By Rosie Clayton

One of the questions I’ve been looking to answer during my travels in the U.S. has been about the design and function of intermediaries and system catalysts in educational change—those connecting organizations which weave a web and create networks (or meshworks, h/t Elliot Washor) across the various players within the education system to build capacity, knowledge and energy.

In the U.S. these organizations are a vital component in powering innovation ecosystems, and I was able to meet with five different organizations which play both distinctive and overlapping roles within the system.

What was most striking was the way that each organization builds innovation pathways for individuals or teams with great ideas and products, both within their own programs and in intentionally designed connectivity with other organizations which draws upon resources and support from wider networks.

There are also numerous entry points into the system, and ideas are nurtured, protected and supported in a holistic way—there is a strong bias to action, reducing barriers, burdens and risk, and sequentially building up capacity over time.

Here is an overview of the organizations I met with and what they do.

New Schools Venture Fund

Purpose and Mission: New Schools Venture Fund is one of the more established catalysts, set up in 1998 by three social entrepreneurs and VCs to find and support education entrepreneurs working in underserved communities. They have a strong interest in defining and shaping the concept of the education entrepreneur and in supporting new schools to open, scale and become strong networks through investment in people, tech tools and leadership capacity building.

What They Do: They currently run three main programs—New Schools, which is a two-year school design and establishment program for new charter schools, with the first year focused on R&D and planning/gaining charter approval, as well as matching ideas to areas of need. The second year is designed around supporting schools to open once approved. Sometimes a team applies to the program with an already tested idea, and sometimes NSVF creates teams to explore ideas linking a range of skillsets.

New Tools is a one-year product accelerator for promising new tech tools and products which are iterated and refined through an evaluative process, and through which teams receive BD advice, mentoring and coaching from experts. The New Schools and New Tools programs are built around finding solutions to specific educational challenges which are co-designed across NSVF’s wider network of educators through a three-month market research program. They also have a Diverse Leaders program where they invest in organizations looking to address racial and ethnic inequalities in education.

They also have a Diverse Leaders program, where they invest in organizations looking to address racial and ethnic inequalities in education.

Who and How They Connect: NSVF see themselves as playing an important role in building innovation communities through bringing charter entrepreneurs together, to catalyze new ideas and innovations. They tend to work with either existing or potential school leaders, and most participants on the New Schools program have some form of teaching or leadership experience. Tech companies which have established proof of concept and are able to demonstrate early adoption are accepted onto the New Tools program, and all individuals/teams that they work with have to be growth focused and thinking about scale and wider impacts.

True School Studio

Purpose and Mission: True School Studio focuses on the transformation of existing schools towards more student-centered approaches to learning by empowering educators to lead change within their schools and districts and by building new teams, innovation capacity and learning communities. Their methodology combines a lean start-up and design-thinking approach with asset-based community development, providing a highly dynamic and energizing professional development program with the aim of changing mindsets and behaviors.

What They Do: Working through partnerships with school districts and at the regional level, True School runs three programs which build and grow ideas:

  1. Spark: An introductory program to student-centered design practices where participants get to test our ideas and identify opportunities within their settings.
  2. Sprint: School-based teacher teams prototype and pilot new ideas either at classroom level or across a grade level.
  3. Solution: Teams further refine ideas within their setting and scale across the whole school.

Programs are run across a locality and school teams apply to participate, with 10–40 schools usually accepted—they have to demonstrate depth of thinking around a clear problem or challenge that they want to solve within their setting. Sometimes school teams may work on highly individualized challenges, and sometimes the program may be designed around a focus on a specific challenge across the locality which all teams work on (for example, around STEM education or transitions).

Developing education leaders is an important part of the process, and there is an expectation that those who participate in the program will then take a role in mentoring and coaching future participants and supporting other schools across their locality in moving towards more innovative approaches and implementing new ideas.

Who and How They Connect: The program builds teams at school level, often including individuals who bring different skills and expertise to the team (e.g. leaders, subject specialists, administrators), and also across schools, bringing all teams on the program together regularly for activities and events to develop links and capacity across a locality. For districts, this is really important, as in many of the areas that True School works there are high staff turnover rates in schools so seeding knowledge and changing mindsets on a broad scale is a key outcome.

Leap Innovations

Purpose and Mission: Similar to True School, LEAP Innovations works across school districts on whole school transformation projects towards more personalized learning methodologies. Their program is designed around a high-level framework—the LEAP Learning framework—which defines and shapes the evolution of pedagogy towards more learner-driven and connected approaches, also bridging the education and tech communities through trialing and testing a number of tech tools which allow for greater personalization. Their aim is to transform schools from the inside out, also building a movement towards more personalized and student-centered approaches to school design.

What They Do: The LEAP program has three main components which build sequentially:

  1. Collaboratory: Introduces educators and technologists to their learning framework and personalized learning approaches more generally.
  2. Pilot: School-based teams apply to take part in an 18-month program where they build a blueprint for personalized learning within their setting, then work on testing and evaluating new methodologies (usually at classroom level), and
  3. Breakthrough Schools: Successful methodologies and prototypes are scaled whole school. The whole process is typically a 2.5 to three-year program, which takes place across a district approximately 30 schools are accepted each round. Tech companies also apply to be part of the pilot network in testing out new tools and products, and each school is expected to choose a digital tool to incorporate into their design. Through a sophisticated process of R&D, intensive coaching and support, prototyping and evaluation (short cycle trials), promising ideas are identified and interest is generated at the school level through evidence of success. Sometimes schools will stay on the pilot program for two years, bringing in additional teacher teams, before moving to Breakthrough and scaling methodologies whole school.

Who and How They Connect: LEAP also builds school-based teams across varying roles, linking experts and coaches into the process along with tech companies and networks. Similar to True School Studio, the aim is to seed whole school and systemic change, building capacity beyond one or two individuals within a school.

4.0 Schools

Purpose and Mission: 4.0 Schools works at the micro level within communities to find education entrepreneurs with promising ideas for solving challenges in education, then supports them through a number of programs and a wider innovation community to realise their ambition, often by setting up new schools, education programs, education-related social ventures, or innovation clusters. Their programs take a community development approach, drawing in and targeting resource and building connections across a wide range of networks and organizations in the cities where they work.

What They Do: 4.0 runs four main programs which craft pathways from identifying and testing new ideas at the grassroots to building sustainable organizations. This includes pitching competitions such as PitchNola, Essentials (a three-day prototyping workshop to develop ideas into a blueprint for a pilot, usually framed around a specific theme like new school designs) and Community Catalyst (a year-long program to train entrepreneurs to build innovation communities in their local areas through coaching, peer mentoring and support from the wider 4.0 community).

Their latest program is the Tiny Fellowship, which provides a range of support, coaching and start-up capital for individuals with a great idea for a new school design, education program or tech tool. The program is designed to enable those who may have full-time jobs to take part, reducing the barriers to entry for many people. All of their program models significantly de-risk the process of innovation by starting small with rapid prototyping and testing, and they are structured to suit those who would struggle to access other programs due to time and financial constraints.

Who and How They Connect: The 4.0 community is almost an innovation ecosystem in its own right, drawing and linking entrepreneurial individuals, resources, mentors and networks together. It is open to anyone who may have a great idea for educational change or addressing education inequalities, especially those in communities who might not ever have thought of themselves as entrepreneurial or capable of building a new tool or organization.

Digital Promise

Purpose and Mission: Digital Promise is the National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies in the U.S., combining a thinking and doing approach to seeding and accelerating change. They work broadly with education leaders, researchers, entrepreneurs and developers, as well as more established organizations and business, to improve learning methodologies and scale new approaches to education design/delivery through new technologies and tech tools.

What They Do: They run a number of different programs and projects, often in partnership with other organizations, to develop and iterate new methodologies whichutilizee tech. They are primarily a network and movement builder, coming in at the middle level and working with and across school districts and regions to build innovation communities. Often their work and programs span a whole district or locality, and their role is focused on convening and facilitation, building clusters and communities of practice—a system glue almost—and developing a network of schools to trial and test new ideas and innovations. They also conduct extensive research into new approaches and develop toolkits and resources for educators.

Who and How They Connect: Through their research and programs, Digital Promise links together educators within and across schools in a given locality, and into wider networks nationally, also adding community-based organizations which have an interest in education—anchors such as museums, libraries, and business and economic development organizations—into the mix. They bring people together through events and online activities/resources to create connections and spark new thinking and ideas, and enable the diffusion of good practice.

These organizations are just five examples in a wide array of innovation intermediaries across the U.S. education landscape. Each plays an important role in the ecosystem jigsaw, including new schools, school transformation, connecting systems and creating new systems and networks, community building, tech innovations, scaling and nurturing ideas, R&D, knowledge development, human capacity building, and ultimately bringing new skills, ideas and expertise into the system.

With this in mind, there are a number of common characteristics that they all share. For example:

  • They are connectors and convenors, linking entrepreneurial individuals, organizations and other actors, creating and building pathways for innovation, crafting innovation communities and activating, inspiring and empowering people.
  • They are building narratives and giving communities and movements an identity, as well as places to come together and coalesce, and are building collective experiences to create new knowledge.
  • They have a strong focus on talent development and building capacity at all levels of education design—pedagogy, systems, leadership, community engagement, etc.—bringing new skills, voices, expertise, and practice into the education system.
  • They connect and translate knowledge and ideas into actions, bridging grassroots needs and sentiment with systems thinking and mobilising and targeting resources.
  • They have an organizational function which is something like innovation strategy + funding + skills + opportunity + platform + space & time (space and time being the space and freedom for people to meet, think, network, spark and generate ideas, have interesting conversations, and the funding to free up their time to do this).
  • They significantly de-risk the process of innovation and barriers to entry through micro actions, rapid prototyping and testing. They are agile and responsive organizations, creative and flexible to respond to grassroots and school based needs, and thy provide multiple entry points into the system for individuals, teams or organizations, creating momentum and capacity for change.
  • Shifting and evolving the power dynamics across the system, reducing barriers and burdens, and enabling autonomy, agency and creativity at the grassroots (including within schools).

For teachers and school leaders, these intermediaries provide unique opportunities for professional learning and development, and a huge variety of opportunities to build and develop new areas of practice and collective expertise, including interacting with unfamiliar sectors and becoming leaders in new and different ways. Catalysts draw in and mash up skills, ideas and expertise, shaping powerful conversations and setting directions of travel. As Gabrielle from True School Studio said to me, the process and experience can be totally energizing and invigorating for educators in identifying new areas of potential improvement, using their expertise to problem solve, and most importantly being entrusted with the authority and power to affect change.

Could We Build System Catalysts Like This In the U.K.?

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last few weeks, particularly in relation to teacher recruitment challenges and retention rates, the lack of imagination in teacher training, and the general lack of opportunity for dynamic and inspiring professional learning or development in the U.K.

There are a number of features of the U.S. system which have really driven the development of intermediaries, which are currently absent in the U.K.:

  • Significant philanthropic funding and grant funding drives, and a business community heavily invested in educational change.
  • Cultural attitude toward risk and innovation.
  • Significant and ingrained systemic education challenges and inequalities which provides focus and deep need for action.
  • Less rigid and prescriptive accountability systems.
  • Political imperatives—including a federal political system with considerable decision making power over the state level.

That said, as we move to a school led system in the U.K., and given the emergence and evolution of Multi Academy Trusts as the main vehicle for education design and delivery (and other school networks like teaching schools), this potentially could allow for greater diversity in approaches, multiple entry points and the pushing of power and autonomy to the grassroots level.

The work of LEAP Innovations and True School Studio, for example, is particularly powerful for learning in the U.K. in thinking about the wider systemic challenge of how you can change schools from the inside out in a low-risk way—‘school improvement’ towards more transformative rather than traditional approaches, and innovation within the existing system.

In addition, there is now a strong system imperative around the need for significant skills, capacity and leadership building. And the devolution of power to city-regions and the development of a system of Urban Mayors may also present an opportunity.

So here are some key questions to frame this thinking:

  • Where are the existing assets which provide capacity for change (I would include people, time, networks, spaces, business and industry, and groups across civic society energized by a desire for change)?
  • How do we connect all those at the grassroots who are already pushing at the boundaries of what is possible. Creating the spaces for debate, and energizing and activating people?
  • How do we inspire with a future focused vision as well as articulate the challenge—momentum and movement building?
  • Where are the power levers, for example, at all level of government that can be utilized?  How can political capacity be generated?
  • Where can flex occur on the margins of the mainstream? How can we de-risk innovation by tinkering and iterating at the edges, or within those communities most willing to experiment initially?
  • How do we reduce the barriers to innovation/entrepreneurship and provide multiple entry points? What could low risk low-cost innovation pathways look like?
  • Where are investment opportunities, including around social investment/social impact bonds and the social economy, crowdfunding platforms, and drawing together disparate resources? Could the emergence and growth of mission-led business provide an opportunity?

These are all things I will be thinking about post-fellowship as my work develops back in the U.K.

For more, see:

Rosie Clayton is a freelance consultant currently working across education, tech, school and network design in the U.K. She is exploring innovation ecosystems in education across the U.S. as part of a Fellowship with the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. Follow her on Twitter: @RosieClayton


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