Joyful Practice! It’s All in the Details

In a human system, most of us follow a short set of “simple rules” that set conditions for the patterns we want to see across the whole system. These rules may be explicit or unspoken; they emerge from the system and work for everyone in the system over time (unlike “norms” that we might decide to follow for a particular event or in a particular context). In Radical Rules for Schools, we suggest some examples of these “rules” that seem to set conditions for authentic inquiry where everyone is learning. One of those rules is this:  Engage in joyful practice!

Recently, we asked colleagues to tell us how they sustain joy in their work–even in the face of oppressive mandates and urgent student needs. Jane Trkay, Lewisville, Texas, a Teacher Consultant in the North Star of Texas Writing Project and teacher of students who are learning English, writes that her joy is in the details–not the big picture:Slide1

So much of education focuses on the big picture: the curriculum, lesson plans, preparing students to pass the “big” test, data in large quantities, accountability ratings. But often, I feel that tackling these issues can be overwhelming – especially when teaching ELLs, and even more so, those ELLs who are entering this country as high school students. I have very little time to prepare them for tasks that some students, who have only ever spoken English, sometimes have difficulty completing successfully. Even the students who are motivated and have been well educated in their native countries come to us with a deficit – they don’t speak English.

If I think about the big picture – filling in missing background knowledge in addition to providing the skills and knowledge for their current grade level, it would be difficult to muster up any joy. So, I have learned to focus on the little things.

It’s rare that I get to celebrate a great SAT score or entrance into a highly selective university with my students.   Instead, what we celebrate is that the student made it to school for two weeks in a row without being tardy or absent. Sometimes we celebrate that he or she turned in a completed assignment on time for the first time. Sometimes we celebrate that the student read a whole book in English even if it was only 30 pages long and had pictures. Sometimes we celebrate that the student wrote a whole paragraph with no grammatical errors. And sometimes we celebrate that the student spontaneously and voluntarily spoke up in class.

boys inquiry chartMaybe this is what all teachers do. We spend our days subconsciously tucking away all those little details that become our source of joy. You’d never be able to quantify or attach dollar signs to our small celebrations, nor gather all our details into an in-depth report full of data, percentages, or graphs and charts to be used for or against the latest political movement. But they certainly are what get us through the door every day.

–Jane Trkay, April, 2015

Learning, Adaptive Action, and the Moon

ImageSome weeks ago, I was driving my two granddaughters home after dinner. It was only dusky-dark, but the full moon was already visible. Six-year-old Claire saw it first: “See the moon! It’s so big tonight! Is it a full moon yet?” When two-year-old Brooke spotted it, she squealed, “Moon! Moon! Moon! Ball!  Moon! Ball!”

They were both—from different perspectives—noticing, naming, interpreting patterns. They were learning without paying attention to the process.

Learning happens whether we pay attention or not.  The brain is a learning organ, and the healthy brain must learn—that’s what it does. When human beings engage with the world, we learn. We notice, name, and make sense of patterns in our experiences.

If we think of “learning” in this way, we can see it daily. Hourly. Minute-by-minute. Learning doesn’t have to be a deliberate (or painful) process, but in schools, where our business is learning, we need to make the process more visible and deliberate.  We need to set conditions so that learning can happen. The question is this: How do we ensure that this natural and necessary learning process happens every day, for every student?

This is not a new question. (John Dewey had quite a bit to say about it, for example.)  But across the complex landscape of teaching and learning in schools today, educators and policy-makers have yet to answer that question in a coherent or systemic way. We see “best practices,” mandated programs, and accountability schemes, but none of those have yet answered that question in a coherent or sustainable way.

Here’s an alternative. It’s not an answer, but it’s a way to search for answers—Adaptive Action.  Adaptive Action is a deceptively simple inquiry/action cycle that makes learning a systemic function in complex system.

With Adaptive Action, we try to frame a deliberate learning process with three questions:

  • What?  — What do we notice? How do those experiences, observations, perceptions create patterns?
  • So what? — So what do these patterns mean? to us? to others? What might have caused these patterns to form in this way? How might they trigger new patterns?
  • Now what? — Now what shall we do next? Now what are our new questions?


Adaptive Action is not about conducting a long-term inquiry before taking action; nor is it a series of action steps before a summative evaluation. It is an iterative cycle that integrates inquiry and action at each moment. It’s about always and ever taking an inquiry stance. What is happening? So what does it mean? Now what shall we do?

Just a few days ago, I was again driving the granddaughters home after dinner. This time, we couldn’t locate the moon. . . “Where’s the moon?” Brooke wondered. “Where’s the ball moon?” she demanded again, almost in tears. Uh-oh—an interruption to the pattern that had been so noticeable just weeks before. What happened to our moon?

Older sister Claire tapped on the window and asked a passing car:  “Excuse me. Have you seen the moon?”

It was another Adaptive Action cycle at work. And another lesson about learning.

More Information

Eoyang, G. H. and Holladay, R. (2013). Adaptive action: Leveraging uncertainty in your organization. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

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


Photo: The Moon – Facts About The Moon For Kids

This blog was first posted to in March 14, 2014.

Inquiry: Questions and Learning Quests

Earlier this fall, we explored the generative patterns that we want to see in classrooms and on campuses where students and teachers are having fun learning together:

pattern graphic

No one of them is more important than another; there is no sequence or hierarchy here. And every great teacher will have a personal preference–emphasizing the one works best for students. Like multiple ingredients of a delicious stew, each one contributes to the whole and each one can open possibilities for the others.

For me, inquiry is the heart of the matter.  Puzzles, paradoxes, and wonderings make good things happen–whether the learners are five years old or fifty-five. Questions fuel learning.

What does inquiry look and sound like? Glenda Eoyang and Royce Holladay (Human Systems Dynamics Institute) suggest these four ways we can stand in inquiry:


This path is not always easy or safe. It’s much more comfortable to rely on what we know we know. Or what we think we know.

Here are juicy examples of inquiry at work in classrooms across the country:

Let us know how inquiry shows up in your work? How do you invite students to ask important questions and to look for answers?


Eoyang, G. & Holladay, R. (2013). Adaptive action: Leveraging uncertainty in your organization. California. Stanford University Press.

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

Simple Rules for Change

When you are going through change, how can you be sure that the decisions you make today align with the decisions you made a week ago or those you will make in the next month?

Try developing a short set of simple rules to guide decisions. See this blog posted by Royce Holladay on

Download the Radical Inquiry tool to help with this process.

The conversation ABOUT your simple rules is more important than the rules themselves!
The conversation ABOUT your simple rules is more important than the rules themselves!

Simple Rules for Complex Systems!


What are your biggest frustrations as an educator – whether you work in the classroom, on a campus leadership team, or in the district office?

  • Are you overwhelmed? Too many demands; too little time?
  • Do you feel fragmented? Pulled in a hundred directions at once?
  • Do you feel isolated? Not enough opportunity to work with colleagues?
  • Do you feel pressure? Seemingly contradictory mandates and unspoken expectations?

You are definitely not alone. What can we do to simplify? What can we do to build more coherence in these crazy systems we call school?  Scientists tell us that a short set of simple rules can set conditions for surprising outcomes in complex systems. Check out this brief explanation: Simple Rules for Governing Complex Systems by Brian Sauser.

Clearly, schools fit the definition of a complex system:

  • Open to inside and outside influences
  • Diverse across multiple dimensions
  • Interdependent in nonlinear and unpredictable…

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Apprenticeship: Inviting Learners into Learning Clubs

They (children) learn – usually without anyone being aware that they are learning ‐ by participating in literacy activities with people who use written language. It can all be summed up in a metaphor: Children learn about reading and writing by joining the “literacy club.”
–Frank Smith, 1994
Frank Smith has been telling us for decades that there are two main jobs for literacy teachers. First, make sure there is a literacy club alive and working in our classrooms.  Second, make sure every learner is a full-fledged member of that club.
That metaphor resonates for me. And it works across the disciplines. Math teachers lead clubs for young mathematicians. Science teachers lead clubs for novice scientistsHistorians lead clubs for novice historians. Why? Because that’s the way human being learn. We learn best when we belong to a group of like-minded people–our partners in tasks that help us accomplish authentic goals.
Frank Smith points out that when we join a club, we are immediately immersed in shared activities. Even novices are included in those activities, even if their activity is somewhat limited at first. As novice club members gain experience, they take on more and more responsibility for the work of the club. That is what “apprenticeship” means–whether in a club or in our classrooms.
What does this mean for the way we teach?

1.  Teachers show more than they tell.

 A demonstration is worth a thousand lectures. If I’m a history teacher, and I want my students to analyze a historical document, then I need to do it myself and talk them through my process. What did I think about? How did I look for patterns? What questions did I ask myself?   What did I notice? Did I make lists? How shall I share what I’m learning with others?
I save my long explanations and background information until the students’ questions tell me that they are ready. In a club, new recruits typically watch more experienced members lead the work and gradually begin participating fully in the work.

2. Teachers invite students to make mistakes as they learn.

We expect novice club members to make mistakes. Teachers create spaces where it is safe for learners to make mistakes. We cannot create “risk-free” environments, and we shouldn’t try. We want to create time and space where learners can explore, investigate, and experiment as they learn our craft. We want learners to take the risks inherent in learning; we stand by to support their risk-taking.

3.  Teachers design instruction that anticipates what learners need to do next. . .and next. . . and next.

Experienced and thoughtful teachers know enough about their craft to anticipate the steps or stages of their learners’ progress. They use Adaptive Action, asking

WHAT are my students currently doing? What do they know?

SO WHAT does that mean in terms of what they need to learn next?

NOW WHAT shall I do to give them a task that is challenging, but within their learning zone?

They design lessons that build on what the learners now know and what they need to learn next.  Vygotsky called this the “zone of proximal development” — beyond what students can comfortably do without assistance, yet not so challenging that they cannot experience success, even with support.

We sometimes call this instruction “scaffolding” — building metaphoric structures that anticipate the kinds of support that learners will need to accomplish particular tasks. Here are four powerful “scaffolding” tools:

  • Flexible grouping — Sometimes you want to work with the whole class as you demonstrate a skill or strategy. Sometimes you put them into small, heterogeneous groups–groups where students bring different skill levels in which they can learn from one another. Sometimes you have students work in pairs–with more knowledgeable students working with students who are still learning. Sometimes it’s best for learners to work by themselves, and you move around the room, checking in with individual learners to give them “just-in-time” support.
  • Individual conferences — Powerful teaching happens one learner at a time. Over the years, I realized that my most powerful teaching happened in the moments when I took time to have an individual conversation with one student as he or she was in the midst of a challenging task. Making time for those conversations takes some work, but the pay-off is clearly worth it. In English language arts classes, we call those conversations “conferences,” and whole books have been written to help us have powerful conferences.

Join the learning club!

So . . . organize a learning club in your classroom, and invite your students to join the club!  Patterns of apprenticeship show up when when we invite our students into real work — the work of readers, writers, mathematicians, historians, geographers, economists, scientists, artists, musicians, athletes, and more!

Smith, F. (1987). Joining the literacy club: Further essays into literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Smith, F. (1994). Writing and the writer. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Authenticity — Inviting Real Kids to Write Real Messages

Photo Jun 25, 11 30 59 AMWhen students don’t pass the big test on the first try, they are often doomed to hours of practice–practice answering questions on mock tests and hearing teachers explain why their answers are wrong. Again.

This past year, a group of writing teachers decided to try a different approach. As a part of North Star of Texas Writing Project — a local site of the National Writing Project,  several Teacher Consultants have generated an alternative to that drilling and killing approach to test prep.  They call it “Finding True North: A Lesson Framework to Support Powerful Reading and Writing.”

These teachers have framed these lessons as a “writing camp” for students–a series of experiences intended to invite students to build confidence, enthusiasm, and stamina for writing. With one district, the teachers led a one-day Saturday camp a few weeks before the test. With another district, they helped high school and middle school teachers prepare for after-school-tutorials-as-writing-camps. That worked so well that the district invited them back for the summer, to lead an eight-day writing camp for 9th and 10th graders who were eligible to re-take the state test in July.

During the camp, the students read engaging articles and essays–informative and persuasive–just like they would see on the test. They analyzed those essays to think about the author’s decisions. And they wrote and wrote and wrote. Finally, they shared what they wrote with real audiences–not just with their teachers. These teachers and students were engaging in AUTHENTIC reading and writing–reading and writing about relevant issues, voicing their insights and opinions, framing their messages to be shared beyond the classroom.

This video, which was shared at the final celebration on tIMG_7393he 8th day of camp,  captures something of that authenticity and the genuine excitement and confidence that these students felt as authors. In this picture, the students had posted their final essays on the wall for all to read. As readers, they posted responses on sticky notes.

Authenticity is just one of the seven patterns of generative learning that Human Systems Dynamics practitioners point to as a goal for educators who want to transform schools. The authentic reading and writing integrated into the Finding True North camp experience does prepare student authors for the state test . . . and for life beyond our classrooms. But in these camps, we also see other patterns–like empathy, inquiry, dialogue, and apprenticeship.

No pattern stands alone because complex systems generate many interdependent patterns. Some scientists talk about “massively entangled” systems in which you can try to influence one part of the system. A school is a powerful example of many massively entangled systems, and when a teacher makes a single change, we often see other changes ripple  across the whole system. If we want to change the whole system, we can focus on one or two patterns — like authentic reading and writing — and then stand back to see what happens. Small shifts can make make a big difference. Authentic writing opportunities can make a difference in the lives of your students.


These blog posts explore options for action — suggestions for transforming schools by applying concepts and principles about how complex adaptive systems work. The emergent field of Human Systems Dynamics informs both our theory and our practice.


The Power of Patterns

When I walk into a school, it takes me about five minutes to know whether it’s a powerful place for students and teachers to learn. It’s not about whether they have the latest technology, and it’s IMG_7372not about their test scores. There’s a feeling, an attitude, a tone, a climate on a campus like this–a campus where teachers and students alike can take the risks inherent in authentic learning.

What policy-makers do not seem to recognize is that each of these excellent learning places is unique.  Powerful teaching and learning cannot be standardized–no five easy steps; no fool-proof method. These powerful schools are by no means the same, but there are similarities–similarities in the ways teaching and learning even in the wide diversity we see across these schools.

Across these “schools and classrooms that work,” we see similar features, but these features are merely similar–not the same. They vary–sometimes only slightly–in response to the unique features of each community. We see these similarities as “patterns .”

What are the patterns in these powerful learning places? Here is a list of what we have seen–both in the classrooms we know and in the research we read:

  • Empathy and Responsiveness
  • Inquiry
  • Dialogue
  • Authenticity
  • Re-visioning and Adaptation
  • Apprenticeship
  • Deep Content Learning

We use this list of patterns as a springboard for conversations about our goals for learners. There’s nothing sacred about these labels. Some groups decide to talk about “accountable talk” instead of “dialogue” or “modeling” instead of “apprenticeship.” The particular language is not important, but those conversations about the patterns are critical if we want to set the conditions for powerful learning.

Teachers in the North Star of Texas Writing Project (a local site of the National Writing Project) have developed this chart to explain these patterns as they use them in their professional development work:

patterns self assessment

Do these patterns make sense to you and your colleagues? Do they seem true? Do they seem useful? Which three patterns would you choose to prioritize on your campus? Check these out and let us know what you think!

Dear Educators . . .

Your most urgent challenges are daunting.  There are too many moving parts to control, and you can’t predict what will happen next. You can no longer rely on the “way we have always done it.”   This blog is meant to help you  adapt to this ever-changing environment in creative and effective ways.

We are a group of teachers, administrators, parents, and professional development leaders who view schools as complex adaptive systems — open, diverse, and unpredictable! Through Human Systems Dynamics, we are learning to set conditions for generative learning in schools.

Our most basic tool is “Adaptive Action” — an inquiry/action cycle we use in our daily work and with our most overwhelming challenges. This tool is deceptively simple. Just ask and answer three questions:

  • WHAT is happening?
  • SO WHAT does it mean for all of us?
  • NOW WHAT shall we do next?

We can use these questions with students, with colleagues, and with parents and community members. It works with problems both big and small.

The posts on this blog will be from people who are using Adaptive Action everywhere in the schools system. We hope that you can recognize yourself in these blogs and that you will join our conversation.