During a conversation in my back yard this summer with the excellent Robin DeRosa, she and I decided, once again, that most of us trying to do things differently in education all face the same kinds of issues.
We also noted that as our roles become more embedded and visible in our respective institutions, it is more difficult to do the deep speculative work necessary to come up with plans for change in education. Or at least, it’s more difficult to do it in the open.
I need to think out loud. But out loud isn’t so easy when my work is institutional and not just a MOOC run out of my basement. Being public before you’re ready means the work you’re trying to do can go in a negative or damaging direction.
And yet. The complexity at the core of the educational system requires a particular kind of multiplicity that can only be achieved with many perspectives. I realized, talking to Robin, that not having access to multiplicity was keeping me stuck in my own head.
The genesis of ChangeEd
We all have some core people in our network that we turn to for practical advice and who, when they are stumped, sometimes turn to us. I’ve spent much of the past dozen or so years working out loud with an excellent group of thinkers and practitioners. Two of my favourite people to work with on nasty problems are Rebecca Petersen and Lawrie Phipps. One day in September of last year, a few months after the conversation with Robin, I was talking to Rebecca and Lawrie separately about some work that we were poking away at. In each conversation, we talked about our desire for the intensity that can come from MOOC like experiences, or conferences (eventedness you might call it). We noticed that the calls to Twitter for participation weren’t quite doing the same thing they used to.
And then the three of us, in separate conversations, started talking about what a model for participation could look like. It turned out that they had both had conversations similar to the one I’d had with Robin in the summer. We decided to develop a model for how we could pull together the expertise we needed in a semi-protected way, and still participate in a broader open dialogue that is such a part of our practice.
The goal: make a call out to a group, think really fast, make something, call it quits.
There are any number of sprint models out there to choose from, agile development methodologies etc…but this one has been working well so far, emergently, the three times we’ve tried it.
I love to work with people f2f, but the challenges of pulling together a conference/project to trying to fit everyone’s schedule is impractical. The problems we were looking to solve were mostly time dependent, and we all have other things to do. There have been a couple of synchronous discussions via Google hangouts over the course of our Change Sprints so far, but we are mostly using Slack. Not perfect, but it allows people to drop in for five minutes when they can, and participate as they can.
A Change Sprint is focused on a central question posed by the member who calls or convenes the Spring to action. Each question, so far, has changed at least slightly in the course of each of the Sprints – the question can be iterative but it guides the discussion. A participant will convene a Sprint because they want help with an idea, a problem, a challenge…and are looking for a particular kind of outcome. They might want a model. They could need something said in a particular way, or need an idea workshopped before it goes out into the wild.
Before beginning, each convenor has to create a simple project charter that explains the necessary background in a simple, organized way. The charter allows people to get up to speed in a hurry, and provides a location for discussion around broader contextual issues.
We have a google template that has been working well for us.
It’s been really important to us that the sprints are as efficient as possible. We put the time limit on a sprint at 5 days, but any can end if the initial target is met and the convenor’s challenge addressed.
Ultimately these will be judged by the success measures that are part of each charter. They could include…better questions. A model. A rationale. A paper. A sketch of a plan. A series of guidelines. Constant movement towards an outcome is a good way to keep the discussion moving forward. That outcome also creates the potential of participating in a broader open conversation after the Sprint is complete.
Criteria for participants
We picked the first 10 people we could remember having this conversation with. We weren’t interested in people who would ‘take over’ a conversation, but rather, busy, practical people who love an opportunity to take a run at a thorny problem. We really wanted to keep the number small, and have tried not to think of all the terribly smart people we didn’t invite.
The Change Sprints have been hard on the logically minded among us. If you wish to understand each item that whizzes by in the chat or if you want to read each entry this may not work for you. If you miss the first 25 minutes of the starting hour, you could be 300 messages behind. We had a couple of people who have withdrawn themselves because they aren’t able to ‘just’ donate an hour or so of their week to a conversation… they need to be all-in or all-out. That’s cool. That’s part of what makes them great professionals.
You also can’t guarantee that you are going to get to any kind of resolution. Sometimes the conversation rolls in the right direction and sometimes it doesn’t. Our first Sprint went so well (with the Learning Participant Ecosystem Model) that it’s easy to get disappointed when you don’t finish with a nice drawing :).
You really can’t do them very often. I wouldn’t think that more than 3 or 4 a year for any group would be possible and still maintain the enthusiasm. I might be wrong about that… Dunno.
Why you might want to do this
The Change Sprints we’ve done have replicated some of the power of the connected conversations I used to have on the open web, while cutting out much of the institutional risk. The focus on an specific outcome keeps people on task (mostly) and gives people something to rally around. You could setup a Slack channel (or a private Facebook group or whatever) fill out a charter, setup a start time and say go. You just need ten smart people to work with and a reasonable vision of where you want to get.
The thing I like about how this model works out is that it provides a clear structure for participation.
Participate as much as you can over the next five days. Then its done. If you can’t participate this time, or something comes up, that’s not a problem. If you can participate, be constructive, and keep nudging the problem around. Focused effort can do amazing things