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Building the Plane as You Fly: 5 Ways Educators Can Learn More While They Innovate

students in classroom

The expression “building the plane as you fly” has become increasingly familiar across education. It captures the feelings of risk and uncertainty that accompany designing innovations and testing them in real time with actual participants, all while being responsible for keeping existing operations running. It reflects the idea that you know you need to try to build something different, even as you still have students on board—who enter your doors every day in need of a range of services. The risky, uncertain aspects of this endeavor feel all the more acute under the pressure of grant deadlines and the eyes of evaluators, unless you are explicitly given the space to refine what you’re building, along with the gift of non-judgmental, learning-focused feedback. While these allowances are typically rare, we have received both from developmental evaluation firms Equal Measure and Harder+Company Community Research, our partners in a unique initiative.

To return for a moment to the risks of building the plane while flying it: The metaphor doesn’t fully capture the pressure of the audiences (parents, politicians, faculty) waiting atop every cloud to criticize and judge the proverbial plane and its pilot on just about everything (outcomes, impact, equity, etc.). This can leave us as initiative leaders frustrated—wanting to yell over the noise, "but we're still building it!” Not only are we still building it, the reality is that, unlike a plane, there is no blueprint or manual for creating the final product.

The challenges in education are complex and do not lend themselves to clear-cut, one-shot solutions; they require complicated transformations of operating systems, culture, and beliefs. Transforming systems means simultaneously creating plans, designing strategies, and implementing them, all while troubleshooting and making mid-course adjustments. One of the most important aspects of this cycle is the need to learn and revise along the way. If the wings don't work quite right, the plane must be able to continue gliding as everything gets recalibrated based on what was learned. And equally important is the culture of owning and sharing this learning with stakeholders without fear.

This is why we argue that innovating at scale feels even riskier to educators than building a plane while flying: As a sector, education has not authentically embraced continuous improvement or learning cycles, which are critical to innovative prototyping and advancements. Nor has the sector built a shared expectation that institutions should continually be learning and adjusting.

So how can educators get comfortable with the process and pacing of a learning culture? Through transparent, authentic partnerships. Over the past 22 months, Jobs for the Future and a range of partners have engaged in a unique initiative called Linked Learning Regional Hubs of Excellence. Funded by The James Irvine Foundation, this regional, collaborative, cross-agency initiative focuses on transforming systems and creating conditions critical for strategic and authentic partnerships that support the Linked Learning approach.  This approach combines rigorous academics, technical training, work-based learning, and embedded support services for students, preparing them for college and career success. The partnership with the external evaluation firms, Equal Measure and Harder+Company, has been instrumental to this initiative’s progress. Their introduction of a developmental evaluation has contributed to a paradigm shift for all four of the regional sites. While the new paradigm is still evolving, the developmental evaluation emphasizes capturing and reflecting on learning rather than judging achievement and focusing only on outcomes. While outcomes are in fact captured, the point is that lessons learned—both successes and failures—are valued more than hard, target outcomes at this stage of innovation and development.

For all organizations engaged in this initiative, the partnership with the evaluation team has made a significant impact: pushing the thinking around strategies, surfacing clarity of intent, noting patterns, and ultimately contributing to the acceleration of the initiative’s progress. Our colleagues share some great insights in their recent blog post, along with valuable resources for developmental evaluations. Below are some of our own key takeaways for organizations seeking to strengthen the collective learning from pilot initiatives.

  • Create reflection space. It is critically important to take the time to dialogue with practitioners, partners, and stakeholders about the project’s changes, desired outcomes, and lessons learned. Prioritizing discussions that focus on continuous improvement creates transparency in the process. This practice signals and enhances humility and trust, which are both critical ingredients for successful change.
  • Emphasize the learning, not the outcomes. The focus on shared expectations and the ability to recalibrate are critical. This isn't to say that desired outcomes should not be articulated, but it does mean stressing where emphasis should be placed. Ask yourself: If we don't hit our outcomes, but we learn how to do x, y, or z better, have we accomplished our goal?
  • Practice humility. Preconceived ideas of how something should look or what should happen rarely produce the lasting change desired. These notions prevent leaders from hearing both the concerns and the ideas of stakeholders who will be impacted by change. It’s important to remember that system transformation and culture change is a collective journey and progress must move at the pace of the people involved. Invest in hearing them.
  • Invite partners. Multiple perspectives and voices are needed to engage in meaningful learning, reflecting, and defining— and to minimize group think. As practitioners, we are deeply embedded in the work and can become caught up in our own interpretations of events and thought patterns, which means it's essential to have critical thought partners. Allow for multiple drivers and voices, and don’t forget to share the learnings broadly and often.
  • Embrace flexibility and ambiguity. There is rarely a single answer that can be applied across all scenarios or to the range of stakeholders who are essential to transformative efforts. Therefore, it is important to remain comfortable with ambiguity—testing or prototyping promising practices and then adjusting based on the learning. It is critical that the culture reinforce and support the notion of ambiguity so everyone has permission to stop looking for the answers and start looking for the learning.

Being mindful of these approaches is helping us navigate the flight, serve our many passengers, and build a better initiative as we strive to reach our destination—supporting regions as they grow stronger through effective application of Linked Learning.

In the concluding post in this series, The James Irvine Foundation provides a funder’s perspective on applying developmental evaluation as a means for learning and improvement.