Our Thoughts

What, So What, Now What … And?

February 14, 2023

It’s no secret that our kids are facing enormous challenges. In many schools, well-being and mental health issues have reached crisis levels. Academic performance, too, has taken a hit during and since the pandemic. A lot has already been written about these challenges. Our opportunity now is finding pragmatic solutions that schools and districts can implement – namely, how capable and passionate educators can work more effectively as teams to overcome obstacles and prevent student support issues from escalating and becoming long-term barriers.

Solving complex problems requires reflection, and you may already be familiar with Prof. Gary Rolfe’s Framework for Reflective Practice. The framework is built around three simple questions that you can use to assess a situation:

  • What? – Define the current conditions.
  • So What? – Explain why those current conditions matter.
  • Now What? – Identify what you’ll do next to improve those conditions.

Prof. Rolfe and others have applied this framework in many different environments, and it works well as a starting point when thinking about student success initiatives in schools and school districts. It’s easy, however, to get stuck on the first question. Making a difference for kids means not only answering all three questions but also taking action. Facilitating informed, team-based action is at the heart of why we created Intellispark.

Applying the Framework to Student Success

Unfortunately, few of the tools that schools and districts have purchased or developed to tackle student support challenges go beyond Rolfe’s first question. The most widely used student success tools – data warehouses and dashboards – can do a solid job of revealing where problems exist. We talk with many educators who rely on data dashboards to identify issues – students or cohorts of students who may be underperforming. Dashboards alone can’t solve problems, however, and too many educators are left to do their work without systematic solutions that help explore how gaps shown on their dashboards affect other desired outcomes or that assist in creating realistic plans of action to respond.

In response to these challenges, some education technology companies have begun trying to help educators go beyond the “what” so that they can begin to address “so what” and “now what.” That’s progress, but even answering all three of the questions in Rolfe’s framework isn’t enough to achieve a different outcome. While reflection is an essential prerequisite for action, it’s not a substitute. Yet, most of the student success resources deployed in schools and districts are heavy on reflection and light on action.

At Intellispark, our founders and advisors brought more than a century of education experience to bear to design a new paradigm for student support that emphasizes informed action rather than just reflection and analysis. The result is the first student success platform that’s optimized for taking action. We start with an evidence-based, predictive index developed by Prof. Scott Solberg of Boston University that’s easy to deploy and understand. We meet educators where they are by providing practical features that can be used in schools all day, every day to diffuse support issues in real-time – before they become crises. We help teachers, counselors, and administrators leverage what they already know, avoiding the need for extensive professional development and time-consuming data analytics meetings.

The Essential Next Step: Tools for Action

As useful as tools for reflection may be to researchers, and occasionally to practitioners, front-line educators need tools for action. In schools and districts where counselors routinely support 400 or more students and where secondary teachers have 120-150 students or more, it’s critical that these tools be designed to reflect the fast pace of school life.

A few weeks ago, I spoke to two high school assistant principals. Their school enrolls about 1,300 students, which puts it above the U.S. average in size but well below the size of more typical urban and suburban high schools. These educators described their job as one in which they’re on the move from the moment they arrive in the early morning until they leave in the early evening. From the hallways to the cafeteria to classrooms, from the auditorium to the football field to bus duty, they are always in motion. As one of them told me, the tools of the trade are her walkie talkie and cell phone. Those tools are in her hands all day, every day. She is almost never in her office. A bathroom break is a luxury.

Their school has a deeply ingrained practice of focusing on student relationships. The three APs and principal make a conscious effort to interact with every single student at least once a week, and they’re intentional about making sure no one can fall through the cracks. When those interactions reveal issues other staff should know, they make sure to share that information and expect other staff to do the same. Doing that real work requires being in constant motion and in continuous communication.

We built Intellispark Pro for them and for colleagues like them who are on the ground in schools every day doing the most important work educators can do – helping young people feel known, supported, and appreciated so that learning can happen. If this work sounds messy, it’s because it is. But, it’s not haphazard or accidental. Instead, everything these administrators are doing is grounded in research and is tied to a systemic – but realistic – approach to improving student outcomes. In fact, their use of Intellispark Pro is part of a district-wide initiative that’s coordinated, funded, and evaluated by district leaders.

Intellispark Pro is a suite of tools for action built around three components:

  • Predictive insight – Many schools and districts analyze data about attendance, behavior, and grades to identify students who need help. Unfortunately, by definition, students identified using this approach are already struggling. Rather than focus on remediation, Intellispark helps you with prevention. Our proprietary, predictive indicator known as the Academic Risk Index® has demonstrated efficacy in identifying students who need additional support before they show outward signs of struggle.
  • Asynchronous collaboration – Preventing issues and solving problems in schools is a team effort. Packed schedules and resource constraints make it very difficult or impossible to hold real-time meetings in all but the most pressing cases, so educators have to work asynchronously. In most schools this means shared spreadsheets, text messages, and e-mail. But, those tools have lots of shortcomings. For example, they’re much better at storing and sharing information than facilitating action, and they introduce significant student data privacy concerns. We built Intellispark Pro from the ground up as a platform for asynchronous collaboration, not just communication. We help educators take action as a team, and we designed our platform with extensive role-based permissions and end-to-end encryption to protect data privacy.
  • Rituals and routines – Traditional approaches to support, including many Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) initiatives, rely on extensive, individualized interventions. For students with intensive needs, these interventions are critical. But at scale, and particularly in secondary schools, it’s critical to focus on action that can be taken quickly in support of large cohorts of students. Since most educators don’t have the luxury of browsing extensive catalogs or playbooks of interventions, we emphasize rituals and routines that are easy to deploy, familiar or comfortable to most educators based on training they already have, and in many cases, supported by technology to save time. We think of this as “real-world MTSS,” and it’s at the core of what we do.

We are excited to be helping hundreds of schools take a fresh look at their student success efforts to facilitate greater impact with reasonable effort, helping educators work smarter rather than asking them to work even harder. We designed Intellispark Pro to pick up where your existing student success initiatives stop – by amplifying the impact of well-intentioned research-led efforts to analyze data and assess efficacy with practical, on-the-ground resources that make a difference on a daily basis for educators, students, and families.

Stephen M. Smith
Chief Executive Officer