Emerging Learning Ecosystems

Written by David Jackson

Learning ecosystems: system transformation as if people mattered 

Across the world, those leading education systems are grappling with the challenge of scale. Almost all systems can point to a few individual sites where students and teachers are engaged in deep and relevant learning and which are achieving outstanding learning outcomes. However, they remain unsure what role these sites can play in the larger goal of raising student learning outcomes across the whole jurisdiction.

System level strategies typically remain focussed on traditional levers of change: alterations to accountability expectations, system-wide curriculum standards, or changes to the training and performance management of teachers. Strategies to raise levels of innovation, such as increasing school autonomy and decentralisation, can also have the effects of increasing system fragmentation and decreasing the likelihood of influence and support from central government.

However, there is widespread consensus that it is likely to be schools that lead the next phase of innovation in education – the step-change that transformation requires. If so, how can system leaders support them to do that in a manner that serves the collective good? Moreover, as new potential partners and players continue to enter the education space, what can system leaders do to harness the new opportunities they represent for the public system? 

In the past five years, one key piece of learning the GELP community has come to recognise is that any deep system transformation relies on the transformation of people (as well as schools and systems). In other words, if the way young people learn is going to change, it will change only insofar as educators can develop, adopt or adapt new practices and models. Adult learning is a precursor of transformed student learning: andragogy is as important as pedagogy.

This has very significant consequences. Whilst ‘the school’ may be the most significant unit of change for the student learning experience, it is not the unit most conducive to changes in adult learning. That requires a larger and more diverse canvas. We have come to learn that the conditions for this kind of human transformation begin with collaborative social contexts that are open to outside influences: spaces where practitioners interact, experience new ways of thinking, have their practices challenged and, as a consequence, explore, model or try on new behaviours.

These larger units – networks, hubs, coalitions, partnerships, chains and federations – also have two further benefits. They are not just more conducive to innovation and learning. They also create more diverse footprints of practice (not just learning in one school, say, but new learning across schools) that give rise to a more substantive evidence-base. That is one obvious benefit. The second is more subtle. In order for new practices to travel across these local contexts from partner to partner they have to be codified into artefacts – the ‘boundary objects’ of theory. This enables transfer. These same artefacts then also act as a foundation for wider system scaling.

Such broader units and spaces can arise via school-to-school collaboration; partnerships with businesses or nonprofits; system-wide gatherings and convenings; or where schools (or groups of schools) have become permeable to engagement with and influence from their local community. Learning in these larger units can be enhanced by ideas that enter from the wider world, via online exchanges, or from the broader professional research and evidence-base. In order, however, for these moments of activation to translate into change of mindsets and behaviours, they need to be somehow sustained and amplified through ongoing interaction. Aspirations and ideas have to be pinned down by structured processes so that they can become established into new practice. Thus a crucial set of conditions for transformation involve the structures and relationships that enable educators to engage in ongoing reflection and development with a wider set of like- minded peers. These spaces and relationships are provided by what we are calling local learning ecosystems.

These potential spaces and relationships may emerge in a variety of ways, but only rarely do the strength of overlapping ties take on the power of learning ecosystems. Collaborative initiatives are a common feature of education system, even if they are typically shallow rather than deep. Likewise many schools can list some kind of partnership or network membership, but in few cases is participation central to their work.

The aim of this paper is to set out what it can look like when learning ecosystems do emerge in sustained and identity-changing ways. Four models are emerging that seem to have the potential to support and inform wide and deep system change:

School chains are groups of schools that share governance and act as a micro system. Educators across this form of network share a language and mission and see themselves as part of one distributed organisation. Schools share core processes, often including the centralised 

development of learning materials or movement of staff from one unit to another. Economies of scale allow chains to develop and provide professional learning experiences that are chain- specific and relevant, maximising the value of adult learning time.

Locally embedded hubs focus on responding to needs within their community and local context. Hubs can innovate across silos - connecting local businesses, social services, community groups and non-profit organisations in addition to the locality’s schools. Hubs build innovation capacity at a local level and create leading or exemplar practice in the context of a wider system. Multiple hubs can enable system level change where pockets of innovation build to a critical mass, and are shared across localities through national forums.

Designated ‘innovation zones’ are centrally facilitated innovation strategies (for example at the level of a city) that provides key support at multiple levels of the education system. A zone aims to create a network of schools, system leaders and broader education partners, and tasks them with working and innovating on behalf of the system around specific foci or design principles. This strategy sources leadership capability and sponsors lead innovators who can collaboratively produce new ideas and practice, incubate and test these innovations within specific schools or education contexts, and then support their scaling across the system as a whole.

Finally, looser networks and coalitions represent a more diffuse strategy for system change. This approach focuses on socialising new ways of working amongst professionals and school leaders. Learning networks can engage with a broad range of foci – be it teacher practice in personalisation, leadership in engagement, or school design in alternative pedagogies. 

Diffuse learning networks are most successful at spreading innovations when they institutionalize processes where teachers adopt and adapt new practice, such as teacher inquiry cycles.

Each of the models has advantages and disadvantages, and each can offer learning about the best ways to affect system level change. Hubs and iZones can more effectively bring into practice strong, new approaches, or incubate the adaptation of effective approaches from other systems. Past experience indicates that hubs and iZones have limitations when it comes to scaling effective practice beyond the initial group of schools. Chains and franchises have been most effective at spreading consistent practice across schools, but their separateness from the wider system can negatively impact wider influence. Looser networks and coalitions have been effective in socialising and spreading new practice across a whole system but their looser nature impacts their sustainability prospects.

A note on examples

The examples featured in this paper are illustrations rather than ideals – each is flawed and constrained in different ways, but we believe that each has achieved something notable and that the choices these networks, chains and coalitions have made represent significant learning that system leaders can build from. In aiming to describe what was notable about emerging learning ecosystems, we found we needed to stick mostly to those examples we are most familiar with. The illustrations in this paper are therefore taken predominantly from the English and US context, which is the context where we (David based in England and Amelia in the US) have the most granular knowledge. We are eager to learn from GELP members about further examples of these models or indeed of other forms of local ecosystems that may be emerging in different contexts. We hope that by bringing these different forms of system change together this can be the start of a rich new vein of enquiry within the GELP community.