There are so many structures and processes in schools today that directly connect us to the old ‘factory model’ of education. Even with the construction of new schools, the model is still pretty much the same. There are some innovative practices in flexible learning spaces and methodologies for individualising learning, but our schools are still fundamentally unchanged. Education will never change from the top because our current structures and processes lend itself to being easily managed, directed and controlled. This ensures compliance and the achievement of benchmarks and standards, set by external bodies. In short, a ‘top-down’, accountability driven paradigm exists for its own benefit.
It is hard to imagine education escaping this conundrum. Maybe it is time to view the educational world through a different lens. I believe we are approaching a ‘tipping point’, whereby many school leaders see themselves in a position to be able to exist within a new paradigm, they are just not sure what that actually looks like. The momentum for change is fast approaching. Unfortunately for most, the ‘fall back’ practice of leaders is still deeply rooted in autocratic accountability, particularly when it is in reaction to the extreme external accountability measures established by government and school systems.
Even so, the general attitude amongst many school leaders today is a preference to restrict the impact of unwanted external expectations. They want the focus to be on learning, not compliance, governance or external tests. I rarely hear school leaders boasting about the excitement of running their school with an iron fist, using a top-down autocratic style to achieve outstanding results in compliance, even though for some that may be an unintended outcome from dealing with and acting upon external pressures. Schools are human-centred, complex organisations in which educators work tirelessly to create critical and creative thinkers and learners. Existing within an autocratic accountability mindset seems out of alignment with our goal as educators to grow independent, self-determined learners.
Something needs to change – either teachers and school leaders or the system of accountability. If the current systems and processes imposed by external bodies continue as they are, I fear for the wellbeing of teachers and school leaders. For the most part, teachers and school leaders are passionate about what they do, so they just keep giving and changing in response to external demands. As the bar is raised, they do whatever they can to meet it, but you can only jump so high. It is either time to push back or time to create.
In our journey to become a Self-Determined Learning Community, we find ourselves moving away from ‘top-down’ structures and becoming more ‘organic‘. Maybe the education system could consider something similar. Through Organic Learning, our focus is on aligning spaces, tools and skills to make learning unambiguous. We aim to create a clear line of sight for all learners in the community (regardless of age) towards self-determined learning, which means having the capacity to determine what I need to learn (based on an identified need) and the capability and agency to go about learning it. Students, teachers and leaders are encouraged to value collaboration, risk-taking, learning from failure, critical and creative thinking, and taking full responsibility for learning. The language used is the same, the learning cycle and processes are the same, and the learning spaces are based on the same learning principles. This helps us to make learning and existing in our community less ambiguous, so that as learners mature they are able to become more self-determined. For teachers and leaders, this means spending less time on ‘box ticking’ processes like checking programs and performance reviews, because the expectations and processes are so refined, explicit and understood, it literally requires little to no monitoring, particularly if all processes are visible, tangible and critique-able.
Is there scope for our education system to reimagine itself as a Self-Determined Learning Community?
In our presentation ‘Becoming a Self-Determined Learning Community’, we use the image of the bird hierarchy to illustrate ‘top-down’ structures. It never fails to get a laugh from teachers, but it is true that in this hierarchical structure someone ends up on the bottom. In schools, that happens to be the teachers and in education systems, it is the school. We challenge people to name ‘Who’s who in your learning community?’ And if you are a leader, where do you sit? Where should you sit? In a Self-Determined Learning Community the leaders need to be as close to the bottom rung as possible.
There are some interesting ideas coming out of Holacracy, which favours a flat leadership structure. In his talk, Brian Robertson reflects on his own experience as a CEO of a company and he identifies that it was the fundamental structures and systems that got in the way of their achievement of intentions. And that embedded within these structures was power and the difficult-to-manage ‘social’ tensions that came with it.
What I find most interesting about Holacracy is the understanding that ‘order’ does not require a ‘boss’ to direct or maintain it. With the right set of explicit rules, processes and structures, we do not need a boss to tell us what and how to do something. It is a big shift in perspective e.g. instead of Delegated Authority, in Holacracy they talk about Distributed Authority, Transparency, and Autonomy. We need to explore and unpack Holacracy further from an educational perspective.
Rather than continuing to operate out of an Autocratic Compliance Mindset or constantly trying to change the skill set of school leaders and teachers, maybe we should be looking at how we might move towards a Holacratic Mindset in order to allow schools to achieve its real purpose, the development of self-determined learners.