Complex Systems, Simple Practices for Designing Meaningful Learning Experiences for Educators

Educators understand that supporting students’ physical, social, emotional, and cognitive health significantly influences academic outcomes. However, schools often need help identifying how to leverage their resources and infrastructure to deliver and sustain comprehensive school health models. To help close this gap, our team of public health researchers, in partnership with our health and education partners, co-developed the Healthy Schools Toolkit, which can be used by schools and districts to build healthier school communities that support the whole child.

Our research-informed toolkit is grounded in the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC) model. We worked with education leaders as they answered lingering questions about how to bring the WSCC model to life in their schools:

  • If leaders and champions for school health drive the success of school-based health initiatives, how do we identify and leverage those people who are most influential in our school or district?
  • If buy-in for school health is key, what communication strategies and messages convey the importance of the work and activate stakeholders?
  • And, if we use a systemic approach to implement a healthy school, how do we ensure that this approach embeds the voices of all stakeholders and accounts for the complex nature of schools?

In January 2020, we partnered with an educational service agency that specializes in providing nationally-recognized staff development (EducationPlus) to facilitate a virtual, six month long learning community comprised of representatives from 11 districts and state boards of education across the nation. The goal of the learning community was to engage deeply and help participants apply the toolkit to understand and leverage the people, messages, and systems needed to implement the WSCC model.

The educators we worked with to develop the Healthy Schools Toolkit told us that active dissemination strategies – like a learning community – are key to moving our research into practice. They also felt it was important that the learning community fit the individual needs of schools or districts. Their instincts are supported by research that shows that the spread and uptake of new information and practices rarely occurs organically, but is benefited by thoughtfully designed strategies that engage users over time.

With these considerations in mind, our team navigated the learning community—all while participants endured a pandemic, racial trauma, and historic upheavals to educational practices and systems. Despite these challenges, the learning community accomplished much of what it set out to do. For some participants the opportunity to be with peers and to reserve space and energy to learn and apply new tools was actually just what they needed.

The lessons below are those that emerged most clearly for our team over the six months we spent with the virtual learning community. Though simple, these lessons provide a roadmap for translating complex research-informed processes into a meaningful, educator-centered learning experience. If you would like to learn more about the research informing this work and other efforts aimed at understanding how to build healthy schools, we encourage you to check out the December 2020 Special Issue (Volume 90, Number 12) of the Journal of School Health.

Lesson 1: Make It Real

Each learning community team was encouraged to focus on an existing project or initiative. For some, this meant that they focused their efforts on advancing one or two goals or strategies from their wellness committees. Another team was in the process of completing a needs assessment and leveraged the opportunity to inform that work. A few teams did not identify a specific project and instead applied their learning more generally. All approaches worked in terms of learning the content and processes, however when teams approached activities and concepts with a real community concern to address, they more easily shifted their mindset from abstract thinking to more concrete problem solving.

During one session, for example, teams were asked to practice facilitating a group model building workshop. Group model building is a process in which a group of stakeholders come together to exchange ideas and perceptions about a problem. This exchange takes place through exploring questions such as: What is the problem we face? What causes the problem? How might we address the problem? The process is collaborative and purposefully engages diverse perspectives. Through a series of facilitated activities, these stakeholders develop visual representations of the problem they are addressing, the factors contributing to the problem, and the interconnections between various factors.

In response to this activity, one team asked, “This is just an exercise, right?” The question may have been prompted because the scenario did not seem realistic or the objective of the practice sessions may not have been clear. Another team’s response to this activity was to host a series of virtual community sessions in the months following the learning community. The conversations this team facilitated were modeled on the tools they learned about group model building and helped uncover some of the barriers that community members faced.

Examples like these highlighted for us the importance of helping participants make clear and immediate connections between what they were learning and their lived experience as educators.

Lesson 2: Center Equity

As our team was recruiting participants for the learning community, we heard over and again that educators wanted to work on equity. Many of the projects that teams focused on, in fact, interfaced with the idea of renewing the educational experience through a lens of equity. The toolkit was designed around the idea that healthy schools are schools that provide the resources and opportunities for all students to thrive, regardless of race, gender, ability, or class, and we were excited to create a shared space for this important work. By putting conversations about equity at the center of the learning community, participants could build a muscle for asking and answering questions that ultimately shape how systems and structures are designed or realigned to eliminate disparities and inequity.

One of the tools that learning community participants found helpful is an equity-focused action planning template, which prompts deliberate reflection at multiple points about how decisions will advance equity.

Lesson 3: Activate the Learner

Active learning strategies are key to the success of any learning experience, but our team paid particular attention to this approach for a few reasons. First, we were facilitating what was, at the time, a more novel experience – a virtual learning environment. (Some of our learning community teams credited their participation, which began pre-pandemic, with helping them become “early adopters” of Zoom!) In addition, the toolkit itself contains a series of complex processes and decisions, thus offering a unique opportunity to test how different strategies resonated with learners.

Three strategies were particularly useful, given the complex nature of the tools participants were learning and the challenges they were facing as a result of the pandemic.

  • Breaking content into smaller chunks, which helped to ensure that participants were taking on a manageable amount of information at one time. We used a modular approach to organize the readings, sessions, and activities. This became even more important once the pandemic became a reality, as participants had the option to lean in or out when their responsibilities and workload shifted.
  • Using a diverse range of strategies, which allowed us to provide different entry points for learning and also gave participants multiple opportunities to practice and apply content. One strategy we applied consistently was to use short, narrative stories at the start of a new concept. This helped participants connect to new ideas and approaches. When presenting simpler, straightforward content, we used a jigsaw approach so that each group of participants had an opportunity to lead the discussion on an aspect of the session. In another session that covered particularly complex steps, we used a gradual release model where we provided a scenario and modeled the thinking, then invited the group to engage in the thinking, before finally asking participants to apply the thinking in their own context in a breakout room.
  • Making space for individual and collective reflection, which encouraged participants to not only consider their own learning and progress but also connect with and learn from others. Each session featured “step-away” time where participants were prompted to write down ideas and questions. This was often followed by a small or large group exchange. Inevitably, the time we set aside for these activities was never sufficient, and if we were to redesign the learning community, we would create considerably more time for these interactions. They were, by far, the most valued by participants, especially as the pandemic took shape and as participants needed space to process together how the work of the learning community intersected with their current realities.

Lesson 4: Be Responsive

As researchers and education practitioners, our facilitation team has an affinity for evaluation and learning. In addition to pre/post assessments and interviews, we asked participants to respond to a brief survey following each learning community session. These “pulse checks” helped us keep track of how participants were engaging with the material and what we needed to do to meet their needs. Their feedback led to us cut back on didactic lecturing and extend time for discussion and cross-team exchange. As the stress of the spring semester grew, the ability to respond to the issues and needs that were rising to the top for participants became increasingly important.

At the end of our six months together, we offered teams one-on-one technical assistance to continue the work that they started during the learning community. In these one-on-one settings, we saw teams explore and apply the tools and processes they learned in various and exciting ways. And in response to what they did and how they created change, our team is fine-tuning the tools, making them more user-friendly, more applicable, and more responsive to the educators they are designed to serve. Beyond the simple practices noted here, our final lesson to share is the importance of engaging educators as active partners in the process of research translation. Their creativity and ingenuity will only help close the gap between research and practice more quickly.