Chaos, Order and Learning

shifting-conversations-logoLately, I’ve become more and more interested in organizations in general, and the organization of school in particular. Much of this comes from reading Seymour Sarason and his thoughts on the power relationships in schools, how real, kid-centered change in schools is almost impossible because we neglect to democratize the culture of schools to the extent that real change can actually take place. Too many fiefdoms. Too many personal agendas. Too many egos concerned primarily with pushing their own easy-to-measure world views and narratives onto others instead of engaging in conversations around what’s best for kids.

The more I think about that, the more I think Sarason is right. Obviously, there are many barriers to change, but the power struggles between administrators and teachers, teachers and students, parents and teachers, board members and admins, etc., may be the most difficult to sort out to the benefit of students. As we’ve said many times in this space, it’s almost always about culture. Is the school about teaching, or is it about learning? Is it about “achievement,” or is the focus on the pursuit of passions? Is it about the adults, or is it about the kids?

All that and more is what I’ve been thinking about as I read a somewhat obscure book on organizations that was Tweeted to me recently, Birth of the Chaordic Age. It’s written by Dee Hock who totally rethought organizational structure on the way to building VISA into one of the most successful companies of all time. I’m only about half way through it, but already there have been some pretty amazing “a ha” moments that connect directly to what’s happening in schools.

5982121_3428d4180d_oWhat I find most fascinating about the book is the way Hock contextualizes his thinking about organ-izations in the much larger narrative of a planet filled with organ-isms. Excuse the extended snip, but here’s a sense of that:

The trick for a biological organism in a changing physical environment is to evolve into whatever form best serves function. The trick for each part of the organism is to assume a form useful to the evolving whole. It is no different for organizations. The trick for an organization in a changing social environment is to continually evolve into whatever form best serves function. The trick for each part of the organization is to assume a form useful to the emerging whole. Healthy biological organisms and healthy organizations alike are an ever shifting panoply of relationships exhibiting characteristics of both chaos and order. So is the earth itself, and the universe as well. They are all

A principal thing they have in common is penalty for failure to evolve. Organisms resistant to a changing physical environment are biologically obliterated: they physically die out. Organizations resistant to a changing social environment are economically destroyed; they socially die out. In truth, organisms and organizations are not separable (117).

We talk a lot in education circles about the need to change, to evolve, primarily because we are starting to recognize more clearly just how much the real world has moved on without, or as some would say, in spite of us. But schools are highly self-preserving organisms/organizations. They resist change because they sense, rightly, that any serious change is a threat to their survival. Or, they resist because the life story they tell in their DNA is so deeply rooted in their existence that they can’t imagine the need to change. (Think Kodak.)

But as Hock stresses, organizations (like schools) are “nothing but an idea”.

“All institutions are no more than a mental construct to which people are drawn in pursuit of common purpose; a conceptual embodiment of a very, very powerful idea called community (119).”

It’s about the people and the ways in which those people interact with one another that makes up the core of the organization. Which leads into one of the most powerful things I’ve read in a while:

Healthy organizations are a mental concept of relationship to which people are drawn by hope, vision, values, and meaning, and liberty to cooperatively pursue them. Healthy organizations induce behavior. Induced behavior is inherently constructive.

Unhealthy organizations are no less a mental concept of relationship, but one to which people are compelled by accident of birth, necessity, or force. Unhealthy organizations compel behavior. Compelled behavior is inherently destructive.

Now I ask you, in your experience with schools, when thinking of administrators, teachers, and students, is most of their behavior induced, done of free will and encouraged? Or is it compelled, forced or pressured by some “other” for some goal that is outside of the individual’s desire or concern?

Healthy organizations are a mental concept of relationship to which people are drawn by hope, vision, values, and meaning, and liberty to cooperatively pursue them.

In most schools I visit, the answer is unquestionably the latter. The people in the buildings are not doing what they want, necessarily, as much as they are doing what they are told.

Hock says that there’s only one way to change that:

Without a deeply held, commonly shared purpose that gives meaning to their lives; without deeply held, commonly shared, ethical values and beliefs about conduct in pursuit of purpose that all may trust and rely upon, communities steadily disintegrate, and organizations progressively become instruments of tyranny.

To the direct degree that clarity of shared purpose and principles and strength of belief in them exist, constructive, harmonious behavior may be induced. To the direct degree they do not exist, behavior is inevitably compelled.

It keeps coming back to this: What do you believe about the purpose of school? About how kids learn? About the norms that are required to support those pursuits?

I seriously want to know if your organizations have done that work. Please share if so, and if not, let me know what stands in the way.

Image credit: josef.stuefer

3 thoughts on “Chaos, Order and Learning”

  1. Barry D

    I am both buoyed and mentally bashed by your sharing. I quit teaching last year (after 26!) and continue to research and explore what it will take to change behaviors, those things we do without much conscious thought. As you’ve pointed out in your TEDx and elsewhere, there is a disconnect in what people believe about learning and what they actually do in schools. School behaviors become synchronized even if the individual beliefs about school don’t align. School is like the platform on rollers under the metronomes that, over time, lulls the individual beats into sync.

    While back in the classroom now for a three month term, I again hear students very clearly state how and what they would like to learn. They feel they have no power to change things and begrudgingly submit to what they are asked to do, no matter how meaningless and boring they find it. Compelled behavior is indeed destructive.

    How do we step off the platform and let our own hearts beat? I seek a learning community environment where we listen to each other’s hearts beat, where our interactions and relationships create and define us rather than confine us.

  2. Matt A

    Another article that speaks to education as a complexity adaptive system. The ideas here remind me a lot of the work by John Hagel and John Seely Brown, but even more so of the work of Dennis Sumara and Brent Davis. They view education systems through a ecological lens and discuss a system where there are proscriptive conditions (things that cannot happen) vs. Prescriptive conditions (those that must). The thinking is that patterns will emerge and adaptation will take place. They also stress the importance of diversity, redundancy, interactions and decentralized control as needing to be present. Check them out if you haven’t!

  3. Brendan M

    SORRY -Please change: A PRINCIPAL thing they have in common is penalty for failure to evolve.

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