Process Post: Knowing Ourselves, Using Our Whole Brains, and Eating Wisely

For those attuned to educational discussions, I am stating the obvious to say that schools face a multitude of change factors and a high degree of transformational influence. Perhaps because of a hard-to-recipe blend of world and environmental change, traditions and habits of schooling, and a unique situation of “client-empathy delay” (parents understandably have a movie in their minds about what “school” is), many schools face at least three fundamental issues:

  1. Organizational confusion
  2. Operational inertia
  3. Opportunity overload

[With all the alphabet soup out there, I am tempted to call these the 3 O’s! If I imagine those three O’s as intersecting fields of a Venn diagram, a school can really feel in a hole as it wrestles and struggles with all three issues simultaneously.]

To maximize future potential, I believe schools can do a better job of focusing on three inter-related and continuously evolving processes:

  1. Know who you are and who you want to become. I would be very skeptical of the builder who gathered materials and began constructing without blueprints, engineering specs, and even scale models. Yet, as a school leader, I often behaved this way. “Let’s adopt more formative assessment.” “We should be using more PBL.” “Let’s switch computer platforms.” While there is nothing wrong with those sub-decisions, they are better made in a system of wholeness and self-knowledge.
    Inspired by designer Nicholas Felton, Todd Silverstein, who has started Vizify, describes a zooming out so that one can see more of the whole system. Recently, he told Fast Company, “They’re starting with the parts, and we’re starting with the whole and illustrating parts where it makes sense.” (Kessler, “Vizify Turns Your Social Network Into an Infographic about Your Life“) Regardless of your views on social media, there is much wisdom in this quote about understanding the whole in order to make the best decisions about the parts.
    Do schools know who they are and who they want to become? Are they innovating the dusty practices of strategic planning to be more nimble and flexible in an ever-quickening change environment? Are schools developing processes for studying themselves in real-time – looking in the mirror every morning to comb their hair and making sure their socks match – so that they are organizationally coherent?
    As intra-school practitioners develop a widening gap of proficiencies and skills, and as we innovate in loosely defined sub-tribes of a school, schools are experiencing the “school-within-a-school” effect. Two children can have drastically different school experiences based on the roster of teachers they are assigned. Of course, a certain spectrum of variation is healthy, but many schools are finding it harder and harder to describe who they are and to show a full set of blueprints for who they want to become. Schools can become schizophrenic and suffer from organizational (identity) confusion. And there are so many constituencies with whom to communicate about school identity – students, faculty, parents, alumni, board members, etc. Thoughtful and well-adapted communications schema are a must – internally, as well as externally. We need to start by knowing who we are and who we want to become. And we need to be intentional about our parts development, based on a well-designed and articulated whole.
  2. Use your whole brain. On July 18, I posted “Orchestrating Conflict, Developing Experiments…and Carving Butter: Adaptive Leadership #PBL Ponderings” and an idea for using Rite-Solution’s “Mutual Fun” to create a similar idea-development exchange among faculty at a school. I first read about Rite-Solution’s “Mutual Fun” in Michael Michalko’s Creative Thinkering. At the end of last week, a colleague at Unboundary circulated “The Social Side of Strategy” by Arne Gast and Michele Zanini, and this great piece also highlights Rite-Solution’s “Mutual Fun.” Thanks to this article, I found “Nobody’s as Smart as Everybody—Unleashing Individual Brilliance and Aligning Collective Genius” by Jim Lavoie at Rite-Solutions, which gives a very detailed description of the company philosophy and practice of “Mutual Fun,” complete with screenshots of the traders’ portfolio windows. My “Idea #1” on the July 18 post is just a concrete way of thinking about how to empower the greatest single resource of any school – it’s faculty. I am not wed to the specifics of “Mutual Fun” (although I LOVE the framework), but I am wed to empowering the mainstay of a school – the faculty. In my tenure as principal, I utilized PLCs to accomplish such an end, and I am a strong advocate for the PLC ethos and structure. However, I mostly want to advocate for any system that empowers teachers to co-pilot the school, and for one that tears down walls between admin and faculty, faculty and faculty, parents and faculty, etc. I am particularly interested in tearing down walls among faculty and administrators.
    Often times, administrators and faculty can feel misaligned, and many schools suffer from an “us-them” among admin and teachers. Industrial-age, top-down hierarchies still dominate many school organizational charts. At Rite-Solutions, the company leaders became “social architects” in such a way that they could harness the whole brain of the organization and move more nimbly in a united team of employees. If schools really believe in their faculty, then we should give the faculty more ownership of the system. “Mutual Fun” is but one way to do so. But I can imagine a faculty that develops learning opportunities through a system like “Mutual Fun” instead of having to go through a more rigid hierarchy of course submission and approval with a disconnected admin review board or central office. I can imagine a school that moves with the flow of its faculty – a faculty who feels full ownership in the purposeful directioning of the school…a faculty who chooses to have its rafts in the same river all paddling in the same directions.
  3. Only put on your plate what you can eat. Initiative overload is a common ailment among schools. At conferences around the country, speakers develop immediate empathy from their audiences by commiserating about the number of initiatives being undertaken by a school. Much of the tribal-ness seems to come from unifying against a common enemy – the “dreaded administration” that heaps on the top-down initiative buffet. But what if we used our whole brain and developed a more social-architecture approach to fulfilling the unified, co-authored visioning of a school? Then, the faculty and administration – as a coherent team – might be better able to control the portion size and number of items on the organizational plate. Communication would improve as we all became better versed in the coherent identity of the school. With greater communication, mutual understanding, and collective, distributed decision making, a school family could define better the domains in which it is going to operate and the areas that it will leave to other school families who know that they are different, serving an equally well-articulated niche of the educational spectrum. We cannot be all things to all people, and schools could niche diverse areas of expertise if we knew better who we are, how we influence and own the whole, and control the portion sizes on our responsibility plates.

[Well, I’ve run out of time on this process post.]

I would love to know your thoughts, responses, reactions, and questions. I hope you’ll share what you’re thinking. If you have a related piece of writing or recommended reading, please add to the comments. Together, we could figure this out!

2 thoughts on “Process Post: Knowing Ourselves, Using Our Whole Brains, and Eating Wisely

  1. Pingback: A piece of “how”: flatten schools? « It's About Learning

  2. Bo,

    Copy at least points 1 and 3 (if not just the how thing) into a bucket called How To Innovate. As I have been writing book sections about innovation I have found three levels of voice that I think are needed: “Theory”, “how does this apply to schools”, and “stories”. I think these are perfect for the “how does this apply to schools voice”. I have been burning away at the “theory” part which tends to be dry; and will get tons of stories from the road trip. It is this middle part which I think you have such a great grasp of…and that I have been grasping at!

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