For the past five years, I have co-directed the Deeper Learning Dozen, a community of practice of senior school and district leaders from school districts across North America (US and British Columbia) focused on district transformation to support equitable deeper learning for each and every young person and adult. Using innovative theory and practice from the field about communities of practice as spaces for collective learning and practice change; complexity theories such as Cynefin, emergence theory, emergent strategy, and the Six Circle Model; equity and racial justice work from the National Equity Project’s Liberatory Design process and Caroline Hill’s equiryXdesign; cutting edge performance assessment systems design from the work of the Assessment for Learning Project and the Center for Innovation in Education; and deeper learning pedagogy along with trauma informed classroom and school culture practices from such organizations as Lead by Learning, Engaging Schools, and Adaptive Schools, and the SoLD folks; we created innovative, playful, and powerful learning spaces for adults to challenge and support the development of their transformational leadership.
We focused our work in the community of practice on three principles: 1) (In)Equity is Structural, (2) Adult Learning and Student Learning are Symmetrical, and, (3) Leadership Accelerates Emergence.
Note: I wrote this essay in April of 2018 at the beginning of the work to create the Deeper Learning Dozen. I might change a few words around, but for the most part, it all still rings true.
Fullan (2016) and Elmore (unpublished) both tell us that systemic improvement will not occur simply from the development of individual teacher or leader capacity; it results from a strategic focus on the growth of collaborative capacity, the ability of adults to work together in sustained and complex interactions, focused on the ongoing improvement in the quality of their practice. That adult work must mirror the complexity of the interactions that they wish their students to experience in the instructional core, which Elmore refers to as “system symmetry.”
Elmore emphatically states that we must focus our effort on improvement in the quality of practice and experience in the instructional core first, and only much later on student achievement. Change in the instructional core will happen only if the kind of change in adult collaborative learning described above is strategically led in educational organizations. We believe that ongoing communities of practice in expanding dense social networks creates the kind of settings where this change in adult collaborative learning can occur.
What we need is an emergent and qualitatively different learning and leadership experience of participants that results in emergent and qualitatively different practices and actions.
The Learning Model:
Communities of Practice, the “curriculum,” that is, the focus of the collective learning, emerges in communities of practice through an inductive process of development:
The Growth Model:
We focus on the development of Collaborative Capacity and System Symmetry (“Quality first, then scale”). Communities of practice emerge and expand among an innovative core of people, with appropriate support and guidance. At their periphery, a community of engagement can be nurtured, people interested in the innovators’ work and potentially wanting to try out some ideas. Further “out,” a community of interest can develop that should be kept informed and increasingly engaged as they are ready (David Albury). See below for more on this idea of nested communities.
This raises the question of the need for more broadly distributed dense social networks, and ongoing networks, beyond periodic summer institutes and professional learning convenings, within which sustained relationships might develop, and teacher and leader professional growth and collaborative capacity building might occur and continue to develop. Social network theory, rethinking how community-based organizations can more effectively meet the needs of their communities, identifies key principles for network-driven improvement (Making Connections – Denver Social Network Project, 2007):
The Change Model
Implicit in both the ways in which “curriculum” (that is, the focus of the collective learning) develops in communities of practice and “growth” (scaling) occurs in social networks is the idea of emergence. Emergence is an inductive process of development, not a deductive one, that, to quote the work of Meg Wheatley and the Berkana Institute, “names, connects, nourishes, and illuminates,” “making visible the possibility of abandoning the old and jumping to the new.” This involves “hospice work, pioneering, and illuminating… and quietly protecting the space for those who are doing the pioneering work.” Inductive learning processes in social networks cannot be designed with pre-determined curriculum or assessed with pre-determined metrics for growth and impact. They must be facilitated with an eye to nurturing emergent ideas and involvements, that are “controlled and designed from the bottom-up,” where the focus of learning emerges in the social interaction of participants, and growth is driven by densely networked interactions of participants’ demands as they learn. This requires a fundamental change in the culture of learning from how educational organizations have traditionally structured or measured that culture…
This is why we quote Fullan et al. on Changing the Culture of Learning:
“The change lesson here is that we need to change the culture of learning not simply the trappings or structures. It cannot be done by policies or mandates. Transformation will only occur when we engage in the work of facilitating new processes for learning [our bolding here]. Once we have agreed on the [student] learning outcomes or competencies described earlier in this chapter, we need to provide rich opportunities to: work collaboratively; build new learning relationships; and learn from the work. No amount of pre-planning is better than the common experience of learning together while doing the work, because it builds capacity and ownership simultaneously. Simply put, we learn more from doing than thinking about doing so if we want deep learning we need to get started [our bolding here]. Thus, leadership for change is crucial—leadership that comes from all quarters” (Fullan, Quinn, McEachen, 2018 page 26).
What Fullan et al. are describing is exactly the paradigm shift that is needed and that communities of practice embedded in dense networks can provide. Thus, when we think about the learning environment we want to create, we are thinking about an emergent curriculum and emergent knowledge and skills shared within communities of practice, driven by the participants, and distributed through mutual exchange across wide networks of communities of practice that grow based on the demand of participants, not by any predetermined mechanism of control. The metrics are qualitative, not quantitative.
Terry Bailey, The Piton Foundation. Ties That Bind: The Practice of Social Networks.
Richard Elmore. Chapter Two: The Strategic Turn in School Improvement.
Fullan and Quinn. Coherence.
Fullan, Quinn, and McEachen. Deep Learning: Engage the World, Change the World.
Hi Howard, The Piton Foundation. Four Principles of Social Networks.
Meg Wheatley, The Berkana Institute. Our Theory of Change. http://berkana.org/about/our-theory-of-change/
Peggy Holman, Engaging Emergence
Beyond Communities of Practice and Social Networks, is the idea, developed by David Albury, of “nested communities.” Albury describes three nested communities that are the focus of different kinds of strategies, and have permeable boundaries between them: at the center, and involving the early adopters and increasingly apprenticing others into it, is a Community of Practice (the protected space of pioneers, in Wheatley’s terms). The next layer out is a Community of Engagement, where those who might want to try out some of the ideas of the pioneers as they see the pilots and prototypes happening. Further out is the Community of Interest, people who need to be kept in the information loop and in relation to the others, who may take awhile to adopt the new ideas, but must not be left out of the process.
There’s a blog about applying them in a school project in Australia here: https://www.innovationunit.org/thoughts/trapped-on-site-the-problems-of-scaling-powerful-new-practices-in-australian-schools-and-beyond/
And he wrote a little more about it here in a piece on healthcare: https://www.innovationunit.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/MYTHS-AND-MECHANISMS-1.pdf
(The “scaling innovation” frame is rather a different one from organization/system change, but there may be some interesting overlap).
(originally published May 16, 2022, at the NGLC website: https://www.nextgenlearning.org/articles/healing-and-re-humanizing-our-education-system)
“The work of coming back together and remembering is often easier said than done. It will be inevitably difficult when hierarchy and separation is convention. In our outcome and results driven world, it is easy to keep our eye on tomorrow without attending to what is happening today. To that end, refocusing our sight on ourselves, how we move in the world, and the relationships we build and nurture is the keystone of equity centered improvement, design, and innovation.”
–Caroline Hill, “How to Walk Through Fire”
Four years ago, at the first convening of the Deeper Learning Dozen, at Harvard, after a brief welcome to the assembled school district leadership teams from my co-director and colleague, Jal Mehta, I found myself saying, with a sentence stem we had learned from the National Equity Project, “If you really knew us, you would know that… We are about healing, healing from the toxic effects of a dehumanizing bureaucratic system of education that we have all of us, students and adults alike, inherited and lived in for far too long.”
I was thinking about Max Weber’s statement from the late 19th century: “Bureaucracy develops the more perfectly, the more it is ‘dehumanized,’ the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from business love, hatred, and all purely personal, irrational, and emotional elements which escape calculation.” I realized how damaging such a dehumanized system has been to us all in education. So I also quoted from adrienne maree brown that morning:
“If love were the central practice of a new generation of organizers and spiritual leaders… we would see that there is no such thing as a blank canvas, an empty land or a new idea—but everywhere there is complex, ancient, fertile ground full of potential. We would organize with the perspective that there is wisdom and experience and amazing story in the communities we love… we would want to listen, support, and grow… we would understand that the strength of our movement is the strength of our relationships, which could only be measured in their depth. Scaling up would mean going deeper, being more vulnerable and more empathetic.” (emphasis added)
Since then, we’ve struggled through two plus years of COVID. We awakened to the deep need for racial justice, and we started to reckon with the devastating effects of colonialism on the peoples who were here before European settlers (as well as on all of us whose minds, hearts, and spirits have been colonized). Healing and re-humanizing our education system has become even more urgent.
The Deeper Learning Dozen community of practice met again in person for the first time in over two and a half years just a few weeks ago. We prioritized coming back together, reconnecting, and relationships before our adult learning “curriculum.” We were graciously hosted by the Semá:th people, in their Longhouse, on their unceded ancestral lands along the Fraser River, in what is called in colonial terms, Abbotsford, British Columbia, and is home to one of our school district members. The Longhouse Keeper and several elders and knowledge keepers led the opening ceremony, welcoming us with song, drumming, and storytelling, and appointing witnesses, whom they asked to pay attention because they would be called on to reflect on what was happening.
We asked our members to bring a meaningful personal artifact to share with others. After sharing the stories of those artifacts in pairs and quads, they built a sculpture out of them in the center of the Longhouse. This storytelling was one way for our DLD community to move from welcoming people’s individual identities to creating a collective “we” that can more powerfully act in the ways brown describes. The activity both confounded and delighted those who had not before had the experience—either in their own organizations or in an educational gathering—of valuing personal storytelling and the power of connection over a mechanistic approach to technical problem-solving. As Josh Schachter of CommunityShare says, “Some people say the shortest distance between two people is a story.”
We next sent people on walks together in reconfiguring random pairs and asked them to share various aspects of their professional identities and the equity and deeper learning work they had been doing. We challenged them to be together as learners, not performers, and to genuinely and authentically engage in the conversations that were possible at this time with these people, conversations that matter.
This is not “soft” work; this is the hardest work there is, because it is healing work. It is the work brown describes that helps us see in ourselves the “complex, ancient, fertile ground full of potential,” and that each of us already brings “wisdom and experience and amazing story [from and to] the communities we love.” We deliberately designed these activities so everyone present could experience how we might all live and work together if we took healing seriously. How might we heal our way to a deeper kind of learning and definition of success for each and every student and adult in our educational system?
But OK, we can do this in a convening, a place bounded in space and time, whose intended purpose is clearly set out in our values and principles, and that our community of practice members have come to expect from us as designers and holders of space specifically for these kinds of experiences. But how do we heal our education systems?
I look to Margaret Wheatley for one answer. She says it most succinctly:
“To create better health in a living system, connect it to more of itself. When a system is failing, or performing poorly, the solution will be discovered within the system if more and better connections are created. A failing system needs to start talking to itself, especially to those it didn’t know were even part of itself.”
On Wednesday of our week together, we spread out across the school district to witness how Abbotsford is healing by creating better connections within itself. Some of us listened to a kiva panel of middle school students answer some really challenging questions about their experience of school. These were not the usual suspects we invite into the conversation when outsiders visit our schools; they were the kids most usually left out of the conversation, whether because of being Indigenous, or because of ethnicity or race, sexual orientation or gender identity, or coming from poverty or extremely challenging living situations. And they were astoundingly genuine, honest, frank, articulate, and confident in what they shared. Their message was loud and clear: “Prioritize relationships and belonging over academics… Prioritize relationships and belonging over academics… Prioritize relationships and belonging over academics…” They all identified at least one adult in their schools with whom they felt connected and with whom they could discuss anything. Yet they felt that beyond those individual relationships, there was much healing to do in other classrooms and the broader environment of school.
Reflecting on what we had heard from the young people, Carla Danielsson, an assistant superintendent in the Abbotsford School District, said, “Health, well-being, and belonging are fundamentally pedagogical issues. It’s not about putting posters on the walls.” That is, the teacher must create a safe and welcoming learning space particularly for our most marginalized and vulnerable youth in order to make the risk of engaging in challenging academic work accessible and possible. And that takes skill and deliberate planning, observation and reflection, and replanning. It’s ongoing work. The dynamic of young people interacting in a welcoming, rich, and demanding learning space is ever-changing and ever-developing.
Responding to that complexity is deep pedagogical work. But it is not just the work of teachers.
I asked my wife, who teaches English in a public high school where we live and is always a great source for what students and her colleagues are thinking and feeling, what healing meant to her. She thought for a moment, and said, “You know, our kids missed a whole year and more of being in a school building and classroom environment, and this year I can tell you they are feeling disappointed and heartbroken to come back and see that nothing has changed. Somehow, they thought, this would be an opportunity for us to learn how to make school better for them, and it seems instead that we have come back to pretty much the same old and unhealthy routines and systems.” Of course, many teachers worked extremely hard this year to rebuild a healthy culture in their classrooms, and to incorporate some of what they learned from a year away from normal school routines into their renewed practice, but overall not much seems to be different. She added, “We need time to rest, we need to pause… We need to reimagine systemically. The profession overall needs to be more widely respected, and for that to happen, we need to attract and retain better teachers, but that isn’t going to happen without adequate compensation and sustainable work lives. We need way more cross-pollination. We are so siloed. We need more opportunity to learn what’s working well in other places. These take time and money. We need more time for kids and teachers to be out of the building, and interacting with other adults in apprentice-like situations. These all take more flexibility in the way we structure and schedule school.”
So, to reiterate, healing our education systems is not just teachers’ work. Again citing Schachter, “In a healthy [robust] learning ecosystem, everyone is a steward.” To meet the challenge that students have put before us, school districts need to create the spaces where adults can collectively learn, develop, and share their developing expertise in this approach to pedagogy with each other. If we want our young people to experience the kind of connection and deeper learning they are clearly asking for, then adults need to experience that kind of connection and deeper learning together also. Systems must support that work. But this is not the way our districts have been organized, nor the culture we have created in them. The healing systems we need must be brave spaces. These take courage to create and courage to engage in.
Many people who could help us create the adult and youth learning spaces we need are already among us, as Wheatley says. We just need to listen thoughtfully. Some of the expertise that already exists includes:
And beyond all these examples, there is what we can increasingly learn from other worldviews—ways of being, ways of seeing, ways of knowing, ways of acting, and value systems—that we have traditionally silenced and erased. These worldviews have powerful messages to offer an educational system’s approach to learning and organization that for too long has been dominated by colonialist, White western, mostly male, views, attitudes, and structures. Just as our members experienced in Abbotsford, Indigenous scholars and knowledge keepers across the world are offering their traditional ways for us to learn from. Are we paying attention?
One new member of our community of practice reflected that telling stories about your identity and what matters to you, and hearing the stories of others, is not something we normally do in our traditional bureaucratic systems. The dehumanized spaces, the fragmentation, balkanization and siloing, the constricted and purely technical information flows, the command and control power structures, the mechanistic ways we batch-process students and so also batch-process adults—these all interact to mitigate against connection and relationships and meaningful interactions around equitable deep learning. We don’t need an education bureaucracy that is toxic and dehumanizing. If we recognize what we have been doing, we can see the pain and suffering it causes and act to change it.
We have all been called to be witnesses, but we have not been paying attention. We have not been good stewards of the learning ecosystem for our young people. Nor have we been good stewards of the social and political ecosystem, nor the natural ecosystem of the earth. We have polluted and poisoned the waters, and they have made us sick (another story the Semá:th Longhouse Keeper told us). Our young people, whom we should have been stewarding into their development as whole people—bodies, minds, and spirits—ready to take their place in the lineage of stewards, tell us that they are disappointed and heartbroken.
The Semá:th ceremony we participated in during our Deeper Learning Dozen convening was not just about welcoming. The ceremony was pedagogy, a pedagogy of relationships before problem-solving, a pedagogy of passing along the knowledge of our awesome responsibilities as stewards of our learning ecosystem, and the ceremony was a pedagogy of healing and belonging. The ceremony reminded us that “everywhere there is complex, ancient, fertile ground full of potential.” The ceremony reminded us “that there is wisdom and experience and amazing story in the communities we love.” The Semá:th stories, often told as metaphor, reminded us of who we are, asked us to reconnect with our ancestors, with ourselves, with the land, and with our purpose. They reminded us to bring our whole selves into the work, body, mind, and spirit, and they called us to pay attention, and to do the work. Let’s do the work.
(originally published September 8, 2022, at the NGLC website: https://www.nextgenlearning.org/articles/transforming-learning-is-a-journey-essential-lessons)
When I was in graduate school, my ethnography professor, Joseph Maxwell, had us read a small book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson called Metaphors We Live By. It transformed how I saw my world and my life. I had already developed the idea of experiential metaphors from the many years I had spent working for Outward Bound, the wilderness program that helps young people and adults confront their capabilities and develop their self-confidence through powerful experiences individually and in teams (“crews”) in the ambivalent but undeniably real learning environment of the wilderness. Experiential metaphors are ideas about life that arise while one is involved in some challenging physical activity, such as Outward Bound curates for its students. Lakoff and Johnson write: “In actuality we feel that no metaphor can ever be comprehended or even adequately represented independently of its experiential basis.”
I described my feelings about experiential metaphors in an earlier essay, written after a long walk in Scotland in 2019, this way:
“The rhythms of long days of walking ease the mind into a delightful shuttle between the necessities of route finding and careful foot placement in crossing bogs and the expansive capacity of the mind to roam imaginatively among all the possibilities it can explore as the body explores the terrain. These little essays, then, are my attempt to capture some of that intriguing liminal space between our experience of walking through this spectacular landscape and the roaming of my mind in the process.”
This past summer my wife, Jessica, and I took another long walk, this time 250 miles in the Pyrenees, along the Pyrenean High Route (HRP) and the GR-10, one of the waymarked trails that criss-cross Europe and provide for many beautiful and challenging adventures for those who walk them. Along the way, as our legs, feet, and backs grew stronger and stronger from long days of walking between places where we could camp or stay the night, and from the high passes we needed to walk over on the way to the next place to stay, our minds would roam as I described above, but never so far that we could not keep paying attention to our feet, and what was at our feet, as we walked. That in and of itself is one kind of experiential metaphor. In this essay, I explore several experiential metaphors that can catalyze our understanding about the process of transforming our educational system to be more equitable and provide more powerful and meaningful learning experiences for our young people.
Metaphor One: Start. Each journey. Each day. Each moment. Each step. It’s always almost impossible to start. Do it anyway. Sore muscles will warm up and you will find a rhythm.
Metaphor Two: You can plan for the long haul, but the first step will change it all.
We started planning for our Pyrenees walk about a year in advance of our arrival in Hendaye, France, on the Atlantic Ocean and the border with Spain. We joined and participated in Facebook groups, we found web page descriptions crafted by previous trekkers, we Zoom called with a couple in San Francisco who had done both our previous long walk and the Pyrenean High Route, we bought special maps and GPS files, we spent months poring over the maps and marking our route, and we created spreadsheets for our gear and food needs. We planned out each day based on the descriptions, distances, elevation gain and loss, walking speeds, and places to stay described in the guidebook. And then we left Hendaye after dipping our toes in the Atlantic, eating one last spectacular seafood dinner, and camping overnight by the Atlantic, hoisting our heavy packs on our backs, and walking out of town following the guide book description. Two hours later, in the unprecedented 102 degree Fahrenheit heat, I was already drenched in sweat and overheating, and we were already “falling behind” the “scheduled” mileage for the day. We realized that everything would be different from what we had anticipated and planned for. We had started, taken our first steps, and now already we were unsure how our plan would help us keep going in this heat. We started each day, for the first week, following the plan but uncertain, hesitant, doubtful of whether we could actually do this route we had so enthusiastically planned for. And then we stopped, to rest, recover, and reassess what we had planned and what we actually wanted to do.
You know the Doris Lessing quote: “Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.” We turned out to be much slower than our guidebook said we would be, and the trail much harder. That was hard for us to accept at the start. But in the long run, starting, starting our own journey, starting our own day, starting our own moment, starting each of our own steps, led to warming muscles and a rhythm we could joyfully participate in, with an appreciation for the beauty of the terrain we were walking through, even if each step up and over many a high pass was incredibly challenging, and some of the days were much longer than we wanted them to be.
What I learned about the journey of transforming learning from this experience is that the longer you sit around planning, the more attached you can get to those plans, the harder it will be to start, and the longer it will take to recognize and accept that once you actually start, everything will be different. Not that you should start without any idea or vision of what you want to do or where you want to go or how you want to get there. And it is really fun poring over maps and gear lists and making plans—even strategic plans (the story of this one is notable)! But realize what Paul Berman said in his chapter in a book written in 1981, Improving Schools: Using What We Know, by Rolf Lehming and Michael Kane: “Change typically involves an implementation-dominant process [um, in part that means, to change, you have to do something!]… Events occurring after the adoption of a technology [an innovation, a design, a plan] determine outcomes to a large extent, and these events cannot be accurately forecast from the content of the technology itself.” Or, using systems theory terminology, the initial conditions of the system affect the outcome much more significantly than any inputs into that system.
Dave Snowdon, the original creator of the Cynefin framework, believes that when we are leading in the complex domain of system change, we will learn more and be more effective as a leader if we “probe, sense, and respond.” That is, try little “safe to fail” experiments that give us a sense of the misty territory we are entering, thus helping us determine the correct route, at least for the present. We are often more attached to spending six months developing a new strategic plan with a linear, causal model for implementation and benchmark and outcome measures to determine success, or spending a year designing a new school. The problem is, once the actual students arrive, we will discover that everything changes.
Metaphor Three: Each step is an experiment, a hypothesis. Take it with awareness and curiosity. So place your feet tentatively, testing each rock to see if it is stable or if it is rocking under your feet. Respond accordingly! If the rock rolls under your feet, be ready to step quickly to the next one. If it’s solid, celebrate that fact. Few are.
Rocky trails, even those that were very carefully built by (we felt) heroic trail builders, have many loose rocks on them, and along those trails, no matter how well crafted they are, each step was still ours to take. The trail builders couldn’t walk the trail for us. All that was in our minds as we climbed out of the high valley where Refuge Jeandel was situated in a mist so dense we could see only a few feet of trail in front of us. We climbed up through limestone karst formations, etched and eroded by acidified rain, but because of the mists we could see them only as ghost shapes rising around us. The trail of loose rocks wound in and around these ghosts, terrifyingly close to sinkholes where the rock had collapsed into deep caves that had eroded down through the karst. Sometimes we clambered up steeper sections with cables to hang onto. Sometimes the rocky trail was easy to find and other times it just seemed like boulder fields leading off into nothingness. Yet we knew there was a pass we were headed toward, and we took each step hoping it would add up to our eventually climbing over that pass, even if we couldn’t see it.
When we enter the complex territory of transformational learning, every step is an experiment. We think we’ve planned for it, and we hope it will take us forward to the next step, and the next, and eventually to achieving something of value. And we hope our companions along the way will be able to step with us, also experimentally, carefully, and also arrive at the “pass” with us. But this kind of travel through complex change in support of equity and deeper learning is, as I wrote above, about little steps that are safe to fail experiments that add up to getting where we want to go. This is how good teachers teach each unit, each day, each class, each moment, watching carefully how their students respond and revising as they go. The same can be said of a school’s progress, or a district’s. Develop the skills and habits of mind of taking each step experimentally. We may find we’ll get to the passes more quickly than what we originally thought might be more efficient methods.
Metaphor Four: Dreaming of the summit, and continually counting the gaps between where you are and where you need to get, even if you can see it ahead of you, will be exhausting and demoralizing. Also, don’t try to rush ahead thinking you can get there faster; don’t “cut the switchbacks.”
“Slow is smooth and smooth is fast,” it says at the beginning of the U.S. Army Field Manual. Most passes in mountains carved by glaciers have several false passes before the final one, since the glaciers carved out the higher bowls and deposited the rubble in successive terminal moraines, as the glacier either advanced or receded. We looked ahead to a series of these coming up the long route from Gabas toward the Hourquette d’Arre, one of the most challenging passes along the GR-10, but we kept counting the distances, 23 kilometers that day, up and down to the next town, and elevation, 1,500 meters elevation gain. “Surely we must be near the top! Surely there is only a little more to climb up!” we said to each other and silently to ourselves as the trail continued to climb and climb, and we became more and more tired out.
And as the trail got steeper nearer to the top, we could see eroded places where other trekkers had grown impatient and cut across the switchbacks that were built to help make the seemingly interminable upward climb a little easier on quads and hamstrings, and keep the vulnerable alpine meadow terrain in place. Those eroded cuts were frustrating to those of us who needed the regularity of the switchbacks to help us continue in our upward rhythm, and very hard on the landscape. The more we focused on that we were not there yet, the more we focused on wishing we were and thinking about what it would be like when we got there. We then had less energy for the very important next step we had to take, our breath, our pace, our rhythm of walking. We had less energy to see what was actually happening around us that was beautiful, even the tiny little flowers growing between the rocks as we stepped over them, when we were so tired we couldn’t even look up to see the spectacular mountain landscapes opening all around us.
We spend an awful lot of energy and argument in education about “gaps.” We measure them interminably. And we spend a lot of time talking about what the “outcomes” will be when we close those gaps. What are we missing in the experiences of learning along the way? Everywhere around us learning is happening, growth is happening, that of young people and that of adults. Everywhere there is amazing and exhausting effort, and the joy of daily walking the challenging route we have chosen. And it takes all of our energy just to craft and skillfully stay in the daily steps of the learning we are doing along the way. Let’s not miss that by dreaming of the summit or creating negative thinking about how we have not yet made it to the summit we want to reach, and then by trying urgently and exhaustingly to rush ahead.
Metaphor Five: Don’t think that your reward will be the place where you arrive at the end (of a pass, of a day, of a week, of a…) and because of that miss the joy, beauty, wonder, challenge, exhaustion, of each step along the way.
This metaphor is a slightly different take on focusing too much on “getting there.” We still need to take each step, and everyone who is going with us needs to take each step themselves, in order to get to the pass and down to the next campsite. If each step is not in some way a reward for us, and if we have not been able to pay attention to it, in all its complexity of feeling and experience, in the long run our journey will not turn out to have been worth the effort we and our fellow travelers put into it.
Surely this is the same for our learning and teaching adventures! Surely it is the same for the transformations we want to support in our educational systems! What is the experience we want our young people to have now? What is the experience we as an adult in an educational system want to have now? What is keeping us from focusing our energy and efforts on those experiences? What displacement of that passion and desire onto some distant reward can we rethink and place where it belongs?
Metaphor Six (Version A): Talk to as many different people (and kinds of people) as you can along the way. You’ll never know what you might learn that will be helpful (and their stories are always unique)—listen to what they have to say!
Metaphor Six (Version B): Talk to as many different people (and kinds of people) as you can along the way. Their stories will surprise you and illuminate all the diversity of ways to make sense of and take this journey.
We started thinking we were walking this path as a couple, by ourselves, determined to get from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. We knew there would be others we would meet along the way, but we had no idea how important talking with them would be. When we first discovered that the trail we had started on (the Pyrenean High Route, or HRP) was too hard for us, we felt discouraged. We thought this was the trail we were committed to walking, and when it turned out to be too hot, too high, too long each day, too much elevation gain and loss for us, we felt lost as to what to do next. But we were smart enough to know something was not working. So we stopped, and we started talking with people.
One young woman taught us how to make electrolytes from readily available items in the markets, to replenish minerals lost to sweating in the heat of the first days. Another pair of hikers told us about the route we thought we were going to be taking, having just come that way themselves, and that conversation convinced us to feel better about shifting our route to the GR-10. Others told us about how they were taking the overall trail in sections, ten or so days at a time. Or other loops and other trails entirely. Others recommended resting spots they had discovered, campsites near little towns where we could wash our clothes and replenish our supplies as well as restore our tired bodies. Travelers shared what foods they were and were not carrying and what they had gotten rid of that they discovered they didn’t need, thus lightening their loads to what was essential for them.
As Shane Safir describes in The Listening Leader, listening is key to educational transformation for equitable deeper learning. And listening to the most diverse array of fellow travelers creates a pattern of “micro-narratives” that will help us see that there are many, many more possibilities for how to do this difficult work than we could possibly have conceived of by ourselves, and many more ways of defining success along the way. Some we will agree with, and some will be so different we could not have imagined all the ways we might travel. In fact the conflict among these approaches engenders the frictions that are necessary for the collective learning that leads to success. Shane describes two kinds of listening, empathetic listening and strategic listening. One builds the trusting relationships we want among the full range of people who are on this transformational path with us, and the other develops a shared commitment to strategy for accomplishing the work. Both are essential. And these narratives all count as evidence of learning and success as well as guidance for how we might move forward.
When we start to see all of those stories, our sense of our own journey through the complex territory of transformation for equitable deeper learning will expand, and we will begin to see more possibilities in our own pathway. That will loosen our sense that there is one way for us to walk this path. Or one amount of time. Or one destination. Or even one path.
Metaphor Seven: Lighten your load. You are probably carrying too much. Keep asking what is essential to carry. But maybe also add a few small items you find along the way that will bring you joy.
Beyond the stories we heard that helped us with difficulties and strategies, we heard many stories about what people loved about their experiences, and what joy and redefined sense of purpose they experienced when they got rid of things that they were carrying that weighed them down, whether those were extra gear they did not need, or attitudes and beliefs about their trekking that kept them from fully enjoying and participating in their own journeys. We also heard about what little things had given them pleasure along the way, such as stopping on the way up to a high pass to swim in a cold lake. And of course, commiserating about being tired and having sore feet, and what they did about that.
Listening that unveils multiple possibilities and the need to lighten our loads weave together to make a bigger point: our conversations ranged across the wide landscape of topics that transcended our individual country borders and individual pathways to explore a larger world of ideas and experiences. What we gained was a sense of flexibility, that there were multiple pathways and ways of walking that we could follow, that we could craft our own way through these amazing territories, and that it was a more easeful journey when we carried less. And just the company of fellow travelers and the tales they told created a sense that this was a community project, and not just the two of us. Their stories knitted together into a tapestry of experience, not just a linear pathway that might seem monotonous, or even not possible to do. Listening and lightening: this is indeed “the simplicity on the far side of complexity.” We were all in this together, and we were all buoyed up by the stories each of us contributed to that common space.
Transformation for equitable deeper learning is a community project, and we are all in it together. Listen to and capture the stories of all those who want to travel with us in this project. It is a rich tapestry more than a linear trail. Find what is essential in the stories, lighten your load, and enrich your journey. As adrienne maree brown says,
“[E]verywhere there is complex, ancient, fertile ground full of potential. We… organize with the perspective that there is wisdom and experience and amazing story in the communities we love… we… want to listen, support, and grow… we… understand that the strength of our movement is the strength of our relationships, which could only be measured in their depth.”
Metaphor Eight: Say yes to your young people’s passions for their Journey. Start. Walk with them on it.
One morning toward the end of our long walk, on our way up to a grassy col, we passed two people sitting on a rock wall on an old dirt farm road shaded by large beech trees, open meadows on either side. After another hour or so of climbing, we stopped in the col for a snack, and a little while later they came up and stood at a distance, talking quietly and looking out over the large valley below us to the distant mountains. We “leap-frogged” with them for a couple of days, and then ended up sitting with them at dinner one night in a refuge where we were all staying. It was apparent to us that she was a young teenager, 12 years old she told us, and he was her dad. She said she had gotten interested in hiking the GR-10 when she was seven, and had asked her dad if they could do it. He said yes without hesitating. And so they started that year, with an age-appropriate section of the trail. Each summer they returned, and hiked a slightly harder and longer stretch. They expected to finish the whole trail by the time she was 18. They were both passionate about this journey they were on together, and they had both been committed to starting it when she was seven, and they were passionate about and committed to starting again each summer with the new stretch.
I couldn’t help thinking what would have happened to this young person’s passion if her dad hadn’t shared in her passion and supported it. What if he hadn’t thought she could start this adventure when she was seven? What if he hadn’t even heard her say she wanted to, or encouraged her, or provided her with the opportunity to start? What if he had been passionate about the GR-10 and had convinced her to do it with him even if she wasn’t passionate about it?
So, how does this metaphor (and maybe some of the others) relate to our school transformation journey? Start. Listen. Listen to the young people in our schools right now, and look for the joy, beauty, wonder, challenge, and exhaustion they are experiencing by exploring their passions… And start! Right now! Encourage them in each step of the learning journey they are taking or want to take right now. Provide the resources and the guidance they may need.
On the other hand… Stop! We must stop thinking that our experience, our passion for our transformation journey as a district or school leader or even as a teacher, will either trickle down to others (especially students) or that there is some sequence by which we can start with ours and eventually it will become theirs. Other people can have (and some may already be having) these experiences now. So… We must stop looking for some mechanism (curriculum adoption, pacing guides, benchmark assessments, mandating teaching methods, etc.) to translate our experiences into theirs in some linear way. Start looking for where they are already fellow travelers along with us, or on their own journey. And lift those up.
Follow change activist Meg Wheatley in this regard: listen, notice, name, nurture the passions of our pioneers, connect them, illuminate what they are doing so others can see and be inspired to begin their own journey. Many of our pioneers may be—probably are—the young people in our schools! Walk this pathway with our young people and teachers together. But remember that each of us must walk this pathway with our own steps. In our own ways.
Our rightly felt sense of urgency should not make us fall back on old ideas about controlling the transformation process we want to see, thinking that control means efficiency, and efficiency means quick results. That’s a deadly formula for a toxic and dehumanizing culture. Our sense of urgency should drive us to start looking for and lifting up the kinds of passionate expeditions our young people may already be starting on, or are ready to start on, but we didn’t even know were happening because we were lost in an old mode of thinking about what a leader should do with their sense of urgency.
We all have had and continue to have experiences that provide metaphors for how we might act differently in our educational transformation work. These are windows into a new world. Let’s celebrate these experiences, learn to see the metaphors, and discover what they might mean for our practice.
(originally published November 3, 2021, at the NGLC website: https://www.nextgenlearning.org/articles/emancipatory-organizational-design-school-district-bureaucracy)
“…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…”
“To create better health in a living system, [then,] connect it to more of itself. When a system is failing, or performing poorly, the solution will be discovered within the system if more and better connections are created. A failing system needs to start talking to itself, especially to those it didn’t know were even part of itself.”
In Part One of this piece, I asked if we were learning from the pandemic. While I noted the emergence of numerous new practices that could be amplified and help create a new, more learner-centered, more equitable system, I also noted the immense pressure across the educational system to return to the way things used to be. I explored why that was the case, concluding…
It is a tangled web of interacting systems that has withstood decades of efforts at reform. Even with all we’ve learned, these systems are stubbornly reasserting themselves so that a lot of supposed reinvention is actually just recreating the status quo. It is the frenetic energy and inertia of a system designed not to change.
Sadly, this “regression to the mean” has become even more pronounced in the two months since I wrote Part One. Students and teachers are suffering greatly as a result. Who is paying attention, and attempting a restart that is restorative, centers student and teacher health and wellbeing, engages student voice, focuses on racial equity, and emphasizes healthy relationships between staff and students? And who is seeing that as ongoing practice, not just a week at the start of school?
In my previous article on this topic, I critiqued this tangled web as inherently suffering from both a technical/bureaucratic worldview and a racist worldview that are the product of Western White supremacy culture. In contrast, dynamic learning environments, such as the kind of deeper learning described by Mehta and Fine, and Michael Fullan and his colleagues, involve an ever-deepening inquiry into what we are learning and how we enact that in our practice, at all levels of the system. Deep inquiry and dynamic learning environments could help us learn from the pandemic instead of pushing us to return to a system that was inequitable by design and wasn’t working for far too many young people and their teachers. This kind of dynamic and ever-deepening inquiry into learning (by students, by teachers) requires an emancipatory organizational design.
I am borrowing the term “emancipatory” from the work of Jürgen Habermas deliberately to make the point that neither a purely technical definition of learning (the Newtonian machine bureaucracy model that sees students as products) nor a professional/practical approach (that treats students like patients or clients) is sufficient for the kind of dynamic agency that deeper learning requires.
An emancipatory approach takes an ever-deepening critique of these technical and professional components. It also critiques the social constructs in which they are embedded (e.g., critical race theory is one approach to this kind of inherent critique) and seeks to respond to emergent agency on the part of students and adults alike. It then engages in an ongoing search for new purposes to support that agency.
An emancipatory organizational design is a series of fractals (that is, symmetrical forms at all levels) of what we want to see in the learning environment. Elmore believed that unless everything in the educational system surrounding the learning environment was coherently and symmetrically focused on supporting deep learning, then it would not happen. In the work we are doing in the Deeper Learning Dozen, we add that unless everything in the system focuses on a sustained and deepening inquiry—purpose seeking—into how to make that kind of learning happen for each and every young person and adult, it will not happen equitably. Thus the emancipatory organizational design provides for a symmetry of experience—equitable deeper learning—structured within and across the entire educational system.
An emancipatory approach and organizational design—an agile and nimble school and district organization—would center symmetrically on supporting the transformational work of equitable deeper learning, even during a pandemic. It would have the capacity to learn from what is emerging on the ground as effective new practice. It would be better prepared to respond to this urgent and immediate need for seeking a new purpose and finding new systems to enact that purpose (as opposed to the frenetic “hamster wheel” kind of urgency Mehta describes in his recent blog post). Such a system would recognize and become the fractals of the emerging learning experiences and be able to support them in an emancipatory way.
What might be the characteristics of an emancipatory organizational design that symmetrically supports equitable deeper learning? In Part One of this blog post, I suggested some key characteristics. I will reiterate those here, and then elaborate on them and share some examples, ending with some of the many other possible metaphors that various organizational theorists have proposed. The characteristics are:
Communities of practice are effective in supporting both social learning and the spread of innovation and new ideas about teaching and learning. They are places where people come together around a shared passion to make a difference, establish an ongoing sense of personal and group identity, and create some protective but permeable boundaries around that identity and the vulnerable learning and emerging practice that is its purpose. In an emancipatory organization, communities of practice serve as each person’s “home base,” whether those people are our young learners or all the adults in the system. Examples of student communities of practice that could support deeper learning include the EL Education “crew” or the advisories that are central to the design of Big Picture schools like The Met. Adult communities of practice should mirror these student forms. This is consistent with the work on growth culture, or “deliberately developmental organizations,” by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. Tony Schwartz (Create a Growth Culture, Not a Performance-Obsessed One) describes a “growth culture” as including:
- “An environment that feels safe, fueled first by top leaders willing to role model vulnerability and take personal responsibility for their shortcomings and missteps.
- A focus on continuous learning through inquiry, curiosity and transparency, in place of judgment, certainty and self-protection.
- Time-limited, manageable experiments with new behaviors in order to test our unconscious assumption that changing the status quo is dangerous and likely to have negative consequences.
- Continuous feedback—up, down and across the organization—grounded in a shared commitment to helping each other grow and get better.”
Laura Flaxman, Robert Curtis, and Arun Ramanathan recently wrote: “In An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, Kegan, Lahey, and their co-authors… identified the key features of… organizational cultures and placed them into three interlocking categories: Home: a sense of community and trust; Edge: the challenge, development, and growth every employee needs to succeed; and Groove: the everyday practices, rituals, systems, and routines baked into the life of an organization.” Communities of practice address all three.
Every person in a school and district, whether a young person or an adult, needs a home base that serves as a place for shared passions about the work, a community and relationships that create a safe and trusting place for learning, and a place to develop and iterate their knowledge and practice together with others. Communities of practice have stable rituals and routines that support these needs. In these highly collaborative settings, people develop, iterate, and improve their practice. Recent writing by Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner about what they are now calling “social learning spaces” defines these spaces in this way:
“a particular experience of engagement that takes place among people in pursuit of learning to make a difference… The term social reflects the centrality of relationships and interactions among people…. structured by a desire to push a joint inquiry together…. [in] a specific ‘enclosure of engagement’…. Their participation is not perfunctory or merely compliant but driven by their need to get better at making that difference… Participants engage with each other at the leading edge of their knowing how to make that difference…. [T]hey engage their uncertainty in the social learning space.”
Wenger-Trayner continue, “Viewing learning as value creation…. places the emphasis of learning on learners caring to make a difference rather than on knowledge, skill, or curriculum as commodities. It shifts the perspective from the inert to the living…. Learning to make a difference has to go through practice, where social learning reveals the value it creates through action.”
As I described in Part One, traditional schools and districts are organized in ways that can and almost always do very easily slide into rigid balkanized spaces of subject area departments, grade levels, divisions, offices, programs, and initiatives, with little to no communication between them, and with different, and often conflicting, visions, procedures, and reward and accountability systems for accomplishing the work. These organizational forms are meant to demand order and conformity. They aren’t designed for sharing information nor building effective and humane relationships, both necessary for the development of a shared sense of purpose and identity. They are definitely neither agile nor nimble spaces able to respond to the ever changing needs of learners. All of these dynamic human processes, however, are necessary for encouraging innovation and transformation.
The organizational design that most effectively supports the spread of innovation is communities of practice situated within dense social networks. “Dense” refers to the number of connections across communities of practice as well as the volume of flow of ideas and information through those connections. The challenge for organizational leaders is to keep communities of practice from becoming self-sealing and insular, support learning from “critical friend” interactions with others doing similar work, and encourage the identification and lateral spread of innovations that help the whole organization improve.
This is consistent with Fullan’s notion that system change (as opposed to just individual change) is driven by focusing on social capital development in collaborative learning spaces first. It is also consistent with David Albury’s ideas about scaling as more of a process of the ongoing proximity and thus interaction of different kinds of learning communities: communities of practice (pioneer innovators), nested within and interacting with communities of engagement (early adopters), similarly nested within communities of interest (people who want to keep informed about what is going on), where people experience each other’s work in an ongoing way. I will describe an example of this below in the section on Combining to Form New Organizational Systems. Wheatley and Frieze describe the leader’s role here as to notice, name, connect, nurture, and illuminate the work of these communities of practice. That happens in ever expanding dense social networks.
Network innovation and social learning theory and research (such as Murray and Millett, Vander Ark and Dobyns, and Lieberman and Wood) have shown that ideas develop and spread faster when well-resourced “nodes” of learners experience the following:
In addition, an orientation to network/social learning requires enacting these Principles of Social Networks:
This sounds a lot like Wheatley’s open and intelligent relationships within a highly distributed neural network. If you want a couple of great metaphors for the idea of dense networks, the research on starling murmurations (and more recently on midge swarms) and the notion of “near-criticality” in complex or chaotic systems (an emerging order that is not too loose and chaotic, nor too fixed and rigid), or the idea of distributed intelligences in interconnected sensor array networks, is quite intriguing. A positive example in human networks is the effect of guerilla gardening on the improvement of urban neighborhoods. Another, not so positive, example is the way in which illegal dumping in a neighborhood leads to increased crime in that neighborhood.
Some routine work just needs simple ways to do it that don’t require much change over time. They just need to be the right systems to get the job done. That leaves most of our organizational energy for the deeper, more complex learning and practice development. Please note these are probably not offices with their own separate identities, cultures, value systems, and often not very permeable boundaries; they are more likely mapped patterns of process and work flows across different roles, of information, resources, or funds, designed to serve more complex work. Purchasing, or what outside of education is called supply chain, is one example. First response checklists for responding to crises is another.
These systems operate in what the Cynefin Framework literature refers to as the “simple domain,” where known technical solutions can be matched to known problems. However, even these systems can be improved over time if good feedback systems are built into how they operate. Doing that work takes us out of the simple and into the more complicated or complex domain of human identity, shared information, and effective relationships. An example of this kind of system improvement is improving purchasing so it actually supports teachers both affirmatively and efficiently. (A while back I wrote a rather caustic critique about how the lack of effective process mapping and an understanding of work flow, combined with a lack of a culture of supporting students and teachers, plague many purchasing departments in educational bureaucracies. Partly this is an artifact of the balkanization described above.)
“Student voice, multiple ways of knowing and learning, and community cultural wealth” as described by Shane Safir and Jamila Dugan in their book, Street Data, are foundational kinds of information/lifeblood that can be the basis of learning in the communities of practice, and the flow of information and ideas across the networks. How can we become mobilized and interconnected so we have access to these kinds of lifeblood?
Communities of practice need to ground their learning in shared information and evidence. Safir and Dugan advise us to use “street data” along with the “map” and “satellite” data we are more used to relying on. Using those data should involve the “radical inclusion” (Caroline Hill) of traditionally marginalized or silenced voices, such as directly involving low-income students of color and their families in “co-design” of the transformational practices we are developing. They describe “street data” thusly:
“Street data is a decolonizing form of knowledge that honors Indigenous, Afrocentric, and other non-Western ways of knowing. Street data emerges from human interaction, taking us down to the ground level to see, hear, and engage with the children and adults in our school communities—particularly those at the margins…. To that end we offer you three beliefs to guide your journey:
- Data can be humanizing
- Data can be liberatory
- Data can be healing” (p.19).
Beyond the data we gather, communities of practice need to ground their learning in collaborative analyses of that evidence. Cynthia F. Kurtz, in her book, Working with Stories, describes a process of participatory narrative inquiry that emphasizes “raw stories of personal experience; a diversity of perspectives and experiences; the interpretation of stories by those who told them; catalytic pattern exploration; and narrative group sensemaking.”
And in addition to gathering street data and engaging in collaborative analysis, communities of practice need to be aware that they go through developmental phases and cycles of learning. Each phase and cycle has a different emphasis, a different need for facilitation support, and creates a different kind of value to aid in accomplishing the community’s purposes. Wenger-Trayner discuss a range of these cycles where inquiry results in changes in practice that provide evidence of value creation of various kinds (as opposed to just seeking evidence of “student learning outcomes”) from immediate value, to potential value, to applied value, to realized value, to transformational value, that can focus and drive additional learning and practice improvement. Understanding these types of value creation might help take the pressure off educators, school boards, and policy makers to always be seeking the next perfect test of student learning outcomes.
The kinds of inquiry that I think are at the heart of the deeper learning and increasingly equitable learning spaces we want to create, both for young people and for adults in our schools and districts, all require different assumptions and habits of mind and heart about what counts as evidence and how we go about gathering and using that evidence in the service of equitable whole organizational learning and transformation. The challenge, then, is how we will use this expanded notion of evidence in support of that transformation. Most likely this will involve nested and iterative cycles of inquiry “from the classroom to the board room,” across schools and districts. And then what we often think of as fixed systems and infrastructure need to change to become dynamic enough to support transformation. I discuss those next.
Communities of practice are the home bases that will grow and develop organically and over time as their members’ passions, purposes, knowledge, skills, and practices grow and develop. However, the networks they exist within, and the ways that members will need to come together across communities of practice to work on specific tasks, must be emergent, contingent, and mutable. The networks must be based on purposes that emerge from members’ ongoing analysis of the evidence of the needs for student learning experiences and teacher pedagogical development. This should be true of how students come together to pursue their deepening learning inquiries as well.
Then an agile and nimble school and district system should develop the systems and infrastructure to support that effort. This includes time, space, and resource allocation, that support enactment and iteration of those emergent practices into their improvement, as well as getting other existing systems that are barriers to enactment out of the way. And then when those systems and infrastructure are no longer needed or serving their intended purposes, to “hospice” them. We do not need to continue the “geological residue of generations of other people’s ideas about what schools need to do,” as Richard Elmore said.
A fine example of this kind of emergent system is embodied in the Kettle Moraine School District in Wisconsin. Now-retired superintendent Pat Deklotz worked with the board, her colleagues, her students, and her community for years to create an inclusive community-wide and ongoing planning process. Over time, nested within clear values and community wishes for student learning, they created a “culture of yes.” Pervasively across the district, people in leadership roles and teachers approach their work by starting every conversation about a request to try something with “yes, we can do that,” followed by, “now let’s sit down and figure out how.” In addition Deklotz led the way to a culture that celebrates failure as necessary along the path of learning. One principal I met starts every speech he makes by admitting to his audience that 90 percent of the time he tries something new, he fails. This culture of risk taking in learning at Kettle Moraine pervades both adult and student learning as well as emergent and contingent systems to support it.
“In open systems [all human systems are open systems, in that they take in energy from the surrounding environment, use what they need to maintain or grow themselves, and the excrete waste energy back into the environment], in far from equilibrium states [where new systems and infrastructure are being created to serve emerging purposes and needs, thus where transformation is happening], new orders emerge spontaneously.” –Prigogine and Stengers
There is a great series of graphic images from the field of complexity theory called “strange attractors,” originally developed by Edward Lorenz. I use one of these images, called the “three winged bird” to represent the strange attractors in organizations that people gather around to discuss, and then to create shared meaning and practice, in this case about values, community, and accomplishments. But there are plenty of others. The story I told in Part One about the environmental sciences academy that wanted to redesign their program of study was about a strange attractor for the academy teacher team, the district pathway coach, and the science curriculum specialist. In Vista Unified School District, outside San Diego, the district supports the formation of “sprint teams,” strange attractors of specific, time-bound projects that aid in the overall district transformational effort, that attract people from across schools and roles who want to work on them together.
These convergences around specific tasks and learning related to them need to remain always open to emerging, dissolving, or transforming, agilely and nimbly, as new purposes emerge from a student’s, a teacher’s, a school’s, or a district’s inquiry and learning. Because there will always be many more than one strange attractor in a school or district, there is a wonderful kind of “wobble-i-ness” that accompanies them, and so the organization that emerges needs itself to be more wobbly and less fixed and determinant. These convergences emerge and disappear, people move from one to another as their sense of purpose and passions change. And once again, they need to transcend traditional school and district boundaries.
Part of the role of leaders, then, is to watch these strange attractor groups forming and dissolving and guide them and also hold the space so that they can serve the overall vision of the district. But that role should be held lightly, because the leader may not always know exactly what might emerge from their wobbly existence and interaction. That is, “wobble-i-ness,” and the patterns that emerge from it, are indeterminate.
Every time a new group converges on a new strange attractor, a new opportunity emerges to move from “I” to “We” and from emergent purposes to emergent work, learning, and new practice. Consequently, schools and districts need space and time to develop new individual and collective identities. They also need to create spaces, connections, and relationships in order to engage in those new exchanges of ideas and information, new meaning making, and new practice development. And these new spaces for shared identity development and emergent work require new boundaries. Those boundaries require attention and care (by members, by organizational leaders) in making sure they are solid enough to protect the creation of shared meaning and the safe emergence of new practice within the emerging group, but permeable enough to assure the ongoing flow of ideas, information, feedback, and the illumination and championing of their new practices across the larger networks.
District leaders want these emergent groups to feel efficacy and interdependence and to be effective in what they form to accomplish. Teachers who want their students to come together in teams to work on compelling problems must address the challenge of supporting team identity to form out of the individual identities of very different students. In one case I know, a community mapping activity that was a part of a unit on social determinants of health turned up evidence of huge disparities in the amount of illegal dumping depending on whether it was in a low-income neighborhood of mostly people of color or a higher income neighborhood of mostly White people. This disparity incensed the students so much that they dove into a research effort supporting a community action project in collaboration with several community groups. Students then presented their research and their demands for action to the mayor. If the teachers involved had not made the effort to pause what they thought the unit was about, guide the team formation, open up the space in their curriculum for the new learning to emerge, and support the connections and relationships to form within the teams and with the community action groups, none of this powerful experience and learning could have occurred.
New organizational systems operate in the complex space of a different orientation to “the way things are,” and we should use them to support a liberatory and humane pedagogy for our children and ourselves and for our future generations. Certainly emergent practice can become established practice through the iteration of reflection on how well it achieves the purposes we have for it, though I don’t think I know a good teacher who ever thinks their practice has become perfect. Once practice becomes established and is serving its intended purpose, the leader’s responsibility is to bring collections of practices into shared public discourse—that is, knowledge and practice held lightly and dynamically in the social learning space, as Wenger-Traynner describe it, not an inert and fixed commodity like an adopted curriculum. Leaders can support evidence gathering, sense making and iterative cycles of improvement around these collections of practices, and then they can create the systems and infrastructure to support them.
An example I saw play out in a small school in Oakland involved an emerging vision among staff. They envisioned becoming a college and career pathway, with a series of related projects across the grade levels that led to and culminated in a graduate capstone project and performance assessment. Most of the grade-level teams had been working on student projects, but these were not aligned with either the pathway theme or the imagined capstone. A ninth grade team, however, was passionate about developing such a project, and the school administration gave them the time and resources to get to work on it. One condition was that every month they would present their developing work to the rest of the staff in a “critical friends” consultancy or tuning protocol. The leadership team was deliberate in having the ninth grade team share their work not as examples of best practice but as work in progress that needed helpful feedback from the other grade-level teams. In this way, the other teams wouldn’t feel that their work was inadequate, and they would see that they were helping the ninth grade team with crucial feedback. In addition, as David Albury describes it, the ninth grade team, as a community of practice, was able to spread interest and enthusiasm for their innovative work to others who might not be quite ready to take that risk (as a community of engagement), but could slowly come to see that it was possible to develop their own versions of it.
This is a process that Kevin Kelly refers to as “controlling from the bottom-up,” and “chunking,” functions that are specific to network organization and learning. It achieves system-wide coherence in a very different way from that which we suppose we can get by purchasing and then mandating a new curriculum or test from the top down. As I said above, though, these larger systems must always remain self-aware, self-reflective, and able agilely and nimbly to change or dissolve in order to support the constantly changing environment and ever-deepening inquiry and learning of each and every one of our young people.
If we are looking for metaphors of a different way of organizing schools and districts from the traditional machine or professional bureaucracy metaphor, many exist:
The list goes on and on, opening up possibilities for reconceiving organization beyond just the Western bureaucratic and hierarchical image, but few of these ideas have penetrated educational organizational thinking or actually changed “the way we do things.”
The images I described above of a more dynamic, complex, emergent learning environment require a complex and emergent organizational form, one that continuously learns and evolves as the learning environment does, one that is agile and nimble, one that innovates rapidly in response to emergent learning needs. Shane Safir describes that organizational environment this way: “In a sense, this is an ecological project. We have over-farmed the land and undernourished our students and educators while failing to water the roots of a healthy system: student voice, multiple ways of knowing and learning, and community cultural wealth.”
This perspective moves us from the Newtonian metaphor of the control of machines toward the metaphor of the gardener, but even that assumes too much control and ordering of experience, too much regulation of the system, and even a kind of agribusiness orientation to how to make plants grow well. It’s individualistic and deterministic: individual plants in rows, given appropriate measures of nutrient inputs and artificial pest controls, similar to our tradition of rows of desks in a classroom and the banking model of learning. The gardener metaphor does not necessarily frame the garden space as an ecosystem of complex interacting factors. The rewilding movement in Scotland seems closer to what we want.
Rewilding protects and stewards new spaces where biodiverse native forests can regrow, as opposed to the regimented monocropped straight rows of same species in industrial forests the Scots grew a century ago for militaristic and immediate economic purposes. Cheryl Ka‘uhane Lupenui and Gary Chapin wrote about natural ecosystems as a metaphor for educational reimagining. So, perhaps a better metaphor would be stewarding an ecosystem, or possibly just creating a safe space where the “rewilding” of education might occur. All of these are part of trying to break free of the overly rigid rules and mindsets that in our more traditional systems have ended up restricting thought, play, invention, and growth, not to mention denying a sense of belonging and worth to so many of our students and families. Isn’t the learning environment we truly desire, instead, one that is rich and fertile and biodiverse and welcoming of all our complexity, like an old growth forest?
As I concluded in Part One, these key characteristics for an alternative organization, and the freedom it might allow, are not a territory for the faint of heart. It will take great leadership courage to create and sustain such an organizational territory. And none of this can be imagined if we can’t get the metaphor of the machine bureaucracy and the command and control hierarchy of value and worth out of our minds, and imagine a more humane, equitable, dynamic, biodiverse ecosystem of learning and development in its place. Peter Senge offers a way forward for the courageous leader: “The essence of the role will be the [leader] as researcher and designer. What does she or he research? Understanding the organization as a system and understanding the internal and external forces driving change. What does she or he design? The learning processes whereby managers throughout the organization come to understand these trends and forces.” Are we ready to make this future compelling?
(originally published July 19, 2021, at the NGLC website: https://www.nextgenlearning.org/articles/alternatives-to-failed-school-and-district-bureaucracy)
“…there was a realization that freedom is not for the faint of heart. It is something one has to live into moment by moment, more akin to spiritual practice than the power struggles central to social movements, more focused on our internal relationship to power than the external ones, which are reflections.”
–Cyndi Suarez, from The Power Manual
“Let’s make the future compelling.”
–adrienne maree brown, in Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds
Around North America I hear the voices of school leaders, teachers, superintendents, students, and families talking about all that we have learned during this long pandemic year, what we have learned from this “blameless disruption” of the way school is supposed to be. I hear how the pandemic forced into stark relief the inequities of our current educational system as well as its longstanding failure to create compelling, meaningful, engaging, and deep learning experiences for each and every student. When these issues were exaggerated by the challenges of distance and virtual learning, they resulted in many students disappearing. Yet at the same time, in contrast, I hear how powerful learning continued in schools and districts that had already made great strides in building strong and trusting relationships and a deep culture of collaborative adult and student learning, even with the immense challenges of pivoting overnight into distance learning, the challenges to continue to provide meals, computers and internet access, health care, emotional support and counseling, and even housing for our most vulnerable populations. We have been given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn what efforts to amplify, what to discard, and what to create going forward.
This has been a great experiment. The list of what we have learned is long and varied. Teachers and students across the country have raised their voices, sharing what could be different. It seems that there is a wave of innovation and optimism sweeping through our public education system that finally we might achieve the transformation we so need.
However, it also seems that this newfound freedom “is not for the faint of heart.” Even as we reflect on what might be different after this pandemic, I see these same school people, students, and families throwing up their hands and shaking their heads in consternation and dismay, as, one piece at a time, the old ways reassert themselves in lockstep. Irresistible forces are seemingly conspiring to return our schools as fast as possible to a past that we know did not work. State standardized tests, regulations about seat time and instructional minutes, teacher contact hours and student:teacher ratios in union contracts, school board policies and unexamined assumptions about teaching and learning, worries about “learning loss,” mandates and compliance procedures, funding streams and regulations, district silos and initiatives with competing priorities and evaluation criteria, school schedules, bus schedules, graduation requirements for numbers and types of course completions, grading policies…. The list goes on and on. It is a tangled web of interacting systems that has withstood decades of efforts at reform. Even with all we’ve learned, these systems are stubbornly reasserting themselves so that a lot of supposed reinvention is actually just recreating the status quo. It is the frenetic energy and inertia of a system designed not to change.
The critiques of this system are not new. They go back generations. Two competing aphorisms about our system are often tossed off rather glibly, without digging deeper into what they might actually mean or require for things to be different:
My take is that both these aphorisms are accurate, and we need to explore why in order to find a way to overcome this status quo.
In a 2013 article1, my colleague Jal Mehta wrote, “The root problem is that the educational sector as a whole is organized around a core system that functions as a bureaucracy rather than as a profession; we are trying to solve a problem that requires professional skill and expertise by using bureaucratic levers of requirements and regulations.”
Below, I will discuss why it is that functioning as a bureaucracy rather than a profession is a problem that results in both of the aphorisms being accurate. I show that the overarching culture, structures, routines, and underlying beliefs and assumptions of the educational bureaucracy don’t—and can’t—support addressing the many challenges we face to transform schools to make it possible for each and every young person and adult to experience equitable access to deeper learning. Mehta mentions variability in teacher skills, failure to scale good practice, lack of infrastructure supporting practice improvement, distrustful and unproductive relations between policy makers and practitioners…. this list also goes on and on.
I will discuss the ways that districts have become balkanized through “the geological residue of generations of other people’s ideas about what schools need to do” (Richard Elmore, unpublished, undated chapter). Elmore calls these layers, “serial, incoherent, and persistent,” and shows how they create the incoherence across compartments that is the most serious obstacle to large-scale improvement. I will discuss how the hierarchical model and this balkanization are at the base of the problems Mehta names as well as the reason for the frenetic energy and inertia of a system designed not to change that I described above.
While the machine bureaucracy is excellent at getting quality cars manufactured, the professional bureaucracy is actually not very good at getting anything done.
Why is this the case? Max Weber wrote succinctly about the design of the bureaucracy in the late 19th century: “Bureaucracy develops the more perfectly, the more it is ‘dehumanized,’ the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from business love, hatred, and all purely personal, irrational, and emotional elements which escape calculation.”2 The goal was to remove any possibility for human error, individual abuse of power, or impulsivity in decision-making (an Enlightenment reaction to the abuses of power by kings and priests), as well as to create human systems that could be based on the aggregation of individual human knowledge, and withstand the buffeting of social or political winds. To Weber, the bureaucracy was the perfect organizational analogue for what he referred to as “the iron cage of modernity” that “traps individuals in systems based purely on teleological efficiency, rational calculation and control.”3 The modernist ideal was that all social orders, hence organizations, could be based on our capacity to “measure, predict, and control” anything of worth.
The sad irony here is that, while the machine bureaucracy is excellent at getting quality cars manufactured, the professional bureaucracy, attempting to emulate the machine bureaucracy, is actually not very good at getting anything done in the more complex realm of human development. The reason is that the various subsystems in the educational bureaucracy are disconnected from each other in the way the larger system operates, which Weick4 and Glassman5 refer to as “loose coupling.” So there is a technically rational superstructure, and then all kinds of random activity, for good or bad, going on underneath it, with no one monitoring it. The only thing the professional bureaucracy of K-12 education is good at, then, is maintaining the inequitable and mediocre quality of education it was originally designed to produce.
But this critique, however shocking, is still insufficient for our understanding of the two aphorisms or how we might transform this system into one that enacts what we are now learning about equity work and deeper learning. There are several additional perspectives that might help.
In their new book, Street Data: A next generation model for equity, pedagogy, and school transformation, Shane Safir and Jamila Dugan cite the work of Stuart Hall as he compares Western (British) approaches to knowledge with our views in education of what is important to “measure, predict, and control.” Hall (cited in Safir and Dugan) compares the Western views of society that emphasize classifying societies into categories with K-12’s current need to create subgroups in our educational data systems, the desire to “condense complex images of other societies through a system of representation” with our school data dashboards, to “provide a standard model of comparison” with valid and reliable assessments that allow us to compare the performance of subgroups from year to year, and to “provide criteria of evaluation against which other societies can be ranked” with our state and federal educational standards. All these Western views of society, social order, and comparable processes in our educational system can be considered as forms of “scientific colonialism,” Safir and Dugan state, citing the work of Serie McDougal III. And while there have been counter-movements that offered different visions of pedagogy, such as Dewey’s pragmatism, constructivism, and reflective practice, those have struggled against a system designed not to embrace them as mainstream practice.
Importantly, the Western (British) worldview instills a hierarchy as it classifies other cultures and other people, with the British social order and bureaucracy at the top, as the supreme standard against which all other cultures would be measured. This is straight up White supremacy culture, and it too is enshrined in K-12’s social order, scientific order, measurement order, order of the learning environment, and the bureaucratic organizational order. Everything we do as a part of that social and bureaucratic order is designed to reproduce that dominant Western narrative and its hierarchies: the way we design learning, how we assess it, and how we structure the systems that support it.
Thus we are enmeshed in both a technical/bureaucratic worldview, and a racist worldview that is the product of Western White supremacy culture. It is technical in that, in trying to mimic a machine bureaucracy, it acts as if all challenges are technical problems to be solved, and learning as well as the overall organization of school is like an assembly line for cars. It is linear, sequential, orderly, controlled, with the goal of high quality students with no defects through using quality control measures such as tracking and standardized tests. This “quality” of system products requires the kind of system stability that Bateson referred to as “continuous non-progressive change.”6 This stability relates to the aphorisms I started with, since it both reproduces what it was designed to do and continues to be unable to change so as to produce equitable deeper learning. System stability also accounts for the energy that the K-12 system is currently applying to return as quickly as possible to that old status quo. Both of these, the technical and the racist worldviews, are deeply embedded in the educational bureaucracy, and we are so deeply embedded in the educational bureaucracy ourselves that we almost cannot imagine any other organizational design. It is “the water we swim in.” No wonder we are challenged to overcome this inequitable and mediocre status quo.
A few years back I was working in a Linked Learning College and Career Pathways office in an urban school district that had decided that all its high schools would develop wall-to-wall career-themed pathways. We had created a team of Pathway Coaches who were site-embedded to support the multi-year transition, especially in the larger comprehensive high schools. Several schools already had small career themed academies, but those did not operate in a collaborative way toward a school-wide approach. In some cases they did not represent the diversity of the school or community and they were not particularly equitable. Let’s consider one case, an Environmental Sciences Academy that had been active for about twenty years. The academy had a few Career Tech Ed (CTE) courses that were not well designed or sequenced, there were several courses that had been used as gatekeepers to push out lower performing students, and the core academic science courses were not well aligned with the overall environmental sciences theme of the pathway or the new Next Gen Science Standards (NGSS). The academy’s teacher team, representing core content subject areas and CTE and including several newer recruits, wanted to redesign it to be more equitable and with a more coherent and accessible environmental sciences program of study. They just weren’t quite sure how.
The Pathway Coach could work with them on overall pathway design and improving their team functioning, but she did not have science expertise to help with the CTE sequence or the core academic program. The Linked Learning Office had a CTE Specialist who could help with the requirements for an effective CTE sequence in environmental sciences, but not the broader program of study, which would require aligning the core science courses with the CTE courses. There was, however, a science specialist in the district’s Teaching and Learning Office who had taught in another science-related academy at another school and knew the NGSS really well.
But here is the catch: The Director of Teaching and Learning did not allow the curriculum specialists in their office to work directly at school sites, feeling this was an inefficient use of their expertise. The previous Director of the Linked Learning Office had tried for several years to coordinate with the Teaching and Learning Office, to no avail. This is not uncommon: I have experienced a number of districts where Teaching and Learning, or Curriculum and Instruction, does not communicate with the high school reform office or the office overseeing principal supervision and evaluation. Often there are turf battles, or long-standing personality conflicts, or just conflicting priorities or mandates. These silos across which there is restricted or non-existent communication or coordination represent the challenge of incoherence in the education bureaucracy that Richard Elmore describes, that I cite above.
The teacher team in the Environmental Sciences Pathway was itching to go, and I knew that taking on this project to redesign their program of study would also be a great way to help them become a higher functioning team. This was a just-in-time opportunity. If they worked with the Pathway Coach, the Linked Learning CTE Specialist, and the Science Specialist at the same time, they could put it all together. I decided to go ahead and get them all working together. Over the course of several months, they redesigned the program of study, the CTE sequence, and the core science courses. And in the process they also built a really positive adult collaborative team culture.
But when the new Director of Linked Learning and the Director of Teaching and Learning found out what we had been doing, they strongly reprimanded me and the Science Specialist for going outside the authority of our positions and violating their different offices’ policies. (In fact, they said, their different offices’ leaders had been meeting for several years to work out how they might align their efforts more, and it was my responsibility to wait until they had ironed out these alignment details before doing anything like what we did.)
This story is a perfect example of the challenges of creating coherence, equity, and powerful learning settings in our existing school district bureaucracies and hierarchies. And yet, embedded in the story is also the kernel of a way forward. In this case, the “new system” we created was really only a small matrix across existing silos and hierarchies, and it only temporarily created a kind of coherence, but we could imagine it being more emergent, dynamic, and sustained over time. If we can (1) recognize when a situation is ripe for change, when the people are passionate about the work and ready to learn how to do it, (2) provide the appropriate support and needed expertise, (3) create the organizational and process containers and resources for innovative practice to emerge, and (4) get existing organizational structures and protocols that would hinder that innovation out of the way, then it is entirely possible for great new work to happen. The possibilities that I describe next push the envelope on rethinking organizational systems for doing just that.
For years, organizational theorists have decried our over-dependence on mechanistic, Newtonian metaphors for our organizational designs (and they are metaphors; the traditional organization chart really only exists in our minds as a mental construct and a set of habits, and often has very little to do with how the organization actually functions). These metaphors lie at the heart of the problems I described above.
While there are some problems for which technical solutions are appropriate, the organizational design of the machine bureaucracy treats students as products to be measured, predicted, and controlled, operates with a traditional command and control mentality, and replicates Western hierarchies of value and worth. Some aspects of our current educational system do go beyond seeing students as products to operate as if students were passive clients, to be given treatments, a system that relies on professional skill and expertise more than unskilled assembly line workers. These aspects operate toward a practical vision of student success, and measure student learning outcomes that way; however, this is still far from where we need to be. In the place of these organizational designs, metaphors, and purposes, the K-12 educational systems could look to an organizational design that is purpose seeking, a transformational space. Why is that?
Mehta and Fine found that true, deep learning operates dynamically at the intersection of student mastery of meaningful content, the recognition and development of student identity, and involving students in the creation of knowledge rather than the passive reception of information. Fullan, Quinn, and McEachen added, “a strong sense of identity around a purpose or passion; creativity and mastery in relation to a valued pursuit; and connectedness with the world and others”7 to the intersection where deep learning operates. This kind of dynamic and ever-deepening inquiry into learning (by students, by teachers) requires an emancipatory organizational design.
An emancipatory organizational design is a series of fractals (that is, symmetrical forms at all levels) of what we want to see in the learning environment. Elmore believed that unless everything in the educational system surrounding the learning environment was coherently and symmetrically focused on supporting deep learning, then it would not happen. In the work we are doing in the Deeper Learning Dozen, we add that unless everything in the system focuses on a sustained and deepening inquiry—purpose seeking—into how to make that kind of learning happen for each and every young person and adult, it will not happen equitably. Thus the emancipatory organizational design provides a symmetry of experience—equitable deeper learning—structured within and across the entire educational system.
What might be the characteristics of an emancipatory organizational design that symmetrically supports equitable deeper learning? Here I suggest some key characteristics. In an upcoming post, I will elaborate on these characteristics and share some examples, taking off from the many other possible metaphors that various organizational theorists have proposed.
These key characteristics for an alternative organization, and the freedom it might allow, are not a territory for the faint of heart. It will take great leadership courage to create and sustain such an organizational territory. And none of this can be imagined if those of us who work in educational bureaucracies (teachers, principals, district office staff, superintendents, school boards), state policy makers, supporting external organizations, and even students and families, can’t get the metaphor of the machine bureaucracy and the command and control hierarchy out of our minds. When we do, we can imagine a more humane, equitable, dynamic, biodiverse ecosystem of learning and development in its place. Peter Senge offers a way forward for the courageous leader: “The essence of the role will be the [leader] as researcher and designer. What does she or he research? Understanding the organization as a system and understanding the internal and external forces driving change. What does she or he design? The learning processes whereby managers throughout the organization come to understand these trends and forces.”9 Are we ready to be the researchers and designers who can make this future compelling?
1 Mehta, Jal. (2013, September). “From Bureaucracy to Profession: Remaking the Educational Sector for the Twenty-First Century.” Harvard Educational Review 83 (3): 463–488. doi:10.17763/haer.83.3.kr08797621362v05.
2 Weber, Max. (1921/1968). Economy and Society. (G. Roth, C. Wittich, Eds., G. Roth, & C. Wittich, Trans.) New York: Bedminster Press.
3 Weber, Max. (1994). Weber: Political Writings (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought). Peter Lassman, Ed. Trans. Ronald Speirs. Cambridge UP.
4 Weick, Karl E. (1979). The Social Psychology of Organizing, Second Edition. McGraw-Hill. ISBN: 978-0075548089.
5 Glassman, Robert B. (1973, March). Persistence and loose coupling in living systems. https://doi.org/10.1002/bs.3830180202.
6 Bateson, G. (1972: p.125). Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. San Francisco: Chandler Pub.
7 Fullan, Michael; Quinn, Joanne & McEachen, Joanne. (2018: p.5) Deep learning: engage the world, change the world. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin, a SAGE Company.
8 Safir, Shane & Dugan, Jamila. (2021). Street Data: A next generation model for equity, pedagogy, and school transformation. Corwin, a SAGE Company.
9 Senge, Peter (1990: p.299) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Doubleday/Currency.
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!