Inquiry & Learning for Change

Geology, Fear, and Organizational Change

Geology Reflected

Sometimes ideas from far sectors of my world converge in ways that send me spiraling (recursively? interpolatively? extrapolatively?) into some new inquiry that I could never have imagined before.  That is what is exciting me and driving my thinking today, after reading an astounding piece by Richard Elmore about school improvement, hearing about the effects of fear on some significant changes in the life circumstances of my yoga teacher, and reflecting on an increase in my understanding about somatic responses to trauma that I’ve been offered by a colleague of mine with considerable expertise in that area (that last combined with my experiences with a brilliant somatic therapist who helped me address some of my own generational trauma).  I am deeply grateful for these disparate sources of wisdom in my life, and then to see that in some mysterious ways they are weaving together a new understanding about my work just exponentially enlarges that gratitude.

How so?  


Elmore describes the organization charts of most school districts as the “geological residue of generations of other people’s ideas about what schools need to do.”  He sees those changes as serial and persistent, and as being the main source of incoherence in school systems.  Each compartment in the organizational structure has its own self perpetuating constituency, and is self-reinforcing.  He goes on to describe the incoherence across compartments (layers in this organizational geology) as constituting the central obstacle to large-scale improvement.  

Those of you who have ever visited the Grand Canyon, maybe even hiked down through the layers of geologic history exposed there by faulting and erosion, will immediately have a visual image or visceral experience of this kind of deposition.  It may start as soft mud or the dissolving bodies and shells of millions of years of crustaceans accumulating on an ocean floor, or the windblown cross-bedded layers of sand dunes in a desert.  But over time those layers compact and harden, and become solid rock, and then through tectonic shifts, rise up or subside, and new layers of different materials begin to accumulate on top of them, weighing them down, bearing little resemblance or relation to the layers below.  Keep that image in mind.


Abhaya Mudra

Abhaya Mudra

My yoga teacher, Abby Tucker, wrote last night, in a FaceBook post, the following:

“Fear gets you nowhere folks. Being scared of being disappointed or hurt is a scourge. It freezes you in inaction; imprisoning you in settling for less than what you dream of. And you don’t just hurt yourself in the process, your fear leaves a wake and strong ripple behind it. Thriving and fear can’t sit next to each other. There’s a reason nearly every murti has at least one hand in abhaya mudra [the mudra of fearlessness or, more apt, since we will all experience fear at some point, courage in the face of fear].”

Imagine the experience of fear freezing not only you, but leaving “a wake and strong ripple” throughout your life, like the metaphor of the butterfly’s flapping wings causing a hurricane somewhere distant in time and space. The wake and the ripple invade the lives of those around you, freezing everything, imprisoning you and the community of family and friends you surround yourself with in a world where you cannot reach or connect with what you dream of.  Imagine the rigidity of a frozen world that cannot, because of that rigidity and fear, thrive.  This narrowing, this constricting into brittleness, is what Gregory Bateson refers to as an “uptight system,” the brittleness of which cascades from one initial factor throughout the system to freeze everything, and result ultimately in system collapse.  Certainly not thriving.


So that brings me to thinking about trauma, and a somatic perspective on trauma.  As many of you who have visited a Rolfer, or acupuncturist, or many other kinds of body workers, or practiced yoga might know, there is a view, strongly supported now by neurological research, that the body “stores” trauma in various locations in muscular tensions, neurological patterns, and restricted energy flows.  Many of these practitioners believe, with good evidence, that trauma unaddressed will manifest in a variety of physical and psychological conditions and diseases.  Our body literally “freezes” into certain unhealthy patterns as a result of unaddressed trauma.

In effect, trauma layers rigidity into the geology of our bodies, just as Elmore describes educational bureaucracies as the geological residue of generations of ideas about what is the best new thing to make teachers do.  I could argue that these generations of ideas, including the latest (hopefully slowly ending) decade or two of high stakes testing and punitive accountability systems and policies, constitute a state of chronic fear-based stress that has layered itself into the psyche and the bodies of all of us who work in the educational sector, and deeply into the neurological fiber, and the organizational “bodies,” of our school systems. This generational trauma has frozen us into a state of brittleness that makes us “settle for less,” quite considerably less, than what we dream of for our children and for ourselves, leaving the whole system unable to thrive, and vulnerable to collapse.  We are working in a system so traumatized by fear that it has become like hardened layers of rock, vulnerable to fracture and erosion as the tectonic plates of global change shift and move beneath us.  This may be the “central obstacle to large-scale improvement” that Elmore describes.  Certainly, it is not a system that is thriving at present.

Now add to that geology the fact that a large percentage of our urban children and youth come to school in a state of chronic stress and trauma, not post-traumatic stress, but ongoing, daily traumatic stress, due to everyday conditions in their families and communities.  That is not to say that there are not powerfully positive assets in the urban low income community that we could, and absolutely need to, mine, but that our students are, many of them, re-experiencing in our classrooms every day the triggers of trauma they also live out at home and in their neighborhoods.  That trauma ripples through the classroom and school, triggering and traumatizing our teachers with what is called “secondary trauma.”  So we have an additional daily layer being added to the already toxic layers in our educational system’s geology.

A “Blameless Critique:”

But lest you think I am somehow standing in some “holier than thou” position outside this system and critiquing it, let me say two things:

First, as Peter Senge says, there is no “outside” the system of education where anyone of us can stand to critique it objectively, whether we teach (which my wife does), work in education (which I do), are a student, or are a parent or other community member.  Debbie Meier famously said, “We all of us [the adults, anyway] have at least thirteen years of experience in knowing how education is ‘supposed to be.’”  Robert Penn Warren wrote this seemingly paradoxical admonition in his powerful “tale in verse and voices,” Brother to Dragons:

“The recognition of complicity is the beginning of innocence.

The recognition of necessity is the beginning of freedom.

The recognition of direction of fulfillment is the death of the self,

And the death of the self is the beginning of selfhood.

All else is surrogate of hope and destitution of spirit.”

I recognize my complicity in enabling this system to continue.  I have real hope that we can all find some innocence, some sense of necessity, and then some freedom.

Second, Ted Sizer reminds us that our critique of the educational system is a “blameless critique.”  The dysfunction of these geologic layers of incoherent bureaucracy and trauma cannot be blamed on anyone in particular; again, they are the residue of generations of what seemed at the time to be good ideas layered onto one another (this is not to ignore the layers of historic and systemic oppression that so many of our urban students bear the legacy of, and that of course contributes to their trauma; we once again all are in some way complicit in that, and the education system continues to replicate it even as it attempts to right the course and become more equitable in access, experience, and outcomes).

So, now what?

I do not wish to suggest there are simple solutions for this fear-based, brittle, frozen body we have created and inhabit in education.  Elmore’s proposed solutions are structural and professional, and center around strategic approaches to supporting enhanced practice in the “instructional core” of the relationship between teachers and students in the presence of important content, all powerful and reasonable suggestions about how to overcome the incoherence of bureaucracy.  But they do not go beneath all that to acknowledge and talk about the shadow side of the work, the hidden geology of layered traumatic response embedded, embodied in our frozen and brittle educational systems.  Even if we put everything he suggests into practice, might we then yet just be able barely to sustain something positive; would we really be able to approach thriving? Would we be able to reach toward that which we dream of?

In many of our urban classrooms these days, there is talk and action around the use of various practices that help students feel calm, and settled, and safe, and give them the tools of self-awareness and self-management, and the ability to be in the middle of challenges and interact with others in effective ways.  This is comparable to my yoga teacher telling us that our practice is to learn to breathe and be expansive, to create spaciousness before engaging muscle to bone, to find a way to open inner spaces, even in the most contracted poses, twists and binds, the ‘seed poses,” that might feel like the world has collapsed in upon us, which otherwise might engender fear and its ripple effects.  And of course, what she tells us is meant to be transferable to our lives off the mat.  So in our classrooms, increasingly we use “mindfulness” practices, restorative justice circles, ways to create spaces that have openness within predictable structures and processes, that surround our students with the experience of a caring and supportive system, even as we challenge them to take the risks inherent in higher levels of learning.  We help students to become aware of the trauma they experience and to find ways to manage it, and in some communities, we deliberately use an engaged approach to the teaching of civics and history, and English, and other subjects to help our students situate themselves, find themselves, in the knowledge of their history and their language, and the power that those things offer to them to give voice to their own experiences, to become agents of change in their own communities, even providing opportunities for them to incorporate civic engagement into their learning and their culminating experiences in school.

These things are clues.  Elmore says that improvement processes are symmetrical across levels in the system, that “[t]he same processes of learning and development, the same strategic choices, the same knowledge and skill are evident at each level, and the form they take is appropriate to that level.”  So what do geology, fear, trauma, being frozen, breathing, and being courageous have to offer us?  And what can we learn from watching the healing process unfold for our students that might be equally healing for us, the traumatized adults, occupying places in this system frozen with fear?


Clearly, there must be more that is needed to overcome fear and develop the courage to live in a softened geology, to create the spaciousness to breathe, to let in the air, to thrive!  Perhaps the hand of the murti, raised to remind us that courage is an abiding choice, offers us some freedom to act.  I am reminded of a Buddhist saying, “no muck; no lotus.”  Besides the coherence strategy Elmore recommends, might we need to explore the dark shadowy, mucky spaces, dive down through the layers of bedrock, ignite the fires beneath the tectonic plates, cause the mantel to breathe and flow, open up some space, break the brittle geologic overburden up?

What might be the muck of our inquiry?  What might constitute the courage we need to breathe fire and life into the darker regions, in the face of the hardened geology of fear and trauma?

In my own experience of coming to terms with generational trauma in my family, years of talk therapy (the verbal, transactional, structural world) yielded deep understanding of where it all came from, but little relief from the ingrained neurological and physical patterns that were the frozen geological residue of that trauma.  Many years of showing up for and practicing, practicing, practicing yoga (parallel to Elmore’s belief that strategy and coherence come from practice, reflected on in good company, not from ideas or talk alone) gave me a deeper experience of the persistence, inquiry, self-compassion, and courage to create space for healing, and gave me new habits, both physical and mental, that enacted a healthier way of being, an unfreezing, an opportunity to go into the muck and abide there curiously and courageously, and possibly start to grow a lotus.  But it was only in the addition of somatic work directly focused on inquiry into that trauma on a bodily level, and the actual fiery tectonic shifts that somatic work enabled, that I was able to break up some of my own geology of fear and find some sense that I could not only survive but thrive.  That I could even imagine that I could reach for what I dreamed of.


Again, these are clues for our inquiry.  As another yogic story tells us, the lord Ganesha, the elephant headed boy, stands at the threshold of our potential.  He decides who passes and who does not.  One of his symbols is the twisted trunk, that symbolizes that the pathway is not straight, but crooked.  Another of his attributes is his capacity to remove obstacles from our pathway, and obstacles there will surely be.  But also, he places obstacles in our way, to provide us opportunities for growth.  Might our geology, our fear, our trauma be such obstacles, providing us opportunities for growth, to open up something far greater than we could even dream for?  Might thriving be something far more powerful than we have imagined?

All of this implies an inquiry.  What might a somatic collective healing inquiry in our educational organizations look like, especially one grounded in persistent practice?  How might the practices we are using with our students help with our practice to heal adult systems?  What courage, curiosity, and compassion would we need?  What softening and opening?  What breathing even in our tightly twisted and bound state, our frozen, fear-based geology?

I invite you into this space to explore with me.

Working on a Conceptual Framework for a Study of Communities of Practice in Educational Settings – What do you think?

Initial Graphic Thinking About a Conceptual Framework for a Study of Community of Practice Development in Educational Organizations


CoP’s develop organically, originating out of a concern or issue or passion or sense of purpose that a growing group of people come to realize that they share, and an emergent set of skills and knowledge related to those that the group also shares.  In the literature, these are referred to as Domain, Community, and Practice (Wenger, cite); we will use those three concepts as “orienting theory” as we study several emerging communities.  As members come to recognize that they share these concerns or purposes, and that they relate to a set of skills and knowledge that they also share, they begin to build trust around acknowledging that existing knowledge and those existing skills.  A sense of common identity, of shared information and knowledge, and the emerging relationships that they build form a solid foundation for continued and expanded engagement (Wheatley, cite).  Clarity about the value proposition that a given community is aligning with will positively affect the coherence and development of the CoP.

This is an iterative process, one aspect reinforcing another, as trust builds and efficacy grows, and members settle into more or less familiar rhythms of collective work.  It takes time and resources to support this organic, emergent development, without much sense of traditional goals, outcomes, and accountability (as those will emerge from within the community).  As the community iterates itself into higher and higher levels of functioning, as its shared domain of concerns becomes more explicit, as its level of trust in the collective membership of its community develops (and its capacity to attract new members and apprentice and scaffold them into higher levels of participation and skillful practice), and as its knowledge and skill to address its concerns develops, it reaches a stage of becoming interested in new possibilities, in things it does not already know, or is not already able to do.  The community itself will reach out for those new possibilities, in the form of sharing practices with other communities, of seeking professional learning opportunities, and of looking for literature or other research or resources to support its continued development.  To the extent that the larger environment is prepared to be responsive to that internalized sense of agency, and its timing, some synergy may result.  On the other hand, competing demands for participation in externally mandated or designed professional development or other mandated requirements will dampen the development of the full capacity of the CoP’s for effectively addressing the Domain concerns they are passionate about and identified with.

CoP’s go through some predictable stages of development (Wenger, cite).  Those shift from recognizing the potential for a CoP to come together, to the actual coalescence of the community and its discovery of its shared knowledge and skills to address its concerns, to its maturing into trusting relationships and familiar rhythms of work, and on to stewarding itself and its knowledge, and then into some form of transformation, which may include dissolution (Wenger, cite).  Whatever stage, it is important to recognize and provide support appropriate to the concerns of that particular stage.

At this point, it is important to acknowledge that most communities of practice that involve professionals exist within larger organizational contexts, and those contexts shape the nature of the communities within them.  Since these communities are organic and iterative in their emergence and design, a system that can support and encourage such an organic and somewhat indeterminate nature is a positive in supporting their growth.  Existing protocols about team performance that have been integrated into organizational culture and are aligned with CoP development will be useful; however, some protocols and/or rubrics for team performance or even for specific kinds of CoP’s may be too prescriptive for the organic nature of some CoP’s.  Those methods and approaches that align with adult learning theory have more potential to work in support of the development of CoP’s than other, more traditional controlling, didactic, or deterministic (“top-down”) approaches.  The ability or willingness of the larger organization to acknowledge that the boundaries of membership and functioning in CoP’s are much more permeable and cross over traditional organizational structures and roles will be an important indicator of the capacity of those CoP’s to develop fully within the larger organizational context.   In general, the dynamic between a CoP and its larger organizational context will include some tensions, especially if the larger organization has more mechanistic or bureaucratic cultures and ways of doing things, and if the larger organization has specific outcomes or expectations of performance that the CoP may not entirely have embraced, or is explicitly working against.

In general, several aspects of the larger organizational environment will have significant effects on the development of CoP’s.  Most of those have to do with the overall organizational culture’s orientation to and understanding of professional practice, emergent and organic professional systems for accomplishing the goals of the organization, capacity for and understanding of dialogue and deep discourse across traditional organizational boundaries, and capacity for working in an environment of professional mutual adjustment rather than positional authority based command and compliance mode.  All of these cultural aspects play out in how leadership understands and is capable of supporting the development of the CoP’s.

In addition, many organization use coaches to support the development of CoP’s, and coaches often mediate between leaders with more traditional expectations and the rather unorthodox processes and emergent culture of the communities of practice.  Coaches at the senior level of leadership often help shift leadership, and then the overall culture, toward being able to engage in a more reflective process, and that provides a stronger and more culturally aligned context for CoP development.  Reciprocally, coaches at the level of the CoP itself may help align external expectations, mandates, or instincts to provide certain kinds of expertise that it is assumed the CoP members need, in the form of professional development or technical assistance, with the internal development of a sense of the need, or locus of motivation, to seek out other knowledge and/or skills that they need in order to practice with the level of skill they desire to address their stated domain concerns.  This context expertise allows for a “just in time” approach to providing technical assistance or professional development, and will be received more willingly by the CoP.

In our study, we will look for these aspects and dynamics, while remaining open to observing other unforeseen ways of thinking about and engaging in the activities of community of practice development.

Communities of Practice: An organic approach to organizational transformation?

I read an article recently by Jal Mehta from the Harvard Graduate School of Education that brilliantly explores the history of our current education system and explains why it is not structured for success.  In his article, he calls for restructuring so education could “function more like a profession and less like a bureaucracy.”  His enumeration of the problems of how education is organized – “…wide variability in levels of teacher skill from classroom to classroom, failure to bring good practices to scale across sites, the absence of an ‘educational infrastructure’ to support practice, the failure to capitalize on the knowledge and skill of leading teachers, and the distrustful and unproductive relationships between policy makers and practitioners…” – could be addressed with a cultural/structural shift toward supporting the development of what Etienne Wenger calls “communities of practice” among teachers, other professionals, and community members with a stake in education.  Communities of practice are not just powerful ways to re-organize education; non-profits could take a lesson here also, and move to create more professional and organic ways of structuring their work, so as not fall unreflectively into bureaucratic forms themselves.

What is a “community of practice?”  How could supporting their development help improve our professional work in education and the non-profit world?  Wenger defines communities of practice as, “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis.”  Several things are significant here:  the group shares a set of concerns (Wenger calls this the “domain”), the group interacts regularly (this is the “community”), and the group shares existing knowledge and builds new knowledge that is directly about their shared practices (thus, the “practice”).  A community of practice meets the criteria for effective organizational functioning that Margaret Wheatley describes, that it exists at the intersection of a sense of identity, shared information, and relationships, and engages in conversation that results in a deepening sense of the meaningfulness of their shared work.  Such groups may form across traditional organizational boundaries, depending on their purpose.  They are very organic in their forming and in their functioning, and in that way, they create a new culture that is very different from the culture that surrounds traditional bureaucracies.  It is a culture of self-motivated, self-sustaining, and self-monitoring professional improvement.  And most important, a community of practice is not just a community of talk; their work is always about their practice.

Meg Wheatley argues eloquently for the need to cultivate communities of practice as an alternative to bureaucracies: “…we have lived for so long in the tight confines of bureaucracies… that it is taking us some time to learn how to live in open, intelligent organizations.  This requires an entirely new relationship with information, one in which we embrace its living properties.  In newer theories of the brain, information is widely distributed…  And memories, it is now thought, must arise in relationships within the whole neural network.  [I]nformation is stored in these networks of relationships…”  Organic networks of relationships where information is widely distributed, intelligent organizations!  Precisely what Mehta is calling for!

So a group of teachers who meet to discuss how to implement the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) could be a community of practice, especially if they share practices and build shared knowledge of those among themselves, and even more so if they practice and then reflect together on their practice to improve it regularly, in a cycle of inquiry.  They are enacting another important aspect of a community of practice if they also apprentice newer teachers into their community and support their improved practice.  Wenger believes that communities of practice “steward” their own knowledge, and seek out new information to build new knowledge as they need it.  This is a very different situation from a group of teachers who receive professional development from experts on how to implement the CCSS (the traditional bureaucratic approach to knowledge creation and use).  The same could be said of school site administrators with a concern for school redesign, or non-profit leaders who want to improve non-profit leadership, who meet to discuss their common practices and how to improve their work, and build a common and evolving knowledge base to support that work.  In my work to support Linked Learning Pathway teams, I consider the coaches doing this work, the lead teachers in the Pathways, the teachers working on interdisciplinary project based learning, and the school administrators trying to design supporting school schedules and structures, all potentially to be communities of practice.

Communities of practice are a great way to approach bringing people together to create a “wise organization,” to use the language of another blog post of mine, and one of the main purposes of the work of Inquiry & Learning for Change.  Yet their creation and maintenance entails certain paradoxes for people who are interested in organizational change, whether coaches or consultants or change agents.  As Wenger himself says, “Communities of practice do not usually require heavy institutional infrastructures, but their members do need time and space to collaborate. They do not require much management, but they can use leadership. They self-organize, but they flourish when their learning fits with their organizational environment. The art is to help such communities find resources and connections without overwhelming them with organizational meddling. This need for balance reflects the following paradox: No community can fully design the learning of another; but conversely no community can fully design its own learning.”

As coaches and planners, we want to understand how a commitment to designing and developing communities of practice will help support changes at the organizational level, from the classroom to the district.  Wenger states:

“Cultivating communities of practice takes place in an organizational or interorganizational context.  They… achieve full value only when well integrated.  The challenge… therefore, is… about transforming organizations.  The point… is… to build the organization’s overall capacity to learn and innovate…  But partnering with the organization cuts both ways.  …it magnifies a community’s influence and increases opportunities for members.  …[however,] it [also] introduces new requirements and constraints – such as policies that limit members’ flexibility, systems that don’t support knowledge sharing activities, or managers who won’t allocate time for innovation projects.  The ‘aliveness’ of a community, no matter how passionate and active its members, will be severely limited unless it finds ways to integrate itself with the surrounding organization.”

We might be particularly intrigued by this dilemma as cited in a blog on Wenger’s web page about CoP’s (currently unavailable):  “However, the very characteristics that make communities of practice a good fit for stewarding knowledge—autonomy, practitioner-orientation, informality, crossing boundaries—are also characteristics that make them a challenge for traditional hierarchical organizations.” Reframing his last sentence, our questions might be, How is this challenge going to affect these organizations?  How can we use CoP’s as a change strategy for remaking educational bureaucracies into the networked innovation settings that will address the problem Jal Mehta frames above?

One way Wenger suggests to move forward with creating communities of practice is this:  “It makes sense to begin the knowledge initiative by creating a shared map that explicitly describes the capabilities required to achieve the [organization’s] strategic goals.”  Mental mapping or concept mapping is a powerful tool for making explicit and public a group’s understanding of something they are trying to accomplish. In building communities of practice and wise organizations, we use these kinds of tools with participants with great success.

However we support their development, communities of practice offer powerful new ways to design and enact system change in education and the non-profit world.  I hope you will consider supporting them in your work!