George Lucas Educational Foundation

Big Thinkers: Chris Dede on Scaling Success

Chris Dede, Professor of Learning Technologies at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, describes the challenges of replicating successful educational programs.
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Big Thinkers: Chris Dede on Scaling Success (Transcript)

Chris Dede: One of the things that I spend a lot of time thinking about is scaling up. We know that scaling up an education is much more difficult than it is in business where it’s pretty easy to have every McDonalds fry French fries in the same way. It’s very difficult even for a successful teacher to move her innovation down the hall, let alone into another school or another district halfway across the country. So I’ve developed a five dimensional framework for thinking about scale and by paying attention to each of the dimensions we can make good ideas in education, easier to adapt and transfer to other settings.

One of the dimensions is depth and that just deals with the fact that to be worth scaling, something needs to be powerful to be attractive to other people, something needs to show evidence that it’s succeeded and so people who pay attention to depth make their innovation more and more desirable over time.

A second dimension deals with spread and spread involves making the innovation easier and cheaper to adapt. So sometimes we build a Cadillac version that works wonderfully but it costs a lot and then we ask could we build something that was 70 percent as powerful but at 30 percent of the cost, that’s really what spread is about.

Sustainability deals with the idea that you don’t always have all the conditions for success that you want. Perhaps you have a technology based innovation but the technology only works some of the time. Perhaps you have an innovation for science class but some of the science teachers don’t really have much background in science. Looks like some of the conditions for success might be marginal. Sustainability says let’s go build things that can work under adverse conditions, hybrids if you will that are customized to one or another tough problem that full innovation confronts and those hybrids may not work as well as when everything is perfect for innovating. But they work well enough to be worth doing, so sustainability is another dimension.

Shift is a dimension that’s very important because it involves the people that are doing the innovation taking ownership of it. Now they’re not doing your innovation, they have taken charge of their innovation, they’ve made it theirs, they’re more likely to stay with it, it’s more likely to work where they are because they understand what works in their setting.

And then evolution the final dimension deals with shift and when people do make a shift and they own the innovation and they change it, how do you as the designer of the innovation respond to that, do you see it as an opportunity to think about the whole thing differently? Maybe to evolve in a direction that you weren’t expecting.

So we’ve tried applying this framework to a number of different projects across education that were really quite different from one another. Teacher professional development projects, kids building game, school districts doing one to one initiatives and so on and the dimensions have held up pretty well. There’s a lots of reasons why people aren’t able to scale things successfully and the reasons, the traps that people fall into also tend to map onto this five dimensions.

On the dimension of depth, people try to make something perfect, so they keep trying to make it more and more and more powerful, oh we can add this, we can add that, it’s not ready to scale yet and so it never scales because it’s a black hole to try to keep improving something indefinitely.

On the dimension of sustainability where you’re hybridizing something to make it work under adverse conditions sometimes you worry because you feel as if you can’t make it work under some conditions that it’s an innovation that doesn’t work if the teacher doesn’t understand the content or it really doesn’t work if you don’t have the technology working a hundred percent of the time and it’s okay, it’s okay to build an innovation that only works sometimes in some places because it’s still going to be very powerful there.

Under the dimension of spread people who worked really hard to make something that’s powerful worry about making a light version of it, it seems like a perversion somehow to make something that’s less powerful. But if it’s less powerful and it reaches ten times as many people as the more powerful version you’re actually having a bigger impact, even though you may feel as if you’re not doing as well.

Shift, well people who’ve developed something think of it as theirs, they like having their brand on it, they like it being just the way that they developed it. The idea that other people take it and own it and change it, modify it, oh it feels like I don’t know, somebody stealing this. But in fact if you really want something to scale you have to let go of it and you have to let other people in on it.

And evolution is hard because once you’ve worked on something for a long time you have a kind of tunnel vision connected with it. Other people change it in ways that you weren’t expecting. You have to become flexible mentally and go back and try to see it with fresh eyes. Making the familiar strange is one of the creativity strategies and that’s at the heart of that particular trap. So all of those traps in the sense are emotional more than intellectual and combined they do block a lot of things from scaling.

My colleagues and I are working to develop virtual performance assessments, we know that paper and pencil item based tests while they’re reliable, while they’re practical, while they’re inexpensive are not very valid, they don’t really measure a lot of the things that we care most about students learning 21st century skills, higher order thinking, collaboration. So we need some kind of measures that help us accurately determine where we’re succeeding and where we’re not and what we’re doing is using the Alice in Wonderland interface that underlies things like second life or World of Warcraft, where you become a digital person in a virtual world. To build assessments where the student is confronted over an hour and hour and a half with a really interesting challenge.

The first of these that we’re building, you appear on a bay in Alaska where the kelp are dying and we try to figure out what you know and don’t know about the scientific method by how you respond in terms of going around the bay, collecting evidence, making inferences, performing an experiment. It’s a much richer problem than one can pose on a paper and pencil test and we also collect much more detailed information than just making them multiple choice selection because we’re storing at the back end all the movements and the actions and the statements and the data collection that the person is doing and then mapping that against an elaborate definition of what the sub skills are that constitute science inquiry. It’s not easy to aggregate too much information into those kinds of judgments about skills. So it’s too early to say whether we’re really going to succeed in that. But I think we’re looking in the right dark alley rather than trying to look under the street light of the item based tests which are never going to be valid, no matter how much effort we put into them, they’re just too simplistic and impoverished.

So whether it’s our group or whether it’s some other group I believe that in the next five years there will be a big breakthrough in assessment and when that happens for the first time we’re going to have a really powerful way of measuring which kinds of pedagogy are most effective in teaching 21st century skills and sophisticated educational outcomes and I’m very excited about that because I think it’s going to clearly show that active learning, project based learning, collaborative learning, a lot of the things that we’ve known were powerful but couldn’t prove were powerful. We’re finally going to have a microscope I hope that lets us see that.

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  • Ken Ellis


  • Karen Sutherland

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  • Doug Keely

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  • Amy Erin Borovoy
Chris Dede has been working with Microsoft’s US Partners in Learning’s Academic Program Manager Allyson Knox since 2005 to develop the online scale tutorial and training workshops for education leaders to help them think more deeply about scale. More to this story.

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