Tuesday, February 15, 2011

mistaking networks for communities

A colleague of mine recently asked some questions about why certain topics that come up for staff discussion are relegated to "chat" forums or subcommittees and not looked at by the staff as a whole. She seemed concerned that we've missed an opportunity to take on the challenges of our school as a collective activity. The context for her questions is a year (or more) in which we've seen many teacher-guided processes in the school and district become the responsibility of administration. Some are relieved by the pattern (less work) but others see that they now have to deal with the aftermath of decisions they had no part in (or a reduced role).

I'm glad she asked this because I think she has tapped into three significant trends that are not confined to our school:

1. Mistaking networks and institutional structures for communities -- seen clearly when we try to solve individual and collective problems through email, digital forums, and social media. "Community thinking" is highly desirable as a context for teaching & learning, but runs into problems when it is applied to institutional structures. As teachers we have to be able to move between network and community frequently and it is neither easy nor a good fit with the overall change in society towards indirect communication and less privacy (but more personalized mediums and a much wider audience).

2. The difficulty of collaboration and shared leadership within institutional hierarchies. Although they may share the same general mission (e.g. service to student learning in the case of education), the goals of frontline workers (and their expectation of democracy and inclusion) are often not the same as the goals of management structures (for which democracy is a limitation on decision-making, and inclusion is strategic rather than pervasive), even if both of their goals are necessary to pursue. This basic (and perhaps inescapable) discrepancy is modeled at almost every layer of society from classrooms to the federal government.

3. Confusion of educational models with organizational models. Within education, this problem is partly due to the wholistic approach taken by many modern theorists. Not content to simply suggest better ways to approach teaching and learning, they also look (understandably) at institutional reform as part of their suggestions for transformation. The issues begin when the pedagogical changes are pursued by an organization but the organization is not capable of making the institutional change necessary for the theory to make sense. This confusion is also more prevalent in organizations (like ours) where management and frontline are so close in terms of background, workspace, and focus.

I would argue that these trends share common roots and have their own peculiar manifestations at our school, but I think we are not alone. I also think they share the same basic paradox in that "working together" is crucial for success (think universal health care, American Civil Rights, United Nations, Indian Independence Movement) but "working together" usually means significant compromise when it requires vertical alignment of goals (think waste in our medical system, Stalinism, League of Nations, India's Partition). I know these examples are beyond the scale of school workplace processes/folders/councils, and contain their own internal contradictions of the paradox, but they are all understandings of how rights and responsibilities are distributed across various societies. The issue of incongruent goals also informs this paradox. We've seen what can happen when governments deny rights and are not responsible to their citizens, but we would also not have a Charter of Rights in Canada without "management" cutting corners on democracy and inclusion. If we submit to the necessity of government, we have to expect some forfeiture of freedom. Our public education system is built on the basic notion that students must give up some freedom in order to receive the ministrations of society's decision-makers. The expectations placed on teachers are never completely clear (most, in fact, are self-imposed), and so we dwell in a dynamic spectrum of rights and responsibilities that are often in tension with the system in which we work, including the students. Personally, I don't mind the "spectrum" as it allows for individuation and the alternative seems very limiting and unimaginative.

The paradox takes on new dimensions when it is seen in our local context. Our school district has been affected by many trends in educational theory*, many of which I admire for different reasons on their own, but our schools have attempted a difficult project of combining many elements of these theories within existing hierarchical structures in order to put them into practice. While a "mashup" can be very creative, it can also result in confusion and lack of uptake. I think this flux compounds the three trends noted above and explains why they create added tension (creative or otherwise) in our workplace and are not simply part of the organizational issues that exist everywhere and throughout history. I think it is right, though, that individuals, schools, and districts experiment with educational and organizational theory, but I wish we put more thought and time into finding out the difference and realizing the limits of what teachers and students are able to assimilate given the other challenges of the classroom. I've come across some good professional resources, school organizational models, political paradoxes, and historical examples on these topics that I'll have to come back to as time allows.

* Many have been "tried" (found their way into school and district initiatives as evidenced by pro-d offerings, programs/policy, release funding, and travel expenditure). While they most often gained attention via our Curriculum & Instruction department, some were introduced from "above" (Ministry) or "below" (local educators). Others theories, like Mezirow's Transformative Learning or DeVries Constructivist Education, have simply been influential (e.g. from teacher training programs) but haven't been "sponsored." Of course, individual teachers have put a myriad of theories into practice, only some of which are/were even on the district's radar. Here's some of the theories that our district (and most secondary schools) have tried/are trying over the last 14 years; I'd be curious to know what other significant ones I've missed:

- Dimensions of Learning by David Brown and others (c.1995-2002 ?)
- Data-driven decision making or "D3M" (c.2000-2007 ?)
- Dufours' Professional Learning Communities (c.1998 ? -2009, less so after that)
- Assessment for Learning as put forward by Black and Wiliam (c.2004-2011)
- Inquiry model of the Network of Performance Based Schools (c.2006-2011)
- John Abbott's 21st Century Learning Initiative (c.2010-2011)