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?

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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.

Credits:

Photo: The Moon – Facts About The Moon For Kids     www.planetsforkids.org

This blog was first posted to http://www.generative-learning.org 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:

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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?

Resources

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 AdaptiveAction.org.

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!

generativelearning

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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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!