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In July, Paul McArthur and I had the pleasure of taking a course with Zaid Hassan called “how to design a social lab.” Zaid is the author of The Social Lab Revolution and considered a key expert in the field. After a year of leading WellAhead’s process in BC (during which time we fiercely debated whether it was a true ‘lab’ or more of a lab-inspired process), I was keen see how we fit with Zaid’s definition.

According to Zaid, a ‘social lab’ is a strategy with three features:

Source: Zaid Hassan, The Social Lab Revolution

Source: Zaid Hassan, The Social Lab Revolution

He suggests that a lab is systemic (getting at the root cause of complex issues), social (convening a diverse and influential group beyond business-as-usual stakeholders), and experimental (developing and testing solutions, reflecting on data).

Simple, right?

I’m going to work with Zaid’s definition of a ‘social lab’ to answer the question: has WellAhead, this past year, been a social lab? Was our approach with our six pilot districts social, systemic and experimental?

First a bit of background: In our first year, we worked with 6 pilot districts to try out what we called a ‘social innovation lab-inspired’ approach. We took a three-stage approach of co-design, prototyping and scaling: but did we meet these basic values/criteria?

Social:  

  • In the co-design phase, most districts did take a distinctly ‘social’ approach by involving a diverse range of participants, both horizontally and vertically. As a design specification, we insisted that at least five stakeholder groups be involved: parents, students, teachers, administrators, and community partners.
  • During the prototyping phase, it was less natural to work together as a truly diverse group. The most successful prototyping teams were made up of educators: small groups of teachers and in some cases also education assistants and principals. Truly diverse teams would have involved district staff, students, community members, and parents. 

Systemic:

  • During the co-design phase there were points of systemic thinking at the district level: in the development of a ‘design brief’, which framed the local context and related challenges and opportunities, and in the ‘idea refinement session’, which took the ideas that were brainstormed by a large diverse group and applied them against more systemic considerations. In retrospect, we should have allotted more time towards this systemic thinking.
  • During the prototyping phase, the focus of district work became the everyday practice prototypes themselves: what was happening in classrooms, how could we measure impact on students, etc. In retrospect, it’s easy to see how the focus on a tangible ‘thing’ might overtake districts and even the WellAhead team. In many ways the ‘systemic’ lens on our work was subsumed by attention to the actual everyday practices, such as circle or mindfulness. The link between these on-the-ground practices and more systemic change in the school or district was not as strong as we had hoped it would be.
  • Throughout the year, members of our team were also working at the provincial level to advance more systemic action, for example through a K-12 Education Leaders meeting at the end of June 2016. This action took place outside of our six pilot districts, and did not directly engage districts – finding ways to connect with system conversations at a provincial level may have added a more systemic dimension to the work in districts.

Experimental:

  • During the prototyping phase, there were rapid cycles of trying the everyday practice, collecting data on how it was working, and continuously changing the approach to that practice. For example the ‘Circle’ practice in SD48 Sea to Sky underwent over 10 ‘versions’ – aiming to get to the simplest possible ‘core’ of what is essential to Circle. Experimentation and rapid iteration were easiest at the smallest scale, such as for a small cluster of teachers at a particular school, and became more challenging as more schools & teachers got involved.

Reflecting on the past year, I can see that the challenge isn’t in holding any one of these pieces – we did, at various points, find ways to engage in ways that were genuinely social, systemic and experimental. It is really tough work to hold all three orientations - systemic, social, and experimental – simultaneously. The interactions between them also pose a challenge. For example, it’s a lot easier to experiment with like-minded peers (tension between social and experimental) and a lot more natural to think systemically at an abstract level (tension between systemic and experimental).

The goal of WellAhead is to encourage schools, school districts, and the education system to meaningfully integrate wellbeing in priorities, structures, and practices. We’re now asking ourselves question about where, and if, a social lab-inspired approach has been successful at advancing integration of wellbeing. Most of this post has focused on district-level interventions: we are interested in future exploring how the elements of social lab might support our work at a provincial or national level. The next question, for us: what elements of a social lab approach have been most successful in advancing the integration of wellbeing, and how can we apply these lessons apply to our work over the next four years?