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.

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