The Extent to Which I Don’t Want to Talk about ‘Scaling’

Scales of Justice - Frankfurt Version

I hate it when people ask how we can start doing something “at scale.” There’s a physical, visceral, almost-dry heaving reaction that ripples through my body. I hear questions of scale and begin to think about Ford’s assembly line, Old Navy commercials, and genetically-engineered corn.

Solving hunger in Pittsburgh is different than solving hunger in Puerto Rico. Both of those are different than solving hunger in Peoria.

I don’t want scale, I want equity, and I want fairness. While scale can make both of those possible, we often conflate taking something to scale as establishing equity.

For instance, a district that claims has taken its 1:1 student-to-device ratio to scale has ensured depth of scale. They have scale at the surface. Everyone has a device, and I can point to the places where the usage of those devices is almost assuredly maintaining inequity if not exacerbating it.

If we must talk of scale, though, and I sense that we must, let’s at least add some nuance to our thinking and our conversations.

For me, this comes in one of the best lessons I ever learned in a classroom when Professor Archon Fung explained the following six sizes of social change. Here are his six ways of thinking about scale:

  • number of people affected
  • geographic spread across jurisdictions
  • critical mass in population segment
  • size of impact on individuals affected
  • scope and durability of individual impact
  • sustainability of effort over time
  • total individuals and assets engaged

This is a 3-D model for thinking about scale, and hopefully, you start to see how the best efforts are able to move to scale along each of these factors. Teach a person to fish, and you’ve fed them for life. Teach all people to fish, and you’ve fed all of them for as long as the fish hold out. Teach a population to responsibly manage aquacultures while identifying other sources of food, and you’ve built a world that can eat and has something to live for.

Scale is more complicated than, “Did we get everyone?” It should be, because everyone is complicated.

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