Parent Engagement: Exploring Key Roles in the K12 Ecosystem

From my experience, parents want their kids to have a great education, and most are willing to pitch in.

On a good day, it might mean helping them study for a killer algebra test. On a bad day, it’s a more thankless task: helping them reevaluate priorities, prying fingers from the high tech keypads, smartphones and controllers stashed under every pillow.

Education is a complex topic, which deserves and is getting much discussion. But as a parent, I think understanding our stake in the process is an increasingly critical conversation, one that doesn’t always get air time.

I’d like to frame the question like this:

With school districts grappling with troublesome finances and even more troublesome test scores, what roles can and should parents play in the education process?

K12 Education today functions like an ‘ecosystem’. Most of the many interdependent stakeholders (teachers, students, parents, administrators, legislators, policy makers, text book companies) work diligently, but not always in tandem. No one entity has full control of the process. Across the diverse stakeholder groups are multiple, often conflicting objectives. Each depends on the others in the food chain for the system to function, but there is little optimization taking place.

Across the education ecosystem, too often it’s become a challenge of survival.

You may have seen “Waiting for Superman” and learned that across the nation, drop out rates are accelerating. Or maybe you saw “Race to Nowhere” about the pressure schools and parents are together putting on children, and how we must reevaluate how to define success. A more extreme example is the “Parent Trigger” where states allow parent-led coalitions to takeover problem schools.

While education leaders have much to do in sorting this out, parents have an important voice. We often forget that kids acquire language, behavior, and foundational learning skills before they set foot in a public school. Approaches will vary, but parents have the first crack at making learning a priority, and must work ever harder to sustain that. Schools, in turn, must understand what the family is experiencing, to effectively participate in an open collaboration.

Let’s tee up a few discussion topics to help us get at the core challenges of Parent Engagement.

Q1. What is the ideal role of parents in the education process?

Q2. How could we, as parents, help in a meaningful way? Here are some starter ideas, to get you thinking (do these resonate?)

  1. quality time on foundational skills (especially pre-K)
  2. finding creative ways and times to teach (story, play)
  3. fostering respect for knowledge and learning
  4. focus on resilience
  5. focus on mastery (deep learning) over performance (test scores)
  6. focus on critical thinking
  7. making innovation in education a priority

Q3. Who helps parents navigate these challenges, and should schools play a role in supporting them?

Q4. Can parents and teachers find the quality time required?

Education is undergoing some much needed transformation. From multiple sources, we can see innovative schools working diligently on new approaches. But time is short. And that’s an issue on many levels.

I sense that kids today start kindergarten well behind the power curve, leaving parents with few choices and many frustrations, and often no sense of what they could be doing to help.

No silver bullets here. But that’s all the more reason for the conversation.

We’ll tee this up at our weekly #ECOSYS chat on WEDS 1/5 at 9pET. This opens our 2011 Education Topic Agenda, on our wiki, under “T1 Parent Engagement”.

As always, please share your thoughts as comments, I’d love to discuss your perspective.

Featured

It Takes a Village: Insights on Culture and Community in Local Government

In prior posts, we’ve looked at the many aspects of culture that affect large organizations, including the cultural dynamics in government that play out in large state & federal agencies.

A few days ago, a reader wrote and asked: “What about local government?”

That really started me thinking. So let’s have a look.

Similarities

Government agencies share a common service mandate, regardless of scale. That means local government exists to support its citizens, and that many aspects of the overall mission would logically be the same. Examples of this: revenue collection, protection services, health & welfare, even natural resources.

There’s also a similar political dynamic. Elected officials are voted into office to provide leadership and direction to full-time administrative branches. That can lead to a philosophical divide between the elected and the civil servants, an interesting cultural rift that is unique to governmental organizations, as I covered previously.

The net result is that local governments, like their larger state & federal counterparts, will encounter challenges of silo thinking and culture clashes, often resulting in small-scale bureaucracies.

Differences

It’s the differences that really bring home some interesting new factors. The most important of these is a sense of community. I wrote on virtual community a few months back, but the ‘brick and mortar’ community – including neighborhoods, businesses, recreation areas, and the like – makes up what is typically the strong, vibrant foundation or our day-to-day experience.

In a real way, our local communities serve as the backbone of our society.

These are critical factors for any town or region to remain healthy. Where these elements are absent, as is the case in regions with long-term economic decline, the systemic problems can be overwhelming. That means local communities and their governments are vitally important to create safe, healthy places for people to live and work.

Several things come with community that can benefit the cause of local government, with opportunities to drive a more open, participative culture

  • Citizen engagement – most want to live a good, healthy lifestyle, and want their neighborhoods safe, their schools effective, their tax dollars put to good use. This bodes well for engagement, because local citizens have an immediate stake in the affairs of local government
  • Proximity – by being nearby, it is far easier to participate in local government events and elections, including hearings, council meetings, and the like. Not so with state or federal.
  • Visible results – the effect of government can be seen locally, reinforcing value in real terms

I’ll argue that an “intellectual distance” has caused state and federal government to grow more removed from their constituents. It’s a chasm that hurts relevance to the average citizen. Small wonder the feds have long embraced a “town meeting” approach, in hopes of capturing the level of engagment that normally accrues locally.

The other major delta that impacts culture in local government derives from smaller scale, with 3 immediate impacts:

  • Less-hardened silos – the walls of over-specialization become stronger (quite literally, hardened) with time and scale. Yes, local governments will exhibit turf wars and silos among departments. But because they are typically smaller scale, it should, in theory at least, be easier to begin working across them.
  • Greater impact of individuals – with smaller jurisdictions in particular (towns, small cities) it is possible for strong leaders to drive signifcant changes; this is more difficult with large-scale entrenched bureaucracy.
  • Low critical mass (smaller talent pool). Being ‘smaller’ means there is generally less expertise available locally; smaller jurisdictions may need to lean more on outside help.

What does this mean? For starters: state and federal governments should ‘think small’.

But it also means this:

Local government should be aggressive on capitalizing on the advantages that community and smaller scale afford. They enjoy unique levels of access to their constituents. Moreover, they are closer to organizational models that favor collaboration .. provided they can abandon the silos that are inherited via the notion of government as ‘bureaucracy’.

A strong message from our culture research still applies here: there are no silver bullets. Achieving change of any scale is hard, and culture is as strong a factor in local government as with the larger jurisdictions. Government must be willing to interact directly with their citizens, not hide behind the silo’d walls of bureaucracy. Being both small and local can encourage engagement, a fundamental enabler of social change.

Is it time for the resurgence of the local community? Maybe it takes a village, after all.

Pathways for change in the K12 Ecosystem

It’s easy to toss aside the notion of meaningful social change. For starters, you’d have lots of company. But let’s take a look at an area with mounting problems and the highest of stakes:

Un-packing the Challenges of K12 Education

By any measure, our western culture and economy – and within that universe, our education systems – have grown so large and intertwined that we quickly scoff at the notion of doing something to improve them. Countless well-intended efforts have failed. Or they succeed for a bit locally, but then can’t scale. Frustrations mount. Those inside the hardened silos of our aging institutions are just as trapped by their realities as those on the outside.

It’s not a lack of passion or desire. It’s just that, as a society, we’ve become overwhelmed by ‘the system’. It’s been going on for a long time – by most accounts, over 100 years. Quite simply, it feels like we’ve lost control, and in some important ways, we have.

What if we changed the rules?

The problem with social, cultural and economic forces – the complex result of human interaction – is that the outcomes don’t align with our intentions. Most of us were reared in a simple (linear, Newtonian) world of ’cause and effect’, and we expect a simple answer to every problem.

Why can’t we just fix schools? Or healthcare? Or the economy?

What we’re learning is that complex systems – especially the human variety – work and behave very differently. We must focus on actors, motivators, outcomes and patterns.

We must attack these problems in a different way.

EcoSys is a social innovation group that started in August 2009. The goal of the group has been to apply a new science – the study of complexity in social ecosystems – to the hardened problems we face as a society.

Intriguing? Ambitious? Yes, on both counts. But open your mind for a moment.

Can you imagine the potential of global thought leaders discovering a focused problem-solving dialog, adding to it, and ultimately building a shared knowledge base of solutions?

Can you imagine an objective exchange of ideas and concerns, shared publicly in the spirit of collaboration, subordinating agendas and special interests in favor of meaningful, scalable innovations?

Can you see social media – Twitter, in fact – as an engine for change, with the connections of each contributor serving as pathways to deeper insight and focused action?

That work is underway, and we’ve posted some K12 progress here.

We’ve still got some work to do on it, as we continue to refine our issue framing.

Are you ready to Engage?  Join us each MONDAY at 9pET using hashtag #ecosys. You can use TweetChat  (try this link), TweetDeck, TweetGrid or HootSuite to join us. Just be sure the #ecosys hashtag is in each tweet, and search on that tag.  Bring your insights and an open mind. It’s free, unaffiliated, and destined to make a difference.

How do we know?

Because 3 years in and some +40,000 tweets later, our topics are gaining traction and spontaneous conversations are starting to break out. We call that momentum. And we’re working to take a step to the next level.

Stay tuned. And welcome to the K12 ecosys.

Original framing blog
Full process
EcoDNA (our first emergent innovation)
EcoSYS founders

The DNA of Collaboration: Unlocking the Potential of 21st Century Teams (where Ecosys is a case study)

Starting 2010 with a Bias for Action

It’s the New Year, and there’s no time like the present to embrace all the things we spent 2009 talking about. Trouble is, there was lots of talk in 2009. Talk full of buzz words. Some claim that we’ve begun talking in circles. Maybe so. But in the process, we’ve laid an important foundation.

Look at it like this:

Meaningful, sustainable change starts with an informed conversation. Together, it’s easier to frame the future, to find the best path forward.

In 2009, via blogs and chats, we began to frame that future.

In many ways, 2009 had to happen. It’s not entirely clear how, but we survived it. We realigned our cost structures, built our networks, and learned how to interact using social media.

Now, with scarcely time for a breath, the hard work begins anew. Let’s start 2010 with a clear mindset. Here are four key themes, resolutions to guide our collaboration efforts:

  1. Bias for action. The key step in breaking the talk cycle.
  2. Bias for engagement. Moving away from the Web 1.0 broadcast model of communicating, toward a more valuable 1:1 exchange that builds relationships.
  3. Bias for learning and discovery. I’ve posted on the need for a learning culture, not only increased higher priority for education, but renewed focus on critical thinking and semantic clarity. If we succeed, the prize is a knowledge renaissance.
  4. Bias for change. None of the above will matter if we continue to cling to the past. Our risk-averse cultures are often biased to resist change. To move forward, we need to embrace it.

What does action-oriented collaboration look like? Here are some case studies in virtual community that seek to use engagement and discovery to drive new solutions:

  1. Look for some immediate changes at #smchat. Building on insights from 2009, we’re brainstorming how we can drive even more value for members. Thought leadership and emergent insight have been the core of our value stream. How can we leverage that?
  2. We’re at an inflection point for exciting things w/ #ecosys, our pilot project on public engagement to drive social innovation.
  3. Take a look at what’s happening at govloop. Over 20,000 voices from across government are self-organizing. Ideas are everywhere.

Let me know if you know of others.

2010 will be a time of culture change and new paradigms. We don’t have much choice. So strap in and hold on. We’ve got some work to do.

Unraveling Complexity (the Missing Link): A new approach for solving problems in Social Ecosystems

For months I’ve been reaching out to colleagues to explore barriers to collaboration, a key tool in the social innovator’s toolbox. Among those queried (and in spite of diverse backgrounds), virtually all had experienced significant barriers to collaboration over the years including silo-thinking, dated and inefficient problem solving models, cultures of control, and a strong, prevailing lack of trust.

Consensus? The barriers to innovation seem to be as universal as they are frustrating.

So something is broken. What is the root cause?

Beth Noveck and David Johnson have published important research on how new Social Media collaboration technologies can change the game. Their perspective on a New Science of Complexity is summarized in this People & Place blog post and explained further in an excerpt from their research. Their focus was the U.S. EPA (including the Federal process for environmental research and legislation) but their conclusion, which I agree with strongly, is that the principles are applicable in business (#e20) and broader social venues (#gov20) as well.

My primary takeaway?  I now believe that INNOVATION IN COMPLEX ECOSYSTEMS will depend on an improved collaboration process – a new middle ground for problem solving – that balances large-scale central organizational approach with grass-roots contributions by individuals. It is about finding the “sweet spot” between rigid structure and adaptive, organic sourcing of ideas. In a new and somewhat uncharted public collaboration space, it means that the forces of organizational scale and leverage can be networked – connected – with discrete centers (or hubs) for contribution to produce more rigorous solutions.

At the core of this thinking? A realization that traditional large-scale organizations (with their central thinking, hierarchical layers, and silos of functional experts) are generally ineffective when dealing with complex situations. Quite literally, they are too rigid. Without the ability to adapt to new variables or to coordinate across silos, grid-lock ensues. And complex social ecosystems are impacted, since “sending in experts” is how we tend to attack these issues. On the list? The well known structural challenges in energy, sustainable food and water sources, public education and healthcare.

What’s needed is an outright paradigm shift in problem solving models that are fundamentally more interactive and cross-functional. And focusing on complexity theory is key, because it begins to unlock some new doors. For one, there must be an organic aspect that allows solution teams to learn, self-correct and grow. And to meet the requirement of connecting people more dynamically, Social Media is the ideal technology. Some examples? Think about experts engaged in live chat. Acceleration of thought synergies. Tools to merge and re-mix knowledge. Ability to leverage and extend dynamic repositories.

With focus and coordination, we can work to find the elusive “sweet spot”.

In terms of naming and framing the problem, the above research makes significant strides. The next step is critical as well, and is just as exciting: in pockets across the internet, the new collaboration is already starting to appear.

Are you seeing it too? Let’s talk, I’ll show you where and how.

Downside of Scale in the 21st-Century (re: Agility)

Recently came across a good post by Oliver Marks (@OliverMarks) covering a brief CNBC interview w/ Deloitte’s John Hagel.  The topic was the cummulative economic impact of large scale operations, and the ever-declining Return on Assets (ROA) across industry over the last 40 years.  The conclusion derives from basic business economics.  As assets get ever larger, returns from those assets, ROA, will trend to zero. Incremental productivity gains lose their impact.

The implications of this are important.

As you watch the Hagel video, you’ll hear him say “no back to normal”.  Complacency, especially  in corporate America, seems to have clouded our long-term economic view.  As Hagel alludes, executives seem to be waiting for the next economic cycle to bring us back to the good old days.  But when we continually build ever larger companies with ever more complex infrastructures and systems, we lose our ability to get meaningful value for that investment. 

The operational implication is even more problematic.  Due to scale, it becomes increasingly difficult to make strategic or even tactical adjustments.  Progress becomes gridlocked.  We lose our ability to compete. 

Look around your own company.  Are you seeing this happen? 

The flattened knowledge economy drastically cuts transaction costs, bringing global and niche competition head to head with the traditional market giants.  Where scale once provided muscle to fend off competition, that muscle has effectively turned to fat.  The extra weight prevents the agility needed to adapt to new demands, upstart competition, and wholly transformed markets. 

How can we hope to make money, when the answer to every problem is to buy and/or build more infrastructure?  Large scale operations require maintenance and up-keep, care and feeding.  It’s a problem that doesn’t go away.  A viscious circle.

It’s no longer enough (if it ever really was) to try to ‘think entrepreneurial”.  Small and nimble companies are developing a clear advantage in the new global marketplace. They lack the bureaucracy that blocks collaboration, that shields executives from shifting market paradigms, that strands innovators in organizational silos.

If your company is large and getting larger, it won’t be a question of competition.   The more important question:  will you be lean and agile enough to survive?