A Reflection on the ‘Bottom Up’ Strategy for Change
The Bottom Up approach is a very common and highly recommended one in the space of social innovation and user-centered design. It is defined differently based on the disciplinary context it is used in, but the relevant context for this discussion is the spaces of social change and design thinking. In this domain,the Bottom Up approach is a technique where changes, implementations, or decisions begin at an individual or local level, where the impact multiplies and scales upwards. In contrast, the Top Down approach is one in which changes, implementations, or decisions are initiated by the people or groups in power and the impact is gradually trickled down.
While both approaches have their positives and negatives, the Bottom Up approach is valued because it allows individuals or communities that are not necessarily in power to participate in decision-making processes and be the first ones to experience impact!
Acorn, like several other non-profits, took the Bottom Up approach. We used this approach to help us understand and empathize with our students and teachers, and for implementing our program. We began our pilot at Oakland Technical High School’s Upper Campus and then scaled by partnering with Oakland Public Library. Our strategy was to work with one or two schools at a time, understand the needs of students/teachers/schools, refine our program, repeat, multiply, and scale. While this strategy helped tremendously with improving our curriculum, adopting creative teaching techniques, and prioritizing hands-on learning, it did not help us get closer to our target audience — schools that were under-resourced and were in desperate need of a program such as ours.
We began relentlessly networking with schools, teachers, and education boards, which helped us connect with our target schools and empathize with them, which was critical and extremely valuable. However, it did not help us implement our program at our target schools. As we networked with other organizations and companies who had goals similar to ours, we noticed that the struggle of working with low-resourced schools was consistent.
These schools were just as excited and passionate about redesigning education, acquiring the latest technologies for their students, and collaborating with organizations who would help them, but they lacked capacity to do so. Many of these schools had teachers who were already swamped with longer than usual work days and scrambling to meet existing targets and deadlines. A number of these schools also lacked basic resources to integrate a program like ours. Furthermore, organizations, including Acorn, didn’t always serve to be helpful either because we also had funding and manpower limitations that made it difficult to sustainably implement new and well-intentioned programs in schools.
Our networking helped us learn that the bottom up approach that Acorn and several other organizations had adopted was not the most effective one. For a long time now, several private schools, non-profits, and teachers have independently released innovative curricula, demonstrated the integration of this new style of learning with earlier ones, and have made their learnings accessible to everyone. There has been a lot of innovation and development in this space that began small and is gradually growing. Despite the variety of such efforts, some schools are still struggling to adopt new programs and implement new learning techniques.
For the most vulnerable schools to gain access to new STEM tools, machines, and resources, change needs to come from the top because that will create sustainable impact. Teachers will have clear goals to focus on versus adding requirements onto their existing ones, schools will (hopefully) be provided with resources needed to transition to new curricula, and they will receive guidance that is clear and consistent for a longer time period. There are several states (California, Ohio, Michigan are a few we have interacted with) that have released or are planning to release new education standards around STEM and hands-on learning — so there is change driven from the top. Yet, the most vulnerable schools are still struggling with this transition due to reasons similar to the ones mentioned earlier.
There is a gap between the pace at which educational standards are changing and the pace at which some schools can adopt this change. No single approach will address this situation. There needs to be a hybrid of Top Down and Bottom Up approaches where the systemic change in education is driven Top Down, and the accumulated learnings from individual schools, teachers, and organizations are delivered Bottom Up.
There needs to be structured collaboration and sharing of ideas between teachers, school administrators, and local/state educational boards while keeping the needs of under-resourced schools in the forefront!
Teachers and independent programs have conducted extensive field research and designed solutions that work for them. If these strategies are consistent across educators and it works, then that is an indication for boards to deploy them at scale. Such collaboration between various entities does already take place, but making it more structured will help new individuals and organization entering the field to spot areas in which they can meaningfully contribute. Moreover, companies and funders will better target their donations, making outreach and fundraising more accessible to schools that need it the most!
Acorn’s team is determined to help facilitate collaboration between various groups through our R&D project. We have have been interviewing various makerspaces, schools, teachers, and state education board members. Our conversations have been centered around hands-on learning strategies, resource needs and allocation for this new form of learning, and steps taken to make STEM education accessible to ALL!
We will be sharing interviews and learnings through blog posts or videos. If you want to start a conversation, contact us at info(dot)acornlabs(at)gmail(dot)com.