Question, don’t Copy


When doing the work to transform learning in a system, simply copying what other people are doing won’t get you what you need in the long run – not with the consistency another approach might provide.

That other approach? Find out what questions the other folks asked, and then ask those same questions within the system in which you find yourself.

Lifting the work of others, specifically highly-effective work deeply seated within a specific community (and these are the projects that most are most often ripe for replication) guarantees unsustainable or less-effective results.

An example?

Let’s say a principle and leadership team from a rural high school makes a trip to visit several highly-touted urban high schools within a few hours drive. While touring, they note that one of the schools has an internship program for its students that allows them to partner with local companies, non-profits, and service organizations for academic credit.
Talking with the leadership and participating students in the urban school, the rural school team hears strong testimony about the success of the program in helping students to discover and develop nascent interests and build networks of social capital they wouldn’t otherwise have had access to without the internship program.

“Yes,” the members of the rural team agree on their drive home, “This is a program we need to start when we get home.” And they do. The next school year, they start the program, placing 11th- and 12th-grade students with similar partners in larger neighboring communities.

Midway through the school year, despite the best intentions and hard work by a dedicated faculty and staff, the program is failing spectacularly.

Students often beg off the drive to partner organizations, citing travel times as unfair burdens and complaining about the added schedule demands on homework and extra curricular participation. Those without access to transportation find themselves relegated to a less diverse selection of partner organizations and are understandably jealous of their better-resourced partners.

By the end of the year, the rural leadership team decides the program more arduous than worthwhile given its diminishing returns. “The urban school,” they agree, “is better resourced to offer such dynamic experiences to it’s students.”

If only they’d asked questions instead of building someone else’s solution.

What questions? How about:

  •  What is the problem we are trying to solve?
  • What resources – physical and virtual – are at our disposal to help us solve that problem?
  • What is it about the urban program that we would like our students to experience in our own community?
  • What are the differences between our setting and the urban school and how do those differences present advantages and disadvantages?
  • What questions did the urban school ask as they developed their program?

Coming at the issue from a questioning rather than copying standpoint would likely have allowed our rural school to head off many, if not all, of the problems it experienced in implementation.

Perhaps the school would realize the lack of immediately local partners was an opportunity for students to identify local needs for community organizing and coordination. Perhaps the school would recognize that students could build these partnerships for the betterment of their town and leverage online access to experts and information to help build student capacity where deficits existed.

Questioning, not copying, would likely have resulted in a product that looks little like the urban program on the surface, but a product that provides the rural students with the same kinds of learning experiences that excited the rural team in the first place.

In the same way we don’t borrow from another puzzle when we realize we are missing a few pieces from the jigsaw we’re currently working, we cannot expect copying from other systems will provide the fit we need to serve the people in our care.

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