Explore the Power of Active Sensemaking for Schools and Education

Leverage the untapped wisdom and experience of the people involved in your school to overcome challenges to successfully educate all students and to improve your school! Spryng.io and Active Sensemaking provides the approach and tools to do this where assessments, surveys, interviews, and meetings fall short.

Schools are exposed to and influenced by local and distant dynamics

Most days things happen in a school that sidetrack plans. Sometimes students fight, or dissolve in frustration. Sometimes a teacher is not prepared to teach after a family crisis. Sometimes an angry parent breaks up the administrator’s morning schedule. Sometimes board directives don’t work.

In one school one day a child was hit by a school bus as it approached on the downtown city street. The pain and horror caused almost everything to halt that week.

In 2020 the COVID pandemic hit. This was similar to going from a normal school day, like walking on loose dry sand, to navigating during an earthquake with ongoing aftershocks. Running all schools since then has been super complicated.

Schools are vulnerable to disruptions and diversions in operating and teaching students well. In a normal school year any number and kinds of events can disturb student learning. Anyone or any group in the school can instigate disruptions whether intended or not. Decisions and internal activities can fold back on the school to create new pressures. For example, budget limitations can cut purchases of classroom supplies, leading to teachers using their own money to buy what the students need, which impacts teachers’ time and personal resources, which increases stress and frustration for teachers. Community events also inject challenges into any part of the school, especially in high-tension urban settings. But with the COVID-19 pandemic schools were buffeted with continually changing challenges that disrupted the staff, students, families, operations, supplies, critical vendors, and school operations. Supply chains across the nation and world were challenged. These disruptions led to ongoing ripple effects on every organization, company, and family.

All this happens because schools are human systems – created by and for people. All human systems exhibit complex interactions that create unpredictable changes as people across the system respond to their personal, local experiences with their particular understandings. Complexity is a fact of life. Human systems complexity results in the inability of any person or group to know or understand what is happening across the system. No one can know what will happen and no one can control what happens. No technology can track or accurately predict what will happen either. Schools are complex human systems that contain uncountable and uncontrollable interactions initiated by individuals and other system components in and outside the school. We live in this and are often not even conscious of the milieu of events and effects at work around us.

Human systems have permeable boundaries at many levels – so that what happens in one place creates influences sometimes across the school, or across town, or the world and vice versa. For example, no company or organization could have predicted and prepared for the sudden panic buying and shortage of toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic. And still in 2022, computer chips for essential equipment are in short supply. Perhaps your school is not able to buy more computers yet for next year.

Schools exist for student learning success and must continually work to improve that learning.

Every student matters and the expectation is that each student learns well. But schools are complex and vulnerable to what people do inside and outside school. This creates ongoing challenges to improving learning and managing schools well. Preparing for and working to address risks and challenges is a constant concern to school leaders. Spryng.io seeks to reduce leaders’ stress and work to discover and make improvements across school systems.

Communities, families, school staff, and students want high-quality education and there is no shortage of advice and hopeful wisdom that can help move schools to improve. Who wouldn’t want students to achieve their learning goals and the school organization thrive? But advice – even with excellent research pointing ways forward – does not just work for any school. Even when administration selects a really good improvement program the steps to implement it must engage with that school’s current human and system complexity. Since each school is a unique combination of people, contexts, and relationships each school must figure out how to proceed on its own. This is one reason prescribed programs and practices often don’t work as promised.

The effect of all this is that improving schools is a continually moving target that requires insights into what is happening and what is emerging across the school. People can’t know everything of what is happening and not everything is worth knowing. At the same time, what individuals think, believe, and how they act affects what emerges in the school as people seek to improve their organizing and work together. The fact that some schools are very successful at organizing and improving means people can learn how to improve within complexity together.

Taking on this view of humans and complexity means that any organization is not a static thing, though it can appear to be a stable legal entity over time. Organizations are actually people continually organizing together. Some organizations achieve much higher quality and sustained levels of organizing than others. Sustaining this over many years or generations is a phenomenal achievement.

What information and understanding enables people to work better together?

In this section we describe common situations in schools. After that we will connect these situations and experiences to the practice of Active Sensemaking, an approach to gather relevant insights from people in complex situations where many people see and experience different things – here focused on schools and education.

People need effective means and methods to communicate and coordinate to sustain and improve their school. Good information informs leaders, staff, and families so they can adapt and influence their work together for the sake of student learning success. To achieve adaptability to sustain or improve, schools need the right kinds of information and insights. Being an adaptive school that makes steady improvements in the face of challenges requires substantial insights into many aspects of the school.

The standard information people use to inform their work and progress comes primarily from selected measures, assessments, surveys, and interviews based on a prescribed strategy or plan. The information from these methods have been somewhat useful for schools. Otherwise, these would not be used anymore. People also make sense of what is happening and what needs to happen through conversations and meetings. Usually, these meetings refer to the previously listed information and measures. But people process information coming from individuals – like what is working, why, and what might make a difference. You likely know the difficulty and frequent frustration of muddling through these ideas and data to make sense of what is happening and what to do with it.

In the last few decades public schools have been shaped to be “data driven” – to use student assessment and other data to determine what adjustments to make for instruction, curriculum, and special helps for students. But most data are hindsight and usually not well-linked to what happened, how it happened and what to do about it. And all that needs to contribute to how students learn and how well they learn. Since most schools use these same instruments and information sources it is very easy to think that is all that is available or necessary to inform and guide decision making and actions to improve. But there are problems with each of these sources of information.

First, there is more happening in a school than any of these measures can identify. That is primarily because people are doing things together that don’t fit the measures or collected information. The measures and instruments used in a school are necessarily focused on certain information. Albert Einstein stated, “It is the theory that decides what we can observe.” So each instrument determines what can be learned or known. But people always act on what they know, believe, and understand in the context of their situation, always more than what the instruments allow. This means what matters in a school’s success is often hidden from decision makers looking at data or current feedback. But usually someone does see what matters.

The context of events in a school is incredibly important. Student bullying is often dealt with poorly because the full context is not found or addressed. Who knows the context of an event? Most likely people in and near the event in time and space. Identifying this is often very difficult to do because individuals are not forthcoming, or available, or events keep happening in the school – the program must go on. So, people lose track or may never be aware of what happened that contributed to an emerging problem, or an emerging solution.

Second the instruments and measures, even what people talk about, are usually biased in some way. Surveys are often biased in their construction, presentation and how respondents answer. Similar things happen with interviews. People couch their statements to appeal to others and don’t talk about something else that may be making a difference. “Don’t offend that person.” “Don’t scare the principal with something that is not supposed to be talked about.” In another time and place in the school some staff (or students) will talk about the “unmentionable” things with each other and keep leaders in the dark. This subgroup’s behaviors often send ripples into the school system. This may confound finding solutions to important or pervasive problems. Or these groups’ words and behaviors create pervasive problems. This happens when groups hold to perspectives that block them from talking with and learning from other groups. Sometimes this leads to serious conflicts like teacher strikes, or revolts against school leadership or the board, or fights between groups of students.

School improvement and organization development (OD) professionals with their skill sets are uniquely positioned to deploy the Active Sensemaking methodology to benefit schools. This methodology expands the capability to hear individual voices within a community or organization and gain high level patterns about an intractable problem or concerning situation. Insights into patterns derive from and respect the context of each individual’s experience. A representative group of stakeholders view and make sense of patterns that are found from many people’s stories. All of this leads to better insights and ways to move forward with wise actions.

Learning how, when, where, or why things happened is central to learning how to shift issues in a school. What happens in a school from event to event and across different people and time develop into patterns. People are very good at recognizing patterns. Patterns are not necessarily good or bad. But some patterns produce results that people don’t want. We could say those patterns are not fit for function at this time. Patterns can be short term, or last for months, and some seem to never change. Some patterns emerge and seem to disappear only to emerge again. What is important to understand is that people can influence patterns even in very complex systems and situations. That is how we have very different kinds of schools from those created 150 years ago. And that is why some schools dramatically outperform other schools. That is how some organizations were able to thrive during the pandemic.

Some patterns are obvious to many people – such as declining student enrollment, an outbreak of fighting between students, or a power outage. But other patterns are only briefly perceived by some individuals or missed all together. It is very hard to reorganize people to address unseen but significant patterns! Almost any organization has hidden patterns that some people are aware of but many are not.

To improve schools people must discover what is happening within and around the school and then decipher how to enable people to work better together. Complex human systems are constantly changing. Therefore what worked last year may not work this year. Therefore, continual improvement requires people to continue to take time to discover what is happening and organize a better ways forward. People organize by developing patterns of interaction (agreeing on how to communicate and act) to impact targeted unfit patterns. Sometimes results are immediate. Some results become evident in a week or month; some years into the future. Schools that do not provide time to do this kind of work are at the whims of system patterns from within and from outside the school.

Implementing Active Sensemaking practices using the Spryng.io platform enables organizations, here schools, to discover significant patterns that affect the school’s success and student learning. This can involve diminishing unhelpful patterns and leveraging helpful patterns. This approach uses sensemaking questionnaires that enable people in a situation or context to share how they made sense of an experience that relates to the situation.

Sensemaking is a subfield of ethnography that aims to use narrative structures and anecdotes to analyze complex ecosystems and make sense of what’s really going on. It draws its inspirations from a range of different sciences and uses various data disciplines to uncover insights from the stories of people in the organization. When a study using Active Sensemaking is done well, it can help leaders identify the key patterns, trends, and problems that exist – so they can take meaningful action (the Active part of Active Sensemaking) that pushes the organization forward. Active Sensemaking respects and heightens individual’s experiences in context with the meaning of their experiences. Then information and data becomes useful when humans, who understand the context of a situation, interpret the meaning and determine what ways to influence the situation.

Overcoming the deficiencies of standard measures, surveys and biased information

The Active Sensemaking solution through Spryng.io collects more relevant evidence of what happens in your school. This is not what surveys, interviews, assessments, and meetings can provide. The questionnaires enable people from across the school to express their experiences and perspectives in a situation. Seek to include all stakeholders relevant to the study concern. People’s stories become critical evidence to make sense of what happened and from that discover patterns at work that can be influenced wisely. People’s stories are enhanced as they ascribe specific kinds of meaning to their stories. Their meanings are represented as data that can be analyzed to discover relevant patterns across all the collected stories. Insights from people’s experiences can lead to multiple improvements.

Active Sensemaking through the Spryng.io platform provides access to people’s intimate knowledge of what happens in different situations and parts of a school. Active Sensemaking honors and seeks all people’s voices because their experience is significant for them and for others. Active Sensemaking questionnaires protect people so they are free to communicate what they really think and experienced. This increases the validity of the data and uncovers what some may want to suppress.

Active Sensemaking in organizations reveals patterns and trends by investigating and interrogating people’s narratives. Since all people’s voices matter, gathering stories from all stakeholders involved in or with the school will yield much richer insights. People’s narratives are collected using a questionnaire designed for a contextualized issue or concern. People record their experiences as short stories, define what those experiences meant to them, and provide other information that helps orient their stories around the concern. This is done using the Spryng.io software platform. Active Sensemaking is far more probing and insight-generating than a survey. It combines qualitative data (individual stories) with quantitative data (collective meaning responses). Active Sensemaking yields richly nuanced insights into why your organization is operating the way it is. It can reveal what actually needs to be improved and what is hindering improvements.

We don’t presume to know which stories will reveal the more significant insights. We also don’t presume that one or many stories will confirm a relevant pattern in the school. Active Sensemaking leverages people’s pattern recognition skills and their collected stories (experiences) to help people organize to improve how people interact, communicate, coordinate, adjust practices, policies and so on. Some undesirable patterns can be shifted or changed simply by people agreeing to change certain practices. Others are more durable and insights into the patterns and people’s roles in them can enable the school to gradually shift the pattern into a more helpful form.

Because you get far more nuanced feedback, in gathering specific stories, emergent patterns can be seen that reveal trends and issues across the school or in particular parts of the school. You’ll observe what most of the stories were about and how respondents viewed them. You’ll see concerns in sharp relief and gain a deeper understanding of their relationship to goals and outcomes with students, staff or relations with the community.

The result of Active sensemaking studies is the school will learn what matters, how the school is and is not achieving what matters and learn how to influence system patterns in wiser directions through next wise actions.

In summary, improving schools is a never-ending quest for all students to achieve their best learning and outcomes. Use the right tools to gather the most relevant information to discover what is happening, what is making a difference, and how to shift the complex human interactions to achieve greater resilience and success. Spryng.io’s Active Sensemaking platform provides the means to gain access to the most people to collect their experiences in context to the school’s situations. This kind of information cannot be gathered using surveys, or interviews, or even discussions in meetings. And this information would complement and clarify what is gathered using the other tools.

Join us at Spryng.io for a free 90 minute hands-on session to create and analyze an Active Sensemaking study for schools. This activity will enable you to explore and experience how Active Sensemaking studies are conducted and give you a sense of what is possible.


What is Active Sensemaking and how can it draw on the wisdom of people to gain powerful insights and improvements for schools? (15 minutes)

The structure of an Active Sensemaking Study (2 minutes)

Hands-on Time in a Study (55 minutes)

  1. Creating the Initiative (walk through study purpose and organizing)
  2. Designing the Questionnaire or Sensor (Discover – prompting questions, Design – sensor components, Test – overview of verify)
  3. Preparing participants (explore the marketing landscape)
  4. Collecting responses (the collection – simulation)
  5. Analyzing responses (exploring results in signifiers, clusters, patterns)

Applications for schools and education (3 minutes)

Examples of Applications of Spryng.io (2 minutes)

Membership Options and support (2 minutes)

Q &A (15 minutes)

Join a Schools and Education Pilot

You can take the first step to access and leverage your education stakeholder experiences and wisdom, far exceeding what is possible via assessments, surveys, interviews, and meetings, with an Active Sensemaking Pilot. You will have an Active Sensemaking consultant to work alongside you and your organization in an apprentice-like model, following Active Sensemaking principles on the Spryng platform.

The advantages of using Spryng Education studies can be a game changer. But most organizations are unexposed to the approach and opportunity. Introducing this approach to an organization is something done carefully and incrementally. We believe experiencing this is a critical step to understand and leverage this approach for your organization’s benefit. A carefully designed study that is introduced safely and produces tangible results for individuals (experientially and for their work) and for the organization can open the door to continued learning and growth.

One valuable benefit of Spryng/Active Sensemaking is to help people become more collaborative, creative, and effective within and across their organization. This is about increasing capacity to adapt and innovate. We encourage you to go down this path because not changing could be disastrous. But try wisely. Spryng gives you some options to explore and test these new (we think revolutionary) ideas.

A first step is to participate in a Live Demo – explore and see the basic steps we take to conduct an initiative. Invite a group from your organization to participate so you can evaluate the experiences together. Then evaluate and imagine what this new kind of information could do for your organization.

The second is to conduct a pilot study within your organization. A pilot study should be small, well focused, and relevant to a current or emerging issue affecting your organization. It should be sufficiently relevant to most if not all people involved in the department, group, or organization. Make it affordable, streamlined so that people can contribute without cutting too much into their daily responsibilities. It should also be conducted in a short enough time so that results are still relevant to the issue and current situations in your organization. We will help you design and implement it and keep it affordable. This gives you a change to experience the whole process and benefit from the results without having to master learning the practice and the Spryng platform. But you will get to know the practice and the platform. Take the experience and results to others in the organization and explore what this new kind of information and insights can bring your organization. You may be pleasantly surprised at how affirmed people are to tell their stories without fear of reprisals.

What you do with a pilot study can be reworked easily into more studies and larger initiatives. Step by step people will recognize that others’ voices matter, that opportunities and challenges can be addressed. Success will breed more success. People’s personal experiences with this will begin to change how they communicate and interact and these changes will change patterns in your organization. This is what has happened with organizations who took the time to explore and try something new like this.

Costs for pilots can range from $5,000 to $24,000 depending on the scale and scope of the study. We will work with you to fit your readiness and situation to your means.


“Sprynging into Action is like a gourmet nine course meal where you get to experience soup to yummy dessert.
Even better -- you are able to watch the skilled chefs perpare your Active Sensemaking meal, seeing all that is invloved. ”
“In the face of massive upheaval and uncertainties, wise leadership of our organizations and institutions has never been more critically important.
But the foundation of wise leadership is deep awareness and insight into context—a meaningful understanding of what’s going on.
Spryng offers a uniquely powerful methodology and effective tools that yield the awareness and insights needed to empower wise leadership decisions.
Complete with the ‘Sprynging into Action’ support resources, Spryng is ready to help you gain the information you need for your most challenging decisions. ”