Podcast: An Open System: Co-Creating Our Schools - Steve Barkley

Podcast: An Open System: Co-Creating Our Schools

An Open System: Co-Creating Our Schools

Landon Mascareñaz and Doannie Tran, the authors of The Open System: Redesigning Education and Reigniting Democracy, share their insights for building future education plans alongside students, families, and communities instead of using our historical, closed, top-down approaches. Consider how your leadership lifts up others who will work to move co-created initiatives forward in their own ways.

Find out more at: https://www.theopensystem.org/

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Podcast Transcript:

[00:00:00.330] – Steve [Intro]

Welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. As instructional coaches and school leaders, you have a challenge to guide continuous teacher growth that promotes student success. This podcast looks to support you with strategies from our experienced guests and insights that I’ve gathered across many years. I’m thrilled you’re here. Thanks for listening.


[00:00:28.960] – Steve

An Open System: Co-creating Our Schools. The authors of, “The Open System: Redesigning Education and Reigniting Democracy,” are joining our podcast today. They both have extensive experience in guiding schools and communities with open partnership designs. Landon Mascareñaz is the chair of the Colorado Community College Board and Doannie Tran is a partner at the center for Innovation and Education. Welcome to you both.


[00:01:01.220] – Landon

Great to be here, Steve.


[00:01:02.980] – Doannie

Oh, it’s so exciting to be here. Appreciate you inviting us.


[00:01:06.950] – Steve

Well, thank you. I’m wondering if we might start with the process that brought the two of you together to write The Open System.


[00:01:17.300] – Landon

Well, Donnie and I have been friends for a really long time. In fact, eleven years ago this fall, we met in graduate school and became – first off, we just couldn’t stop cracking each other up and had a lot of fun in class together. And over the years, we found ourselves increasingly in similar veins of work. And in around 2019, we co-hosted a convening with a variety of other partners to really start to bring folks together who were in different places around our education ecosystem because we had a sense that there was an emergent discipline occurring, which went beyond family engagement and went beyond some of these questions that we were asking around how to bring families in and really was addressing the larger structural issues at play in our education system and actually in our democracy. So whether you were a superintendent of a charter school or a district school, or a community organizer, or a family engagement liaison, we brought them together in 2019 to begin thinking, designing, and ideating around what it would mean to open systems up to the communities they serve. And since that time, we’ve just gone deeper with not only that group, but other folks, co-creating this discipline that has now kind of been put into the book, moves leaders can make inside and outside to transform systems.


[00:02:37.440] – Steve

Doannie, I’m wondering if you got just a picture that describes open system for folks.


[00:02:45.840] – Doannie

Sure. One of the beautiful things related to what Landon just said is that an open system isn’t fixed at any one particular scale of the system. So a school can be an open system. We’ve seen schools that are involving families and students in co-creation of things like grading policies or discipline systems and then we can even scale it up and think about open systems at the level of the district where families and community members and business leaders are being invited in to co-create workforce development pathways and work-based learning experiences alongside members of the district staff. So it’s any space where you have people from inside and outside of the system, the traditional education system building things, co-creating shoulder to shoulder with one another, and co-producing value for both the district or the educational system and the communities in which they reside.


[00:03:48.990] – Steve

The co-creating word sounds important. So can I push you a little bit more on what that means, and maybe an example of a spot that will highlight it?


[00:04:04.930] – Doannie

Yeah, sure. Sometimes it’s helpful to frame co-creation, actually, in terms of what we typically do when we’re engaging with families and communities. Typically, our number one mode of engaging with them is through focus groups and surveys. We frame the question, we ask them, we get their input, we treat it as a piece of data, somebody goes into a back room and goes on a whiteboard and designs the response to all of that. That’s not true co-creation. That’s treating families and communities like data inputs into a traditional closed system. Instead, co-creation is bringing those families, community members, and sources of wisdom into those rooms, working with them side by side to both empathize with their experience with the current system, but also to engage them in the design of the system that replaces it or the systems that we’re building next. And so a concrete example is, in Kentucky, we’ve brought together 18 districts that are assembling these unusually inclusive coalitions of local community members, business leaders, families, students, and educators to create systems of local accountability and assessment. So how are they measuring what matters to them as a community in terms of student outcomes?


[00:05:38.860] – Doannie

And then how are they structuring an accountability system for their schools – local schools around that? And so that’s a concrete example of people building things side by side with one another, not just gathering data from one group and then having that work being done somewhere else.


[00:05:55.500] – Steve

Landon, anything you want to add on that?


[00:05:58.380] – Landon

Well, I think that one of the reasons to kind of go back to why this is important, Steve, is that Doannie and I had careers where we watched the best intended education change management ideas just crash onto the rocky shores of lack of investment from families and communities. And whether it was the new blended learning curriculum or the new standards fad or whatever it was, we watched it over and over again like a Groundhog Day experience, and it started helping us ask different questions around what’s going on here? Why is the lack of trust, participation and involvement in our education system such a barrier for moving important initiatives through? And really led us down a path of understanding a rich vein of actual history around open systems that began after World War II, that is in biology, cybernetics, orational design, and started to ask different questions around what would it mean to reignite our democracy through civic participation in our education system to both train and help leaders inside and outside the system to take on openness, co-creation, co-design when they’re taking on their toughest opportunities or new ideas so that their ideas become something the whole community owns, builds, and creates together.


[00:07:21.350] – Landon

And to us, this is a part of the big idea that we can take on in the 2020s. Are we going to build communities and systems that work together for the benefit of all?


[00:07:33.180] – Steve

When I looked through your book, I had picked out three different phrases that I wanted you to respond to, and one was co-creation. So we’ve kind of done a pretty good job on that. Another one I pulled was partnership. Is co-creation really the ideal picture of what you mean by partnership, or is there more to the partnership term?


[00:07:57.060] – Doannie

Well, I can start, and I’m sure Landon has thoughts as well, as we both have different experiences with building these sorts of partnerships. But when we think about partnerships within an open system, we think through the lens of clarity, being clear about what different partners can contribute and how they are going to be a part of that co-creation process and to what extent. Recognizing that different organizations that are engaged in the act of partnership have different capacity, they have different interests. But an open system just acknowledges that these tents should be big and should include those who want to act in common ways in order to advance common goals. And so our concept of partnership is really rooted in the idea of abundance. There is enough work there for everybody to do. There’s more than enough, in fact, in order to advance true equity for our systems. And it’s just about being clear about who is doing what and when and how and in what ways.


[00:09:00.760] – Landon

Yeah, I mean, honestly, one of the things we talk about in the second principle, knowing your community, we talk about schools, systems, public institutions, libraries have a variety of open system infrastructure that are conduits to the outside world. In education, that could be a home visit program. It could be an ongoing survey instrument. And a part of the leader’s work is to understand kind of all the different kind of conduits that are allowing open system information to flow from the outside community into the system to make better decisions. Now, that is an aspect to the partnership. And there are, of course, multiple types of partnerships. There’s partnerships at the classroom level, the school level, the system level. There’s coalitional partnerships. There are sometimes advocacy groups coming together, yet we think that they all have an opportunity to be in common if they seek to bring people together for a shared design, and that’s co-creation. And we really contrast co-creation versus co-production in the book. And I think this is actually a really important piece that we’re trying to offer some sharpening to the field, because we see a lot of times in the field, people say, oh, co-creation co-production, they use these terms interchangeably.


[00:10:11.030] – Landon

Co-creation is the idea of building public value with your broader authorizing environment. It’s your stakeholders coming together to reimagine a public system or design a public system that offers something that people in the community want, desire and need. And then through the act of doing it with other people, it becomes stronger. And again, we know there’s decades of research literature that more diverse voices building something is strong. And it’s really funny – even the people the most afraid of co-creation often say, “well, yeah, it’s true, we do know that research exists. We know that diverse ideas lead to better outcomes.” So, okay, why don’t we build with them and not just make them a part of an advisory group? Which leads us to co-production. Co-production is the act of actually keeping those authorizing stakeholders together, the people that you’ve designed with in the actual building or doing of the work, Steve. That is critical. We see a lot of people who love the co-creation work. They love getting people and building all sorts of stuff all over whiteboards and then don’t build the actual capacity and structure to move that work into the grind of implementation.


[00:11:19.580] – Landon

If co-creation is the promise, coproduction is the commitment. It’s the idea that not only do we need your ideas to design it, but we need you to do it.


[00:11:29.590] – Steve

And I’m guessing that do it is continuing do it. You’ve got a co-responsibility for the success. Is that fair?


[00:11:41.710] – Landon

That’s it. That’s totally fair. And I think know so much of this, Doannie and I talk about is building a new type of muscle in public leaders and public systems for openness, for that responsiveness, for that type of co-design and co-production. And so, yes, we want people to start with a task force or start with an initiative and get moving on that. But then we want them to overcome their fear, get into that commitment that you’re talking about and get into that process and then start to see, oh, wait, how do we do it over here? How do we do it over here? How do we think about it in transportation? How do we think about an after school program? And there’ll be new closed systems they’re going to be confronting along the way each time.


[00:12:18.760] – Steve

There’s one other term that I pulled in your writing, “breakthrough spaces.” Would you tell us a little bit about what that is?


[00:12:29.660] – Doannie

Yeah, sure. It is one of the core elements that we find is a big shift from sort of the traditional models of community engagement that Landon was talking about before – it is a structural choice. It is a way of building the kind of space where real co-creation can happen. And the way we think about it is, how do we actually get a group that is truly representative of the sort of insights and perspectives that we need to drive this specific project forward. If we want co-creation in a realm like creating a district strategic plan, for example, as we did in Burlington, then what groups do we want to center and what voices do we need to bring to the table in order to drive that work forward? And so when we create that kind of breakthrough space for a specific task around which we are quite clear about the purpose and the timeline and the scope of impact, we say, alright, well, why don’t we just acknowledge that the way that we build traditional task forces for that sort of thing tend to be a little bit broken.


[00:13:38.860] – Doannie

We actually think we’re being transparent when we put out these application processes and say, alright, community, apply for this task force. But what we actually don’t recognize is that the broader community is often quite skeptical of those application processes because they’re like, oh, well, somebody at the district office just wants their friends to be on there anyway, and they’re just going to put their thumb on the scale in order to get the group that they want to push through the process. So we acknowledge that there are actually three major groups that have to be considered and they each have their own mechanism by which we bring them into that breakthrough space. So first, there’s a group of stakeholders who really are essential, they’re politically important or they have expertise that matters a lot to the process. This is kind of like the Blue Ribbon Commission kind of folks, your local chamber of commerce, your local city councilor, the professor who has expertise in that particular area. And what we say to those folks is you don’t need to apply. We’re just going to offer you a seat. And we kind of set aside a third, roughly, of the seats to those sorts of folks.


[00:14:52.610] – Doannie

And then there are interested stakeholders. These are the folks who show up to your board meetings. They show up to public comment. They are plugged in, they’re connected, they get all the newsletters so they know the process is coming. And we do put out an application for those folks. So we say all right, about a third of the seats we’re actually going to hold for groups who want to fill out the application and we’re going to evaluate those and make sure that it’s diverse along a number of dimensions and bring the perspectives that we need. And then for the final third, we call that group potential stakeholders. These are people who live the experience, they live the system as it is, but they may not be plugged in to the point where they know that this process is happening. And we use a process that’s in the literature described as sortition, which is akin to jury selection, to access this population of stakeholders. So we use data systems within the education infrastructure and we say, alright, give us a random slice of the population. And you can be thoughtful. Whatever your purpose of the task force is, you can overselect for perspectives that kind of demonstrate or live are part of that system.


[00:16:09.170] – Doannie

For example, if you want to redesign attendance policy, you can look at the data system and say, actually I want to access families and young people who are experiencing higher than average attendance issues and that’s who I want to represent.


[00:16:25.740] – Doannie

And for that group, you don’t ask them to apply either. You just directly invite them and bring them into that space. And we find that by constructing it in that way, transparently, builds a lot of trust and actually brings an incredible diversity of points of view into the room in ways that other ways of composing task forces aren’t able to do.


[00:16:46.640] – Steve

I am really glad I asked that question. That is just so counter to what historically happens in almost any group that schools put together to give input.


[00:17:03.860] – Landon

It’s so true, Steve. And we have to admit that the traditional school task force is broken. And what Doannie just described is essential, not only to bring more people to the table and he talked about that, but to withstand the incredible political stress that current context requires. What Doannie just described, we’ve now watched in multiple different types of political contexts – urban, rural, suburban, withstand a significant amount of scrutiny and pressure. That’s not typically what you see from the task forces taking on questions of the day. So just want to kind of underline your in that point.


[00:17:41.920] – Steve

One last term that I pulled that you use is, democratic leadership. I’m thinking everybody can come up with their own on that, but what do you guys mean when you use that term?


[00:17:54.820] – Landon

It’s a really important kind of opening framing for the book and we’ve been inspired by lots of other writers on this, although they don’t necessarily always call it democratic leadership. Dean Williams talks about it as real leadership, but really like countering the dominant narrative of authoritarian leadership that exists in the education, corporate political space of our country, which is these are the problems and I alone am the solution. I am the one who will give you the vision. I will come down from the mountaintops with the tablets and I will tell you what we got to do. Now, there are moments in times and emergencies and cases where that type of leadership is required or called for of society and civilization. Sure, we get that, but we are talking first and foremost about democratic public institutions. And if democratic public institutions are run by leaders who believe that it’s their way or the highway, then over time we’re going to see closed system behavior, which means they’re not going to build with other people. And we bring in a significant amount of research and literature from a professor from Miami, University of Ohio, Brian Danoff, who’s done some awesome writing and reading about democratic leadership across essentially kind of culture and literature and film.


[00:19:11.650] – Landon

It’s really interesting. And he says that there are kind of three aspects to democratic leadership. One is the belief that you are always catalyzing other leaders in a community. A Democratic leader says, hey, every person I’m meeting, I’m trying to activate their civic spark and their civic potential. And we see this in the superintendents and school board members that we profile in the book. They’re constantly meeting with people and being like, yeah, I’m not trying to tell them what to do. I’m hoping that they’ll just activate and then start to work on all these cool problems that we have to figure out in Idaho Springs or in Atlanta or New York City. Second is they have to believe that a shared direction is possible. They have an opinion. They get to have an opinion. And one thing that we stand different from a lot of folks in the kind of community-based leadership space saying that oftentimes, there’s this kind of maybe dismissing of leadership, a skepticism of leadership. And we think leadership is critical to move systems forward. Leaders get to have expertise. They get to have perspective. They get to have an opinion.


[00:20:14.020] – Landon

They just have to share it with other people. And through their explication of their own vision, molding it, augmenting it, adjusting it, in process in partnership with other people, the vision becomes better, stronger, and they know that they’re going to go in a different direction. And third, this is actually the hardest piece, particularly for our moment in time right now, is they have to be committed to moving communities closer to the democratic ideal. And what does that mean? Well, it means that we have to be honest in our society and democracies. That our previous systems closed as they were encased in legacy isms racism, classism, settler, colonialism, we know that they haven’t lived up to the potential that we needed them to live up to. And that’s a fact that you see, actually, people recognize across ideologies. Actually, there’s a desire for it to do better. Now, what a democratic leader needs to be able to do is say, we have not met the moment, but it is now our time to move forward together, because there’s something that we can do together that we couldn’t do alone. And too often in our society, there’s a lot of people who love to deconstruct, they love to critique.


[00:21:25.140] – Landon

They love to think of all the ways the system has structural problems. The Democratic leader, the opener, names the problem and then moves the community collectively to solve it, moves it closer to that democratic ideal.


[00:21:39.420] – Doannie

And I just wanted to double click on one thing that Landon noted, that it’s not about listening or a leader is not always about doing whatever the community says. But in our history thus far, we have don’t have the right relationship between the power of the expertise held by most of the educational professionals versus the power in the expertise of families, communities and our external partners. And it’s not that we’re asking leaders to put aside their opinion and expertise. It’s about right sizing that expertise’s sort of influence relative to that of those of families and students and other community members.


[00:22:29.100] – Steve

What’s triggering for me is I recently recorded a podcast with a superintendent who had gotten quite a bit of recognition for changes that have come through in the community. And piece that he shared with me is that if he could do the job that he thought he needed to do, the system would move away from having a superintendent. That the idea of one person at the head of that central office kind of took away some element of leadership of other people who were there just by the naming of the position.


[00:23:07.320] – Landon



[00:23:07.720] – Steve

I thought that was interesting when he tossed that out.


[00:23:12.040] – Landon

It is really interesting and one of the things, and Doannie came up with this phrase and I love it so much – modeling creative democracy. It’s one of our key principles. And I think that we have to explore innovations in the way that we structure these systems, Steve. And so I’m like, hey, if a school district wants to try out a triumvirate of a leadership model, I think there’s something there. There was a moment in time where we had a group of superintendents in Denver Public Schools just visiting and discussing our school system. We got 190 schools in Denver. We have a variety of charter networks, we have innovation schools, we have innovation zone networks, we have a school board, we have politics. At one point, of these superintendents, who was a pretty incredible superintendent in her own right, she goes, I’m not sure one human being can do this job. I’m not sure. And again, some people will be like, oh my God, well, we have to have one person.


[00:24:14.650] – Steve



[00:24:16.380] – Landon

We have to be willing to explore and be creative and innovate on some of these leadership questions to be able to build the systems we want.


[00:24:24.320] – Steve

The word that I like to use is, “leader-full.”


[00:24:28.640] – Steve

In other words, you’re creating an organization that’s full of leaders. So it’s kind of that reaching out and building the leadership capacity of all the people that you’re working with.


[00:24:45.740] – Steve

I would say most of those education jobs can’t be handled by one person, from high school principal to superintendent.


[00:24:57.560] – Landon

I’m out up in the mountains right now in Colorado and I just sat down with a couple of leaders in the senior organization in this district and everyone’s burned out. We hear this all the time. The mental load to hold all of this is significant.


[00:25:12.960] – Steve

Well, guys, I really appreciate what you’ve shared here. And before we close out, I’d really value if there are a couple of encouraging words and directions that you might offer to leaders at the school level, because I think that’s a challenging piece. So whether you’re the principal, whether you’re the teacher leader, but if you’re more focused at that school level than at the bigger system level, some thoughts of thinking for those folks to be exploring.


[00:25:48.860] – Doannie

Yeah, I do a lot of work with school level folks around these questions of co-creation, and I think that many leaders out there desperately want to be these kinds of democratic leaders. They know that they are modeling the kinds of democratic engagement for their young people and for their families that they want to see in the world. I think they take that responsibility on very clearly. And so I’m speaking to you, all of those who feel that fire, that you want to be a place that models how you co-create with young people and with parents, and they’re scared, and that’s okay. But think about a small bite – one small project that you can bring together a couple of parents and a couple of kids and build something together alongside some core trusted teachers. It doesn’t have to be the breakthrough space with the coalition and the three parts. That seems like a lot. Start small and start with something that your school and your school community can handle. Think about what if we did grading a little bit differently? Or what if we had a project night, an exhibition night for some of the coolest things that young people do?


[00:27:12.810] – Doannie

Could we co-create that with families? Start with something low risk. Start with something you feel like can be manageable and see how that feels. See how much a different level of commitment comes out of that. And then, as Landon, I think, said earlier, find another opportunity. The people you engaged in that original enterprise, they’re actually going to be that much more ready to do something. And they will already have built some capacity around how to collaborate and how to co-create so you don’t have to start from scratch with them. And so just let it spread in that way and build it as you go. And build that kind of open system as you go.


[00:27:54.180] – Steve

Landon, you want to follow that up a little?


[00:27:56.900] – Landon

I love what Doannie said, progress, not perfection. Just get started.


[00:28:00.550] – Steve

Another great phrase.


[00:28:02.650] – Steve

Guys, what’s the best way for listeners to follow some of your work, find the book, check in with you?


[00:28:09.400] – Landon

They can find us on all the social media at The Open System on Twitter, now X, LinkedIn, theopensystem.org, they can find us, and we’d love to find them.


[00:28:24.590] – Steve

I’ll stick theopensystem.org in the lead-in to the podcast.


[00:28:32.010] – Steve

Thank you so much, guys.


[00:28:32.480] – Steve

Really appreciate it.


[00:28:34.990] – Landon

Thank you, Steve.


[00:28:35.980] – Doannie

Pleasure to be here.


[00:28:38.880] – Steve [Outro]

Thanks for listening, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.


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