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The Complexity Matters blog features the Thursday Complexity Post as well as other complexity inspired news items.

 

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The Best Story

Posted By Susan Doherty, Wednesday, September 24, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, September 24, 2014

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.


The Project

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.

 

The Model

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.

Tags:  cohn  education  music 

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For Children Born Poor, Poverty’s Shadow Lingers

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, August 7, 2014

After following nearly 800 Baltimore school children for almost three decades, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found most of the children grew up to have about the same socio-economic status as their parents. Those born poor stayed poor. Those born to more economically successful families fared better.

Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander PhD, and fellow researchers, the late Doris Entwisle, PhD, and Linda Olson MA, tracked 790 Baltimore children from the time they entered first grade through their late 20s. They repeatedly interviewed the students, their parents and their teachers through their school careers, and continued conversations with the maturing students as they entered the work force and started families. Their research is presented in their book, The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and Transition to Adulthood.

The findings are described on the Johns Hopkins website. Only 33 children born to impoverished families earned high incomes as young adults, whereas 70 would have been expected to have high incomes if the family of origin did not impact the children's prospect for upward mobility, the researchers reported. Only 19 of those born to well off families dropped into the low income bracket as adults.

Only four percent of those from low income backgrounds had a college degree by age 28, a figure Alexander found shocking. By contrast, 45 percent of children born to higher income families had college degrees. And race played a significant role in adult outcomes. While 45 percent of white men from low income families had landed one of the shrinking number of industrial jobs in the area, only 15 percent of black man from low income families had such jobs. White men self-reported having the highest rates of drinking, smoking and drug use, though black men had slightly higher arrest rates and white men were more likely to be employed despite their records and substance use. Alexander said white men were more likely to have social networks that helped them find jobs.

In an interview with NPR, Alexander said we expect that if we "Play by the rules, work hard, apply yourself and do well in school ...that will open doors for you." But the Baltimore study suggests that what makes the difference between success and failure is money and family. Still, a few defy the odds against them. NPR interviewed one young woman in the study whose harrowing childhood included drug addicted parents and neighborhood chaos. "I remember being so immune to death, so immune to shootings and killings. I just remember wanting them to rush, like get the body out of the way so we can get back to playing hopscotch or dodgeball," she said. But she managed to get a well-paying job and give her two children more stability and motherly support. She says she has a strong relationship and plans to be married.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  education  research 

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Our Hands May Say More Than We Know

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 10, 2014

Forget Descartes' mind-body duality. A more recent perspective known as embodied cognition is based on growing recognition that thinking isn't confined to our brain cells. Our understanding of the world is profoundly influenced by our bodies and our experiences in physical reality. Research shows even the way we use our hands offers clues to how we think, what we know, and when we're ready to learn.

Susan Goldin-Meadow, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, studied hand gestures used by adults and children and discovered that when gestures accompany language, they can provide visual and intuitive evidence of important meanings not explicitly put into words. She reports an experiment in which young children were asked whether two identical rows of checkers had the same number of pieces. The experimenter then spread out the second row and asked again whether the number was the same. One child said the number was different because the checkers were moved, and made a spreading gesture with her hands. The answer is wrong but the gesture matched the speech. Another child gave the same answer, but pointed at the first checker in each row, and continued moving his finger between the rows. In that case, the child's gesture conveyed different information from what he said, so speech and gesture were mismatched.

Interestingly, kids who mismatched benefited more from instruction, and learned faster than kids who matched. Further, when experimenters taught a strategy for solving a math problem correctly, with matching and mismatching gestures, kids taught with the mismatching gestures were more successful. Why? Goldin-Meadow wrote in Current Directions in Psychological Science that a conversation in gesture seemed to be taking place along side a conversation in speech, perhaps adding information, perhaps lightening the cognitive load, and perhaps aiding memory. Gestures let speakers convey thoughts they may not have words for, and mismatches may signal readiness to change a thought or learn new information.

Researchers from Michigan State showed 184 elementary school children a video about mathematical equivalence (an equation: 7+2+9=7+__________.) Half of the kids saw the teacher sweep her left hand beneath the left side of the equation as she spoke about that side, and her right hand under the right side when she spoke of the "other" side. The rest of the kids just heard her talk. When the children were given a different problem based on the same principle, those who saw the hand gestures were more successful.

Annie Murphy Paul, in the Business Insider Brilliant Blog, notes that the act of gesturing "seems to accelerate learning, bring nascent knowledge into consciousness" and aid understanding of new concepts. She cites Goldin-Meadow's work and a 2007 study by Susan Wagner Cook of the University of Iowa, in which third graders who gestured as they learned algebra were three times more likely to remember what they learned than classmates who did not gesture. In another study, Cook found that college students who gestured as they retold short stories remembered the story details better.

Embodied cognition is a relatively young concept. A Scientific American story by Samuel McNemey explains its roots in early twentieth century philosophy and its later development by George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  education  research 

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Giving Kids Faith in a Future

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, June 12, 2014

Teenagers who think they will die young are more likely to do dangerous things such as using drugs, fighting, and having unsafe sex and self-destructive things such as dropping out of school.

Teachers, counselors and other youth workers have often heard teens-especially boys from impoverished neighborhoods-say they don't expect to live beyond 25 or 30, but the impact of that perception has only recently been studied. And the research is cause for both alarm, because the feeling is so prevalent, and hope, because envisioning a future life can inspire more beneficial choices.

University of Minnesota researcher Iris Borowsky, MD, PhD, and colleagues found that one in seven adolescents interviewed believed they would die before age 35, and that this belief strongly predicted future risky behavior. Kids who envisioned a long life were more likely to graduate from high school and stay out of trouble. Boroswky and colleagues analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a sample of more than 20,000 kids in grades seven through 12. A fatalistic belief in early death was most common among minority kids from poor families: 29 percent of adolescent American Indians, 26 percent of teen African Americans, and 21 percent of teen Hispanics reported they expected to die young, compared with 10 percent of their Caucasian peers.

Alex R. Piquero, a criminology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, studied 1,354 youth offenders charged with serious crimes from Maricopa County, Arizona, and Philadelphia over a seven year period. In the beginning, Piquero asked all the subjects how many years they thought they would live. His team found those who expected to die young were more likely to commit more crimes, and more serious crimes, and go to prison. Those who anticipated long lives were less likely to re-offend. Piquero's study "Take my License and All that Jive, I can't see ...35" appeared in the journal Justice Quarterly. The Minnesota study of general population youngsters found no relationship between actual early death and expectation of dying young. But by the end of Piquero's study, 45 youngsters had died of non-natural causes-violence, suicide or other tragedies.

Eduardo Porter, writing in the New York Times, describes a school program designed to give kids a vision of living many future years. Tim Jackson works at Harper High School, in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago's South Side. As a counselor for the Becoming a Man program, he tries to train boys to have a "visionary goal" worth saving themselves for. It's a daunting task, given the neighborhood's gangs, joblessness and violence. In 2013 alone 29 current and recent students were shot. In one recent weekend in Chicago three young men were fatally shot, and at least 25 people-many of them teens-suffered gunshot wounds.

But danger is just one reason youth are fatalistic. Porter writes that today's rich-poor income gap is bigger than it was at its peak in the Roaring Twenties, raising suspicion that economic opportunity is available only to the lucky or unusually talented. A National Bureau of Economic Research paper shows young men of low socioeconomic status are most likely to drop out of school when the incomes of families at the bottom tenth of the income distribution are furthest from the incomes of families in the middle. Studies have also shown that teenaged girls are most likely to become pregnant when the gap between the bottom and the middle is biggest. Porter says that creates a condition researchers call economic despair, which means opportunity isn't just out of reach, it's unimaginable. Porter tells how Jackson opened a recent a session with his students with a story. He was stopped at a traffic light when a car occupied by three angry drunk men rear ended his car. Should he confront them? He didn't. He walked across the street and called police. His students figured out how he made that decision: he thought about his stake in the future.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  education  resilience 

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Emergent Strategies for Complex Social Systems

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, June 5, 2014

Researchers who studied the myriad social exchanges among students, teachers, principals and parents that make up daily life in schools came up with a measure they called social trust. They found that social trust is a key resource for educational reform, and that the level of relational trust is an even stronger indicator of improvement in a school than new teaching practices or curriculum design.

Anthony Bryk, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and colleagues spent 10 years looking at relationship dynamics in 400 Chicago elementary schools. They found that in schools with low social trust, something as routine as arranging a kindergarten graduation can ignite controversy. In schools with strong relational trust, collective decision making happened more readily, reform initiatives diffused more easily, and children's academic outcomes improved. Bryk recorded an eight percent increase in student reading skills and a 20 percent increase in math skills over a five year period in the schools where relational trust was high. In an ASCD article on educational leadership, Bryk calls relational trust the connective tissue that binds individuals together to advance educational achievement and student welfare.

The Chicago school work is also cited by John Kania, Mark Kramer and Patty Russell, in a Stanford Social Innovation Review article as an example of the kind of new philanthropic strategies needed in today's complex world. "Relational dynamics are one of the primary reasons interventions in complex social systems are so unpredictable," according to the authors. "They explain why building system fitness can accelerate the spread of evidence informed solutions."

Conventional philanthropy doesn't fit the realities of complex social change, they assert, and philanthropists need to adopt an emergent strategy that that allows for constantly evolving solutions uniquely suited to the time, place and participants. The authors say McGill University management professor Henry Mintzberg was one of the first to capture the dynamic of an intended strategy bumping against complex realities, "triggering further evolution in strategy." Emergent strategy, which has to be both rigorous and flexible, "requires a constant process of 'sensing' the environment to ensure resources are applied where opportunities are the greatest." Such sensing also enlarges understanding of how various parts of a system change in relation to each other and external events, the authors write. "The concept of sensing and leveraging opportunities without any certainty about the outcome," these authors say, "is at the core of emergent strategy."

The three complexity principles the authors say are needed for emergent strategy are

co-creating the strategy and broad participation, working with positive and negative attractors, and improving system fitness. Fitness requires improving knowledge, effectiveness, and resilience and building social trust among all parties.

While complex systems are unpredictable, they say, "sources of energy or convergence within the systems, known as attractors, can be observed and influenced." In social systems, attractors can be people, ideas, resources or events that lead a system to move toward, or away from, a goal.

The Rockefeller Foundation, which in 2008 launched a $42 million initiative to improve the lives or poor and vulnerable people throughout the world through impact investing, has also practiced an emergent approach. Impact investing was a new field the foundation had begun to develop earlier by convening a group of 30 organizations that created a network of relationships among boards, committees and memberships. This group was joined by 70 more organizations from profit and nonprofit investment funds, universities, consulting firms, international development organizations and government agencies. Over the years, the initiative evolved to attract new players, new ways for organizations to become involved, and new collective action platforms. By 2010, program staff members recognized changes in U.S. and UK public policy-a new attractor that could be amplified-and formed an Impact Investing Policy Committee, which ultimately led to $2 billion in government funding.

With thanks to Liz Rykert for the Stanford Social Innovation Review article. Read Bryk's article "Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for School Reform" and more on impact investing here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  education 

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Collaboration - Emerging From Below

Posted By Jeff Cohn, Monday, February 17, 2014
Updated: Friday, September 19, 2014

The January issue of Health Affairs focuses on the benefits of "communication-and-resolution programs” (CRPs), designed to facilitate the communication between healthcare providers and patients and families following unforeseen outcomes, including errors. Intended to decrease the potentially adversarial nature of these conversations, the programs include formal training and support for those involved in the event. There is early evidence that investment in training like this can be associated with fewer malpractice suits and improved patient safety.

While there is emerging evidence to support CRPs, they’ll most likely be lengthy, expensive propositions. Work that Plexus is involved in currently suggests another way. STEP (Support Teaching Effectiveness Project) is bringing together educators who have volunteered from two middle schools in the Long Beach Unified School District to discover how they and some of their peers are able to continually improve their teaching effectiveness over the arc of their careers. Plexus is utilizing an Adaptive Positive Deviance (APD) framework to facilitate this work.

In an early meeting at Lindbergh Middle School, involved educators, realizing they were going to be discovering the pathway towards these positively deviant behaviors without external expertise, decided they would benefit from a dedicated space for collaborating and learning about effective teaching practices. They rapidly converted a vacant classroom into such a space, held an open house inviting all of their peers to engage in the discovery process, and began holding regular meetings there. Less than two weeks later, a group of educators who weren’t formally a part of this initiative were found sitting in the collaboration space, discussing how to better integrate student feedback of teacher performance into improved teaching.

People innately want to communicate and collaborate. Many organizations and their leaders have created incentives and barriers that inhibit relationships and foster a "me-first” attitude. The APD approach helps these interactions occur naturally, driven by curiosity, companionship, and purpose. Leaders should help people identify something that’s important to them, give them opportunities to be with and relate to each other frequently, and collaborative work will occur from the bottom-up. How much more effective and less expensive might an APD approach be than formal, designed from the top programs in pursuit of the same goal? If our organizational leadership creates the conditions, help the people working on the problem make sense of what’s going on, and then gets out of the way, this will allow collaboration and its consequences to emerge. The collaboration room in Lindbergh Middle School and what’s happening in it suggests those of us in leadership roles would be amazed at what can happen, driven by the collaborators themselves.

Tags:  catching butterflies  cohn  collaboration  education  healthcare 

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Plexus Institute Receives Education Grant

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, December 19, 2013
Updated: Sunday, December 22, 2013

Plexus Institute has 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.

Research has shown many educators plateau professionally after only a few years on the job, while some improve continually throughout their careers. Plexus Institute is dedicated to the idea that solutions to most challenges already exist within the community. Plexus will provide coaching and support customized for LBUSD teachers, administrators, students and support staff that will be specifically designed to help members of the educational community discover the conditions and practices that foster continuous growth in teaching effectiveness and student achievement. Plexus Institute is a nonprofit devoted to innovative improvement approaches for serious challenges."

Working with Plexus coaches and members of the Long Beach educational community, project participants will identify existing practices that enable continuous professional growth, which can then be refined for wide application. New and redesigned practices will be incorporated in the education of Long Beach children on an ongoing basis, and will be available for application elsewhere.

Plexus will use a collection of innovative processes to help discover the conditions that allow teachers to tap their strengths and experience and use all available resources to develop new ways to improve education. In previous work Plexus has used these processes in such complex settings as hospitals, schools, prisons and other organizations, and results have included reduced healthcare associated infections, higher graduation rates, lower recidivism and improved employee retention.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  education  innovation 

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Views Differ on International Test Scores

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, December 6, 2013

The lackluster performance of American 15-year-olds in international academic testing is arousing debate, and widely diverging viewpoints are strikingly crystallized in essays by Diane Ravitch and Michelle Rhee.

The Program for International Student Assessment, commonly known as PISA, was administered to 15 year olds in 65 countries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group that includes the world's wealthiest nations. A New York Times story by Motoko Rich reports that more than 6,000 American kids took the tests. The story says American test-takers were out-scored in math by students in 29 countries. Students in 22 countries did better in science, and students in 19 countries did bettering reading. The scores put school systems in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and South Korea in the top ranks.

"In the midst of increasingly polarized discussions about public school education, the scores set off a familiar round of hand-wringing, blaming and credit-taking," Rich writes.

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of public schools in Washington DC, writes in Time that we should be appalled at the state of American public schools, which she says perform "at the same level as (those in) the Slovak Republic where the government spends half as much per pupil and the GDP is 171 times smaller." Rhee says America didn't settle for 26th place in the Olympics, and we shouldn't settle for an educational system that puts young Americans at a disadvantage in an increasingly global economy.

Diane Ravitch, historian of education at New York University, says if the PISA scores show anything, it's that the test and punish strategies of the last dozen years don't work. "No child Left Behind and Race to the Top are manifest failures at accomplishing their singular goal of higher test scores," Ravitch writes at Huffington Post. She notes American kids have never scored near the top in international testing. Rhee agrees, but says we need to keep aiming higher. Ravitch cites research by educational consultant and author Keith Baker who found no relationship between a nation's economic productivity, the quality of its life and democratic institutions, and test scores of its students. As a sign of creativity, Ravitch writes, the U.S. has produced more patents per million people than any other nation.

Rhee, who is also the founder of StudentsFirst, a political lobbying and education reform nonprofit, asserts that "We spend so much time on making our kids feel good about themselves that we've lost sight of taking the time necessary to make them good." She says that underpinning educational improvement, we must have "a national desire to become the best, and our reaction to the PISA results will indicate whether that is the case."

Ravitch says improving the quality of life for the nearly one quarter of American students who live in poverty would improve their academic performance. Ravitch thinks the more we emphasize test scores, the more we reward compliance and conformity, and the less we focus on ingenuity, creativity, the ability to think differently and capacity to ask good questions. She writes that she'd prefer tending to "character, persistence, ambition, hard work and big dreams," none of which can be measured by standardized tests like PISA.

Red Rhee's piece here, Ravitch's piece here, and the New York Times story here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  education 

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Art's Influence: Empathy, Tolerance, Critical Thinking

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, November 28, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A national survey by the American Association of School Administrators showed that 30 percent of nation's schools eliminated planned field trips in the 2010-2011 school year and 43 percent planned to eliminate trips in the 2012- 2013 year. What are our future citizens losing? It may be quite a lot. Recent research showed a mere half day's exposure to art produced a wide range of desirable intellectual and emotional effects.

Brian Kisida, Jay P. Greene, and Daniel H. Bowen, in their New York Times essay "Art Makes You Smart" describe a controlled study that involved nearly 11,000 students and 500 teachers from 23 schools. Half of the students were selected by lottery to visit the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which opened in November 2011 in Bentonville, Arkansas. The museum, founded by Alice Walton, whose father Sam Walton founded Walmart, has more than 50,000 square feet of gallery space and an endowment of $800 million. The youngsters, in grades 3-12, were divided into anonymous pairs, based on grade level and demographic similarities. One member of each pair toured the museum, and the other paired partners had tours that were deferred until after the study. Students whose visits were deferred were the control group.

The Box
Kids who visited the museum saw and discussed five paintings, and some got to wander around looking at things on their own. All the youngsters were asked to write a short essay on a painting they had not previously seen, Bo Bartlett's The Box.
They were asked what's happening in the picture, and why do you think that? Mary Anne Janco, writing in The Inquirer, says Bartlett painted The Box after 9/11. It shows his son, Eliot, and a young girl who also modeled for his paintings, dressing up from military garb found in a box.

The student essays were stripped of identity information and measured for critical thinking using a rubric developed by researchers at the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston. The children who had visited the museum turned in higher performances on critical thinking, as well as showing greater historical empathy, tolerance, and sustained interest in art. The surveys were conducted between three and eight weeks after the museum visits, and results showed children remembered a great deal of the factual information about the art they saw, even though they hadn't been tested or required to memorize anything. Children who took the tour also observed and described more details in the images. Research results are also published in the Educational Researcher.

Ploughing It Under

In a story in EducationNext.org, the three researchers describe how the assessments were done and the value for the kids. During the museum tour, children saw and discussed Eastman Johnson's painting At the Camp-Spinning Yarns and Whittling, depicting abolitionists making maple syrup to undermine the sugar industry, which relied on slave labor. And 88 percent of the youngsters remembered details of the pantingand its meaning. Nearly as many remembered the artist and meaning of Norman Rockwell's Rosie the Riveter, showing the importance of women in the work force during World War II; Thomas Hart Benton's Ploughing it Under, showing a farmer destroying his crops as part of a Depression era price support program, and Romare Bearden's painting Sacrifice, part of the Harlem Renaissance art movement. While all the youngsters who had the museum experience demonstrated enhanced skills, students from rural and high poverty schools seemed to benefit the most.

Tags:  art  buscell  complexity matters  education 

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African Rural University: Systems Thinking to Become "Creators of Circumstance"

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, November 21, 2013

Rose Asiimwe wanted to help families in her rural Ugandan village keep their children in school, so she mobilized students, parents and community leaders into a group that formed a new primary school. The school is functioning, fewer kids drop out, and the school has initiated some income-generating projects to support the poorest students. She also sparked formation of a women's development group that focuses on sanitation and hygiene. Rose Asiimwe is a sophomore at the African Rural University (ARU), an unusual institution that encourages students to bring their academically acquired technological and entrepreneurial skills back home.


ARU is a women-only institution with a vision of its graduates as change agents who can help people of Uganda and beyond make their own communities better places to live and thrive. The ARU website explains the school's core beliefs. Among them: "Lasting change comes only when people shift from reacting or adapting to events and circumstances and become creators of events and circumstances." Another core belief is that when people share a common vision they can transcend barriers caused by tribal, religious, political and gender differences.

Patricia Seybold, a consultant and CEO of her own consulting group, has written a story of the university’s founding and achievements. ARU is part of a continuum of educational institutions from primary school through college. The Uganda Rural Development and Training Programme (URDT), founded in 1987, in Kagadi, had taught children and adults of both sexes, as well as entrepreneurs and farmers, and had started a girls' school. All the students had academic grades, but primary and secondary students in the Girls School were also graded on their ability to get their families to improve living conditions while their daughters were away studying. The URDT Girls School graduated its first high school class in 2007, and those young women were already community leaders. Read an article by Robert Fritz on URDT emphasis on processes and system dynamics emphasis

Mwalimu Musheshe, named an Ashoka Fellow in 2001, founded ARU with URDT. Ashoka considered his concept of the school a system changing idea. The country's first all-women's university would create a core of visionary women leaders and role models, aid gender parity in education, and reduce infant mortality.

ARU began in September 2006 with 29 researcher students in a five year pilot program with three years of study and two years of field work in a dozen communities where they performed as "rural transformation specialists." Students visited hundreds of households in their communities, creating a baseline survey on such matters as income, health, sanitation and nutrition. That information helped identify projects people wanted, and students used their training and access to expertise to help people carry them out. ARU and its feeder schools emphasized creative processes, community learning, entrepreneurship, sustainable development and creating social capital. ARU rural transformation courses draw on science and humanities, Seybold writes, and inspiration from "traditional wisdom specialists," old men and women who know and share traditional knowledge.

Part of ARU's goal was to foster systems thinking in every part of the curriculum. As Seybold writes, it wasn’t the students' job to fix the system, but to understand it thoroughly enough so that they could help community members identify and collaborate on their shared vision. Some resulting projects have included new roads, schools, savings societies, market places and farmers' co-ops. Students also worked on how to measure impact of their work—what information to collect, how to establish data bases, and how to get feedback from community members, who were asked to play a key role in evaluating projects.

The teamwork of school and community were in play when ARU needed its own library as a condition for certification as a university. There were national standards for space and academic content, Seybold says, but planners wanted a deep understanding of who the library should serve and how. A group of students, staff, faculty, librarians and media personnel explored ARU's expectation that the new facility would be a magnet for scholars, government officials, the local community and a broader region of 10 million subsistence farmers with low literacy. They planed data bases that would be used by all, and a rich collection of agricultural samples on seeds, plants, soil and access to successful agricultural practices. Read Seybold's article here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  education  leaders 

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