In 2013, Plexus Institute received a $2.1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for a three year project in California’s Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) to discover, develop and promote methods that help K-12 educators continually improve so that their students achieve better outcomes. On September 17, 2014, Plexus Institute President, Jeff Cohn, joined a Healthcare PlexusCall to discuss Leading Change in a Complex World.
In the following audio clips Jeff describes one of the best stories to come out of the project so far and provides some background on the project and the model Plexus Institute is deploying in LBUSD. A transcript follows each clip.
The Best Story
Jeff: The best story that has come out of the work so far involves a music teacher. He is literally a department of one for the entire school so he has no peers from a subject matter standpoint to collaborate with. This team gave him an opportunity to interact that he was lacking so he loved that. The team landed on focusing on a particular aspect of this new common core curriculum that I don’t want to spend our time on but it’s a big focus of trying to help "transform public school education.” And one of the domains pertains to students use of academic vocabulary. Words that help their teachers and parents and peers recognize that they actually know what they’re’ talking about and have come to their conclusions in a thoughtful and meaningful way. This music teacher felt that this wasn’t particularly relevant to him, but the rest of the project and the opportunity to collaborate was so enticing that he would stay a part of the team as his teammates figured out ways to help their students learn how to use these vocabulary words productively.
Jeff: Then we’re moving into April. His big looming task is helping the band and orchestra prepare for the Spring concert and he’s still trying to figure out a way to integrate this academic vocabulary, push himself outside of his comfort zone, and he lands on an idea helped by some ideas that he had heard his peers on the improvement team come up with. So, one night he gives as an assignment listening to a recording of a recent rehearsal for the band and he also sends the kids home with a copy of his conductor’s score and asks them to write a short critique of what they hear. He also gives them a list of 10 academic vocabulary words and they’re assigned to use at least one of them in their critique. So the next day he got these extremely thoughtful perspectives from the kids on what they heard where they did find ways to integrate these words. And, maybe to his surprise, but also gratification, they incorporated their critique into how they did their remaining practices together and ultimately led to by far the best Spring concert that he’s ever been a part of. I think this, for all, was a great example of the sort of bottom-up emergent kind of learning that this sort of environment can foster.
Joelle: I know that Plexus has an on-going grant project in the field of education. Who is involved with that, Jeff, and what are you learning?
Jeff: This has been a really exciting project to be a part of. Through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation we’ve been working initially in two middle schools in inner city Long Beach, California. I know I had this vision of Long Beach as this vibrant coastal community, which I guess in some neighborhoods it is, but in the two schools where we’re working it’s a very underserved group of kids. 95% of the kids on subsidized meal plans and over half English second language. The goal of the project is to help teachers learn or re-learn how to continually improve. There’s data that was not collected by the Gates folks but which they’ve held up to the schools and to us that shows that most teachers after the first few years of their career plateau in terms of their effectiveness and plateau at a level that produces student outcomes less than what we would hope.
Jeff: So, how can, instead of the usual approaches in education of external experts coming in and telling schools what they should be doing differently, how might they be able to discover the improvement practices that exist within their own schools but which are hiding in plain sight of which they’re not aware. We’ve been working with teams of volunteer teachers that have been meeting before and after school with regularity. These are a diverse group teachers who initially kind of stayed isolated from each other, did not communicate across subject matter and/or grade barriers, but over the course of the first couple of months as they met and as we used Liberating Structures to design the time in which they were interacting and starting to engage in this challenge we noticed the pattern of interacting changing. Now you hear things like a math teacher asking an english teacher and a phys-ed teacher for help on a certain issue that is a challenge to him.
Joelle: What model are you using to shape this work?
Jeff: The [Bill & Melinda] Gates Foundation had come to us asking us for a proposal based on our previous Positive Deviance work. As we described our approach to Positive Deviance in a complex organizational setting they said, we hear you talking about PD, but we hear your talking about leadership, which we think is important in schools, and Liberating Structures, which we don’t know what they are but you seem to think they’re important, and something about networks and something about complexity, so it sounds to us like Positive Deviance plus plus. And, we wound up thoughtfully hearing what they were describing us saying and saying, yeah, actually our model of doing Positive Deviance work does include all those domains. This image that’s on the screenshare of the complexity lens and adaptive positive deviance at the center, that’s what we’re calling the whole Adaptive Positive Deviance, which is different than and greater than the sum of those individual components of a focus on leadership and Liberating Structures use and the complexity lens.