Book Notes & Thoughts: Going to Scale with New School Designs: Reinventing high school


As part of our personalized learning in practice study, we visited, studied, and worked with a number of small district charter schools across Wisconsin. We talked a lot about High Tech High and Big Picture Schools. When I found this book (again, perusing the education stacks), it was in the area that I am thinking about: scale, design, and new models for learning. Reading it gave me a window into how to do education research at an organizational level.

Going to Scale with New School Designs: Reinventing High School, by McDonald, Klein, Riordan (2009).

The late 1990s was a time when the small school movement was rising, and there was interest and support for restructuring. This was the time of charters and vouchers, with the idea of choices and new designs. Similar to the Improvement by Design, this book is largely a story of the challenges of replication. In fact, they are an interesting (though unintended) juxtaposition. Whereas the goal of CSR was to replicate large traditional schools, the goal of “going to scale” with Big Picture was to replicate small, instructionally innovative schools. But their questions for inquiry are quite similar: how to install and support their design across contexts?, what challenges might be expected? how to manage these? what are the roles of the designer and client?

“The larger mission of Big Picture (BP) is to generate and support educational institutions that tailor their work to the unique interests and qualities of the people they educate and that also situate learning to the greatest possible extent in the real-world workplaces of their communities.” (p.4) Big Picture created the Met, a different kind of high school, one where students would follow their interests through “real-world” learning (p.4). The learning environment was more like a design studio, and student spent a few days/week working along side adults in the community. Teachers were recast as mentors, working with students on their individualized learning plan, meeting to develop plans and monitor progress. This work is rooted in Dewey’s ideas about interest as the driver of learning, the role of expert guidance, and the role of practical activity.

The authors spend awhile articulating how this book came to be, which is increasingly interesting to me as I think about writing my dissertation. They describe writing a series of essays (literally, tries) to see whether they were naming the right things. Then, they used the idea of reflective transfer (Argyris & Schon, 1996) to see the analogies from different schools stuck. Reflective transfer is “when parties working in a somewhat parallel situation to one that has been carefully documented and analyzed say how their situation is both like and unlike the situation presented. In the process, they gain greater insight into their own situation and, possibly, gain access as well to strategies adaptable to their own situation” (p.10).

The organizing structure of the book is around the challenges of taking Big Picture to scale:

  1. Fidelity challenge – balancing fidelity & adaptation
  2. Teaching challenge – teaching and learning the design
  3. Ownership challenge – instilling shared ownership of the design
  4. Communication challenge – communicating effectively across contexts
  5. Feedback challenge – using experience in new settings to improve the design

and strategies,

  1. articulation – what the deign stands for, consists of, and how it works
  2. differentiation – what is and what it is not
  3. imagery – capturing the design in action
  4. transparency – making the work visible, ex. visits to existing schools
  5. enculturation – engaging in symbolic shared experiences, such as storytelling, ritual, and risk
  6. training – explicitly building expertise

Some quotes:

  • “Instead of choosing between fidelity and adaptation, you try to maximize both” (p.20) – this strikes me as Jim Rickabaugh logic – fidelity IS when you’ve adapted it to your context. The honeycomb model from the Institute is designed to be adapted. Further, they describe that when you develop a both/and frame, you open yourself to learning from experience (aka “double-loop learning”, Argyris & School, 1978).
  • “Distinguishability talk” (p.21) – what makes it BP and what makes it not BP
  • “BP schools gain transparency largely by encouraging openness and discouraging privacy among people who learn and teach in them” (p.27)
  • “BP’s success to date has hinged on its ability to instill a similarly metaphorical ownership among the people who lead BP schools, work in them, attend them, send their kids to them, and support them in other ways…. ownership in this broader and metaphorical sense rest ultimately on risk-taking” (p.29).
  • The symbolic frame – Bolman & Deal (1997) – engaging in celebrations, big events that get everyone together

Two more challenges:

  1. Communication challenge – effectively across contexts
  2. Feedback challenge – experience in new settings to improve the design

and strategies,

  1. Coaching – close observation + consultation, conferring about adaptations
  2. Building and networking communities of practice – encouraging local exchange and networking of practical knowledge
  • “the ratio of intimacy to distance” (p.35)
  • “when an organization is willing to pay attention to this feedback, the result is good learning fast” (p.35)
  • “coaches are essentially boundary spanners” (Boundary spanning work: Howey & Zimpher, 2006)
  • The feedback challenge “is at the heart of what it means to be a learning organization. That’s Peter Senge’s (1990) term for an organization designed for continuous adaptation and improvement” (p. 39)

The resource challenge: “successful start-ups and scale-ups in schooling by design require a mix of new money, ambitious talent, and cutting-edge ideas” (p.50). “figure out a ‘success profile’ for its hires in order to avoid ‘having to regroup too often due to hiring errors” (p.57).

Key for scale – indicators that are sensitive to new schools’ effectiveness. “Without better indicators, schools have no easy means of self-regulating, and thus the designer has to engage in the most costly form of management, namely, direct supervision” (p. 61). That said, indicators are “crucial and overrated” (p.62). Need sones that align and indicate progress but not so many that it because random.

Starting up –> Scaling up –> Losing control

The political challenge: “Despite their occasional exasperation… most school designers come to regard local politics as a source of hope, and BP is no exception. Political noise is the sound of their ideas being taken seriously, the signs of a real school being born, the signs of people on the ground in many different contexts putting their ordinary habits and even their values at risk in order to try something new” (p.75-75)

The mindset challenge: They summarize the history of “high” schools and the double bind of differences of models and accountability policies.

When I first glanced at the table of contents of this book, I thought it was going to be a litany of failures, because the chapters were all labeled as “challenges.” Instead, what I found, was an incredibly insightful, organizational analysis of how small schools replicate. This is incredibly timely for the dissertation I am about to embark on!


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