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Recognizing and navigating adaptive challenges in a school year like no other

By June 25, 2021 No Comments

For every complex problem, there’s a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong. ~ H. L. Mencken

As the pandemic struck last year, school leaders found themselves addressing dozens of problems such as finding plexiglass for their cafeterias, figuring out social distancing in classrooms, and adjusting to online learning.

Many of these challenges were what Ron Heifetz and Don Laurie described years ago as technical problems—issues that can be readily diagnosed (e.g., our students need Wi-fi to get online) and can be resolved with existing solutions (e.g., we’ll park our Wi-fi enabled school buses near students’ homes or we’ll personally deliver Wi-fi hotspots to students who need them).

The 2021–22 school year is also likely to be a year like no other. As students return to school, educators are recognizing that their students may have unfinished learning or have new and different social-emotional learning needs. In addition, school systems everywhere are confronting the realities of long-standing systemic inequities and opportunity gaps that must be addressed.

These challenges reflect what Heifetz and Laurie describe as adaptive challenges: complex, systemic problems with no easy answers or ready-made solutions. Leaders alone cannot solve adaptive challenges. Rather, they require digging deeply into the problem to fully understand it and collective wisdom to solve it. Often, adaptive challenges also require paradigm shifts, challenging existing beliefs, and finding a new way forward together.

As a result, adaptive challenges require a different style of leadership. Instead of quickly identifying a problem, finding a solution, and handing out marching orders, adaptive challenges require leaders to engage others in carefully identifying and fully understanding the problem and working together to develop multi-faceted solutions to them.

Quite often, though, leaders tend to apply simple and speedy technical solutions to adaptive challenges; they gloss over the complexity of the problem and seek quick fixes, such as a new learning platform, tutoring program, or after-school program to make the problem vanish. Some of these fixes may be necessary, but they are rarely sufficient. As a result, schools and districts often find themselves chasing one fix to the next, discovering that they have applied a fix that doesn’t fix.

So, as leaders move forward into this coming school year, it’s important to recognize when they are confronting complex, adaptive challenges and to adopt the right approach to leadership that guides their organizations through these challenges: Here are a few tips for leading people through adaptive challenges.

  • First, spend time truly understanding the nature of the problem. This includes root cause analysis or what is sometimes known as the five Why process. Follow one why question with the next. For example: Over three million students disengaged from school since the onset of the pandemic. Why? Perhaps students felt they couldn’t engage with their teachers during online learning. Why? Well, for starters, both educators and students may have been unfamiliar with the new online learning platforms and were uncomfortable seeking out training or information. Why? Despite strong teacher-student relationships, the school doesn’t have a culture that promotes asking questions or encourages experimentation. Why? Teachers feel enormous pressure to cover content and precious little time to indulge student questions. Why? We haven’t done enough to “prune” our curriculum down to what’s most essential and relevant for students. Once leaders identify a root cause of an issue—in this case, reduced student engagement due to the lack of opportunities to express curiosity and needs outside of the safety of the classroom—adaptive approaches can be selected to address the problem.
  • Second, avoid leaping to quick, ready-made solutions. Rather, as you consider root causes of your challenges, look for bright spots or success stories in your current approaches. These are often overlooked pockets of excellence that point to what is already working well for students. Not only is it far simpler to build on what’s already working well, but also these solutions tend to be more authentic than externally imposed solutions. For example, many students may have been unsuccessful during remote learning, but others may have actually been more successful. What was different about their learning experiences that might point toward opportunities to accelerate learning for all students?
  • Third, as your bright spots and success stories emerge, consider what organizational or environmental conditions created them. For example, if some teachers were more innovative than others, what encouraged them to be more innovative? Was it leaders encouraging experimentation through regular check-ins? The presence of collaborative professional learning communities that could share ideas, challenges, and success stories?
  • Fourth, frame your responses as testable “theories of action” for what you will do to achieve your desired outcomes—if we do X, we expect to see Y occur. For example, if we provide students with small group tutoring, then their learning will accelerate.
  • Fifth, use plan-do-study-act-cycles as a continuous school improvement method to test your theories of action and modify them as needed. Working in short phases (often four- to six-week cycles), test the effectiveness of your identified solution and then make modifications based upon what you are learning.

We often refer to this approach to school innovation and improvement as “inside-out” change. Instead of imposing an external solution, successful schools and districts often start with what’s already working and seek to replicate that success. For many schools, this is a different mode of operating. And for many leaders, it reflects a paradigm shift—recognizing that they don’t (and shouldn’t) have all the answers and leaning more on others to identify and implement solutions.

Sure, it’s faster to attempt to diagnose and solve problems quickly and on your own. But recall the proverb: To go fast, go alone. To go far, go together.

Bryan Goodwin, the president and CEO of McREL International, is a frequent conference presenter and the author of Building a Curious School and many other works on teaching, learning, and curiosity. Dr. Tameka Porter, a managing consultant at McREL International, provides technical assistance to state and local education agencies and other stakeholders by delivering and supporting high-quality professional learning, capacity building, and sustainable practices to solve high-leverage problems for education professionals and the students they serve.

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McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.