Scale Away

You’ve got an idea, an innovation. Maybe you’ve hooked the big one. Whatever it is, it’s making a splash! Reeling it in is proving to be a real challenge, but you’re up to it. You’ve been trained in all the best practices, and you’ve got a great team supporting you.

The tension on the line is productive struggle, and you’re determined. This time, the big one won’t get away.
Finally it’s here! You’ve brought it in and there it lies, shiny and new and gasping for breath, just like you. So exciting!
What’s your next thought? I’ll be it’s “how do we take this to scale?”

How do we take this to scale?

I know, I’m mixing metaphors and educators don’t like that. Stay with, though, because I think it’s time that we realize what we’re doing to our best ideas when our first thought upon realizing them is “how do we take this to scale?”
When we ask “how do we take this to scale? we usually begin by analyzing the innovation in all it’s glory. We might even conduct a Five Why’s or Fishbone protocol on it to determine the root causes so that we can replicate our success.
When we ask “how do we take this to scale?” we want to measure it so that we can value it, and assess the value-add it offers our schools.

And, let’s be honest, when we ask “how do we take this to scale?” many of us secretly want to know how it might tip the scale, not just in terms of transforming education, but also transforming the bottom line of educational institutions, whether for profit or not.

What is scaling?

Those are all reasonable things to want, but what do we really do with an innovation when we take it to scale? I already mentioned that we measure and weigh its worth. Yet what usually happens after that is that we bonk it (or to extend the metaphor, the person who generated it) on the head, gut it, and then literally strip it of all that was shiny and new and unique on the surface. Scales may look all the same on the surface—a simple outcome replicated across the entire body—yet each scale is actually a unique expression of a deeper dynamic structure. That’s a dynamic we almost always miss when we take something to scale.

So, we toss the scales when we take something to scale, and then filet the meat off the bones to feast on it, if even momentarily. If you think that’s a harsh judgment and that things aren’t that bad, consider the other even more common alternative: we stuff the idea, make a trophy out of it to hang on the wall, and then tell stories about it for years that prove that once, we were truly innovative. How many such banners are hanging in your school?


When it comes to innovation, education has had enough fish tales and scales for my taste. We don’t need stale models implemented with fidelity to the point they turn into a commodity. We need to stop taking things to scale, and appreciate what is unique in each innovation. As Paolo Freire reminded us more than a generation ago, education is not (or at least, should not be) in the business of commodification. Education, like fishing, is best enjoyed as an experience; ideally a learning experience.

To descale innovation we need to look at the big one we reeled in, and appreciate the intricate and dynamic patterns that make it beautiful. Then we just release it back into the water where it can make others. It’s catch and release, plain and simple.

I wrote about these kinds of experiences in my new book, “Unprepared for What We Learned.” But I’m not just selling fish tales! My Project ARC partners and I believe that learning experiences evolve and transform when innovation is viral, when young and adult learners have the opportunity to participate in the co-creation of their experiences. If you want to experience that kind of learning, check out VirAL coaching for school leaders at Project ARC.

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