Reflections from the World Innovation Summit for Education
By Ross Hall, November 2019
Ross Hall is a founding member of The Weaving Lab
I’ve just returned home after an exhausting and equally energising week at WISE (the World Innovation Summit for Education) in Doha. Under the title ‘UnLearn, ReLearn: What it Means to be Human’, over 3,000 educators and influencers busied themselves with plenary talks, debates, workshops, networking, and deep conversation.
At such a large scale, it’s impossible to experience everything WISE has to offer, and of course my perspectives of the event were skewed by my own limited experience, which involved: Dipping into plenary discussions; Holding intense 1-on-1 discussions and interviews; Co-leading the WISE Emerging Leaders’ Program (with a focus on personal wellbeing and collaborative leadership); Co-hosting a Weaving Lab learning journey (including an experimental online learning experience with 30 weavers in Doha and 60 dialled in from around the world); And co-facilitating a workshop entitled ‘Learning to Live for Universal Wellbeing’.
Another important caveat to bear in mind is that the following reflections are undoubtedly coloured by my own confirmation bias, which I suspect is strong at the moment, so although I’ve tried to be as objective as possible, do please take everything below with a pinch of salt.
It is increasingly apparent to me that to effect systemic change in education, it is important to get better at living with dualities. The complex nature of changing education systems requires collaborative approaches and both complexity and collaboration inevitably bring seemingly opposing realities. I was conscious of many dualities in Doha, but here are five that stand out:
- Certainty and doubt — I felt a strong sense of clarity through many conversations in Doha. But the deepest conversations were those in which both parties remained open to being wrong.
- Urgency and patience — Throughout the conference, there was a palpable sense of urgency to transform education and to address the many crises we are facing as a species and planet. But I was struck by the idea that the most impactful work is often deeply reflective and inevitably slow.
- Optimism and anxiety — If we want to change the world, it’s important to face up to the terrible realities we’re now facing. But there are huge numbers of inspiring people doing inspiring work everywhere and it’s important that we take the time to celebrate and build hope.
- Chaos and order — We have a tendency to expect only projects that are planned, linear and measurable to succeed. While this can be helpful, it seems equally true that change is often unplannable, messy and immeasurable.
- International and local — Many of us are drawn to create change at global or national scales and while this seems valid and desirable, change must, inevitably, be grounded in the everyday, local lives of real human beings. International initiatives must connect with local projects.
Weaving collaborative change requires an ability and willingness to hold tensions between apparent opposites.
Innovation and System Change
Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of conversation about the need for new innovations and the need to get better at spreading existing innovations (including what might also be called ‘wise practices’). The following challenges to the spread of innovation & wise practices came through strongly in Doha:
- Spreading is complex, messy and needs localisation. Early adapters should perhaps be called early adapters.
- Codification of innovations & wise practices is poor which can make it difficult for early adapters to adapt.
- Stories of innovations & wise practices spreading successfully are scarce which hinders the early majority from becoming early adapters.
- Evidence that supports the effectiveness of innovations & wise practices is often missing, which hinders uptake.
- Innovations and wise practices are not always designed to scale or spread.
- Innovations and wise practices are too rarely focused on deep, enduring, systemic change.
- Many projects are too focused on scaling the organisation, rather than spreading the idea.
- Innovators and early adapters need to learn how to spread, but usually invest too little in their own learning.
- There is an important role for — but often a lack of — intermediaries (such as incubators, catalysts and change agents) in the spreading process.
- The task of spreading is too often taken on by lone heroes, whereas effective spreading usually requires teams who are collaborating and supporting each other.
- Projects are often isolated from people and processes that have a critical impact on the adoption and implementation of an innovation or wise practice. Many actors who create the necessary conditions for spreading innovation and wise practice are often left out of the process.
These last two points, in particular, point to the importance of weaving in the spread of innovation and wise practice.
There was a strong wellbeing theme throughout the conference this year, which, as someone who struggles with anxiety and who is surrounded by people burning out from trying to change the world, was refreshing in itself.
More satisfying was the ease by which the term Universal Wellbeing was used to describe the wellbeing of self, society and nature as an interdependent whole — and to describe the idea of everyone being well. And even more exciting was how the term resonated so strongly as a guiding North Star for everyone’s work that is directed at the SDGs and beyond.
From the perspective of weaving, I feel strongly that we need to point our weaving efforts in the direction of Universal Wellbeing. It’s quite possible to weave a beautiful and powerful network that works against our wellbeing. The practice of weaving in itself is neutral. But by sharing Universal Wellbeing as our North Star, we can weave together many, many networks into an increasingly powerful, positive organism.
Learning to Live for Universal Wellbeing (Global Responsibility)
The idea of living for Universal Wellbeing aligns perfectly with the GRLI’s idea of Global Responsibility, which involves: always acting with the common good in mind; being consciously connected to one’s own self, to others in meaningful relationships, and to the whole; and shifting consciousness from “I” to “We” to “All of Us”.
Living in this way involves (among other things) being empathic and self-aware, being open and present, being reflective and thoughtful, being purposeful and proactive, being courageous and authentic, being imaginative and creative, being curious and growth-minded.
The development of these ‘ways of being’ requires attention and practice. Learning to live for universal wellbeing is an ongoing process of developing the whole human being to live for the whole world. Life-long, purposeful, self-directed learning is essential. To enable everyone to develop in this way, teachers will become learning guides, and many other actors who influence the experience (and therefore the learning) of others will need to collaborate in thriving learning ecosystems.
Learning Ecosystems and Place-Making
Encouragingly, the idea of learning ecosystems was very present in conversations throughout Doha, driven in part by the WISE/Innovation Unit’s report, Local Learning Ecosystems: Emerging Models and helped also by the release of Pavel Luksha’s and Jessica Spencer-Keyes’ new report, Learning Ecosystems: An Emerging Practice for the Future of Education. (Editor’s note: As of publication, this report is not yet available. We will update the link once it is available.)
In part, the idea of learning ecosystems is being used helpfully to denote a new kind of learning system (holistic, emergent, collaborative, adaptive, organic) from the now defunct model of an education system (narrow, linear, fragmented, inert, mechanistic). However, the idea of a learning ecosystem is not limited to a new form of education system per se and can be used to describe any neighbourhood, city, organisation or network in which everyone is learning to live for universal wellbeing.
Another critical aspect here came through some beautiful conversations I had in Doha about how, when we weave learning ecosystems, we must pay attention to the ‘eco’ and ensure that nature is always present. Learning in, with and for nature is essential to a learning ecosystem and to universal wellbeing.
Equally encouraging was the emergence of Place-Making as a term that means the weaving of geographically-centred learning ecosystems (the intentional creation of whole neighbourhoods, villages, towns or cities in which everyone is learning to thrive together — learning to live for universal wellbeing ).
This is a hyper-holistic approach that involves whole communities empowering whole human beings to live for the whole world.
Tying all this together is the idea of weaving, which might well have been the word of the conference. It seemed to be present in every conversation, with a very strong sense that the spread of innovation and wise practice — and change in education systems — is moving too slowly, to a large extent because there is insufficient alignment, collaboration and systemic action.
Weaving is, by definition, the ongoing and nuanced process of:
- Aligning your community
– Aligning your community to a shared purpose, values and history.
– Growing a diverse community
– Nurturing dynamic, trusted relationships.
– Creating the conditions for collective action
– Co-creating teams of teams
– Maintaining direction & momentum of teams & projects
– Fostering innovation & communication across teams
- Acting systemically
– Understanding systems and systems change
– Reading & sensing your learning ecosystem
– Creating impact in your learning ecosystem
– Measuring progress & financing your ecosystem
- Being your new ecosystem
– Being self-aware, empathic, present & open
– Being purposeful & proactive
– Being reflective, possibility-minded, thoughtful & wise
– Being resourceful, creative & playful
– Being authentic, vulnerable, courageous & resilient
- Learning together
– Being adaptable, growth-minded & curious
– Identifying community learning objectives & methods
– Facilitating flows of learning throughout your community
– Monitoring, evaluating & applying learnings to evolve community purpose & practice
While being conscious of the caveats I mentioned above, I firmly believe that building our capacity to weave learning ecosystems for universal wellbeing is a prerequisite to transforming education systems and to thriving together.
Thank you to WISE for your foresight and invaluable contribution.