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Where I grew up, on Northern Vancouver Island, there was a memorable marker on the road past Holberg, on the way to the West Coast. As you rounded a corner on the dusty gravel road, on the left of the road was a 2-metre-wide old growth log with a large sign hammered into it:

EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED

And beneath that sign, underneath the log, was a station-wagon, completely crushed. And yet the message was clear: on the road ahead, you just don’t know what to expect. Waterbars, forest, bears, floods – anything was possible.

As I look forward to this next few months, the only thing I can be prepared to expect is the “unexpected”. In the next month, WellAhead will ‘launch’ in six school districts across BC, with ideation and idea refinement sessions planned to engage a wide range of parents, students, educators, administrators, and community partners. WellAhead in this next year is bringing together two separate worlds: the world of what one could call ‘educational reform’, attempting to find ways to influence the ways that school communities see and understand their outcomes and the means by which they get there. The approach we’re using to get there is inspired by ‘social labs’ – spaces where multi-sectoral groups come together to co-design, prototype, and scale innovative approaches to seemingly intractable problems.

In the last months, I have had many books recommended to me – more than I could possibly have capacity to read. One I read, and have re-read, is The Social Labs Revolution, by Zaid Hassan. He describes a way to think differently about how we understand change in social systems. He describes a ‘business as usual’ approach that builds on ‘expert opinion’ to create ‘plans’ and pilots that are rigidly prescribed and followed, regardless of early feedback or outcomes. As he says, “taking a planning-based approach in situations of complexity is akin to flying a plane on autopilot in a raging storm” (p. 40–41). The ‘autopilot’ might be able to handle perfect weather conditions, but not storms or unexpected events. Hassan refers to these ‘agile’ approaches as more like “a test pilot flying a prototype plane into the heart of the storm: the test pilot pushes the plane beyond its known limits in order to gather information on how to improve its performance” (p. 109). 

The other book I have in front of me has also come highly recommended, from a different set of wise advisors. The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform, by Seymour B. Sarason, speaks to the surprising intractability of schools to past efforts at change or ‘reform’ efforts. He points out the significance of understanding power relationships within schools and within classrooms, and names amongst other things the importance of teacher well-being and teacher participation in decision-making processes.

I see his effort as an eloquent and well-argued version of the log on the Holberg road: a warning sign, an indication of what roadblocks might emerge, a hint of the significant challenges that lie ahead. We’re moving forward, testing this ‘beyond known limits’ in our effort to learn more. In the meantime, I’ll continue to seek out warning signs, thesis and premonitions that might tell us more about what’s to come in the months ahead. Be in touch or stay posted here!