Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Problem with 'Scaling Up'

The Distance Between (2011 by M.A. Reilly)
Scaling up relies on another assumption, one that is fervently believed, but rarely true in experience. The assumption is that people do what they’re told. So instructions get issued, policies get pronounced. When we don’t follow them, bosses just create more. When we still fail to obey, we’re labeled as resistant or lazy (Wheatley & Frieze. 2011, p. 44).

People don’t support things that are forced on them. We don’t act responsibly on behalf of plans and programs created without us. We resist being changed, not change itself.

This is the fatal flaw of scaling up. Its methods destroy the very energies necessary for taking things to scale—people’s creativity and curiosity, our desire to learn and contribute, and the satisfaction we experience when we’re engaged together in mutual discovery (Wheatley & Frieze. 201, p. 45).

I am curious as to how many educators reading this are or have been subject to 'scale up' educational schemes via sanctioned programs, products, methods, and/or texts?  I would love to hear about your situation and hope that you'll post.

Now consider the difference between scaling up and scaling across:

What we do know is that scaling across, where good ideas and innovations travel trans-locally through networks of relationship, is the way that lasting change happens in our complex, relationship-rich world (Wheatley & Frieze. 2011, p. 40).

Curious about your thoughts.

Work Cited:
Wheatley, Margaret; Frieze, Deborah (2011-04-11). Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.


  1. Hi Mary Ann,
    Interesting post. I have seen first hand what happens when scaled-up and scaled-across change is attempted. Having experienced both I would say that scaled-up is the result of poor leadership - leaders who have no understanding of change theory nor of human nature.

    When scaled-up is attempted the results can be disastrous. At one point we were required to conduct guided-reading practice with specific leveled texts from the Nelson Literacy series. These were to be the only texts used in our classrooms; in fact we were told to stop conducting whole class novel-studies and even reading books of greater length because ... well, I can't even remember what ridiculous reason was given. (Kudos to those teachers who resisted and continued teaching using novels. This brings to mind words from a respected local educator, "Many a bad curriculum has been saved by a good teacher.")

    What was tossed out the window because of this requirement was the ability to respond to the immediate world of students. A tsunami may have happened in Thailand, but we were reading about fishing practices of the Aboriginals, an election many have been occurring, but we were reading about the development of penicillin. Interesting to read, but irrelevant to important issues at that moment in time. Nowhere in the Nelson Literacy series were current events incorporated. So over a 10 year period the present was ignored. We sent a group of children into the world without ever giving them the opportunity to think about the impact of current events and what their own role as citizens should be in response to those events. I find it interesting that the decline of newspaper reading, a rising lack of empathy and weak interest in political debate parallels this movement in education.

    When I finally had the opportunity to ask someone from the Ministry of Education why we were no longer to be using novels in our reading programs, she looked at me as if I had two heads. That was never the intent of these changes, she replied. Somewhere in the filtering down of the goal through a hierarchy of decision -makers the message of how to conduct reading practice had become twisted. This poor implementation, of course, had a huge impact on the morale and sentiments of teachers. Anger and frustration became common and I know several excellent teachers who chose to leave the profession because they could no longer countenance what was occurring. I also know of many teachers who were labelled resistant and worse.

    I have also experienced scaled-across educational schemes which required me to make changes that I did not understand at the time, but that included my voice and allowed experimentation as we explored how these new ideas might work in the classroom. This is the point that we are now at in my board; I don't know if this is the case across the province. The province is pursuing a path of systemic change that is evidence and research-based. We are no longer being asked to use specific programs or texts, but rather to use effective practices and specific techniques which engage learners in higher level thinking, inquiry, creativity, originality of thought and rich tasks. As we we explore these approaches I have observed a new level of respect for the knowledge and skills of teachers. Again, I can't say whether this is province-wide or only within my board. By respectfully including our voices in this process, I do feel that the changes we are being asked to make will endure.

    That being said, I still see many moments where even though the end-goal is laudable the process of implementation falls back to scaled-up which leads immediately to roadblocks - resistant teachers, poorly understood goals, anger, resentment and ultimately weak implementation of good ideas. Scaled-across requires a leadership mindset and until that mind-set is fully internalized and reflected in consistent practice we will continue to experience moments where the rug is yanked out from under us!

  2. Heidi,

    Thank you for your thoughtful and thought provoking response. I think your observation about potential linkages between the decline in current event topics being taught and the decline in empathetic ways of being and newspaper reading is particularily important. Ten years is a long time.

    Your insights about leadership and scaling up or across stretched my thinking. I wasn't thinking about that at all and now I am. It does take a particular sensibility and courage to lead well--allowing for multiple and often contrasting voices, resistance, and failure.


  3. As usual, I thoroughly enjoy your thoughtful posts. Heidi above referred to particular cases and I found myself nodding in agreement.

    I think the problem is not the "leaders" themselves. I think it is the system and, ironically, WE make the system work. Each and everyone of us.
    As Aaron Hawkins said, "It is not the chain of command. It is the chain of obedience." In that light, leaving decisions unquestioned and not being involved in this transformation rest with us. All of us.

  4. Cristina,

    Great quote by Hawkins: "It is not the chain of command. It is the chain of obedience." Responsibility for one's actions does matter. I have witnessed systems though that enforce their poor curicular rules by strict monitoring, threatening teachers with job loss if they do not comply. In many ways Miss C's guest blog post in April (2011) chronicled this at the Charter school where she was employed. Miss C made a choice to leave, but I think that may be unusual, especially in difficult economic times.

    I sometimes forget that the voices emanating from Twitter may not represent the whole of the profession. More's the shame for that.

    Hapy New Year to you.

  5. Thanks Maureen. Happy New Year to you.

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