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Imagine if we could create significant change through small experiments

A little over a year ago, a school contacted us with a clear intention - the staff wanted to make the school more engaging and inclusive for the children. Therefore, the management decided to conduct an experiment with our assistance. An experiment to test whether PBL could be the path to their goal. We at Imagine If were excited, as it was a new approach to PBL transformations.

The framework for the experiment was as follows: 3 weeks of PBL with a common overarching theme, a joint presentation, 5 hopes about what PBL could achieve, which were to be tested in the experiment. After the 3 weeks, the staff would decide whether they wanted to continue with a new PBL experiment or go in a different direction.

Regardless of whether PBL was chosen or not, what makes this story truly unique is the way the decision was made. From the beginning, the management acknowledged that the complex situation they faced couldn't be solved by one person or an expert. They had to find the answer through trial and error.

They conducted an experiment...

... where they didn't expect a specific answer.

... with a focus on learning about PBL rather than achieving a goal.

... that encouraged making mistakes - leadership, staff, and children.

... where they could let go of what no longer worked.

... within a defined period.

... drawing inspiration from other schools but adapted to their own context.

... with plenty of time for preparation.

... where everyone was invited - parents, siblings, grandparents, the local community, staff, leadership, and children.

They went through a process that created value and knowledge regardless of the outcome.

Unlike other schools that start by deciding to transform into a PBL school and then try PBL. This approach allowed the staff to test PBL before the big decision was made. In a short time, they gained knowledge about how to best utilize future resources.

The next right step was clear and endorsed by everyone. Nothing is more binding and instills more ownership than a decision one has been a part of. The school had a shared experience that PBL was engaging for both children and staff, it was a sustainable way of working, it worked well for children with special needs, and it allowed them to continue with what they were doing well. Therefore, they chose to set up another experiment the following school year.

But why should we experiment at all?

To understand why experimentation was the right choice in this situation, I'd like to introduce you to the Cynefin framework. Developed by Dave Snowden, the framework helps categorize problems into different domains and provides us with a better understanding of their unique characteristics and how to respond to them. Let's delve into the concept of complexity within the Cynefin Framework and explore its implications.

Definition of Complexity:

Within the Cynefin Framework, complexity is one of the four domains along with the simple, complicated, and chaotic. Complexity refers to a situation characterized by high uncertainty, interdependencies, and unpredictability. Unlike simple problems with clear cause-and-effect relationships (e.g., baking a cake) or complicated problems (e.g., repairing a car engine) that can be solved through expertise, complex problems involve numerous factors and non-linear interactions.

Key Characteristics of Complexity:

1. Uncertainty: Complex situations are often characterized by a lack of clarity and predictability. Cause-and-effect relationships may be unclear or change over time, making it challenging to identify a single solution.

2. Interdependencies: In complex environments, different elements within the environment are connected and influence each other. A change in one part can have unforeseen ripple effects that affect the rest, increasing the complexity of the situation.

3. Non-linear Interactions: Complex environments exhibit non-linear relationships, meaning that small changes can lead to unexpected or disproportionately large consequences. Predicting the outcome of actions becomes challenging due to these non-linear dynamics.

Due to the unique properties of complex situations, the Cynefin Framework suggests different approaches to handling each domain. In the domain of complexity, a traditional top-down, command-and-control approach is rarely effective. Instead, the emphasis is on enabling self-organization, promoting collaboration, and allowing for iterative experimentation and adaptation.

How to Experiment:

1. Let go of your attachment to expected outcomes:

When experimenting, it's important to let go of our attachment to expected outcomes. Our expectations can limit our perspective and lead us to only look for signs that confirm our desired result (confirmation bias). A successful experiment is not about achieving a predetermined outcome, but rather about gaining new knowledge and experience that can inform our next steps. In the example, the school experienced success because both the staff and leadership approached the experiment with openness and curiosity, without being bound by predefined results.

2. Focus on learning rather than goals:

Goals can be set when we know exactly what outcome we want and how to achieve it, such as when baking a cake or repairing a car engine. But in a complex environment with an unknown outcome, the most important thing we can do is learn, try things out, and listen to what the environment tells us. Instead of setting a goal to create the best PBL projects, the focus was on informally gathering knowledge about what worked and what didn't.

3. Embrace stumbling and failure:

In complexity, it's impossible to get everything right. To experiment, we must be willing to fail. We must dare to do something we haven't done before and see the impact of it. At the school, a teacher set out to do a project on Water Wheels. But she had no idea how the wheels should be made. Together with her students, they explored until they came up with different ways to make water wheels. She gained valuable experience about how PBL can create student ownership and foster creative experiments that generate knowledge for the children. The school can now continue working on what she found challenging, as there was room for her to fail and there was a safe space to discuss it among colleagues and leaders.

4. Be ready to let go of what doesn't work

An experiment is not only about adding new elements but also about stopping things that no longer serve the purpose. In a school's engineering project, a team had to let go of their expectations that boys would be the most engaged. It turned out that the girl groups actually performed better and came up with more innovative ideas. The team had to change their perspectives and discard gender stereotypes to make room for what truly worked.

5. Have an end date

An experiment has an end date - otherwise, it would be a new initiative. Setting an end date and time for evaluation allows participants in the experiment to relax. At the school, it meant that the teachers knew it was only for a period that they had to let go of the familiar framework, and they themselves had a significant voice in the decision for the experiment. An experiment can be short, for example, three weeks. This allows participants to grasp it, provides time for multiple iterations, and allows for a wealth of knowledge in a short period. This enables the school to take steps in the right direction more quickly.

6. What works in one place may not necessarily work elsewhere

As schools are complex environments, what works in one school may not necessarily work in another. Many factors come into play: student composition, staff, leadership, and school culture. Therefore, it's crucial to always adapt experiments and methods to the specific context. It's about understanding and tailoring to one's own school's unique situation - not about copying others' success.

7. Make room for what you don't know will happen

Think back on the projects you've done over time. Has anything unexpected ever come up along the way? Most of us have undoubtedly been in projects where unforeseen challenges or joys emerged. We need to start planning for this. We can do this by allocating more time than expected. If something comes up, we can draw from the pool of extra hours. It may seem like a greater expense, but I promise it's a long-term investment that yields returns. Therefore, the leadership allocated ample time for the staff's preparation. Another way to find more time is by putting some of all the other good initiatives on hold at the school. This provides the calm to focus on the experiment and gives the staff a sense of being taken seriously and recognized for the tremendous work they do.

8. Involve everyone in the environment in your experiments

There are multiple sides to the same coin - as you probably know. This also applies in complex environments, where there's no way we can know everything. To achieve the best and most informed decisions, it's crucial to involve all relevant stakeholders in the experiment. At the school, all participants in the school environment, including staff, students, parents, and the local community, were invited to be part of the experiment. This created a sense of shared ownership and allowed for broader perspectives and ideas that could enrich the experiment and subsequent learning.

Experimenting as an approach to school transformations

Every school is unique, and it's not possible to say whether project-based learning is the right approach for everyone. However, the method of experimenting and creating co-ownership is universal and can be adapted to any school. Let's take the first step and start our experiments with openness, curiosity, and courage. Let's free ourselves from expected results and instead focus on learning and adapting along the way. Be willing to fail and see it as a source of knowledge and growth. We need to be mindful of the context and adapt our experiments to the unique needs of our school environment. Let's involve all relevant stakeholders and create shared ownership for our experiments. Success lies in the experiment itself, where we create momentum and the possibility for change, not in immediate successful results. At Imagine If, we will continue to test this experimental approach to school transformations. Because change doesn't have to start as a major disruption. It can happen through several small experiments.

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