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A recent blog post, “Looking at the Numbers in Education: What Scales, Anyway” by Alex Hernandez, intrigued me. In the post, Alex talks about the things that scale in education and wonders if those solutions actually help students learn. He notes that “scale” is not good or bad but that we should define what we mean when we talk about scale. NCLB, textbooks and homework have reached the largest scale in education but we know those things aren’t having the biggest impact on student learning in our schools.

It’s the schools and districts that are trying many solutions, using data, and then scaling those initiatives across the organization that are getting results. A 10x solution for a district may come from putting five 1% ideas together in a remix that has a big impact. So how do we scale the right solutions in our schools and use data wisely to inform next steps?

Here are a few suggestions to get started:

  1. Ask the “why” about what you’re doing and focus on student learning while acknowledging from the beginning that no one solution will fix your challenges.
  2. Build a culture of innovation in your district to encourage teams to explore solutions to existing problems. Provide substitutes so that teams of teachers can get away for an extended time to collaborate. If possible, provide seed funding so that teams can purchase supplies, books and classroom resources.
  3. Use the design process to work with groups to explore multiple solutions for a problem. A great resource is Ewan McIntosh’s new book, “How To Come Up With Great Ideas And Actually Make Them Happen.” The Notosh design approach emphasizes finding the right problem to solve and using a variety of team activities to develop a solution that will bring the most value.
  4. Use the business model canvas to plan how you’re going to implement. The business model template can assist you in identifying all the necessary components of your plan.
  5. Try your solutions on a small scale with a first and second iteration. Rapid prototyping allows you to quickly deploy and receive feedback to inform your next steps.
  6. Gather quantitative and qualitative data and create a case study of the results to share with all stakeholders including your local school board and community partners. People will invest in your idea if they see the value.
  7. Use the “yes and” mindset to find ways to grow or pivot your initiative. We sometimes have too many “yes buts” in education. We use excuses like “we don’t have time,” “the administration won’t support it,” and “the students aren’t ready” to stall initiatives. When you discover a new challenge, brainstorm solutions that will allow your initiative to move forward and grow.

It’s very easy to continue the status quo in education by implementing programs on a large scale before discovering if your solution will have a positive impact on student learning.  By using the startup model, your organization can get to those results much more quickly. The rapid feedback process will help you to build a successful and lasting initiative that will scale across your organization.

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Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why, has great points about beginning with WHY. I’ve been involved in several large scale technology initiatives and the why of what we’re doing has always been front and center. Having a shared vision is essential to any new educational initiative or innovation.  For your initiative to be successful, however, you must also focus on WHAT you want to achieve and HOW you want to get to desired results. Follow the steps below to put your initiative on the path to success.

Define the problem:
The WHY has to solve a problem in your organization. It isn’t enough to decide that you want to implement a 1:1 computing initiative without knowing what problem it will solve. All stakeholders should be involved in the decision making to take a big problem and make decisions about moving forward. Don’t underestimate the power of a few individuals to undermine the group efforts. Get the word out to everyone in as many ways as possible and invite them to participate. Everyone in the organization – your WHO – much know the vision and be able to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing. Define the problem with as much detail as possible. Examples of problems you might want to tackle include declining literacy skills or low graduation rates.

Develop your outcomes:
You also need to look at the outcomes that you expect – the WHAT. What will it look like when your innovation goes viral throughout the organization? Paint a picture of the results that you expect. Rapid prototyping with small scale projects allows you to try out several strategies and will ultimately give you something tangible for everyone to see. For a 1:1 computing initiative, the WHAT isn’t a device but an outcome for student learning. If your problem is literacy skills and you believe that 1:1 computing will provide students with a collaborative environment for research, writing and publishing, you might want to pilot your solution with a team of teachers at your school and develop a model that others can follow.

Create a road map and measure your progress:
The devil is in the details and HOW you’re going to get to your desired outcomes. A recent news story talked about a school district that was ending their 1:1 computing initiative and looking for a way to recycle the computers. I’m sure that they talked about WHY but I wonder if their WHAT was about a device instead of an outcome? Was the problem in the implementation – the HOW? If certain steps aren’t taken by everyone, will you end up with silos of innovation?  People must work within teams and across teams for you to see widescale adoption of your initiative. A pilot program will allow you to develop a detailed plan and help you to determine the essential elements for success.

Measuring your progress along the way is a big part of HOW you will get to the finish line and see the desired results. Project management is key and it’s essential that everyone knows their role. Teams will be learning throughout the process and it’s always good to take the temperature with discussions that will help determine the next steps. It’s okay to fail on a small scale but fail quickly and use your experiences to iterate or even pivot if necessary.

As you continue to solve problems for your school or district, start with WHY, define WHAT your outcomes will be, and then decide HOW you’re going to get there. Your innovation will be successful when you get those three things right.

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