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