The Learning Accelerator Blog/Solving Problems in Uncertain Times

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Solving Problems in Uncertain Times

by Nate Kellogg on November 30 2021

School and system leaders continue to face numerous trials and tribulations. While vaccines are finally available to most school-age kids, the 2021-22 school year continues to present uncertainty. Between navigating challenges with teacher burnout, shortages in critical positions, and ongoing closures due to the pandemic, the need to navigate through uncertainty with limited resources has never been higher. Regardless of what the next problem around the next corner looks like, leaders can confidently surface solutions by:

  • Regrounding their work in their vision;

  • Integrating new voices in the work; and

  • Following a rapid-cycle design process.

Revisit Your “North Star”

School and system leaders typically kick-off their back-to-school meetings with teachers by laying out the vision for the school. Typically, these commitments (often along the lines of, “ensuring that every child is prepared for college and career”) collect dust as the realities of school take hold. But when challenges arise and resolve is tested, these mission statements can provide needed clarity, helping to shed light on what is most important for the school community. When leaders step back to revisit their “north star,” they can provide clarity of purpose, realign actions, and help get their team on the same page, focusing on a unified vision for change.

Bring Stakeholders Together to Problem-Solve

While most school and system leaders will consult their leadership teams for input with tough decisions, few look beyond their traditional hierarchies. However, when faced with uncertainty and new problems, leaders need new voices to provide new thinking. Collaborating with stakeholders who are traditionally left out of the conversation can help leaders to think differently – especially when inviting in people who are working closest to the problems they’re experiencing. For example, current or former substitute teachers can provide new insights into the challenges of hiring and retaining substitutes. Teachers and staff, family members, community leaders, and – especially – students can provide new perspectives through empathy interviews, which help the team better understand the problems at hand and think more creatively about potential solutions with equity and inclusivity in mind.

Quickly Test and Iterate on Solutions

With a diverse, aligned team of stakeholders focused on a concrete vision, leaders are ready to tackle problems in uncertain times. Rather than debating a solution and implementing it across an entire school or district, leaders can follow a rapid-cycle design process that quickly surfaces and tests bold solutions. By designing a solution to be piloted on a small scale, leaders can evaluate innovative ideas without feeling held back by concerns of larger-scale failure. To the contrary, such a process allows leaders to fail fast and learn quickly, improving upon solutions by collecting data and iterating as they progress. Doing so will position leaders to scale-up only those solutions that have proven successful in their context – all the while gaining new champions for the work by bringing new stakeholders into their decision-making processes.

If the past 18 months are an indicator of the road ahead for our nation’s schools, leaders will undoubtedly navigate new challenges amidst uncertain times. But charting a path forward can be an inclusive, innovative process that spotlights new perspectives and brings to light solutions that are proven to work.

For additional activities to inclusively surface and try out solutions to problems in your school or system, explore the Real-Time Redesign Guide, a practical toolkit for improving equity and resiliency in schools, which includes concrete examples from leaders following these processes in the real-world to make meaningful change.

About the Author

Nate Kellogg is a Partner at The Learning Accelerator. With a decade of experience in schools, Nate leverages his expertise with educational technology and innovation to support school- and systems-level change.