Friday, February 03, 2012

barriers to dialogue

Recently, a colleague asked why our school district leadership didn't seem to read or care about the discussion in our online "Technology Forum." This is a place for various Q&A about technology, but is has also played host to critique and challenges about how our district supports innovation and teacher-led designs for learning though technology. Over the last few years we've seen a number of local structures disappear that once enabled thorough mixing and discussion between senior district leadership, principals, vice-principals, teachers, tech support, and others.  More recently, we've seen a spate of teacher (and even principal) initiated "21st century" pilot projects rejected by our board office without much in the way of rationale.  The Technology forum has archived the grumbling about this, but the issue of missing dialogue is more systemic than this single online forum or last year's iPad proposals.

Although the reason for the perceived lack of interest may simply be the limited hours in the day, I think at a deeper level it is the result of one or more organizational barriers to dialogue.  

Here are some theories as to why our district discussion/decision structures have disappeared and also why we are not seeing much of a readership or response to teacher concerns over the last few years... I'm really not sure which one fits the best, it is probably some combination of these:

1. Management paradigm --  a shift towards a more mechanistic or hierarchical management structure in the district, less open or organic... consultation with employees in this context is seen as a potential liability as it can expose contradictions in the organization, directions that can't be afforded or justified, lack of documentation, etc.

2. Political -- in the current labour climate, management needs a single-minded focus on its objectives in order to implement Ministry of Education agendas; i.e., paying attention to employee concerns opens the door to opposing viewpoints on the BCEd plan or a criticism of the BCPSEA mandate to assert more management rights.

3. Loss of capacity -- a period of downsizing has resulted in too few district staff with too many tasks to complete; this means that management does not have time to address concerns, regardless of how important they are to employees... the result is a reduced ability to read, understand, meet, listen, discuss, plan, and act.

4. Tactical -- stay quiet, redirect, postpone, or feign confusion and sometimes the problem goes away; this is a successful and proven way to avoid conflict and is sometimes recommended when the nature of the problem is deemed to be temporal; it doesn't address the concerns but it can show how the topic of concern ranks as a management priority... it can also be a form of courtesy to avoid an argument that stakeholders are loath to begin.

5. Imposter syndrome -- it may be that teachers feel they are not qualified to take on management processes or district-wide planning mechanisms, while at the same time management may not feel qualified to take on educators with passionate and practiced understanding of a pedagogy or technology; the modern classroom and board office represent unfamiliar ground to each party, and the result is a general reluctance to engage in discourse for fear of exposing knowledge gaps or doubt about needs in context.

6. Philosophic -- simple disagreement over organizational theory (e.g. pedagogy as it relates to technology); when the ideas commonly expressed by employees are not shared by management, a back-and-forth discourse (especially by email or social media, and doubly so during job action) might only further the distance between parties... the work of securing an inclusive and productive medium for discourse is seen as arduous, let alone establishing a milieu in which philosophic differences are celebrated and accommodated.

7. Techno-burnout -- Discussing wikis, blogs and blended learning, the transformative nature of interactive technology, the power of user-built content, etc. was all the rage 8 years ago in our district; we had workshops and teams and coordinators all dutifully spreading the message about what tech could do and how to get started... it is possible that the message caught on, we are generally wiser about what works and what doesn't, and we no longer have a sense of urgency around new technology or district structures that promote uptake of innovative ideas; we've entered an era of laissez-faire education (the "right" technology, pedagogy, and organizational model will present itself to us because the educational world is so connected and fundamentally innovative).

8. System in flux -- the educational models that come and go in our system each brings new and sometimes contradictory approaches to leadership and management (or are sometimes applied with difficulty as organizational rather than educational models): DDDM gave support to coordinated action research, Constructivism suggested system growth requires mediation, PLCs implied more collaboration was necessary in the organization, AFL required better use of descriptive feedback (even from the employer), Inquiry-based learning elevated the incongruent question, 21stCL nurtures grass-roots innovation, and so on... our district may be caught in a loop-error on system change, unable to figure out the best way to involve employees in decision-making without compromising other aspects of the current model(s).

There are other plausible explanations but I think these ones are relatively uncontentious, safe to discuss, and presently observable in our education system and school district.  I would argue that if we want employees and management, each one of them professionals and educators in some sense, to be working on the same basic journey towards the total growth of children in a public education system, we would give some primacy to sorting this out.  This starts with some self-awareness about the organizational barriers to dialogue, thus I have shared my thoughts for others to consider.  As always, comments welcome.

No comments: