How Agency Can Lead to System Transformation at Scale
Franco Mosso is the co-founder and CEO of Enseña Perú. His profound knowledge of educational systems as well as his expertise in leadership and change management made him an apt advisor and consultant to many significant initiatives over the years like Teach for All as well as the Center for Adaptive Leadership. His efforts and successes as a change maker in Peru were recognized when he received the Leadership in Education Award by the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2018. Today he is building educational systems for teachers and students alike that center around agency and collaboration and continues to inspire change throughout the regions of Peru.
Big Change/Eva Keiffenheim interviewed Franco at Salzburg Global Seminar Education Futures: Shaping A New Education Story. The questions build upon insights from the global research A New Education Story – Three Drivers to Transform Education Systems
This article was originally published on Franco Mosso’s LinkedIn profile.
How did you build a local leadership capacity in Cajamarca?
We have already been in Cajamarca since 2013 but without the systemic view we have now. When the pandemic started, we saw an opportunity. All of a sudden, we couldn’t have any in person interaction but could engage with leaders that otherwise would have never gathered in pre-pandemic times.
So we brought these leaders together in an online space and shared some of our training for professional development for free. To make it even more accessible, we asked one of our alumni, who was the head of high school education in the ministry at that time, to send invitations to all the leaders in the 220 districts, approximately 3000 people.
The goal was to create a space where we meet up and talk about how to develop competencies. As a reason to join, we focused on an area many leaders were struggling with – many had been having a lot of trouble with implementing the new curriculum and there had been three new national policies since 2016.
And it worked. In 2020, overall, 1000 people from over 15 regions of Peru, including educators, school principals and policymakers, from all districts and stakeholder groups joined. It was incredible, we grew together.
For three months, every single day, I had three two-hour-long sessions with 150-200 educators from different parts from across the country.
We were sharing with each other this experience of going inside ourselves, digging into our own experience as students, and emerged with new tools and mindsets to develop competencies in a different way. We had many conversations about topics like student agency.
What did you learn in all these sessions? And how did you equip learners and educators with agency?
There were a lot of innovations happening during that time, many that I knew of and many that I didn’t know of. I got to know Delia Cieza, an incredible early childhood educator from Cajamarca. We became allies to their existing strategy; to further develop educators.
To equip educators with agency, I did a number of things. I told them: “Come up with your own solutions. I am just here to share my knowledge but ultimately it will be your decision where to go from here.”
To help reshape their teacher development policy, we had eight meetings with over 15 leaders both from the regional government and the 13 districts of Cajamarca. I shared best practices from around the world and also from my own team. The leaders showed me their system for professional development of teachers in Cajamarca. From there we started problem solving. I asked questions and made suggestions.
My role was to inform them what to consider, but ultimately they created their own system. The whole process was very collaborative, they created many alliances and meeting after meeting their system kept getting better. At the same time it became more of their own, completely in tune with their policy and their language.
The training that I had imagined turned into something completely different, they adapted it. I was okay with that because at its core we were still promoting student agency – students having more power over their learning – across the territory.
How did your role change during this process?
The educators and learners led the change. They were determined to reach a critical mass in Cajamarca. Cajamarca is made up of 13 provinces and they gathered about 20-25 people from each province. And those people were teachers from all levels, school principals, people from the district as well as people from the actual team.
I went on to work with them doing the same modules that I’ve done for free before and it worked very well. I spent four months with that group of 250 leaders from Cajamarca before they took it forward and scaled it to 7000-8000 teachers in the region.
During that time I became something like a coach. Many of them were leaders in their own communities but they never had any experience of standing in a zoom call with 100 of their own colleagues. So I advised them and they took my sessions and recreated them with their own language and examples, appropriate to their context.
My role was to prepare them for what could happen when you lead these types of sessions.
So how do you host gatherings that lead to rethinking and change?
These sessions are very often atypical. There is a lot of introspection and uncertainty in the process. You never want to hand over ready-made formulas. Instead, you want to ask the right questions and bring people together in order to co-create something.
We all—myself included—shared deeply personal experiences of our younger selves, of when we were at school. The good and the painful were equally welcomed, equally valuable. We heard of teachers who attended classes 30 or 40 years ago and experienced physical punishment, humiliation, and complete lack of agency in their own process as students. We also delved into stories where teachers reminisced about the most magical interactions that produced learning for them. We jointly were striving to create a safe environment for us to share authentically, change opinions, and evolve new mindsets.
It’s through the discomfort of shifting your mindset that you can create change.
You mentioned in another conversation, how innovations for education and the entire community in the region increased. Local innovation, at scale, can become system transformation. How did these sessions contribute to this sense of ownership and to action towards change?
The leaders from Cajamarca successfully reached a third of the teachers in the entire region. And all participants were really satisfied because they saw something that was not only relevant to their context, but their own.
The experience itself was transformative. It sparked innovation in many places because multiple roles aligned on one goal. Today you can see a wave of cases across Cajamarca fostering student agency, collaboration and complex thinking. That initial change in practice might spark greater change in the future.
It wasn’t just an initiative by teachers, because then the principals maybe would not have aligned. Neither would the leaders from the districts. But gathering 25 people from all levels that are all aligned with the transformational importance of the concept of student agency – that is the reason why you see things happening differently in Cajamarca.
What were the biggest challenges you and the leaders had to overcome?
There was a time of high intensity. For weeks they blasted my phone on a daily basis, asking questions and sending me their work. It was tough. But our mindset all along was: if this person is coming now, how can we accelerate their path?
Right in the middle of it all we had a really tough conversation. Basically they came to me and said that there were parts of what I built for them that weren’t working for them. And after that discussion, this was January of last year, we overhauled the system that we had built and we built it so that it was more in tune with their needs.
A really intense time followed. For six weeks every day was filled with hours and hours of meetings with the inner team of each district of Cajamarca. But I always said to them that they have to do the work themselves. I was not going to do the work for them like actually building lesson plans or applying models.
Every morning a district team brought incredible learning experiences they created collaboratively for early childhood, primary and secondary school. Each of them presented their learning experience for 10 minutes, then I opened the round for feedback and suggestions and they would improve and improve and improve. In the afternoons I met with the whole group of 250 people and we used that time to just do collaborative work instead of any input sessions. This was a process that we lived through together and many of us became friends. We developed a level of trust even higher than what I have with Áncash.
What has changed for you as well as for Cajamarca since you started this process?
I changed. And I also changed the way we engage with local leaders at Enseña Perú to be more collaborative.
I changed my opinion about the professional development of teachers. I don’t think anymore that you hire a person that is supposedly a specialist, they have their own sessions, they come in, they deliver the session, they go out. Instead, I look for deep local collaboration. I created a training for competency based education that seemed to work but then in the process it was changed, we all rebuilt it. That was a mindset shift for me as well.
Now from the very beginning we go and listen to the community, listen to students, listen to parents, to teachers, etc. before we start designing any kind of session and then we create it together. Then we go back to the community and people are much more involved from the onset.
I can confidently say that there are hundreds of leaders in Cajamarca now who are really empowered. They are in all 13 provinces with a mindset of: “This is a time of change. This is a time of doing things differently.” Centering themselves around the “why” and centering themselves around collaboration across organizations. We are glad to be an ally for the strategy that they are leading.
I bring my piece of the puzzle, and they have to bring other pieces of the puzzle that I don’t have. And they do. It’s intense and it’s frustrating at times for all of us because we have to mesh our different views together and keep an eye on the future, on the purpose of why we’re doing this. We always, always, always talk about the students and we try to ask the students to bring their own perspective along the way. The next stage of this process is this: Imagine that this competency based education that we’re doing for teachers now as a policy, imagine we take that directly to the students.
You created a virtual leadership program for high-school students from all across Peru. Can you share an example of how you shift power from adults to learners?
What I’m doing in the student leadership program is sort of skipping the adults and going directly to the kids. We often expect empowerment from kids with solving the problems, but we reserve the tools and the ways of thinking for the adults.
When I came back from my Masters at Harvard in 2019, I didn’t see a reason why we couldn’t offer that kind of learning to students. I observed the institution and the mindsets that govern everything, and I was inspired by how much support I received as a student to to grow as a leader.
I thought it shouldn’t be that difficult to create this with students. And I believe it isn’t that difficult to take that level of professionalism, excellence, disruption and information and build a bridge so that it gets directly to the students and see what happens. And so that’s the program for students. Of course they learn with some tailoring, but not that much tailoring. They’re capable of incredible levels of complexity and leadership.
In what ways can students exercise their agency in the virtual leadership program? Can you share some examples?
Students join our program because it matters to them to contribute to education. In the early weeks, they receive some tools, micro experiences so to speak, where we focus on a few skills like creativity, design driven innovation, creative communication skills, etc. For example they have two sessions on system thinking, two sessions on ethical thinking, four sessions on creative writing, but also on how to be curious and ask questions.
The rest of their curriculum comes from their intent. I ask them:”What do you want to do?”
At the center of the curriculum and of the program as a whole is their drive and action to create a better Peru. That’s the center of it and around that, there are many different types of support that are completely flexible and not standardized, but still high quality.
Here’s the overall experience for students. The young learners go through five or six weeks of acquiring these skills starting in January, whether that’s synchronous or asynchronous, at their own pace.They make their own choices. At the same time, they all have mentoring sessions. I’m their tutor and they have my calendar, so they can always arrange a mentoring meeting of 15 or 30 minutes if they need one.
They have access to mentoring with me related to how they’re learning, what projects they want to do and how to do. Additionally they get two or three mentors each from our alumni as well. The alumni are chosen based on the intent of the students. And then, the week of 24th of February, they pitch to their own cohort. They pitch their portfolio of three projects of impact in education that they are willing to do until December to change the lives of others.
To give a specific example: One student in Cajamarca decided to do three things during that year. She is a student guide in another leadership program for students, so she accompanies groups of students through socio-emotional development. Second, she researches a piece about the first woman that ever had access to education in Peru and will publish that. Third, and she already started this as well, she is planning to educate 120 children about cybersecurity. She chose these three ways to impact education and that’s her curriculum. She saw students walking through the networks without any tools. She saw that problem and now, through the program, she has the tools to contribute and change education for the better. I am an ally to her purpose.
And that is how it works for all students in the program. Each one is deciding on two or three ways in which they want to impact education. And for each one we choose the mentors in a way to amplify the impact that these students are having.
Through this experience, I have become convinced that putting power in the hands of students to drive their own purpose in education is one of the most important changes in education during our time. I hope we can make it happen.
Thank you, Franco, for your work and for sharing your experience.