Tag Archive: learning

June 11, 2022

Energy Systems Practice (ESP) for Long-Term Human Thriving

Over the course of the last few years I have been delving deeper into the trans-disciplinary science of energy systems, largely thanks to my colleague and mentor Dr. Sally J. Goerner. Sally and I recently offered a session to The Weaving Lab on energy systems science for network weavers. A summary of that session can be found here. Since then I have been exploring, identifying and building out resources, practices and tools at different “levels” (individual, group/organization, and larger system) in the four different domains of Energy System Science that support saluto-genesis (the capacity of living systems to reproduce resilience and wellbeing). The four domains include:

  • regenerative flows
  • resilient and balanced structures
  • common cause culture
  • collaborative learning

The Energy System Sciences (ESS) see all living systems as “flow networks” or structures that arise from the circulation of resources, information, nutrients, etc. Thinking through the lens of flow, systemic health can be seen as being based on things like: investment and re-investment of key and diverse resources, healthy outflows (not polluting or poisoning “the host”), the velocity and spread of resources in the system, cross-scale circulation, etc. The nature and quality of these flows determines how systems are able to adapt and evolve in healthy and health-promoting ways. 

The image above offers a starter collection of resources, practices and tools, that transcend specific sectors (economics, education, etc.) and that I look forward to bringing to a group later this summer. Certainly incomplete, these practices also do not all neatly fit into one category, even where they appear to in the graphic – that’s life! If you go to this link, you will find the above image as a clearer PDF document that has hyperlinks for some of what is listed (items that are underlined) that will take you to additional information. And I am always eager to hear what others would add!

I am grateful for the many teachers and collaborators, in addition to Dr. Goerner, who have guided my practice along the way: Joe Weston, Gwen McClellan, john a. powell, Eve Capkanis, Rev. Howard Thurman, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, Joel Glanzberg, June Holley, Resmaa Menakem, Katya Fels Smyth, Tanya Tucker, Robert Peng, Maya Townsend, Father Richard Rohr, Melinda Weekes-Laidlow, Dorn Cox, Sherri Mitchell, Harold Jarche, Donella Meadows, Marty Kearns, Tara Brach, John Fullerton, Marilyn Darling, Daniel Christian Wahl, Anne Marie Chiasson, Tyson Yunkaporta, Kelly Bates and Steven C. Hayes, among others.

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January 13, 2022

Energy System Science for Network Weavers: A Summary

Image by lwtt93, “Flow,” shared under provision of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

“Culture is a verb.”

– Rowen White, Seed Keeper, activist and farmer from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne 

“It’s all about how things are flowing.”

Gwen McClellan, acupressurist and holistic healer

“A living body is not a fixed thing but a flowing event, like a flame or a whirlpool.”

– Alan Watts, philosopher and writer

“Seeing energy flows so that we can engage with them in positive ways is not some mystical, esoteric art, but the role of engaged human beings.” 

– Joel Glanzberg, permaculturist and sustainable builder

Last week I teamed up with Dr. Sally J. Goerner, who stewards a transdisciplinary team of researchers and practitioners in the Research Alliance for Regenerative Economics, to offer an interactive session to The Weaving Lab on the Energy System Sciences and how they might support network weavers working for social change in a variety of contexts. Energy System Sciences (ESS) is “an umbrella term for disciplines that use the study of energy flow networks to understand the laws of systemic health, growth and development in living, nonliving and supra-living systems.” ESS disciplines include: Chaos, Complexity, Resilience, Ecological Network Analysis, Self-Organization Theory, Nonequilibrium Thermodynamics, Panarchy, and others. It was a lot to present and absorb and process during our short 2 hour session, and so I have made an effort here to summarize and simplify …

Everything is made up of energy, so says “western” science and also many wisdom traditions (think spirit or chi) and indigenous peoples (see Sherri Mitchell), but many of us often don’t like to use the word “energy” (too woo woo). And perhaps that is to our detriment! Switching from a “matter” orientation about everything to an “energy” view can help us see and do things differently. 

Systems are complex networks of interconnected “parts” that work together. Flows of energy of different kinds are crucial for a system to function (carbon in the biosphere, traffic in cities, supplies and information during a disaster response, ideas and emotions in a social group, nutrients on a farm, money and other resources in economies). 

The Energy System Sciences (ESS) see all systems as “flow networks” or structures that arise from the circulation of resources, information, nutrients, etc. Thinking through the lens of flow, systemic health can be seen as being based on things like: investment and re-investment of key and diverse resources, healthy outflows (not polluting or poisoning the ecosystem), the velocity and spread of resources in the system, cross-scale circulation, etc. The nature and quality of these flows determines how systems are able to adapt and evolve in healthy and health-promoting ways. 

ONE BIG PROBLEM now is that there is a dominant narrative stemming from the power and influence of oligarchy (rule of and for the few) and oligarchic capitalism (economies that are run by and support the few), which seeks to increase the wealth of “elites” at the expense of most people and the planet. Narrative, in contrast to story, is a way of looking at the world. In a sense, it’s a big story that influences thought, meaning and decision-making. The dominant oligarchic narrative and view is grounded in things and beliefs like “the divine right of capital and kings,” a master/slave mentality, dominance, supremacy ( based on race, gender and other markers of identity), narcissism, coercive hierarchies, “survival of the fittest,” and self-interest. 

The oligarchic view cuts against the evolutionary promise of the Energy System Sciences in that it gets in the way of the kinds and qualities of flows needed to keep the whole body of humanity healthy and in right relationship with the planet. It prevents pro-social and pro-ecological evolution. For example, at a smaller scale, if we only privilege a certain part of our physical bodies (our heads or brains) over and at the expense of other parts of our bodies (for example, our hearts, our guts), this can have damaging impacts for the neglected parts and our entire bodies, and diminish our intelligence. Science is increasingly showing that our hearts and guts give us access to important information about the world around us. And our health and development are being shown to rest upon more integration and coherence between the different biological systems that make us up (digestion, vascular, nervous, etc.).

Against the oligarchic capitalist view is another view of humanity as being a collaborative learning species that can ground itself in common-cause and cooperative culture (including values of equity, justice, fairness, trust, transparency, mutualism) and seek resilient and regenerative economies and other systems that guarantee long-term human thriving for the many and for the diverse and not just the few and the alike. This narrative and set of beliefs aligns with the Energy Systems Sciences. Together they suggest that to support healthy and health-promoting webs and flows, it is important for groups of people to integrate the following core pillars, economically (especially in the etymological sense of the word – “household management”) and culturally:

  1. Circulate diverse resources regeneratively, at and between different scales/levels
  2. Create and sustain flexible and resilient structures of different and balance sizes
  3. Ground in common-cause values such as mutuality, trust, transparency, equity, justice, fairness, accountability 
  4. Engaged in collaborative learning that supports intelligently adaptive responses and actions

For example, as Sally Goerner lifts up the following (it may be helpful to click on the image below):

We can also bring attention back to our own selves and how we interact with others to see how the energy system sciences can guide us. We can have stagnant energy if we are not inviting new ideas in or not releasing emotions. We can quickly get overwhelmed if we open ourselves to too much energetic flow of information or emotion, especially if it is negative or challenging. If our bodies are not structurally strong and flexible, they can be more prone to dis-ease. If our social organizations are overly rigid, they can be un-responsive to change and unable to adapt accordingly. If we are not having honest conversations with one another, that “clear the air” (and move energy through as it needs to), we can get bogged down in unhealthy interpersonal dynamics. The emotional body language and tone we convey energetically can impact our interactions with others (and flow widely in larger networks!). If we are not attending to what is otherwise sealed away in our insides (which equates with dissociation) this can also have impacts on how we are with ourselves and one another.

Bottom line: We share a hope that many more of us can become adept energy and flow scientists, artists, healers, weavers and workers as we intentionally create patterns that are the basis of the better world we sense is possible and know is necessary.

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September 13, 2021

Weave Back Better: Investing in Network Weaving as Part of Core Infrastructure

I was recently in conversation about the creation of a systems change programmatic offering for funders and nonprofit leaders, and as the discussion turned to the “once in a generation” billions of dollars investment from the US federal government into states and towns, a thought occurred more clearly. Part of “building back better” is weaving back better, connecting and reconnecting the social and cultural fabric of places and communities. This work could fall to official and unofficial “network weavers,” in places that are so inclined, and perhaps there is a need to make this work more official, visible and well supported/compensated.

At a time when many are disengaged from work because of disenchantment, uncertainty and burnout, what could be more engaging than being paid to build trust, facilitate communication and learning, and weave more functional, equitable, resilient and democratic structures of all kinds? A Civic Weaving Corps (CWC)!!!

A few years ago I worked with a place-based multi-organizational collaborative initiative in Massachusetts with a focus on health and fitness. What they recognized is that there was not nearly enough interstitial tissue between organizations and agencies, so that beneficiaries of the system were dropping through gaps or confused about how to navigate. Relying on existing staff to do this was not realistic (except for the energetic few who then risked burnout, or not doing their “day job” well). The same came up in a national education network, where school coaches were discovered to be playing a crucial weaving role between schools within and across regions. This, however, was not what they were formally paid to do, and so it was the first thing to go when people got pressed.

So what if part of Build Back Better lifted up the strong suggestion that cities, towns, states and regions take seriously the importance of weaving activity, and officially supported the creation of network weaver positions (called that or something else contextually meaningful)? Isn’t this the time? What if we really took this opportunity to promote relational stewardship at different scales as being central to ensuring long-term human thriving? While there is some risk to institutionalizing anything, this seems to be worth doing so that it becomes more of a habit and value in systems. And certainly institutionalizing network weaving behaviors in many more positions might help to create the regenerative flows and resilient structures needed for a just and sustainable future.

There could be many models for this. One with which I am intimately familiar is the Food Solutions New England Racial Equity Ambassador Program. This team of passionate and skillful weavers takes the FSNE Vision and Values and its commitment to racial equity in food and related systems to communities across the region. They work together to identify and make connections with new and diverse partners, organizations, and individuals; to create a space for more racially diverse leadership and mentorship opportunities for equity in the food system; and to ensure more connectivity between community efforts, the broader regional food system, and a racial equity agenda. 

What do you think? Where is this happening already? How might we advance this as a cause collectively?

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August 10, 2021

Perspectives From a ParadigmShift: Lessons for Net Work, Racial Equity, Innovation and System Change

For the past 4 years IISC has supported the formation and evolution of a network of educators (the Diverse Teacher Workforce Coalition) across four school districts in western Massachusetts dedicated to diversifying the teaching profession with respect to race, with a leading strategy being to leverage the paraprofessional pipeline. And as the ParadigmShift initiative, as it is called, explains, “By helping Black and Latinx para-educators and teachers on waiver become licensed teachers, we are building a sustainable path for teacher diversity, increasing opportunities for students of color to thrive.”

Even in districts where over 80% of the student body is Black and Latinx, the teacher workforce still averages around 75% white in this region. By contrast, the para-educator pool is much more diverse, and many of these individuals come from the local community, yet there are numerous barriers preventing them from becoming fully licensed educators (stigma, stringent exams, lack of support, isolation, racism). A few years ago, educational leaders concerned about these structural barriers came together under the auspices of Five Colleges to explore the collaborative potential of working across institutional lines (school districts, teacher preparation programs, educator unions, workforce development initiatives). This ultimately led to the pursuit and receipt of an innovation grant from the local community foundation, which allowed for staffing and other supports to formally launch a collaborative network.

Over the last few years there have been tangible successes, with cohorts of paraprofessionals receiving mentoring and support to become classroom teachers. And there is clearly much more work to be done to work for educational inclusion and equity. That said, there have been several key lessons noted by the diverse Leadership Team of this initiative, and these have been laid out in a very rich report called “Leveraging the Power of Coalition for Teacher Diversity,” which tells many of the details of the Coalition’s development and discoveries.

Many of these lessons align with IISC’s core commitments around building collaborative capacity, processes and structures, including lifting up power dynamics and working for equity, leaning into the power of relationships and networks, and embracing love as a force for social transformation (see image above). Headlines for these lessons appear below, as they were shared with participants during an on-line conference on June 10, 2021 entitled “Leveraging the Power of Coalition for Teacher Diversity: New Perspectives, Practices, and Paradigm Shifts.” We are curious how these resonate with other system and equity change efforts, in education and beyond.

LESSON 1: Naming race is key because messages “for all” are not interpreted as “for me.”

LESSON 2: Crafting solutions based on participant input builds trust, reinforces the message that the pathways are designed for the candidates, and fosters effectiveness. This is critically important when building pathways to attract teacher candidates from historically marginalized groups.

LESSON 3: When administrators and others pay authentic attention to—and build authentic relationships with—paraeducators of color, the paraeducators are more likely to make the decision to become teachers and to persevere through the process of obtaining licensure. Paying attention matters because paraeducators of color face both role-based and race-based inequities.

LESSON 4: Some teacher candidates who otherwise demonstrate teaching proficiency do not overcome the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure (MTEL), which functions as a gatekeeping hurdle. The MTEL requirement reflects an assumption that competency is demonstrated solely through passing required tests. It is a barrier to diversification of the teacher workforce and should not make or break a career.

LESSON 5: Redesigning systems for racial equity requires change from the macro levels of policy to the many complex micro levels of practice, requiring leadership and resources. It is not a quick fix. Systems resist.

LESSON 6: Working in coalition leads to shared learning, pooling of resources, and regional solutions for regional problems while raising challenges of commitment, clarity, and communication. 

LESSON 7: The contributions of supportive funding partners are fundamental to the genesis and growth of innovative initiatives, though the funder practice of awarding short-term grants impedes systems change.

LESSON 8: The concept of innovation provides a framework that legitimizes learning and adaptability, elements that are necessary for effecting systems change to promote teacher diversity.

And threaded through all of these lessons was the understanding that in many ways the core innovation in all of this was the collaborative network itself, with people going above and beyond their day-to-day work, breaking down walls and boundaries, and flipping what have often been traditionally siloed and/or competitive institutional arrangements.

For more resources and materials from the Coalition, including information about our ripple effects mapping process, see think link.

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April 13, 2021

Embracing Perpetual Beta: Leaning Into Life, Learning and Livelihood in the Network Age

Ever since I started working formally with networks of various kinds, some 17 years ago, and started blogging on a regular basis, about 11 years ago, Harold Jarche has been a teacher and an inspiration. Both the content and method of his writings have helped me to better appreciate the importance of living into uncertainty and playing with networked ways of thinking, learning and doing.

I had the pleasure of taking Harold’s Personal Knowledge Mastery course several years ago, and just finished savoring Perpetual Beta 2020, a collection of his writings generated through 2019 and 2020. As Harold says in the forward to his book, “Now we need to connect, adapt, and find our new normal.” In the spirit of working and learning out loud, and Harold’s Friday’s Finds that he offers on his blog, I am sharing some of the nuggets of wisdom I took from my reading of Perpetual Beta 2020 over the past month, in the form of 20 of Harold’s quotes and 4 quotes from others he references, and certainly invite readers to check out Harold’s work in more of its fullness.

“The great work of our time is to design, build and test new organizational models that reflect our democratic values and can function in an interconnected world.”

“Radical innovation only comes from networks with large structural holes, which are more diverse.”

“It will only be through our collective desire to learn with others and build networked organizations that we can build a better world.”

“Intrinsic, not extrinsic, motivation is necessary for complex and creative work.”

“The primary perspective in social networks should be empathetic. … From this perspective of trying to understand others, our actions in these networks should be driven by curiosity.”

Image from andressolo

“So it is important to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all philosophy in terms of successful innovation. The one constant is that you able to be open to change and new points of view.”

– Shaun Coffey

“Social networks provide a fertile environment to share ideas. But we need a safer place to test ideas, so we turn to our trust communities of practice.”

“In the network era, learning and working are tightly interconnected.”

“Organizations need to understand complexity instead of adding more complication.”

“Trust emerges over time through transparency and authenticity, practiced by people working out loud. Credibility is earned through collective intelligence, developed through an active questioning of all assumptions. Finally, a focus on results is enabled through both collaboration and cooperation, and is further enhanced by subsidiarity- the promotion of the furthest possible distribution of all authority.”

“Learning faster is not about taking more courses or consuming more information. It’s about having better connections.”

“We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!”

– Donella Meadows

“Change the business models and change the world.”

“Without Autonomy we are disengaged. Without Competence we are ineffective. Without Relatedness we are aimless.”

“Research shows that work teams that need to share complex knowledge need tighter social bonds.”

“Meta skills [learning how to learn, working in networks] require ‘meta time.’”

“Network leaders understand that first we shape our structures, and then our structures shape us.”

Image from igarashi.edward

“We are innately a friendly species, but we need environments which allow us to optimally express our inclination to be friendly.”

– Nicholas Christakis

“In networks, it is best not to inflict too much power on individuals and instead learn how to distributed power to help the whole network make better decisions.”

“The more diverse our networks, the more diverse our thinking can be.”

“You know you are in a community of practice when it changes your practice.”

“With increasing chaos, creativity is becoming even more important. Look for the misfits and find a way to work with them.”

“As individuals, there is one thing we can all do, without anybody’s permission. We can become better learners.”

Image from Yogendra Joshi

“How can we listen to tomorrow if we have yet to clarify what belongs to yesterday? We don’t just need new maps that order the world in the same old ways. New vision is required. New ontologies reshape the map and reshape us. So we should listen to the future. Whose voices do we hear? [Ursula] Le Guin writes, ‘which is farther from us, farther out of reach, more silent – the dead, or the unborn?’ To listen, we must first be present.”

– Jeremy Johnson

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March 23, 2021

Networks as the (Regenerative) Innovation

“We must create civilization(s) for equitable human wellbeing within a healthy biosphere. Since our thinking produced self-inflicted existential threats, the main challenge is to find a practical way to reconcile our thinking with the logic of life.”

– all-women Emerging New Civilization(s) panel. United Nations 
Image from Peter Karlsson, “Flower on Fire,” shared under conditions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0,

In ongoing work with a group of practitioners dedicated to advancing the study and practice of “energy systems science,” for the sake of resilient and regenerative futures, we continue to come back to the primacy of seeing and working in networked ways as being key to charting a course to a regenerative future. In fact, in some ways we might see energy systems science as being energy network science.

As Dr. Sally J. Goerner articulates, Energy System Sciences (ESS) is “an umbrella term for disciplines that use the study of energy flow networks to understand the laws of systemic health, growth and development in living, nonliving and supra-living systems.” ESS disciplines include: Chaos, Complexity, Resilience, Ecological Network Analysis, Self-Organization Theory, Nonequilibrium Thermodynamics, Panarchy, and others.

We are clearly in a moment of needing to take more seriously the human prospect on the Earth, and whether we will continue to reclaim and maintain a place as a stewardship species. Much of this comes down to being able to “think like an ecosystem” and align with Nature’s regenerative capacities. As mentioned in another post, regeneration points us to the self-feeding, self-renewing processes that living systems (including human beings and communities) use to nourish their capacity to thrive for long periods of time, as well as their ability to adapt to unexpected, sometimes threatening, circumstances.

From an energy systems/networks perspective, long-term human thriving is rooted in large part in healthy social and socio-ecological webs that are diverse, intricate and dynamic. And more specifically, as Dr. Goerner and other colleagues in the Research Alliance for Regenerative Economics highlight, aspects of social systemic health are grounded in:

  • Collective and adaptive learning – sharing information, working out loud, group inquiry and processing, prototyping, systemic sensing …
  • Collaborative culture – practicing facilitative leadership, weaving and coordination, designing for and engaging in collective innovation, linking and leveraging assets, collective decision-making, aligning practice to values such as trust, transparency, generosity …
  • Regenerative circulation – monitoring and tending to velocity, directionality, quality and quantity of flows of different resources …
  • Resilient structure – experimenting with fractals, distributed governance, strategic redundancy, subsidiarity …

Each of these four aspects links to network thinking and action, and can be further strengthened and guided by core principles (see this evolving list).

In the months to come, we will be fleshing out more of the practices around ESS/ENS to support network convenors, coordinators, facilitators, and weavers of all kinds, including those within organizations, to support systemic saluto-genesis (ongoing health creation).

Image by Wim Goedhart, “Forest Flow,” shared under conditions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

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April 20, 2020

Bringing a Network Theory Perspective to These Times, Part 2

Image by Alexander Baxevanis, “Flow,” shared under provision of the Creative Commons Attribution LIcense 2.0.

New paths of flow are needed for new patterns of organization that are resilient.”

– Sally J. Goerner, Robert G. Dyck, Dorothy Lagerroos, The New Science of Sustainability

This post builds on a post from a couple of weeks ago, looking at how in a time of pandemic, with viruses revealing other viruses (racism, othering, oligarchy, mechanical thinking run amok), and triggering viral responses of various kinds, this is prime time to cultivate network literacy and strength. In this post I want to highlight the importance of “flow network science” or the “energy network sciences.” These fields stretch across disciplines and look at how nutrients, information and other vital sources of energy move through the structures of living networks.

Dr. Sally J. Goerner and her colleagues (Dan Fiscus, Brian Fath, Robert Ulanowicz, and others) have looked at how certain features of systems-as-networks (communities, ecosystems, economies) contribute to their long-term health and thriving, including diversity, intricacy, adaptability and robustness. A key is to focus on those dynamics that support the self-renewing (regenerative) and saluto-genic (health promoting) capacities of living systems as and so that they evolve and adapt to disturbances in their environment (which is really an extension of their being!). A big part of this is not just focusing on the pattern of network connections, but what is moving through those connections, including quality and velocity of those flows, from whom and to whom.

At IISC, we are fielding lots of questions right now about what networks are doing or should do to not only to respond to the COVID19 emergency and achieve some semblance of stability, but also to build pathways to better, more resilient and equitable systems. Taking a cue from what we are observing and what we are learning from energy network sciences/flow networks, some of the things networks can do and are doing include:

  • Weaving and convening diversity to foster systemic intelligence and resilience
  • Distributing power and intelligence to enable rapid and timely responses in different parts of “the body”
  • Circulating accurate and accessible (curated) information in various forms (text, visual, audio) throughout “the whole” to support diverse learning and adaptation
  • Facilitating effective (clear, concise, well-timed and spaced) communication and conversation to help people stay grounded, focused and moving on what matters
  • Disseminating elements of opportunity- and abudance-based narratives that encourage people to lean into these times and not flee from or freeze in the midst of them
  • Identifying and circulating a variety of nourishment (multiple forms of “capital”) widely (especially to those who are otherwise undernourished) in the form of money, ideas, in kind support, and other resources
  • Promoting robust exchange to support innovation, learning and systemic vitality at different levels
  • Creating safe and brave spaces for people to share their challenges and successes, get peer-assists, give and receive emotional support that encourages risk-taking and further venturing into uncharted terrain
  • Designing and carrying out network activity and engagement with an ethic of love (“seeing others as a legitimate others”), care, generosity, abundance, common cause, mutualism, transparency, inclusion, equity, and our full humanity (minds, bodies, hearts, spirits)

And we can “double click” on each of the above to delve deeper into the “who” (roles and relationships), “how” (processes), which we are actively doing with a variety of groups, and will share more of what we are learning in future posts and webinars.

And in that spirit of learning, please share what you are learning and would add with respect to what networks can do and are doing to create pathways to the new and the better.

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April 9, 2020

Ripples, Spirals, Loops and Love: Mapping a Networked Change Effort

Image from abstractartangel77, “Spiralling,” used under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

About a month ago, I worked with a regional education network focused on racial equity in education to do ripple effect mapping (REM) based on the past three years of its work to diversify the teacher workforce, including efforts to help paraprofessionals advance into formal teaching roles. REM is a technique to evaluate the results of an initiative or intervention by pulling together a diverse and representative group of stakeholders to make sense of the impacts they see as rippling through the system. The methodology is very participatory and has extra added benefits of helping to strengthen relationships and understanding between what otherwise might be siloed stakeholders. REM can also help to guide the refinement of a theory of change (rooted in actual experience!) and lift up areas for further investigation, including barriers to and accelerators for greater impact and systemic shifts.

Ripple effect mapping combines four different methods: peer interviews, group sense-making, mind mapping, and qualitative data analysis. In general it happens through the following steps:

  1. Conduct a stakeholder analysis to identify the right set of participants that has participated in the initiative, including beneficiaries, implementers, sponsors, key decision-makers, resource providers, those with relevant expertise and lived experience, and critical connectors/boundary spanners.
  2. Convene the identified group. Our convening was a bit larger than the recommended size of 15-20 people – we had about 35 people representing different roles, institutions, geographies, perspectives and backgrounds.
  3. During the convening, conduct interviews using Appreciative Inquiry questions. Appreciative Inquiry invites people to reflect on the positive aspects of a project. We had people share something positive that they had experienced or witnessed associated with the project, including outcomes, relationships, learning, new collaborations, etc.
  4. Do a group mapping session, during which people build on what they shared and heard in the interviews, brainstorm and record the effects (the “ripples”) of the initiative or intervention. We used a large bank of chart paper and large stickies with two facilitators (one to steward the conversation, the other to place and move stickies) and several scribes. The resulting “mind map” illustrates the effects of the intervention and explores connections, causality, and virtuous cycles. Before ending the mapping session, we invited people to “take a step back,” take in the map and ask what stood out to them, what seemed most important, and what they wanted to know more about.
  5. Clarify, connect, code, and analyze data. After the session, a smaller group organizes the mind map and collects and connects additional details by following up with participants.
Image from Washington State University Extension – Sample Ripple Effects Map

This week a small team of us met for a second time (virtually, of course) to make sense of the data, including notes that were taken by a recorder and photographs of the mind map. It was helpful to do this in two meetings as there was a considerable amount of data, people are reeling from COVID, and it was important to have some time in-between the two sessions to do some more individual reflection, looking for patterns in the data.

In this second meeting, we started threading together our individual reads, and also reminded ourselves that we are dealing with complex systems and as such, linear causality is not necessarily what we should be looking for. What began to emerge as we talked (over the course of two hours) was a circular, or spiral, progression and lattice-work of nested impacts. We started to think in terms of “causal loops,” DNA helixes, and networked flows. An overarching question started to form –

What intersecting “virtuous loops” are we learning need to be supported to advance change and overcome “vicious loops” oriented towards keeping the system(s) as it/they are?

What we are working with as a core loop/spiral (for now) is the following:

  1. People who care and are committed come together across boundaries (districts, schools, roles, disciplines, perspective, culture)
  2. People practice deep listening to and learning from paraprofessionals, students, one another …  
  3. People start making different choices and behaving differently (changing job descriptions, altering programs to accommodate spoken and respected needs, engaging in mutual support, moving from competition to collaboration between programs, sharing information more transparently)
  4. People start to taste “transformation” (a sense of their and others’ potential, the power of lived experience in the classroom, the essential nature of community, the benefits of working together)
  5. The resulting enthusiasm feeds back into care and consideration, and the cycle repeats, and ideally takes in more people … (we have seen some evidence in this as paras become seen as leaders and mentors to other paras)

This core loop operates at and across different levels:

  1. The individual “beneficiary” level (students and para-professionals)
  2. The individual support level (mentors, teacher prep educators, those who hire/fire/retain)
  3. The individual school level
  4. The district/teacher prep program level
  5. Larger system levels (community, state policy and support)

And the loop will play out in different ways in different contexts. And so we are asking about differences and similarities across systems (trans-contextual, in the words of Nora Bateson).

This is all very emergent and still exploratory, as it should be, and we will continue to make meaning and test take-aways. And I think that we would all agree that the foundation of all of this is care, or a word we like to use at IISC – love. One definition of love is “seeing and treating the other as a legitimate other.” If we don’t begin with this at the level of students who we see as deserving to have the benefit of having teachers who look like and can experientially relate to them, if we do not see and believe in the potential, humanity and “expertise” of para-professionals of color, well, we go no where.

And so we continue to mull over and be guided by the dynamic “ripples and collisions” (in the words of a network participant) of this work to what we hope will be a better place …

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May 17, 2018

25 Behaviors That Support Strong Network Culture

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”

E.M. Forster, from Howard’s End

Photo by eflon, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

This is an excerpt from the final post in a series of five focused on networks for change in education and learning that have appeared on the Education Week and Next Generation Learning Challenges websites.

In this series on network design and network thinking, I explored the power and promise of networks as residing in how connection and flow contribute to life, liveliness and learning. See, especially, Connection is Fundamental.

In Why Linking Matters, I looked at how certain networks can more optimally create what are known as “network effects,” including small world reach, rapid dissemination, resilience, and adaptation.

I also noted, in Structure Matters in particular, that living systems–including classrooms, schools, school districts, and communities–are rooted in patterns of connection and flow. That’s why shifts in connections–between people, groups, and institutions–as well as flows of various kinds of resources can equate with systemic change, and ideally they can lead to greater health (in other words, equity, prosperity, sustainability).

Networks can also deliver myriad benefits to individual participants, including: inspiration; mutual support; learning and skill development; greater access to information, funding, and other resources; greater systemic or contextual awareness; breaking out of isolation and being a part of something larger; amplification of one’s voice and efforts; and new partnerships and joint projects.

It’s also true, however, that not every network or network activity creates all of these effects and outcomes. The last two posts looked at two factors that contribute to whether networks are able to deliver robust value to individual participants and the whole, including network structure and what form leadership takes. Networks are by no means a panacea to social and environmental issues and can easily replicate and exacerbate social inequities and environmentally extractive practice. So values certainly have a place, as does paying close attention to dynamics of power and privilege.

It is also the case that individual and collective behavior on a day-to-day basis have a lot to say about what networks are able to create. The following is a list of 25 behaviors for you to consider as part of your network practice as an educator:

  1. Weave connections and close triangles to create more intricacy in the network. Closing triangles means introducing people to one another, as opposed to networking for one’s own self, essentially a mesh or distributed structure rather than a hub-and-spoke structure.
  2. Create connections across boundaries/dimensions of difference. Invite and promote diversity in the network, which can contribute to resilience and innovation.
  3. Promote and pay attention to equity throughout the network. Equity here includes ensuring everyone has access to the resources and opportunities that can improve the quality of life and learning. Equity impact assessments are one helpful tool on this front.
  4. Name and work with power dynamics and unearned privilege in the direction of equity.
  5. Be aware of how implicit bias impacts your thinking and actions in the network. Become familiar with and practice de-biasing strategies.
  6. Think, learn, and work out loud, in the company of others or through virtual means. This contributes to the abundance of resources and learning in the network.
  7. Don’t hoard or be a bottleneck. Keep information and other resources flowing in the network.
  8. Identify and articulate your own needs and share them with others. Making requests can bring a network to life as people generally like to be helpful!
  9. Stay curious and ask questions; inquire of others to draw out common values, explicit and tacit knowledge, and other assets.
  10. Make ongoing generous offers to others, including services, information, connections.

For behaviors 11-25, see this link.

“… Keep reaching out, keep bringing in./This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,/for every gardener knows that after the digging, after/the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.”

Marge Piercy, from “The Seven of Pentacles”

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March 27, 2018

Why Linking Matters: Network Effects and Other Benefits

“We cannot live for ourselves alone.  Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along those sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.” 

– Herman Melville

Image by David Amano, shared under provision of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

In an earlier post in this series on networks and education, we explored the underlying vitality of connection and flow in our world and how this can create opportunity and health in our lives and in learning. According to network theory and practice, it can make a big difference when we are aware of who is and is not connected and then act intentionally to build and leverage relationships in both number and quality. Stories from a variety of fields illustrate the phenomenon of small and great change being rooted in creating ties and flows between different actors and elements in a system.

Now let’s take a step back and ask, “What is a network?” A basic definition is that networks are nodes and links. That is, they are elements of different kinds (people, schools, other kinds of organizations) that are tied together (consciously or unconsciously) in some larger pattern by one or more types of connectedness–values, ideas, friends and acquaintances, likes, exchange, transportation routes, communications channels. Social networks, comprised of individual people or groups, can be experienced in person and also virtually.

In the world of education and learning, here are some of the ways networks show up:

  • Open classrooms – Digital technology is used to connect students to a wide array of information and a diversity of community partners and real-world learning experiences both within and beyond a classroom’s walls. (e.g., CommunityShare)
  • Communities of practice –  Students, teachers, and school or district leaders connect their learning, engage in inquiry, and refine practice through learning webs within or across schools and districts.
  • Community schools/schools robustly connected to local community ecosystem – Connections create opportunities for authentic learning, job readiness, and student resilience; wrap-around services ensure fuller suite of supports for students. (e.g., Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative)
  • Networks of schools – Schools are connected by their alignment to a model or philosophy, influencing a culture shift within the broader field of education.
  • Movement networks/”networks of networks” – Collectives of schools or education organizations push for transformation in the field toward greater equity, democracy, “education as a public good” (e.g., National Public Education Support Fund).
  • You (yes, you!) as a network (student, teacher, leader … all learners) – As individuals, we are (or can be) internally connected to multiple intelligences and ways of knowing–analytical/intellectual, embodied/somatic, emotional, spiritual.

The Value of Networks for Education and Learning

So what is the big deal about networks? Is there really anything new here? These are questions that come up, though seemingly less often over the past five years or so with the proliferation of various social media. On the one hand, networks have always existed as long as life has existed, so there is not anything new here. On the other hand, the various digital tools and technologies that have evolved to rapidly and dramatically shrink the world are showing us what more intricate and efficient forms of communication and exchange can make happen.

And while it is true that virtually all collaborative forms of social organization meet the basic definition of being a network (coalitions, alliances, organizations, communities), not all such forms leverage to the same extent what are called “network effects.” … To continue reading this post on the Education Week website, go to this link.

“You’ve got to keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it.”

– Toni Morrison

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March 10, 2018

Connection is Fundamental: Networks for Life, Learning and Livelihood

“Relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance.”

-Rabindranath Tagore

The following is a segment from the first post in a series focused on network theory and its actual and potential applications to education and learning. This series appears on the Education Week website and was invited by Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) as it explores the potential of networks to advance equity, adaptability and excellence in public education …

Network theory is on the one hand a new and emerging interdisciplinary science and on the other hand it is ancient, grounded in indigenous and experiential ways of knowing about the reality of interconnectedness. Another important element of “network science” is imagination–the use of creative expression and metaphor that recognizes and works with relationship and relatedness that can help to guide our minds, hearts, and hands. These posts will draw insight from this broader understanding of network theory. This first post offers a larger view of the nature and potential of networks in our lives.

There is a lot of talk about networks these days. And there is considerable hope and effort being put into more interconnected ways of working and learning in order to bring about much needed innovation and change in multiple fields, including education. This is exciting, and at the same time I am concerned that the conversation can be relatively narrow, or leap ahead of some deeper insights of network theory and practice. In so doing there is a risk of not getting to the more promising potential of networks.

Connection is fundamental. This is a core observation of network theory (and various wisdom traditions). Network theory starts by pointing to the fact that we often talk about the world in terms of individual things and their properties. This kind of approach may work in situations and in systems that are fairly simple and relatively static. But when the interactions and the complexity of the elements in a system increase, it is the connections that determine the characteristics of the elements in the system and its overall health. This holds true for any kind of dynamic living system–ecosystems, human communities, economies, etc.

“Network theory suggests that what a system becomes emerges from the complex, responsive relationships of its members, continuously developing in communication.” 

-Esko Kilpi

Life is at base a network. It thrives on connection. We all know this, experientially, because we are alive! And when we are not feeling alive or lively it is often because we are disconnected, cut off in some way–from other people, from the natural world, from our selves (feelings, bodies, values), from power or a sense of purpose. (See the UK’s recent move, incidentally, to appoint a Minister of Loneliness to address the multiple ills stemming from growing social isolation). Life thrives on connection. …

To continue reading this post, follow this link.

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February 19, 2018

Practice for Presence … and Possibility

“It’s not knowing what to do that counts, it’s knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.”

– Mantra from Facilitative Leadership for Social Change

Last week I had the privilege of co-leading a three day Facilitative Leadership for Social Change training for a group of health equity advocates in Springfield, Massachusetts. It had been a while since I had done a training of that length, and it was a nice opportunity to not only cover more material, but to deepen the conversation and practice. Along the way there were many good questions about what to do around various challenges when one is co-leading a collaborative change effort. And a common response was, “It depends.”

Every group is different, every circumstance is different, and while it might make sense to take some cues from what has been successful in other situations, the caution is not to assume that it will work, or work in the same way, in other situations. This is one reason that I personally do not like the phrase “best practice” when talking about collaborative and facilitative change work. Given the complexity of people and social systems, I find it more helpful to think about “promising practices.”

That said, a promising practice that came up time and time again in our three day training, was the practice or practicing, of ongoing devotion to muscle-building in leadership skills such as process design, facilitation, coaching (leading with listening and inquiry), systems thinking, visioning/imagining, mutual learning and collaborative decision-making/governance. And in undertaking such practice, we at IISC would suggest this is not about achieving perfection. The humbling and exciting thing about collaborative leadership, in my humble opinion, is that it is a life-long learning pursuit and an endless opportunity to deepen understanding of ourselves, others and living systems. For this reason, one of my mantras is:

Practice for presence, not for perfection.

That is, practice can help practitioners get beyond being caught up in simply “learning the scales” of collaborative leadership, in trying to get the skills “right.” Practice at its best can contribute to a state of being more fully present to what is happening in any given situation and being able to work with that in powerfully improvisational ways.

Furthermore, over the past year, there has been a clear call for practice and practices that are explicitly about cultivating spaces to hold difference and tension and trauma. That may be another order of presence characterized by a deeper tuning in and movement away from more transactional processes to ones that are emergent, co-created and geared towards supporting moral courage and imagination. What that can require is vulnerability and a humble sense of “being with.” What it stands to make possible, as opposed to business-as-usual, is growth and real movement forward, together.

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