PROCESS POST: What’s your “moonshot” at your school?

Some dots in my mind are forming stronger connections among them. All of these particular dots relate to the visioning and implementing processes that schools undertake.

In my research and practice, and in my work at Unboundary, I’ve called it Pedagogical Master Planning. Essentially, PMP utilizes strategic transformation design to engage a school/learning community in the construction of “as-built blueprints” and transformation plans for it’s teaching and learning core – its pedagogical ecosystem (purpose, leadership, professional learning, instruction, curriculum, assessment, and learning environments). It’s like campus master planning or design-build architecture, but for the system that really makes a school a school  – not the buildings but the teaching and learning core/corp.

My close friend and colleague Grant Lichtman has recently coined the term and led workshop experiences around Zero-Based Strategic Thinking. On May 11, he wrote about it here. Like zero-based budgeting, Zero-Based Strategic Planning takes on more of a “start from scratch” mindset. Instead of assuming the present condition and tweaking it slightly for next year, it assumes a future-back mindset and builds to systemically accomplish that ideal future state.

Another friend and colleague Chris Thinnes may be the most beautiful writer about this moment of transition and transformation in education. The beauty, for me, resides in the creation of phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and pieces that lend poetic turns to very deep thinking about the crossroads we face as school leaders and educators. As just one example, Chris writes here about “Alves, Dewey, & Rinaldi on Our ‘Season of Design.”

A third, even more recent, stretcher of my thinking is Thomas Steele-Maley. On May 14, he published “On Mutation in Education.” He provokes us readers to consider the dynamic ecology composed largely of education, content, and hours. And he reminds us that “the individual is the kernal of energy for educational design.” I wonder which individual? If I might be so bold, much of the structure of school seems to be based more on the adult individual efficiencies and conveniences than on the “user experience” or “user interface” of the student learners. (As just one test of that – find me an adult workplace, other than school, that is organized in time schedule and content structure like a school.)

Also on May 14, Scott D. Anthony and Mark Johnson published an HRR Blog Network piece titled, “What a Good Moonshot is Really For.” It’s been a serious mental-marble ringer for me in the last 24 hours.

Organizations should have their moonshots. They’re a keystone of what we call a “future-back” approach to strategy, which unlike the “present forward” nature of most strategic-planning processes, doesn’t operate under the assumption that tomorrow will be pretty much like today, and the day after pretty much more of the same. In stable times, present-forward approaches help optimize resource allocation. But in turbulent times, these approaches can lead companies to miss critical market inflection points.

At the heart of the future-back process is a consensus view of your company’s desired future state.This isn’t scenario planning, where you consider a range of possibilities. This is putting a stake in the ground — specifying what you want your core business to look like, what adjacent markets you want to edge into, and the moonshots you’ll try for. And, as Kennedy did, a good future-back strategy goes well beyond the three-year planning horizons that typify most corporate strategy efforts.

Anthony and Johnson go on to explain that a moonshot has three traits: 1) it inspires, 2) it’s credible, and 3) it’s imaginative. But to me, the very most important insight from them – “At the heart of the future-back process is a consensus view of your company’s desired future state.” Do you want compliance or commitment to realizing your vision as an organization? If we want purposeful commitment, we have to devote tireless energy to establishing the consensus view. In PMP, this is why I stress the power of the visualization in the design. It enables a community to exercise collective voice in creating the desired future state and it enables them to SEE a common understanding of what they intend to build and create. It’s why architectural blueprints are so effective for building and renovation. The various sub-contractors can SEE all of the sub-systems and how they interact and connect with each other.

Finally (this is just a 10-minute time-limit process post), I am convinced I need to do a deep-dive study into Otto Sharmer’s Theory U. An executive summary lives here.

My time’s up. We need a MOONSHOT in schools. And it needs to come from backwards design of the future we want for our citizenry and learners and the wisdom we have about brain science, engagement, psychology, flow, play, passion, and purpose… and the challenges we face as a society and the degree of commitment we have to innovating and creating toward the resolutions of those challenges.

What’s your moonshot at your school? I’m quickly growing to believe that new schools have them, and existing schools mostly lack them.

17 thoughts on “PROCESS POST: What’s your “moonshot” at your school?

  1. Bo,

    A child sits in a forest. She listens. She learns the sounds that a stream makes and that sound is different than the sound of a bird. She sees. She learns that some birds peck at berries on a tree and others sit in the tree and watch and wait for a mouse to run by before swooping down. She feels. She learns that when the sun goes down she starts to get cold, and therefore the sun delivers heat to the earth. You know I could go on for days like this. No other person is in the forest. Experience is the teacher. The student is a natural receptor.

    I am not saying that human connection is not “better”; I am only saying it is not required for all learning. Now we build up from there.

    • Great example! While there is only one human here, I believe your excellent image made my opinion even more concrete – there is no non-relational learning. I love that you clarified your position so that I could see your thinking more visibly. Thank you!

      By the way, what will the girl do next with her observation, reflection, and altered state from less to more? Will there be another human involved then?

      • Hopefully. And that is where the building starts. We start from the zero base that this child can learn some very important lessons all on her own. The only two resources she has are herself, time, and her recognition of Self as opposed to “other” (the forest in this case). Now, how can we make that learning better? How do we add value? Now everything else is in play, but not because it has always been there; because we carefully decide it needs to be there, via PMP-style processes. Now we add other people and processes and she learns more and better and more richly, but not because we have to; because we can.

        I think the only thing that has changed in my mind after the discussions in Maine is that good outcomes are not inevitable; outcomes in our current frame are not inevitable; even a process as well-designed as PMP does not result in a guaranteed sustainable outcome because mutation demands that the system is inherently unsustainable in unpredictable ways. Shoshona and Jim suggest ways to take what has value from a system that is being mutated and carry it over to a new system. But it requires breaking down the existing system to absolute component parts first, and that is why I jumped on this zero-base idea.

      • I thought we would get to this place of mutual understanding eventually. Part of the method of my madness was to explore this “confusion” in writing here, and seek time-lapsed development of shared understanding, partly because I think it illuminates the purposeful effort that will be required with the proposed NAIS session.


  2. I am no scientist but I will throw a lens in there that may help. Grant, I love your ecosystem metaphor and buy into it whole-heartedly. So I offer symbiosis as the element that adds more than students and time to zero-based thinking. Symbiosis (from a quick search to spur my thoughts) is a close ecological relationship between the individual of two or more species. Sometimes a symbiotic relationship benefits both species, sometimes it benefits one at the other’s expense, and in some neither benefits. There are different types of symbiosis: mutualism, commensalism, parasitism, competition, neutralism.

    Symbiosis requires intimacy. Connections and unions can happen in many different ways and using all types of mechanisms. But I think learning- even if done independently- takes root and depth when shared in an intimate relationship. With whom the relationship occurs is up for discussion, but intimacy is key.

    Sorry for the rambling, but I hope it furthers the discussion.

    • It’s not rambling. This really helps me and my thinking, Angel. Thank you. I love the connection to symbiosis. I think your thread is critical and succinct.

  3. … but let us please tread lightly on the notions (1) that all that are needed are students, time, and care — or (2) that actors outside the community provide the ‘same’ service (whether at lower cost or not). Agreed the brave experiment of rethinking the role of teacher is vital, and reframing that role is a discourse in which I think we’ve been engaged for some time. But as to the first point, however heretical this may be to ‘radical’ progressivism, there is a limit to the learning that takes place entirely self-directed, whether individual or collaborative, especially among younger learners. The role of the teacher can be rethought, but not the presence and vital importance of the teacher, if we understand ‘teacher’ to mean something so much more than ‘information provider.’ That is one of many limits, in my opinion, of the brass tacks from which some pundits distract with sleight of hand, when foisting simplistic corporate models of business innovation on the education system. I can find a doctor on WebMD, but I don’t get treatment there. Conversely, I can learn math skills on Khan Academy, but no one ‘there’ will help support my application or transfer of those skills outside the ‘worksheet’ model.

    So, too, there is no question but that learning is relational, community is essential, and cross-cultural competencies (as one example of many core goals for student citizens) are not going to be developed or supported in virtual environments as they can be in school spaces more ‘traditionally’ defined. Perhaps a ‘hybrid’ of the variety explored by Peter Gow ( acknowledges the enormous possibilities of Both/And . . .

    • Thank you, Chris. I agree, and your exploration and clarification helps me think more deeply and broadly about this… and yet, paradoxically, your expression also helps me focus more tightly. Thank you.

  4. The key question directed from Jim and Shoshona is not “what makes your institution work?” In their historical derivation, that does not matter. What matters is if someone else can replace what makes your institution work with something else at a lower cost or in a way that is more pleasing to the end user. This is harsh, but I think they are right; mutations are part of evolution and evolution does not always turn out well for those watching it happen. So your “magical” I think is something like the “caring” that my viewer contributed. Even that, I believe, can be replaced if we put the entire concept of a school up for discussion…there are so many other ways to create caring and magic in the world that do not necessitate anything which looks even remotely like a school.

      • “School” is about learning. I heard somewhere that “Its About Learning”. I also heard somewhere that learning is about the learner. So “school” needs students; that seems to be pretty simple logic. But I can’t find the same simple logic for the other people in what we today call school. That does not mean they are not beneficial; it just means that we have to start at a zero base to understand how they add value.

    • In a place between “the ideal” and “reality,” school is, and should be, about learning. AND I believe that learning, at its most inner core, is RELATIONAL. Even at an individual level, the individual is in relation with what he/she is reading/experiencing. And, I think we know that the deepest learning is relational in the social sense, too.

      School is actually structured more around “teaching.” It’s actually less structured for “learning.” But with a moonshot, we could make it more about learning.

      It’s interesting about the very word “student.” It is a relational word, not a reflexive word, isn’t it? It’s a label for someone in relation to something else… someone else. It’s what makes the distinction from “learner” so powerful for those who “get it.”

      • Both student and learning imply a change of state, from less to more, of what? Knowledge, wisdom, experience, ability, etc etc. So if student is a relational word it must be between a state of “less” of these things to a state of more of them. But the purist in me does not see that another human is required in the relation; it may be a better relation, but it is not required. So the “better” is where understanding value comes in. It can’t be assumed to have value until we define what that value is. This is where I want to break people down to: justify the pieces in your organization, not because they are assumed to be critical; most are not.

      • Grant, please give me even one example of a learning episode that does not involve at least two humans. I am perplexed by your statement, “But the purist in me does not see that another human is required in the relation; it may be a better relation, but it is not required.”

        If someone reads a book or blog post, another human prepared that at the other end. If the reading was created by a “bot,” then another human created that technology and possibility.

        There is no non-relational learning.

  5. Thomas and I both sat up in the discussion with Shoshona and Jim when we had arrived, with stiff questioning from Jim, at the point that time may be the key factor. The discussion was something like:

    Jim: What is the problem you are really trying to solve?
    Us: Transforming ed, learning, self-evolution, etc.
    Jim: Try again.
    Us (after several tries): Learning
    Jim: So what in “learning” cannot be shifted to or done better and at a lower cost by some actor outside of the traditional school framework?
    Us: Time is the only thing that is utterly required. All other needs can be met in varying ways.
    Jim: So that is where you start.

    Based on this I asked workshop attendees to separate what could and could not be shifted or subsumed (am summarizing here). Got a lot of responses and great discussion. Some feel “teachers” are critical; others of course recognize that they are not. So far, the only two items I have added to “time” at the list at the zero base are “students” and “caring”. Shoshona and Jim would argue that mutations will subsume all which are subsumable, so strategic thinking demands we start which that which is not subsumable, and build up from there.

    I see this as completely compatible thinking to developing a moonshot!

    • Thanks, Grant. I need a face-to-face debrief of this. I get lost at the last “Us.” I imagine you have a deeper understanding of what “time” really means, after talking with Jim, Thomas, and Shoshona for 5 hours. I really want to understand what is actually in this composite we call “time.” I think “time” is the iceberg section we can see above the surface. I think deeper components lie beneath the surface, covered by the visible descriptor of “time.”

      What about face-to-face relational exchange and engagement? At a smaller scale – parent, apprentice, tutor – I think we know that is a serious improvement to gang/group instruction. But we are only in the earliest stages of shifting that – Khan Acad, Coursera, etc. AND something critical remains missing. It’s like the difference between recorded music and live shows. Live music remains “magical” because it has something that is essential – in-person human connection at crowd/participatory scale.

      And this might be heresy and get me blacklisted at places, but I wonder how much the obstacle is “school as childcare.” How much are we unable to shift the paradigm, despite what we are learning and understanding about learning, because adults simply need somewhere for their kids to be during the work-hours of the day. It sounds crass the way I am saying it, and I don’t mean it unempathically or unsympathetically. But I think this is a critical nut to crack.

      • All of the iceberg you mention=content (consumed and created regardless of f2f or online, pedagogical method…. ) and is determined by time. No blacklists necessary, as time must include all societal, economic and environmental considerations–your points are very real–do learning centers or affiliations with schools need to be eschewed to see mutation…. I would argue no, if these spaces see learning and society in ecological terms (some succession will happen as will new growth to adapt to the change in climate–the plasticity in that change especially behavioral is indeed a tough nut to crack for predictions (MAY TAKE BOLD EXPERIMENTS) ect)

        Ted Sizer asked similar questions in many ways in his book Places of Learning, Places of Joy (1973)

        The individual (young and old) make up any learning ecology/design any such learning ecology designed for all, in my thought will be resilient. Teachers and Students are really humans seeking mutual aid with different and valuable information and experience to share- We designed education at one point to exploit this for certain purposes (working in a factory or cube)….What we do for the networked world will be driven by demand and necessity similarly….

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