Reimagining Schools as Complex Adaptive Systems

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Reimagining Schools as Complex Adaptive Systems: Schools are No Longer Factories

Year Founded:
Organization type: 
Project Stage:
< $1,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

Familiarizing educators about healthy organizations in creative ways will help us shape schools that flexibly meet the complex needs of the children and families that we serve. Systems theory and democratic processes can provide us with a way to envision a new approach to educating the whole child.

WHAT IF - Inspiration: Write one sentence that describes a way that your project dares to ask, "WHAT IF?"

our schools became healthy organizations that fostered child and adult development?
About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

What if schools were structured to meet the complex needs of the children and families they serve? Today's schools are based on the Industrial Revolution factory model. The current needs of staff, children, and families are increasingly diverse and not well served by this rigid structure. It is imperative that our organizations become more flexible and joyful in responding to the needs and hopes of the people they serve.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

A three faceted approach: 1. to help educators envision and be excited by how systems theory can reshape their work with learning communities. 2. to educate adults in a fun, engaging way about democratic structures and processes, and support them in incorporating these into their work. 3. to work with interested schools to reimagine how their organizations function to serve staff, students, and families. New ways of thinking will become integrated into the lives of the educators I work with through innovative workshops; creative, ongoing structural support; consensus; teacher-directed meetings; play and humor; and 1 to 1 coaching. My role is to help educators become the inspiring change agents they wish their students to become.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

I currently work with the staff of my school, the Academy for Global Citizenship (a member of the Ashoka Changemaker School Network), to implement practices that transform how the adults conceptualize the school as a complex adaptive system, rather than a factory model. Based on data I gathered from individual interviews of staff, a planning group of staff members developed a detailed plan of new structures and processes after collecting several rounds of staff feedback. Staff members have now volunteered to act as shepherds (yes, they will receive robes, staffs, and toy sheep) for these new ways of working together next year. The planning group is now charged with developing a timeline of implementation for our new ways of working.

Impact: What is the impact of the work to date? Also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

Our school is beginning to use representative democracy as a means of governance. We will be making shared decisions that affect how we go about the work of our mission--to develop mindful leaders who take action both now and in the future to positively impact their communities and the world beyond. Staff receive multiple, creative, engaging opportunities to learn about ideas and processes that will help them positively change how we interact with one another. The new content knowledge has already empowered staff to make new choices regarding our work with children and families. For example, as a result of 1 to 1 coaching, a teacher has begun asking more questions of those around him, leading him to make fewer assumptions and engaging more positively with colleagues. We are on the road to taking responsibility for the school and becoming the transformative educators we want to be!

Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling impact?

I want to openly share the processes and structures for creating a school that is a democratic, complex, adaptive system with anyone who is interested so they can make it work for themselves, using me as a resource. I am working with the staff at Norwood Park Elementary School to help integrate these ideas and transform their practices. I am going to share these ideas with any interested parties by hosting 'idea potlucks.' At these regular gatherings, formal and informal educators will share ideas they are excited about. The goal of the potlucks is to connect changemakers with vision.

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Currently, I do this work full time at my school. The collaboration I do with other schools is offered on a pay-what-you-can basis. I freely share the documents of structures and processes with anyone. Eventually, when there is sufficient interest in this work, I would like to work with high poverty schools on a full time basis, and have donors support the work in order to be able provide my services to school for a minimal fee.

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

I have not yet found others who are framing school change in the way I am. I have found a consulting firm that is helping schools change through appreciative inquiry, but it does not seem to provide a vision of what schools could become. There are some democratic schools that use a variety of structures and processes that I have compiled, yet none seem to be based on the idea of schools as a system rather than a factory, or providing others with the systematic tools they currently use. What I am proposing is a new blending of appreciative inquiry, democratic processes, and systems thinking.

Founding Story

As I worked on my doctoral dissertation, focusing on teachers as self-organizers, I realized that the current factory model of schooling was prohibiting educators from acting in ways that supported their own development as well as that of their students. The teachers involved in my research initiated remarkable change because of their strong sense of agency, despite the structural constraints of their school. This made me wonder how schools could be different if these limitations were removed and a sense of agency was fostered among the staff. What would happen if teachers were made aware and given the structural support that helped them make different, healthier choices in their work? This is what inspired me to do my current work.


I want to create a ripple effect to engage team members. I start a ripple in an educator's world by introducing these ideas, and then that educator becomes so excited that s/he creates some ripples in his/her world, and so on. The people who I am working with to create these ripples include my colleagues at AGC, as well as Joseph, a counselor; Jenni, a human-centered design student; Renee, a principal; and Leah, a child advocate.
About You
About You
First Name


Last Name


About Your Project
Organization Name
How long has your organization been operating?

Organization Country

United States, IL, Chicago

Country where this project is creating social impact

United States, IL, Chicago

What awards or honors has the project received?
Funding: How is your project financial supported?


Primary Target Age Group

18 - 35, 35+.

Your role in Education

Coach, Teacher.

Please specify which of the following best applies:


The type of school(s) your solution is affiliated with (if applicable)

Public (tuition-free).

Intervention Focus

Professional Development.

Does your project utilize any of the innovative design principles below?

Equip Adults to Drive Change in Learning: Providing creative learning experiences for teachers, parents, working professions and others that empowers them to drive change in any part of the learning ecosystem.

Is your project targeted at solving any of the following key barriers?

Trapped Between Competing Pressures: Educators face a lack of capacity to re-imagine and restructure educational settings.


Adults need a different paradigm to help them envision what education can do to foster whole child development.


Systems theory and democratic school tools can provide adults with new ways to think about structures and processes in schools.

What key learning outcomes does your work seek to improve?

1. For educators to develop a sense of agency that supports them in creating a school that supports them in educating children to the best of their abilities.
2. For students to have adults who model the behaviors and practices that foster positive social change.

Secondary Form
PROGRAM DESIGN CLARITY: We are hungry to know more about what exactly your model consists of. Please succinctly list a) what main activities are you doing with your beneficiaries, b) where you carry out the activities? c) how often? d) for how many hours? e) who delivers the services? and f) any other brief details
INSPIRATION: What do you consider the most important trends or evidence that inspire you to believe the world is ready to Re-imagine Learning? Please elaborate.
LEARNING THROUGH PLAY: What does “learning through play” mean to you and why it is a must-have, instead of a nice to have?
SUSTAINABILITY: Please list a quick breakdown of your funding, indicating the percentage that comes from each source.
MODEL: How does your mission relate to your business model (i.e. Non-profit, for-profit or hybrid)?
FUNDING PRIORITIES: If your organization were given $20K in unrestricted funding today, how would you use it? Why?
PARTNERSHIPS: Tell us about your partnerships that enhance your approach.
COLLABORATIONS: Have you considered or initiated partnerships with any of the other Challenge Pacesetters? If so, please share.
VISION: If you had unlimited funding, and you could fast forward 15 years to when your program has been able to achieve wild success - what will it have achieved?
IMPACT - KEY METRICS: Please list the key data points that you would cite as evidence that you are able to achieve lasting learning outcomes. Please also share one data point for which you most hope to see better results over time
IMPACT - REPORTING SAMPLE: Please attach any examples of your impact reporting. [optional]:
RESEARCH AND EVIDENCE: Please link or attach any research or evidence resource you are open to sharing more widely [optional]. Building research and evidence is a key aim of this initiative, and the resources you share may be chosen for listing in the Center for Education Innovations library:
SOURCE: If applicable - who created the research or evidence you are choosing to share? :
IMPACT - REACH: How many people did your project directly engage in programmatic activities in the last year?

STUDY: Has an external evaluation or study been conducted of your organization?

Other (please specify)
Number of Employees:

Number of Volunteers:

APPROACHES: Given the complexity of play, it is not surprising that there have been numerous research attempts to categorize the different types and approaches! Please indicate which of the following your project focuses on.

Other (please specify)
AFFILIATION: Please specify if your organization has any existing affiliations with the LEGO Group.


Holly Saltzman's picture

Historically our schools tried to meet the changing needs of their family populations. As you have pointed out In ReImagining Schools as Complex Adaptive Systems, many schools have lost their way, and no longer adequately serve their children and families. I agree.

I would like to know specifically what you would do to change this negative progression? What systems would you put in place? What areas would you focus on? How would you help a school find the balance it needs to incorporate a new system while meeting the increasing and overwhelming regulations schools now face? What would a CAS look like at a neighborhood Head Start Program?

Aimie Stilling's picture

I love the description "complex adaptive system, rather than a factory model". You hit the issue right on the head.

Jennifer Moore's picture

If you send me your email, I'd be happy to send you copies of the structures and processes that we're using. This may be a good place to start in thinking about how a neighborhood Head Start Program could look like a CAS. Have a great day!

Take care,