montessori was one of the first female physicians in Italy. She opened a school in 1907 in Rome. She developed her methodologies and philosophies through careful observation of children. Montessori used her medical training, observation of the developmental stages of growth in children, and her association with scientists to study how students build concentration and self-discipline and learn to explore and discover.

Although many Montessori schools are private, there are 443 public Montessori schools in the United States as of 2014 (taken from Census Project of the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector, 2014). Of these, many are primary schools (Ages 3 – 6), but over 100 schools serve adolescents. These schools serve 112,486 students in the U.S. There are not as many middle and high schools because Montessori did not develop methodologies for older students, but she did write about adolescents, and some educators developed materials for middle and high schools.

The groundwork for the “Great Lessons” can be found in two books by Maria Montessori: To Educate the Human Potential and From Childhood to Adolescence. However, it was her son, Mario Montessori, who took these ideas and wrote the Great Lessons or “the cosmic fables” or “the “cosmic curriculum.” You can find summaries of these Great Lessons in Montessori Today by Paula Polk Lillard and in Children of the Universe: Cosmic Education in the Montessori Elementary Classroom by Michael and D’Neal Duffy.

The idea of telling stories to highlight interdisciplinary study is not a new idea. It was written about in the 1800s. Mario Montessori, however, pulled together information and designed these stories to be part of how Montessorians teach in elementary school.

The cosmic stories, or the “Great Lessons,” are stories used at the beginning of each year to introduce the big ideas that the children will continue to investigate throughout the school year. It’s important to remember that these are impressionistic stories, and not every detail is given while telling each story. Their purpose is to whet the appetite and draw children into thinking about the world around them. The stories start from age 6 and are taught throughout the elementary curriculum. They are:






Notice that this is a nested sequence, beginning with the most expansive–the universe. Montessori thought that, rather than starting with the child’s town, then teaching about the state, and then each country, Montessori teachers should start with the universe because children are asking huge questions about life.

Let us give them (the elementary children) a vision of the whole universe….all things are part of the universe and are connected with each other…This idea helps the mind of the child to become fixed.”(Montessori, p. 8)

Slide1If you look at the bottom of the stack of nested bowls in the picture, you can see that Montessori teachers begin with the story of the Coming of the Universe.

We start with the whole and move to the parts.

Each story draws from different subjects. Chemistry, geology, astronomy, and physics are addressed in the 1st Great Lesson. Botany and zoology are addressed when we teach about the Coming of Life on Earth, and we move to anthropology, archaeology, and history as we tell the Coming of Humans Great Lesson, etc.

Why did Maria and Mario Montessori develop these stories? They thought that developmentally, young children are ready to consider significant issues. Starting at age six, children are leaving their families, thinking about how they fit into a larger social context. As they start to ask deeper “why” and “what” questions, why not give them the whole universe?

To interest the children in the universe, we must not begin by giving them elementary facts about it, to make them merely understand its mechanism, but start with far loftier notions of a philosophical nature, put in an acceptable manner, suited to the child’s psychology. (Montessori, 1989,  p. 28)

Montessori teachers use these stories for several reasons:

  • as a springboard to awaken wonder and curiosity. The stories are not told to memorize all the facts about the big bang theory, for example, but to touch imaginations so that children are inspired to ask more questions and seek information about those questions.
  • to suggest a framework of interrelated information that leads to independent study.
  • to address the interdependence across the whole system, rather than teaching using isolated parts: “Children’s minds are not divided into categories. They operate as whole systems.” (Lillard, 1996, p. 59).
  • to build respect and reverence for all that has come before and during human time on Earth.

Montessori elementary teachers teach the stories (Great Lessons) at the beginning of each year. We don’t always finish them in the first month of school. Sometimes we stretch them out a little longer, depending on whether the students take off exploring lessons that they have heard. And we keep follow up lessons “flowing” while we follow the children and what they are inspired to study after hearing the story. Then we tell the next story.

What’s really interesting about these stories is that they draw the teacher AND the student into important learning. The stories give Montessori teachers a framework for organizing their work, and a way to be intentional about planting seeds of wonder in children. Every year, I went back and reviewed the basic outline of the stories developed by Maria and Mario Montessori, and then I reviewed story-telling techniques, about how to bring new energy into telling of the stories. I found that this made me excited about starting each new year. For the children, the stories are a seed-planting experience, getting the children engaged and awakening the questions that they might have and the research they can work on throughout the year.

There are charts and scientific experiment materials that go along with telling the stories. .All of these materials need to be prepared in advance. In the days before we start the stories, we whisper to the children that we will be telling very special stories. The older children hold this secret (having heard the stories in previous years). They whisper to the younger children that special stories are about to be told. Excitement builds. The day the children walk into class and see that the windows are covered and/or the blinds are down, they know that this is an indication that this is finally the day that the first Great Lesson will be told. Many types of journals are set up, too, so that the children are ready to start working on questions that inspire them after they hear the stories.

How Do These Stories Plant Seeds of Wonder?

The stories are told in lower elementary—(Montessori classrooms combine 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades)—and they are also told in upper elementary (4th, 5th, and 6th grades) and in the older grades, too (sometimes 6th grade is in a public Montessori middle school). The teachers in the older grades add on to these stories in a very sophisticated way. So if you are a Montessori student, you hear these stories over and over again, with more details added on each year, and the questions the children ask are more sophisticated each year.

In this picture teacher 1st lessonthe teacher is set up for the first Great Lesson. Usually we ask the children to sit on the floor, but in this class, they are sitting in chairs. You can see all the scientific experimental material on the table. This teacher is going to tell the Coming of the Universe story. It includes the scientific theories such as the big bang theory.

The story includes expansionist theories, and any new scientific theories that have come along can be added into the story. We also tell stories that come from ancient traditions. But once again, it’s not every fact and detail; it is an impressionistic story. Charts are used, like these charts seen in this picture and then, once the story is told, children start asking questions like: “How does gravity work?” “Why don’t the planets fall out of the sky?” “How do volcanoes work?” As soon as the teacher starts hearing these types of questions, he or she guides the students to go off and begin research on these questions. There are additional stories and scientific lessons that continue to follow the main story–such as:

  • scientific states of matter
  • the birth and death of stars
  • the creation of the solar system
  • volcanoes
  • creation stories.


The second story or Great Lesson is “The Coming of Life on Earth.” We use several materials to tell this story. This story tells about how creatures came to life on Earth… as we unroll the Timeline of Life we show the children the very simple, single celled creatures that were created on Earth. Then the story goes on as we unfold the Timeline of Life to talk about the jelly fish as an ancient creature, the trilobites (that became extinct), and as the timeline opens all sorts of sea, air, and land creatures are discussed on the timeline. A blank timeline is also included with this material so that the children can use it to memorize where each creature goes on the timeline, or to match the creatures from the original timeline. This Great Lesson inspires a lot of work in biology and zoology.


When the children see the timeline and the “Coming of Life” stories, they begin asking questions such as:

“What happened to the trilobites?” “Why aren’t the dinosaurs here anymore?”

They may begin studying fossils and how scientists tracked different creatures that lived on earth through the fossil record. We also give lessons on the plant and animal kingdoms. We teach songs so the children can memorize the 5 kingdoms of life etc. In lower elementary (1st-3rd) many children carry out animal research.

Then we move to animal husbandry. We go out to farms to see live animals and encourage the children to continue their research with live animals. Children love to do research on different plants in our own classroom gardens. Montessori teachers develop a lot of materials to add into the follow-on lessons after the Coming of Life story is told.

This is a child actually teaching other chiSlide1ldren about the research that she did. Thus, one of the outcomes of these stories is the cross-fertilization that begins to happen between children. The teacher tells the Great Lesson, but the children also present information to each other.


Thus this cyclical pattern begins to happen:

Slide1We use another timeline to tell the “Coming of Humans” story. It includes pictures that demonstrate the unique qualities of humans—like demonstrating the importance of using the pincer grip, human’s unique ability to use hands to create; about how humans discovered fire, and how humans take care of young and elders. Also, it depicts the human capacity to bury those who die. In this story we talk about the human capacity for empathy. (For example, we can feel for others who lived through a tsunami, even though we haven’t lived through it ourselves). This leads to the study of ancient civilizations.Slide1

Here are some examples of follow-on lessons that come after the “Coming of Humans” story:

  • fundamental needs of humans
  • history of tools
  • ancient civilizations
  • history of transportation
  • history of medicine.


This child is working on a timeline about ancient China.

child timeline

We also go out of the classroom—for example, to museums and galleries—to learn about the history of humans in our communities.

The fourth story or “Great Lesson” is the Story of Communication in Signs. This is when we talk about how humans learned to communicate through writing and reading. We talk about the ancient Egyptians and cuneiform writing (and many other ancient scripts). This is a fascinating story for young children who are learning to read because they begin to realize they are not alone in this endeavor… that all humans developed the skill of reading and writing over time. Some of the follow-on stories that are told after this Great Lesson are about

  • diverse alphabets
  • origins of writing utensils and paper
  • development of the printing press
  • history of fax and computer
  • continuation of the study of ancient civilizations and their means of communication


The 5th story (Great Lesson) is called the Story of Numbers. Ancient humans needed a way to communicate through trading. The “Story of Numbers” is about how ancient ways of counting began. It includes stories, for example, about how the Mayans piled stones up to count and how Arabic numerals evolved.       Interesting stories continue to be told afterwards. Here are some examples of follow-up stories and lessons related to the “Story of Numbers:”

  • How zero was “born”
  • Continued history of counting
  • History of math principles
  • Development of calendars
  • Systems and units of measurement
  • Economic geography.

Basically the whole concept of teaching these stories is to help students realize that they have the power within themselves to ask powerful questions as they listen to the stories. It is our job as Montessorians to listen to their questions, to decide how we can guide their interests, and to support them as they do their research.

Does this mean there is total unstructured time in the classroom?

Of course, in public schools, Montessori teachers must follow the state curriculum each year. We start with the five great lessons, and student interest and research are inspired through hearing the stories. It is our job as Montessori teachers to keep an eye on the state curriculum but also to honor the children’s questions. We try to weave the content from the state curriculum with where the students are trying to go with their questions. So there is structure in that we have the aligned curriculum from the state, as well as the Montessori curriculum. In fact, people have spent a lot of time aligning these two curricular documents to give us a structure so that children have access to both of them. It is not just a jumble but has structure.

What about the testing mandates in public schools?

We are still curious about the future of Montessori in the public schools and what’s going to happen to us with all the testing requirements. There is a dis-connect between Montessori teaching and the amount of stopping and starting that happens to accommodate test-taking. Our concern is about the large numbers of tests and how tests interrupt the dynamic flow that happens when we get all these threads flowing. This picture, in fact, is an actual stack of my testing materials for a year in a public Montessori school.

stack of tests

Once these “Great Lessons” are told, it’s not a linear process where we are only studying “the plant cycle” or the “animal kingdom.” The children are involved in a complex inquiry process including follow-on lessons and independent research. And then the children are expected to sit down and take a test only in reading or only in math. It simply interrupts the flow.

Kids often want to go to these deeper places, and there isn’t time because you have to hit all the reading, writing, and math skills in the state standards. We strive to keep this dynamic flow of storytelling, experimenting, researching, and reporting continuing, but the children are interrupted constantly by required testing. In the evolution of the standards and the testing systems, there are some opportunities for performance-based assessments, however, which can be integrated into the flow of students’ questions.

Telling the Great Lessons and observing children in follow up provides data, too—as we watch students interact, as we watch them explore the lessons and complete their research. It makes sense to watch for patterns in their interactions across time. This information can tell us a great deal about what and how children are learning.

So what did we do at my school to work on keeping this opportunity for keeping complexity alive in our classrooms?

  • We tried to protect a three-hour uninterrupted work period. Children could stay in the classroom and keep the cycle going.
  • But that didn’t stop the amount of interruption to take the tests so we’d like to keep this conversation alive, to see what other adjustments might be made.

What more can we do?

  • Stories provide data, too. Stories that we get as we watch the students interact – without making it a test – is really important. We can look for other ways to measure to replace or supplement traditional testing data.
  • Keep avenues open for allowing complexity to thrive in each classroom rather than shutting down these avenues by designing structures and rules that promote the exact opposite.
  • Let’s continue to question the way we are collecting evidence to prove that learning is taking place. What outcomes do our methods produce? It is not easy to do so but worth every effort for the sake of the children.

Now What?

Other approaches are similar to these “Great Lessons” if other teachers would like to use these stories as a framework to guide instruction. For example, David Christian developed an approach called “Big History,” which is similar to the Montessori “Great Lessons.”

Big History can be used in high schools and universities. The challenge is to take all the Common Core that is written and weave these standards into the art of storytelling using Big History. It’s a huge job when information is taught in silos of isolated subjects. However, “leaning in” to try to weave it all together is a worthy endeavor.

We must continue our “courageous conversations” about how to teach in an interdisciplinary way, to preserve space for this type of storytelling that inspires children to ask important questions about significant issues, and to preserve the time for children to explore findings. By doing so we honor the complexity that is inherent in helping each child develop his or her full potential.


Duffy, M. and D. (2013). Children of the Universe: Cosmic Education in the Montessori Elementary Classroom. Santa Rosa, CA: Parent Child Press.

Lillard, P. P. (1996). Montessori today: A comprehensive approach to education from birth to adulthood. New York: Schocken Books.

Montessori, M. (1989). To educate the human potential. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO Ltd; 1st Paperback Edition.

Montessori, M. (1994). From Childhood to adolescence: Including Erdkinder and the Function of the University. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO Ltd; 1st Paperback Edition.

 Thanks for the images. . .

Responsibility, Creativity, and Adaptive Action

Posted by Leslie Patterson, North Star of Texas Writing Project and Human Systems Dynamics Institute

I’m a lucky woman.

I get to work with the most amazing, reflective, responsive, and thoughtful teachers I can imagine! They are a part of the North Star of Texas Writing Project — a National Writing Project site. And most of them also work with methods/models from the Human Systems Dynamics Institute.

They teach in elementary, middle, high schools and in universities. Some of them are “early career” teachers — barely out of their certification programs, and some of them have taught for decades. Some of them work as coaches and administrators. Their students are rich and poor; old and young; eager and reluctant. They open doors and windows for their students. They set conditions for students to recreate themselves as readers, writers, and thinkers each day of their school lives. They make it possible for their students to imagine how they might change their worlds. They give their students the tools to take action.

Even with the tragic and frightening events around the world in the last few weeks, I am hopeful. I am hopeful because I am lucky enough to watch the work of these amazing teachers. I’m lucky to see their hope and love in action.

In Minneapolis this week, at the annual meetings of the National Writing Project and the National Council of Teachers of English, I get to hear these teachers present their work to their colleagues who have come from across the country.

The work of a few of these teachers is posted in blogs below. These five teachers–Carol Wickstrom, Marla Robertson, Amanda Goss, Audrey Wilson Youngblood, and Whitney Young–are presenting Friday, November 20, about Adaptive Action — an inquiry cycle described by Glenda Eoyang and Royce Holladay in Adaptive Action: Leveraging Uncertainty in Your Organization.

Slide1Adaptive Action is a simple yet powerful structure that helps us see, understand, and influence patterns in complex systems where we live and work–systems like classrooms, campuses, and school districts. You’ll find a longer explanation below at

Download this pdf for an introduction to these teachers’ stories:    NCTE roundtable intro pdf

Scroll down to the next five blogs for these teachers’ stories.

I am confident that you will enjoy these stories, but I’m also confident that you will find ideas that you can put to work in your own classrooms next week. We’d love to hear how it goes!

Adaptive Action: A Tool for Reading the Word and the World

Posted by Whitney Young, University of North Texas

Freire (1970) recommended decades ago that children needed to be able to read more than texts, suggesting they needed to be able to read the world. The longer I am in the classroom, the more I understand my role as an educator in setting conditions so children can critically read their world and the world at large. With the quickly changing economic, political, and social world, it is now imperative that we set conditions that prepare children for global citizenship. In order to do this, children must begin taking on new perspectives, ones that “outgrow their current selves” (Short, Harste, & Burke, 1996), requiring us to make the foreign familiar. With all of the mandates and pressure to meet standardized assessment measures, teachers find themselves in a position to make decisions about where to put their energy.

Knowing there is not one prescriptive method that will guarantee children are equipped with the tools for global citizenship, I turn to methods that will ensure that children have to tools to notice, understand, and influence patterns in their world and the world at large. As the students and I engage in classroom inquiries on critical issues, adaptive action guides our thinking during inquiry units and assists us in recognizing patterns, considering their implications, and thinking about ways we can take action in our own lives and beyond.

Adaptive Action Cycle

The Adaptive Action Cycle is used to assist in recognizing and identifying patterns (What?), interpreting these patterns (So What?), and taking action (Now What?). The Adaptive Action Cycle is an iterative cycle we utilize in our classroom to examine emerging patterns and interactions. Further, it “integrates inquiry and action at each step” (Patterson, Holladay, and Eoyang 2013, p. 37). This method provides us with the tools to interpret situations, historical events, and people, as well as the conditions and patterns associated with each. Going through this iterative cycle affords the opportunity to critically think about the past, present, and future. Moreover, it positions us as global citizens to consider our role and how we can and do contribute to the patterns that emerge at the local and global level.


While this may seem like a complex idea to bring into a fourth grade classroom, we utilize Adaptive Action in order to engage in critical literacy before, during, and after an inquiry unit. I detail this with our Number the Stars unit, in which we examined the Holocaust. To begin an inquiry unit, constraints are placed on the inquiry unit, as we engage in the thinking patterns of Adaptive Action together. As we move through the unit and the patterns emerging become clearer, the students begin engaging with these thinking patterns more independently, noticing the the patterns that emerge, the way patterns position them, and the power they have to shift patterns. By modeling the thinking patterns of Adaptive Action in our first cycle, the processes of this cycle are made explicit, allowing the children to try them out in the next cycle

Framing Our Inquiry

Before beginning an inquiry unit, we go through our first cycle of Adaptive Action. In the first phase, we think about questions, such as

  • What do we know about this topic?
  • What do we want to know about this topic?
  • What curious, critical, or confused questions may we already have about this topic?

After everyone has had the opportunity to contribute, we reflect on our What?, asking ourselves the following questions:

  • So what class inquiries can we explore?
  • So what individual inquiries can we explore?
  • So what resources may help explore these inquiries?
  • So what experiences may help us gain a better understanding of this event or topic?

The Now What? stage is where we think about the unit as a whole, as well as the smaller units embedded.

  • Now what plan will assist in answering our inquiry questions?
  • Now what plan will help us to understand this topic beyond a surface level?

Of course, it is my job to create learning experiences and set conditions to explore inquiries, but I do not engage in this until we have laid the unit out as a class. Even at that, I keep plans very flexible in case our inquiries lead us somewhere unexpected. I want the children to feel invested in their learning and find relevancy in it. Going through this first phase of Adaptive Action assists with this. Further, I use this initial thinking to create three to four options for the students’ individual inquiries. I create projects that answer the individual inquiries posed. Students may choose the one that is of most interest to them.

Documenting Patterns whitney pic 1

During the unit, we are constantly adding inquiries to our What? and tending to previous inquiries. To assist in noticing patterns throughout the unit, we use a graphic board. It is a trail of our thinking through the unit, and it allows us to easily spot similarities and differences across a historical event or specific topic.

Anytime we add something to the board, read a picture book, or engage with any other form of text, we utilize a critical Adaptive Action Cycle, one that gets the children challenging common perceptions and juxtaposing contrasting viewpoints to uncover the way texts arrange individuals as global citizens (Leland, Ociepka, & Kuonen, 2012; Luke & Freebody, 1997).

In the What? phase, we consider what is happening and to what individuals, issues of power, how identity plays a role in the patterns emerging, whose perspective and voice is shared and whose is missing. Then we move to the So What? and begin considering the implications this has on individuals awhitney pic 2nd ourselves. This stage is very reflective and requires us to look beyond our own lives, stretching us to empathize with others and consider perspectives far beyond our own. In the final stage, we share a new story, create a counter narrative, or begin taking action in our lives to ensure that the patterns emerging are inclusive of everyone, reflecting a shared voice, identity, and power. We go through this cycle many times, allowing us to notice similarities and differences across texts and situations.


After we finish a unit, the students engage in a reflective cycle of Adaptive Action independently. Here they bring it back to a personal level, giving me insight into what they are taking away from the unit, how they see themselves as a part of the unit, and how they are able to notice, understand, and influence patterns in their own lives, taking from their experiences in this unit. The individual inquiry for our Number the Stars unit is below.

Historical Event: Holocaust


  • What patterns emerged during this event?
  • What important events happened?
  • What actions didn’t happen that might have changed the outcome?
  • What feelings are you left with after learning about this event?

So What?

  • So what does this mean for the way we handle events like the Holocaust now?
  • So what options were there in this historical event?
  • So how does this connect to events in our world now?

Now What?

  • Now what can you do at the local level to make sure that injustices like this don’t happen again?
  • Now what can you do as a global citizen to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself?

By this phase, the students are engaged in the Adaptive Action Cycle independently, focusing on the way

Final Thoughts

Adaptive Action is a tool that assists educators in setting conditions that will likely move the students in the direction needed to participate and contribute as global citizens. It provides the thinking patterns to not only notice what is happening, but also deeply consider the implications these patterns have on us and those around us. This deep consideration enables us to take action that is more likely to dampen negative patterns and amplify positive ones. While there is no way we can completely prepare children for the world they will one day enter, we can begin by giving them access to thinking patterns that can make a difference in their life and the lives of those they encounter.


Eoyang, G. and Holladay, R. (2013). Adaptive Action: Leveraging uncertainty in your organization. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press.

Freire, P. (1970/2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Bloomsbury.

Leland, C., Ociepka, A., Kuonen, K., (2012). Reading from different interpretive stances: In search of a critical perspective. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55, 428-437.

Luke, A., & Freebody, P. (1997). Shaping the social practices of reading. In S. Muspratt, A. Luke, & P. Freebody (Eds.), Constructing critical literacies (pp. 185–223). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Patterson, L., Holladay, R., & Eoyang, G. (2013). Radical rules for school: Adaptive action for complex change. Circle Pines, MN: Human Systems Dynamics Institute.

Short, K. G., Harste, J. C., & Burke, C. (1996). Creating classrooms for authors and inquirers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinamann.

The “Power of Realization”

First posted by Audrey Wilson Youngblood, Keller (TX) Independent School District and North Star of Texas Writing Project, at

As “change agents,” leaders in education must continually seek the tensions in our systems; and then, setting conditions conducive to change, we must help others to realize the crucial breakthrough moments needed to sustain transformation. Read more . . . 

Adaptive Action and Preservice Teachers

Posted by Carol Wickstrom, University of North Texas and North Star of Texas Writing Project

As a teacher educator, I want my preservice teachers to become effective classroom teachers. Who wouldn’t? But I know that their classroom experiences have not always been positive ones — especially when we are talking about writing. During my class the preservice teachers refer to former teachers who “bled on their papers” or who “didn’t teach them to write, just told them to write.” So I work towards modeling what a writing teacher might do to help her students become writers.

I don’t want my students to “sit and get” the information in the course, but rather I use readers/writers workshop. It is my hope that if they experience the workshop approach, they will be more apt to use it in their classroom. I prepared the syllabus for the course by using three questions:

  1. Who are my writing influences?
  2. Who am I as a writer?
  3. Who am I as a teacher of writing?

The assignments for each of these questions allow the students to look deeper into their experiences, their beliefs, and their future practices.

Our Adaptive Action Cycle

The Adaptive Action Cycle comes into play to answer each of the questions. The preservice teachers are introduced to the cycle using — what?, so what?, now what? Although these three questions are rather simplistic, they allow the students to examine a variety of situations, people, and events. They also allow the students to determine what conditions under which these might occur. These three questions also allow discussions to occur in a logical and diffused manner.

Writing Influences

The students develop a writing life map to look at the various ways that their knowledge and experiences with writing have been influenced. The what is generated by looking at influences in and out of school and positive and negative influences. In-school experiences include teachers and assignments. Out-of-school experiences include cards, letters, parents, friends, and journals.

The so what happens when we look at the writing life maps to note what patterns are evident. The patterns reveal that the teachers often gave them negative feedback, low grades, and little instruction in writing. Further, all of the state testing has caused a negative reaction to writing. Students are expected to write to prompts that have little meaning to them. Outside of school students have the opportunity to pursue journal writing that they share with friends or for personal introspection. They also see writing as practical for notetaking or lists.

Occasionally, a student will have an outstanding teacher of writing. When this happens, we ask what made the difference. Patterns which reflect outstanding teachers of writing include meaningful topics, helpful feedback, modeled lessons, and writing techniques that allowed students to write for specific audiences.

For the now what, the students decide how to use this information to impact their teaching of writing. They determine that their writing instruction needs to provide opportunities for authentic assignments and scaffolded lessons.

Being a Writer

The students also realize that the now what is connected to being writers. This helps them begin to understand “Who am I as a writer?”, the next opportunity for adaptive action. Throughout the first half of the semester, I model a number of different kinds of writing lessons. Lessons include poetry, essays, conventions, letter writing, etc. The students have the opportunity to look at themselves through the adaptive action cycle.

  • What — what do I do well as a writer, what do I need to learn, what do I understand about writing that will help the students that I teach?, etc.
  • So what — By noting their own writing abilities/concerns, the preservice teachers can use the ideas to look toward actions that will impact their teaching. Often, the preservice teachers discover that they are writers. Up to this point they have had a limited view of writing, but the writing opportunities have expanded this view.
  • Now what — The students can set goals to keep writing or to learn more about writing instruction. Learning about their own writing abilities also pushes them to find the question which drives the third question posed in the syllabus.

Me as a Writing Teacher

In this final section the preservice teachers frame their own question about the teaching of writing. They investigate questions such as:

  • How do I do writing workshop in my classroom?
  • How do I help struggling writers?
  • How do I help English learners write?
  • How to I embed grammar instruction in writing?
  • How will mentor texts help me teach writing?

These questions drive their inquiry. They use professional books, journals, websites, and other tools to find ways to “answer” their questions. The preservice teachers document the information from each of their resources using the adaptive action cycle —

  • What was learned from the resource?
  • So what does that information mean? How does it connect to other experiences or knowledge that they have?
  • Now what (or how) will this new information be used in their classrooms.

This last part is the key. I want to know how they are making sense of what they are learning. Through this last section I can see if they are applying what they are learning. This section is the hardest because they just want to tell me that they will use the ideas in their classrooms. But I want to know specific ways that they plan to use the information.

More than a Cycle

In this context the Adaptive Action Cycle appears to be a linear process. This makes it seem rather laborious and strained. However, by viewing it throughout the entire course and in multiple ways, it may become more of a way of thinking for the students. We want the students to engage in thinking such as this so that it will become more automatic. It might even allow the students to respond more quickly and effectively to their students.

Adaptive Action and My Professional Learning

Posted by Marla Robertson, University of Texas – Arlington and North Star of Texas Writing Project

I experienced firsthand as a 3rd and 1st grade teacher the tension between teachers and administrators/policymakers when it came to teaching practices in the classroom. Often I was asked to do things as a classroom teacher that went against my beliefs about what was best for my students. I felt that students needed authentic reading, writing, and learning activities to provide engagement and to support their motivation to learn.

However, policies at the state level designed to provide accountability seemed to require me to spend precious classroom time preparing my students for high-stakes assessments designed to determine their learning. I felt the assessments took much of my class time and caused students to lose interest in learning and even become stressed about their future. These assessments also seemed to be used to control the system through curriculum decisions, professional development decisions, and grading policies subsequently influencing many aspects of my job as a teacher. For example, I was told things like “Your students don’t have to write in 3rd grade. They aren’t tested on writing until 4th grade” and “You need to focus on these test taking strategies to help you students pass the tests.”

Incidents like these led me to ask myself questions, such as:

  • What can I do to increase awareness of how policies are affecting how I do my job and how students engage in school?
  • What influences administrative decisions made at the school and district level that leads to these accountability practices?
  • What can I do to educate teachers on how to influence policy decisions at the local and state level?

Those inquiries eventually led me to pursue a doctorate in Reading. In my Literacy Policy course I was introduced to complex adaptive systemsSlide1 theories. These theories resonated with me. I could see how schools fit many of the characteristics of complex adaptive systems. I was also introduced to the Adaptive Action Cycle as a tool for framing inquiries into my teaching practice. I have since used these questions, What? So What? Now What?, as a guiding framework for my inquiries, particularly when I began thinking about researching teachers and schools.

I eventually decided to conduct qualitative research into what influences a writing teacher’s decision about writing instruction in a high-stakes writing assessment grade. To analyze the data, I used a complexity framework. I have incorporated the Adaptive Action cycle into my research work and continue to pursue inquiries into policies that influence the decisions that teachers make in their classrooms.

My next action is to publish from my research and continue to participate in research into teachers work and what influences their decisions, particularly focusing on professional development and adaptive teaching.

long term AA

I’ve learned that my life is a constant adaptive action and these three questions make a difference in the decisions that I make on a daily basis as a new professor. What are the most important things my middle grade preservice teachers need to know about English language arts in order to be prepared for student teaching next semester? What are effective ways to create a community of learners in an Masters level online literacy course? What are the most important topics to teach inservice teachers in a literacy academy course on writing in a diverse urban district?

My list of questions continues to grow as I go through iterations of adaptive actions in my work.

For more information about adaptive action, go to

Adaptive Action and Student Conferences: A Framework for Improving Reading, Writing, and Academic Progress

Amanda Goss. Denton, TX, Independent School District,  first posted this at

At once both terrifying and rewarding, conferences with students have become the single most important tool in my teacher toolbox.  As I’ve transitioned out of my own classroom and into an instructional support role, I’m eager to share what I’ve learned about conferences with the teachers, counselors, and administrators I now collaborate with on a daily basis.  As the Response-to-Intervention (RtI) Coordinator on a high school campus of about 2,500 students, I have the opportunity to work with teachers across content areas to facilitate additional support and intervention opportunities for students.  Each day looks different, but I still love the days when I have the chance to work with students in small groups or one-on-one.

Literary Genres, a redesigned elective course we are providing to juniors who have not yet been successful on the English I or English II standardized test in Texas, has allowed me many opportunities to work with students this semester.  My colleague teaching the class is an expert at building relationships with students, and I am often amazed at the stories students share with her as well as the empathy and compassion in her responses.  So when she expressed apprehension at the mention of doing writing conferences, I was shocked. (And also a little bit glad that I am not the only one who finds reading and writing conferences to be somewhat daunting.)  We didn’t have much time before the students would arrive, so I suggested that we use the three questions of Adaptive Action to facilitate our conferences and keep our conference records in Google Docs unified.

Twenty minutes later, sitting at a desk with a junior and his completed essay, all I can think is “What in the world am I going to say to this writer?” I knew he needed to revise the draft, but I had no idea what I was going to say to motivate him.  If I gave him a suggestion, I was fearful that all he would hear is disapproval and a reason to give up on the piece of writing.  Luckily, the three simple questions I had just shared with his teacher were fresh on my mind.

I asked the student to read each sentence of his essay and identify whether the sentence was mostly concrete or abstract, two words we had a shared understanding of because of previous lessons in class.  I was asking him to answer the first question that guides all my writing conferences: What do I notice?  Upon reviewing the essay and identifying his sentences, he said “so I need to add concrete examples?”  He was answering question number two: So what differences would make a difference?  I was able to utilize something I had read in his writer’s notebook to make a suggestion in regards to the third question: Now what next step can this writer take?  He had used a military slogan in a quickwrite, so I asked him if he felt he could use what he knew about the military as a concrete example to support his thesis.  Having discovered what was needed in the draft on his own, he started revising his essay, and I began to document what we had just discussed in Google Docs.

By utilizing shared Google Docs, the teacher of the class and I can both record our dialogue with students and reference it as we have additional conferences.  Each student has their own document, and each entry is simply the date and the three questions: what? so what? now what?  Using these three questions to structure writing conferences helps us feel more comfortable and brings coherence to our record keeping.  We also use this document to record information about the student’s independent reading.  What is the student currently reading? So What would it take for this student to improve as a reader? Now what is the student willing to try / what is their next goal as a reader?

Just a few weeks later these same three questions became the basis of a tool I created to share with our counselors and administrators.  One of our goals with RtI on our campus is to increase communication with teachers and parents.  Meeting one-on-one with students is a daily occurrence for our counselors and administrators, but I wanted to help them see that the impact of these conferences could be magnified by sharing pertinent information with teachers and parents.  When all parties know the action steps, they can help hold students accountable and encourage them in building different academic habits.  My associate principal agreed that we need to focus on improving communication and asked me to create a form letter that could be used to email teachers and parents.

RtI Documentation from Conferences

I wanted our counselors and administrators to see my thought process instead of just a form letter, so I used the three questions to create a tool for RtI Tier 1 Conference Documentation.  I wanted to help facilitate conversations that would allow students to express their concerns and struggles, examine the patterns in their academic progress and behavior, and be a part of the decision making process that might lead to more academic success.  As I was creating this tool, I felt I was stating the obvious; I was just thinking about how  I conduct reading and writing conferences.  Time revealed that we didn’t all have shared understandings about how we approach student conferences.  The tool eventually opened up dialogue between counselors and administrators and set up expectations for how we approach student conferences and communication with our teachers and parents.  I hope it is helping set the conditions for the kind of student conferences that have the potential to truly improve academic progress.

As we have discussed using this new tool at subsequent RtI Meetings, several individuals have expressed positive feedback from parents and teachers.  Our Special Education Coordinator shared this tool with the case managers for our SPED students, and they are now using it at the end of each marking period to communicate academic progress with parents.  An added benefit I see is that as our counselors and administrators utilize this tool in their communication with teachers, it provides a model for how teachers can communicate with students and parents.

Schools, classrooms, and even conversations with students can be seen as complex systems.  Although there are patterns, they are full of dynamical change and thus unpredictable.  However, we know that shared tools can place a constraint on the system that allows all parties to work together more efficiently and ultimately make better decisions in the midst of uncertainty.

To find out more about Adaptive Action visit

Teacher Stories for Change

Telling Your Story: Narratives in Complex Adaptive Systems

 This blog by Royce Holladay was first posted May 7,2015 at It’s a perfect companion to our 2015-16 webinar series.

You have an important story to tell. Whatever it is, your story is unique to you, and it is your opportunity to share who you are, what you do, and the place you stand in the world. You depend on your story to draw clients and customers to your business; to engage people in your interests; and to call them to action. Effective stories create compelling, sharply defined pictures to share.Slide1

The reason it is so difficult to tell a focused, compelling story is that you are creating a narrative about a very complex situation. Because you live, work, and play in complex systems, your story is about multiple forces that influence and shape the patterns around you. It is populated with a variety of individuals, ideas, information, and interactions. The events, concepts, and relationships in your world are connected to each other in nonlinear ways that make it difficult, if not impossible, to map a straight path between cause and effect.

These characteristics can shape a story that is ultimately messy and undefined. What can you do to clarify and focus your story? HSD offers tips to create and share your story as a compelling and powerful narrative of who you are, what you want, and what you created.

Point to the tension in the system. Good narrative focuses directly on the tension in whatever system you are describing—interpersonal interactions, organizational concerns, community activities. What is the conflict? What needs to change? Where is tension building, and how might it be released creatively? Those kinds of questions can help build a compelling narrative. They help you describe how individuals and groups respond when tensions they experience are not uncomfortable, or “fit to purpose” for their system.

Describe the patterns. A narrative can seem mundane when the storyteller tries to include all the facts and drama of the story. Sometimes details that have personal meaning to the story teller, but are just confusing—even boring—to the audience. Avoid this by framing your narrative around the patterns in your system, rather than around details. Examine your story for similarities, differences, and connections that hold or shape the greatest tensions in the system.

For instance team members come together to accomplish a task and their work together shapes patterns. Team members bring similar understandings of the task and commitment to completing it. At the same time, they bring different skills to that task. Ultimately if these diverse individuals connect with each other in supportive and complementary ways, they will generate patterns of collaboration and coordination. If, on the other hand, they connect in uncooperative or independent ways, they may generate patterns of competition or “star” worship.

Look at your story and pick out one or two powerful patterns to focus the listener on what’s most important.

Make your narrative brief and to the point. In today’s world, most people just don’t have time for long, drawn-out stories. You have to paint your picture in a handful of sentences. After you identify two or three patterns you want to highlight, begin to describe them. For each pattern, describe what holds or bounds the pattern (the place, issue, time, people, etc.). Then talk about the differences within the pattern that are important (values, interests, skills, contributions, etc.). Finally, describe how parts of the pattern connect (intimacies, dependencies, language, feedback, data, etc.). Engage the audience to explore individual and group interactions around system tensions.

Include both actual and aspirational narrative. Actual narrative describes patterns that currently exist. Aspirational narrative describes the patterns you want to achieve. Both kinds of patterns are important to build a compelling story. The difference between the actual and the aspirational creates the tension for change. If you want people to get involved in your story, help them see the power of that tension.

Express the arc of the story in your brief narrative. Present your story in a clear and disciplined arc that reflects the path of the change or event you are describing. The iterative nature of the Adaptive Action cycle helps to shape that arc in your narrative. This cycle is made of three simple questions: What? So what? and Now what?

  • Start with the What? Set the context of your narrative. Describe the patterns, both actual and aspirational, that are the focus of your story. Start with a few sentences to describe those patterns. Get it as lean and articulate as you can, then allow yourself to expand a bit, as the space and/or time allows.
  • Move to the So what? Talk about dynamics, impact, and possibilities that emerge from those patterns. Explore what shapes those patterns, and what it tells you about the system itself. Identify what your deep understanding of those patterns tells you about the system’s tensions. List the options for action that emerged over time. Talk about how you assessed your capacity to take any of those actions, and the ways you considered their impact on the system as a whole before you chose one action to take.
  • Move to the Now what? Choose one action and take steps to complete it. Explain what you did and the markers you looked for in the system to measure your impact. Talk about your timeline and your plan for involving others.
  • Circle back to the What? Complete your narrative about by describing your final outcomes and talking about the next possible questions. Identify where will you watch for tensions in the system next time. Bring your narrative to a closure that looks to the future and moves your audience to action in support of the system’s aspirational goals.

Focused narratives are useful in describing and explaining your system. They can communicate your expectations and hopes. They can help you amplify patterns you want and damp patterns you don’t want. Narratives can carry the messages you want shared inside your system and in the greater environment.

Use these simple tips to create engaging and compelling narratives. Share with your colleagues and students, and watch what happens!


What We Can Learn from Fire Ants about Adaptive Capacity

Last week, as I was pulling weeds in my flowerbeds (as always, amazed by the tenacity of dandelions and crab grass), I reached under a shrub to pull a particularly stubborn root. I felt a sting and drew back my hand to see dozens of fire ants scatter. I had disturbed their mound, and the ground waSlide2s alive with tiny workers scrambling to rebuild their fortress. Somehow, those many individual ants worked as one in response to the disaster. Although it looked like chaos to me, these ants were synchronizing their actions to respond to a huge change in their environment. Together, they instantly adapted when their home was destroyed, and, I’m sure, will sustain a healthy system either there or somewhere else in my flowerbed. I will adapt, too, by looking more closely next time I reach under those shrubs.

That is “adaptive capacity” in action. We think of adaptive capacity as individual and collective learning in response to changes within and outside the system—learning that shows resilience and supports sustainability. That working tangle of ants in my flowerbed provides a powerful metaphor for adaptive capacity in professional development systems.

As a leader of professional learning, I have spent years trying to help individual teachers think about their work, assess student learning, and develop more powerful teaching skills. I assumed that excellent teaching in each classroom would somehow improve student learning throughout the system. I never thought about whether improvement in these individuals contributed to the adaptation and responsiveness of the whole system.

I was wrong, and I should have known better. As early as 1972, Fullan and Loubser claimed that adaptive capacity . . .

involves the capacity of the system to attain its goals in the face of a variegated and changing environment. . . it also means that the system . . . has the capacity to change aspects of the environment in accordance with needs of the system, as well as to adapt to those aspects that it cannot change (p. 272).

Thirty-eight years later, Fullan was still writing about the power of response and adaptation as capacity-building:

. . . relentless development of what we call ‘capacity building’ – to make learning more exciting, more engaging, and more linked to assessment feedback loops around the achievement of higher order skills (which I have called the new average) – is the main agenda. (Fullan, 2011, p. 19).

In working toward “adaptive capacity,” we join forces with other researchers and practitioners, many of whom work in complex systems in the world outside schools. For example,

  • Evolutionary biologists talk about the adaptive capacity of species (like the cockroach) to survive natural disasters and widespread extinction.
  • Ecologists talk about the adaptive capacity of ecosystems (like wetlands) to rebound from natural and man-made disasters.
  • Economists talk about the adaptive capacity of corporations (like Apple) to respond to changing markets.
  • Policy-makers talk about the adaptive capacity of communities (like Ferguson, MO) to respond to violence and racial tension.

In schools, adaptive capacity can show up in many different ways:

  • A class of fourth grade students notices bullying on the playground and decides to take action.
  • After experimenting with project-based learning, three fifth grade teachers decide to develop a grant proposal to fund a field trip for the whole grade level.
  • An entire faculty identifies patterns in student writing portfolios as the first step in planning a year-long focus on academic vocabulary across content areas.
  • When the principal makes a presentation to the parent-teacher organization about students’ writing progress, the group agrees to fund a series of Saturday writing camps for students and their parents.

Imagine that all those instances are happening on the same campus. When that happens, we can be pretty sure that we are seeing adaptive capacity. Individuals and groups are seeing patterns in their work, making sense in terms of what they’d like to see, and taking action to make their system more sustainable, more resilient, and more supportive of individual and group learning. That’s adaptive capacity in action.

Here is my take-away as a leader of professional learning:  When I work with a group of teachers, I should focus on particular skills sets, but I also have to remember the big picture and connect individual work to campus and district learning goals. Fullan said it this way:

The right drivers – capacity building, group work, instruction, and systemic solutions – are effective because they work directly on changing the culture of school systems (values, norms, skills, practices, relationships); by contrast the wrong drivers alter structure, procedures and other formal attributes of the system without reaching the internal substance of reform – and that is why they fail. (Fullan, 2011)

Adaptive capacity in schools—where everything should focus on learning–is about a culture where we see these patterns:

  • Engagement (among students, educators, and other stakeholders)
  • Sustainability (of systems improvement and student learning 
  • Focus (on what really matters—student learning)
  • Collaboration (among all stakeholders)
  • Coherence (across instructional and administrative approaches)
  • Risk-taking (inherent in taking an inquiry stance)
  • Joyful practice (among all stakeholders)

As we have mentioned in previous blogs, in the field of human systems dynamics, we see evidence that articulating a set of “simple rules” can help build coherence around work and contributes to adaptive capacity. Think about this set of simple rules and how each of them might set conditions for adaptive capacity across the whole:

  • See, understand, and influence patterns across our system.
  • Recognize and build on assets of self and others.
  • Teach and learn in every interaction.
  • Look for the true and useful.
  • Attend to the whole, the part, and the greater whole.
  • Seek joy in learning.
  • Act with courage.

In the schools and classrooms where I work, this list helps us work together build adaptive capacity in support of student learning.