Recently I joined a meeting of NASBE’s study group on learners and learning in 2013 and beyond to share KnowledgeWorks’ Forecast 3.0, Recombinant Education. During that conversation, one of the members commented about an insight she’d recently had: states have tried and tried to scale innovation but have never quite managed it. She’d come to the conclusion that “We can’t do it.” But, she went on to say, “We can affiliate.”
As she explored the difference between scaling and affiliating, a light came on for me: scaling reflects the industrial model that education and many of our other systems have outgrown. In looking for ways to replicate success, we reflect an orientation toward mass production, even when we customize for local conditions. But we no longer live in an industrial world.
We at KnowledgeWorks advocate for scaling successful innovations across the education system, for doing more of what we know works well in certain places. Faced with great need, we all want more of works well for more kids. But shouldn’t we also think about ways of transforming education that are more in sync with how we’ve begun to organize production in our post-industrial times?
Over the years, primarily in workshops centered on sustainability, I’ve heard several speakers describe our time as being one of a paradigm shift from an economic toward an ecological or biological model. That feels right to me. And I see the disruption that Recombinant Education describes as de-institutionalized production as reflecting this shift.
As we turn increasingly to networks to organize ad hoc contributions from a talent cloud and to collaborate for however long we need to in order to achieve shared goals, we are operating according to principles of affiliation rather than scale. And it’s not necessarily one organization affiliating with another, or a formal organization pulling in the right individuals for a time. It’s also collections of individuals identifying each other along lines of affinity and turning to one another to find shared solutions.
To me, this kind of affiliating is very much in sync with, and a product of, our paradigm shift. In A Simpler Way, Meg Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers describe the possibilities that emerge when we approach the organization of work and other productive activity from a living systems perspective instead of modeling our organizations on “standards of machine efficiency” (71). They write:
Local activities build on themselves – connecting, expanding, transforming – and all without traditional planning or direction. The system emerges as individuals freely work out conditions of life with their neighbors. No one worries about designing the system. Everyone concentrates on making sense of the relationships and needs that are vital to their existence. They are coevolving. From such local, autonomous, and messy negotiations, something large, complex, and useful emerges…. And from the mess, a system appears that works (71).
No one likes to think about messes in relation to educating our children. But we are navigating many of them. Affiliation promises to cultivate new kinds of partnerships and collaborations that could lead to new kinds of solutions for learners.