MA Endowment for the Future of Learning

  1. A theory of change
  2. The MEFL Residency
  3. Open Questions

Promoting biodiversity in the future of education by cultivating a new discipline: the management and design of learning communities

The future of learning is something to be invented, not predicted.

But not only is there a dearth of novel ideas, there is a dearth of genuine appetite for novel ideas.  While some pragmatism is appropriate, the education sector's hunger for scale, immediacy, and silver bullets has dramatically narrowed our collective imagination.

That narrowing of our collective imagination has become so extreme—and persisted for so long—that we struggle with problems which are more about ecosystems than pedagogy.  The ideas, resources, contexts, and people we need to incubate the future are nowhere to be found.  This lack of biodiversity sits at the nexus of three, mutually reinforcing factors:

  1. The historical lack of biodiversity has shifted the baseline. Stakeholders ranging from funders and school committees to parents and educators struggle to imagine anything novel. Instead, everything must be framed in terms of old problems and incremental improvements.
  2. That lack of imagination means the sector—in a continual search for incremental improvement—implicitly erects barriers to entry by novel ideas. The more assumptions you take for granted, the more cultural and legal machinery grows around those assumptions. Whether it’s the traditional model of scope and sequence or the notion of seat time or the relevance of Algebra II or the segregation of students by age or…Each of these design elements is taken for granted in ways which make it far harder to introduce new ideas.
  3. These barriers to entry in turn prevent new people and ideas from making their way into the mainstream, much less taking root. These barriers especially select against great people and ideas which are illegible to the mainstream, ideas from the margin. If that weren’t enough, the great people who could do something really new have plenty of other options where they can make an impact and stretch their creative muscles. Marginal points of view don’t have a lobby and can rarely afford to be persistent or patient enough to push their ideas to fruition without compromising core values or fleeing to the private sector.

This is a vicious circle.  But it hasn't always been this way.  Whatever you think of Dewey or Montessori or Holt or Papert or Reggio Emilia, they all imagined fundamentally different futures and built alternatives while fully articulating well-posed research and development agendas for future educators.  We must return to this discipline.  The current failure of traditional options for wide swaths of students makes it clear that we must find alternatives.

But, the reasons biodiversity is the intermediate objective may not be clear.  We know at least four facts:

  1. The world outside of school and to which school is held accountable are changing more and more rapidly. Already the pace of change is well beyond what school (much less the contemporary model of school reform) can accommodate.
  2. The diversity of contexts and needs which characterize our country’s students is exploding. Geography, demography, sociology—all of these intersect in ways which resist homogenized or homogenizing solutions.
  3. Especially for those who have struggled in traditional academic settings, it is increasingly clear that a much deeper coupling between their experience and their backgrounds, aptitudes, and interests—whether you call it individualization or personalization or what-have-you—is required.
  4. We simply don’t know how to design and manage learning communities—much less their effective reform and innovation. It’s an open problem.

If you believe these, the pace and diversity of change required of the system makes it clear we must reject the concept of centrally planned reform.  Instead, we should focus on creating the obvious conditions for innovation and evolution: biodiversity and effective selection.  To do this, we must break the vicious circle stifling imagination and biodiversity.

A theory of change

We know that you can't attack the dearth of imagination head on.  Montessori and her books tried.  Reggio and their professional development tried.  Dewey and his lab school tried.  High Tech High and their graduate school of education is trying.  Not to mention the entire cottage industry of people with Big Ideas who are more than happy to talk up the need for creative, innovative solutions and who can find their way to TED or the nearest op-ed section but not a charter application.  We also know that removing the barriers to entry isn't enough without a supply of visionaries.

Look at the Innovation School legislation: after nearly five dozen schools, not a single one of them sought any reliefs from DESE (until we did).  And DESE has been so underwhelmed by the lack of ambition among proposals that they began funding a fellowship to allow folks to spend significant time designing more ambitious Innovation Schools, [rightly] diagnosing that at least part of the issue was applicants’ bandwidth.  Eight months into that process, two of the three in the initial group of fellows had given up.

Or look at New Orleans, where the chaos and crisis created by Hurricane Katrina offered a comparatively blank canvas for charters.  While a fraught picture of academic success is coming into focus, it's certainly not through deep innovation in models, and it’s clear that neither the models, approach, or context will be right for many (if you even believe it’s right for New Orleans).

Or consider Oakland, where nearly two-thirds of the public schools are charters: what's the spread of diversity in models, in curriculum, in approach?

We think the right place to focus is new people who will act as vessels for and champions of novel approaches.  New people and their work can create the stories and examples which can break this vicious circle.  But even the best people need social and legal room (and the time to leverage them) when creating something new.  And even that’s not enough.

The truth is that—as a sector—we don’t have any expertise.  We lack a professional practice of entrepreneurship, research, and development.  Even the best schools of education focus on classroom practice and leadership of traditional schools with a brutal pragmatism and myopia.  Any visionary elements remaining are so ideological so as to be uselessly disconnected from reality.

New expertises, institutions, and playbooks are needed.  But how you elect to build those depends sensitively on your model of how change happens and what type of change is needed.

A developmental analogy

Silicon Valley had its own preconditions—affordable land, proximity to technical talent, cheap money (and an innovative financing model to structure that money), and so on.  As Silicon Valley became a more and more fertile entrepreneurial environment, it developed its own institutions to prototype the future—places like Xerox PARC.  Those institutions gave rise to the technologies, talent, and networks which formed the foundation of the industry.  As the industry grew and stabilized, more and more speculative financing (and various management practices and infrastructure like lean engineering) could afford to enter the picture.  Today, there's a mature and sophisticated ecosystem five decades in the making.  But that history is path dependent and contextual.  It would have been impossible to start Google in 1970 and it would be superfluous to try to start Fairchild Semiconductor in 2015.

The analogous pipeline for the future of learning is of course different.  The type of work you do and institutions you build depend sensitively on whether you think we're at the point that we need foundational innovations and basic research (a la the transistor) versus if you think we're at the stage that we need visionary research and innovation (a la Xerox PARC) versus if you think the basic model is down and needs scaling (a la Google et al).

Of course, the right answer involves a portfolio approach.  But right now, the vast majority of time, money, and attention is devoted to improving existing models of education, tinkering around the edges.  Basic assumptions around schedule and age segregation and curricula aren't even articulated, much less revisited.  To us, this suggests that in the ecosystem of education efforts, we need much more investment in research and development a la Xerox PARC than anywhere else.

The MEFL Residency

This document aims to outline our proposal to build that R&D infrastructure through a residency aiming to nurture organizations and people undertaking dramatic innovations and capturing their stories in order to incubate the community, biodiversity, and concomitant imagination required to invent the future of learning.

A basic premise of this residency is that the future of learning will involve organizations and pedagogies that look dramatically different than modern schools.  Some might not even be recognizable as schools.  Some might involve such a deep re-definition of school's role or assumptions that it will no longer make sense to call them school.  Regardless, no matter what changes inventing the future of learning will involve at least two constants: the design of learning experiences and the management of organizations which support them.  The focus must not be on preparing to design and manage organizations or preparing to support learners, but reflectively practicing.

The resident experience is a cross between an MBA (an executive and managerial program) and an MFA (an applied, performance program).  Stepping back from the residents themselves, the residency program is akin to the high-touch incubators and venture capital firms like Y Combinator and Andreessen Horowitz.

In both of those cases, experts cultivate novices.  In this residency’s case, it’s more akin to the cultivation of a guild or community of explorers than anything else, because here’s the essential catch: no one knows how to do this.

We especially don’t.  While we have ample experience designing programs and the tools and materials to support them (and now, wrangling—however unsuccessfully—the legal, regulatory, political, and design problems of creating a school), we don’t have the operational or managerial experience you’d expect if you were creating a residency in a genuine profession.

But that’s part of the point: the management of education is barely a profession itself, much less the invention of its future.  Acknowledging this, the residency program is primarily a cohort rather than training experience.  Over time, we of course aim to cultivate an ecosystem—and more importantly, a genuine discipline—which can effectively tackle the problems and opportunities education offers.

A few ingredients

Before getting to what constitutes the residency or how it might work, let's imagine what would go into it and come out of it.

Each year, twenty people who are working to push the envelope by creating something that belongs in the future of education would join the program as residents.  They'd join with a project—an initiative or product or service or school—sketched out.  They'd join with a commitment to work directly with young people as they prototyped.  Each resident would be paired with an advisor and a trio of mentors.  Each cohort would be supported by our staff in addition to a coordinator, an ethnographer, and a documentarian working to capture the lessons and experiences of the cohort (and the ongoing experience of the living organizations emerging from the residency) in the form of thickly described case studies.

Eighteen months later—if the residency does its job—you have twenty launched initiatives; twenty leaders with significant and unique executive and pedagogical expertise; a rapidly expanding alumni, advisor, and mentor network; and a growing cache of wisdom in the form of playbooks, case studies, syllabi, and primary source material.  And all of this gets ploughed back into the residency as it grows—the network of institutions and leaders continually tapped in a just-in-time (but documented) way to address incoming residents' interests and needs.

So what could happen over the course of those eighteen, full-time months to bring this to fruition?

A lightweight MBA + MFA experience

Over the course of eighteen months, each cohort spends 40% of their time focusing on three, fundamental questions:

  1. What do rigor and quality look like in your domain?
  2. How do you make it, document it, and assess it?
  3. How will you design an organization which robustly cultivates it?

Residents would develop their answers to these questions in a cohort experience through facilitated work over ten modules built atop a series of readings, case studies, and design projects.  The remaining 60% of their time would be devoted to actually prototyping and rolling out their initiative.  (Inevitably, some of this work will overlap with the design work they'll be doing in the other 40% of their time.)

The ten, thematic modules would be designed bespoke for each year’s residents' initiatives.  These materials underlie a growing corpus—eventually to be opened up to the public—of tools, materials, and exercises for the designers of organizations.

A few, evocative examples

Even if the specific modules will be tailor made, a few examples are in order to highlight both how absurd it is that such a corpus doesn’t exist anywhere yet and how substantially growing such a corpus can increase the residency program’s leverage in cultivating talent.

  • Wrangling laws, regulations, and policy-making — How can you leverage the Innovation School legislation’s unusual statutory reliefs to do something substantively new? What is the line between what’s legally mandated and what’s simply the inertia of policy and habit? How do procurement policies constrain pedagogical vision and what can you do about it?
  • Epistemology and assessment — What does it actually mean to know something? How does the answer affect assessment? What about project-based, competency-based, and collaborative settings? Where do metacognitive and non-cognitive phenomena fit into these questions?
  • Anthropology and ethnography of learning — How do you watch and listen to learners effectively? How do you unpack their [mis]understandings? What’s involved in documenting and capturing learner work product and process in sufficiently rich and unobtrusive ways as to provide solid foundations for professional reflection?
  • Program design and marketing — What makes for a good one hour program? Forty hour? One hundred hour? How do you set up and market informal programs and use them to prototype and validate curriculum design? To onboard staff? To communicate deeply different models to families?
  • School-ish failure modes — Most innovative and progressive schools either fail, or fail to remain true to their vision. What are the patterns and anti-patterns of this dilution? How do you communicate to families and stakeholders and design governance in such a way as to guard against these failure modes and secure the autonomy you need?
  • The history and future of learning — What explains the fact that first year programs at ed schools across the country would leave you with the impression that Dewey had won when a stroll through most classrooms would leave you with the opposite sense? What are the political and economic boundary conditions which have defined school? What might they look like in the future?
  • The changing nature of work and the postsecondary landscape — Between developments like DOE’s EQUIP Program and fascinating alternatives like Flatiron or the Recurse Center, the range of actors and assumptions beginning to play out in the postsecondary space is incredibly exciting. What are the curricular, financing, and pedagogical opportunities in a space of design largely unconstrained by historical assumptions about what “school” looks like? How do the necessary wraparound services and human supports change?
  • Building great teams — How do you find, cultivate, and evaluate great teams? How do other industries? What legal and curricular work needs to be done to allow for integrated learning experiences that make deeply intertwined and interdisciplinary teaching teams possible?
  • Computation and the role of technology — Most applications of technology in education aim to render existing practices and pedagogies more efficient or scalable. What are the new practices and content areas and pedagogies that technology (and the engagement with computation, modeling, representation, and storytelling that it can enable) allows for? How do you advocate for them? Develop or hire for staff capacities?
  • Modeling and research — When you’re scoping out a campus or reading a financial statement from a school or designing a weighted lottery or back-of-the-enveloping a budget proposal, how can you go about sourcing, slicing, and dicing the appropriate research and data sources to make an evidence-based decision?

Of course, these are simply evocative examples.  But their essential characteristic is that they go to the heart of the questions of management and vision which arise when you push the envelope.  They are simultaneously practical and visionary.

By immersing a cohort in each of these modules—not simply through readings and discussion, but engaged design and prototyping activities and studios connected to their initiatives—not only will residents develop their own managerial and design capacities, but the residency program will have constant input to the process of refining and designing the materials and experiences necessary to support such leaders (and ultimately, define a new discipline).

Parallel to these modules are a variety of structures on larger time scales developing the cohort, discipline, and larger community around these questions and problems.

An evocative cohort schedule structure

Of course, the details need to be fleshed out and nailed down, but again, evocative examples are in order.

  • Weekly — Residents are organized into groups comprising members with complementary skillsets and obstacles. Each group summarizes the goals and obstacles of their previous and upcoming weeks and solicits support while sharing demos, victories, and defeats along the way.
  • Biweekly — Residents meet their advisor for half a day to present their progress and plan for the following month, getting support to work through the logistics of vision and traction, getting their project off the ground.
  • Monthly — Residents convene their three mentors to present their progress and solicit more structural support (roughly mirroring the typical functions of an effective board). At these same meetings, residency program staff are documenting what residents need and are struggling with to prioritize the roadmap of tools, materials, and connections the program as a whole should be developing.
  • Quarterly — The residency program hosts a small symposium bringing together residents, alumni, mentors, advisors, and partner institutions working to do innovative work. This symposium focuses on obstacles to innovation and how to work through and around them. At the symposium, the residency program also presents its residents’ work and the tools and materials which have been prototyped for the explicit purpose of soliciting critical feedback.
  • Semiannually — The residency program publishes the tools and materials it has prototyped, alongside a mixture of policy proposals, requests for startups, and other solicitations for partnership, targeting the obstacles identified through its cohort work. Eventually, the residency program can begin developing the partners around this body of proposals and begin soliciting, accepting, and supporting responses to such solicitations.

After residents start their organization, they continue to get targeted support and tap into the program's growing network, in return for two commitments:

  1. allow MEFL program staff full access to their organization for the purposes of ongoing documentation and storytelling
  2. commit some of their organization’s staff time to acting as mentors and advisors for future residents

These commitments feed into a larger, biennial conference hosted by the residency program showcasing alumni work and releasing an ongoing compilation of the documentation of that work the residency program takes on.  This conference is both an opportunity to demo the most cutting edge work alumni and partners have been doing and provides an ongoing forum for defining and pushing the boundaries of our collective imagination.  Furthermore, it could be designed around concentrating support (including but not limited to hiring and funding) for alumni while concentrating and creating a unique community around the invention of the future of learning.

Of course, this is just one, evocative daydream full of vision.  But it's useful to consider how something even this ambitious involves a comparatively minor investment for the potential upside: a coordinator, an ethnographer, a documentarian, and the cultivation of a mentor/advisor/practitioner network in the Boston area.  Which brings us to the support necessary for residents.

Back-of-the-envelope plausibility

Keep in mind what you would get out of this residency—twenty launched initiatives; twenty leaders with significant and unique executive and pedagogical expertise; a rapidly expanding alumni, advisor, and mentor network; and a growing cache of wisdom in the form of playbooks, case studies, syllabi, and primary source material—and consider how unprecedented that is and how valuable it would be to the broader ecosystem.

How might we go about paying for residents’ time?  Here's one proposal: residents receive a living wage as a zero-interest loan.  That interest is the bulk of the actual contribution from a philanthropic source (the remaining, invested capital going toward underwriting the loans and supporting the operating costs of the program), and the loan remains zero-interest as long as they are working on their organization full time.  Any balance remaining after ten years of continually working on the organization is forgiven.  If the venture fails (or the founder decides to move on), the loan converts to a typical, interest-bearing loan.

Even very conservative models of default rate and initiatives folding creates an incredibly cheap program…e.g. In a rough, back-of-the-envelope simulation, assuming 30% of active alumni initiatives fold yearly, over fifteen years you'd invest roughly 13M,endingupwithanoutstandingbalanceofroughly13M, ending up with an outstanding balance of roughly 20M and having paid only ~$2M to subsidize the zero interest loans but ended up roughly breaking even compared to a 6% return on investment had you deployed that capital elsewhere.

But much more importantly, in return you'd have nearly four dozen active, innovating organizations inventing the future of learning; a nearly 300-person alumni network; a corpus of materials supporting those innovations and their management unparalleled in the history of education reform; and an unprecedented network of practitioners and innovators.

If the program is remotely successful—between the partner organizations and the corpus it assembles—the costs of supporting the program itself are so small as to be plausibly rolled into a strategy pursuing research grants and/or philanthropic endowment.  You could easily imagine augmenting this with a funding model that mirrors the MIT Media Lab's: i.e. if organizations would like access to the program's research and network, they sponsor a resident.

In many ways, we should be so lucky as to be stuck with the problem of developing a sustainability strategy for an initiative that is successfully throwing off innovative initiatives and deep, professional knowledge.

And all of this is before you even consider turning the deep bench and expertise of such an organization toward broader goals of drafting and influencing policy agendas.

The long term vision here is simple: prototype and grow a community of leaders and innovators to create both a new discipline (the design and management of learning communities) and the infrastructure to cultivate the vision, training programs, and policies required to insure the biodiversity of approaches needed to invent the future of learning.  No project like this has ever been undertaken before, and we believe it has the potential to deeply change the future of education by inventing it here in Massachusetts.

Open Questions

Even if you were to instantiate this concretely imagined daydream tomorrow, you’d find yourself confronting plenty of fundamental, open questions.  Here are just a few:

  • What's the programmatic focus of the residency (and should that focus rotate?)e.g. Should the residency focus on working with project-based organizations? Should there be an emphasis on novel applications of technology? Wraparound support? Secondary and postsecondary education? Computation, modeling, and representation? To a large extent, we believe that the narrower we can make the focus, the more effective the residency will be.
  • What other boundaries define the audience of the program? — Is this just for initiatives in the Boston area? In Massachusetts? Should there be a focus on working in primarily urban settings? Primarily with those who have struggled in traditional settings?
  • What's the scale-up, both in terms of cohort size? — We feel a process moving from a small handful of our staff onto ten and then twenty people feels very tractable—but also in terms of organizational scope. For example, at some point—if there’s even a smattering of success—we would love to take this structure to the state level and lobby for an educational analogue to the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center and an associated community college acting both as a sandbox for inventing the future of community college and a professional nexus for the discipline of designing and managing learning communities.
  • Is eighteen months too short? — One of the significant blind spots in the funding pipeline of new efforts currently is that there are vanishingly few resources for developing people (much less substantive plans) for new initiatives over much more than a year or so. We know—both from experience and observation—that the process of walking back your many assumptions and developing the skills to design something fundamentally different takes time. Is designing a new school really less complex than training as an obstetrician? It’s essential to us that the residency focus on doing, not preparing, and doing takes time. There’s no reason to presume that the residency’s structure needs to be homogeneous; e.g., perhaps the residency should be four years long, with the first year funded and the last three unfunded, involving a board seat and regular documentation and staff development?
  • How do you source and onboard advisors and mentors? — There’s plenty of work needed to flesh out the expectations of the advisor and mentor, but given the importance of their roles (and the limits on the time we can ask of them without significant compensation), there needs to be significant effort devoted to setting expectations and developing advisor and mentor capacity to ensure resident success.
  • Should it be limited to schools? — If you want the large, contiguous blocks of time necessary to do substantially new work with young people, and you’re most interested in working with those who have struggled in traditional academic settings, you basically have to start a school (or a juvenile detention center). Even among the handful of forms available in Massachusetts (Innovation School, Horace Mann and Commonwealth Charters, educational collaboratives, homeschooling co-ops, SPED-focused outplacement programs, etc.), there are tons of unleveraged design angles. That said, it’s also clear to us that the community and network amongst residents would really benefit from seeing work that isn’t constantly pushing against the design assumptions of schools—e.g. programs like Flatiron or the Recurse Center or products like Duolingo seem like great candidates for some residency.
  • What staff would be required to develop good demand? — What type of staffing, marketing, and networking effort would be required to source world-class people for this? What should the rollout of that marketing look like?
  • How coupled should this be to our long-term vision? — We see tremendous alignment between initiatives in this direction and the our long term mission and vision. When we started the long, winding school design and approval process back in 2012, we knew that our longer term vision involved counterfoil research and policymaking, built atop actually doing the work. This residency program significantly overlaps with the development and onboarding we want to do for our own staff and to develop a top management team. But this form of residency clearly stands to benefit many focuses outside the scope of our mission. To avoid the tensions of mission creep within the residency, how might we find a way for these efforts to merely be the first of many?