March 11, 2015

3 Steps to Collaboration That Tackle Society’s Toughest Challenges

Cindy Ord/Getty Images for New Profit Inc.

When you think of New York Fashion Week, what is the first thing that comes to mind? If you don’t think infusing insights from neuroscience into the classroom and transforming the American education system, you’re not alone.

But last month a $30 million project called Reimagine Learning harnessed the creativity and energy of New York Fashion Week — including a performance by John Legend and a cameo by cutting-edge fashion brand Public School—to highlight the promise of creating learning environments that unleash the talents and creativity of all young people.

Reimagine Learning is a diverse collaborative of over 100 organizations and individuals whose work is fueled by a set of core beliefs:

  • There is no such thing as an average learner. Sharing the same classroom does not mean sharing the same mind.
  • The best learning environments equally value and cultivate cognitive, social, and emotional skills and understand that together they drive academic performance, well-being, and life success.
  • It is critical that students have a say in their own learning journey: what they learn, how and where they learn it.

Reimagine Learning brings together innovative entrepreneurial organizations like Achievement Network, Eye to Eye, New Classrooms Innovation Partners, New Teacher Center, Peace First, and Turnaround for Children to align their efforts to fundamentally change how learning happens in this country. New Profit, a venture philanthropy in Boston, has raised the money and is pulling together participants.

Reimagine Learning’s runway debut came after two years of work that highlights a growing trend as nonprofits of all kinds join forces to turn complex, dynamic, and seemingly intractable challenges into opportunities.

Getting groups to work together this way is not easy. While there’s no one road map to any collaborative effort, we have identified a series of stages needed to get to the point where they are ready to make a difference.

Discover the real problem you want to solve. A network has to start somewhere. Usually it begins with a group of people who share a sense that existing solutions aren’t sufficient, but those same people may also have divergent views of the issue and conflicting beliefs about what will work.

As groups come together to take on an ambitious goal that will compel a broad range of people to action, it is essential to understand how to define the problem, how it has developed over time, and what solutions are being tried and by whom.

This is just what happened in 2012 when Vanessa Kirsch, head of New Profit, and trustees of the Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation discussed their views on how students with learning and attention issues remain at the margins even as schools make big improvements in other ways. They were talking about students with dyslexia, ADHD, dyscalculia, and other brain-based difficulties that make learning in an “average” classroom environment challenging and that can create social and emotional problems as a result.

Concerned as they were about the problem, the group also had a hunch that bringing together key leaders from different fields could help generate new insights and innovations that focus on a student’s needs — and fundamentally improve education for all students.

Over the next year, through a process that included meetings, research, interviews, and a lot of talking and listening to people in the Reimagine Learning Network, we helped members understand where they agreed and where they did not. By gaining a broader sense of the context in which the network operated, encouraging a conversation about a future the network could collectively influence, understanding what the participants believed, whom they served, what problem they solved, and how they had made a difference, we began to write a shared vision for how to change the education system.

This produced a document that allowed everyone in the network to think hard about the ways working together would produce far stronger results than continuing to work alone.

Know the players and how they’re connected. Once the network pinned down its agenda, it focused on who else needed to be involved and how all of the players could work together. We conducted a social-network analysis to see this group’s collective impact across the country — the connections and the gaps. We found that Reimagine Learning’s members work in 47 states, 519 cities, 545 districts, and 1,101 schools — a reach that is fueling practical conversations about how to coordinate changes in classroom activities at the regional, city, and district levels.

With New Profit’s policy arm, America Forward, the network is also focused on pushing for policy changes to remove barriers and create incentives that support new types of teaching and learning environments. Reimagine Learning is also looking for ways to change the culture of how Americans talk about education so they will focus on the understanding that not everyone learns the same way.

Knit disparate efforts to test what works. With over 100 organizations, Reimagine Learning is now starting to collaborate on projects that put their ideas into action. New Teacher Center and the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning are distilling research findings to equip teachers with instructional resources. Together, 15 members of Reimagine Learning launched Understood.org, a free and comprehensive resource for parents of students with learning and attention problems. City Year will open a new school, Compass Academy, which will build on its insights from working with at-risk students for over two decades. MIT Media Lab will expand its work to create technologies that support students who learn in different ways and help them take charge of their own education.

Before John Legend sat down at the piano to sing “Shine” from “Waiting for Superman” at the event that marked the public launch of Reimagine Learning, his call to action echoed in our ears: “In today’s world, expecting every child’s education to be the same, progress at the same rate and be measured against the same narrow standards of performances is not just outdated, it’s a disservice to young people and to the educators who dedicate their lives to helping them. So let’s stop funneling people through a system and start letting each person discover the power and uniqueness of his or her own passion.”

We hope that our experiences will help other groups — no matter what big problem they are trying to solve — have the courage and knowledge to tackle challenges that no single organization can ever hope to make a dent in by working alone.

Dana O’Donovan is COO of Monitor Institute, where Anna Muoio is a project leader. Monitor is part of the social impact practice at Deloitte Consulting.