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Top Three Takeaways from First in the World

speicalWhen I joined the First in the World (FITW) team this January, I brought a unique perspective. I was eager to learn about managing a big project – all of my previous projects had been small or mid-sized. I also was equipped to put this learning in context. As researcher-practitioner specializing in 21st century learning, I’ve conducted research and worked with youth-serving organizations (e.g., schools, after-school programs) and gathered data from/with young people and educators. Simply, this work takes effort. Engaging with these diverse stakeholders means liaising with families and bureaucracies, translating “social scientist speak” for administrators and teachers as well as youth and parents (the latter of whom may be English Language Learners), striving for buy-in from every constituency, negotiating processes of informed consent, designing instruments and strategies both for the educational intervention and the data collection, and consistently following up, checking in, adapting and trouble-shooting, expecting the unexpected.

I was dazzled by the scope of this work, its multiple phases and participants and partners. I also was – and continue to be – impressed with my colleagues’ firm grasp on all of this complexity. Every survey question, every site contact, every choice is thoughtfully considered. I’ve been fascinated with the “how” of it all, the mechanisms for managing and executing such a large-scale project. I hope that these takeaways will help you to accomplish your collaborative work, whether that’s conducting research with youth-serving organizations or not.


  1. Collaborative tracking. Our team uses GoogleSheets to input logistical data and log correspondence with site contacts. These online spreadsheets ensure data accessibility and teammate accountability. They also communicate expectations and implicitly deliver progress reports. Each row’s label articulates a step in our process, e.g., obtain a letter of support from the principal, confirm a survey strategy with faculty, contact student ambassadors. For new, junior, or off-site teammates, such labels clearly articulate the scope of work. As to whether a task has been accomplished, all you have to do is look at the label’s adjacent cell – if the cell is colored in, then the work is done; if the cell is gaping open, then you’ve got work to do.
  2. Standardized emails. Every researcher on our team corresponds with multiple schools. It’s important to us that we deliver information efficiently and strike the right tone professionally. The busy educators to whom we write deserve emails that are concise, easy to understand, and sincerely appreciative. Putting together such masterpieces can be time-consuming and even intimidating to researchers whose “comfort zone” is the calculator, not the keyboard. During the initial stages of this study, our Project Manager wrote and distributed “standardized emails” (with fields for personalizing principal name, for example, or school name). These templates allowed researchers to quickly and easily personalize, press send, and keep on pace. They also functioned as a sort of “quality control,” ensuring that every one of our correspondents received the essential information and appropriate approach. As we FITW researchers established relationships with our site contacts, we phased out standardized emails from the Project Manager and started writing our own. When I need to push out a deadline notice or request survey participation, I begin by crafting the template. Then, I send out a modified version to all 14 schools on my list.
  3. Feedback and reflection. Before I unpack this tip, I’d like to take you on a brief jaunt down research lane.According to scholars Argyris and Schon (1978), organizational learning is facilitated by single-loop learning and double-loop learning. Single-loop learning is reactive; it occurs when individuals, groups, or organizations modify their actions in order to align expectations and outcomes. For example, let’s say that college student Jim expects to get an “A” on a test, doesn’t study, and gets a “D.” If Jim were a single-loop learner, then he would review this testing scenario and change his action – hopefully, choosing to study – so that his expected grade and his obtained grade would be identical (or at least closer together). Double-loop learning is proactive; it occurs when the parties of interest question the values, assumptions, and policies that led to their actions in the first place. So if Jim were to indulge in double-loop learning, he’d reflect on his choice not to study. He might discover that his study habits got him through high school with flying colors but are insufficient for the challenges of college. He might realize that he’s paralyzed by perfectionism. He might concede that the tested material bores him to tears. This deeper dive into the issue potentially will help Jim to make better decisions for the long-term, to “course correct” in a more meaningful way. As a result of his double-loop learning, Jim may choose to adjust his weeknight schedule, modify his standards, or change his major. When double-loop learning is executed by an organization, that organization may be characterized as a “learning organization” (Senge, 1990).

So here’s why that matters: Our FITW team is a learning organization. As we negotiate each step in our protocol, we embrace single-loop learning. School X isn’t writing back? Amanda says to give them a call. School Y needs extra support? Zoe authorizes a site visit. Those are the short-term fixes to timely issues. But it doesn’t stop there; we also engage in double-loop learning. As we conclude each step, we reflect as a research team and, periodically, as a larger group consisting of game designers, foundation partners, and evaluators. Our reflection is profoundly enriched by the voices of our participants and stakeholders. Not only do we capture input in our Contact Log, we also collect feedback via online forms that have been tailored for each type of respondent. Thanks to these thoughtful, polyvocal discussions, we have identified a few ways in which we can modify our implementation to increase the likelihood of realizing our goals.

It has been a true privilege to work on the FITW project. I’ve learned a great deal over these past few months and I hope that you too can benefit from the brilliance of my dedicated colleagues.

The contents of this publication were developed under grant # P116F140097 from the U.S. Department of Education. However, those contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.

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