Exploring the Removal of Silos in Education

It is bewildering that education systems still exist within a structure created for a paradigm that has long outlived its ‘due by date’. Educators continue to refine the creative art of teaching, but at the end of the day are constrained by the same claustrophobic structures borne out of a manufacturing mindset.

Silo

One of the many structures that ought to be defunct by now, is the self-perpetuating silo; self-perpetuating because a silo usually exists for its own benefit or to benefit those who control it. A hierarchical structure is reinforced by its leaders employing people to fill roles below them, thus fortifying a ‘top-down’ mindset. This is why in an Organic Learning Community, we always look to employ people who are more talented than us, with the capacity to become far more capable than anyone in our leadership team, and hence continue to improve on what we have created.

For a long time now, the idea of removing silos in education has become a personal provocation. I have no definitive answer, only a possible consideration (for those in a position of influence) to explore.

One of the tensions I see in silos generally is that a department or directorate consists of experts in the same field. This is compounded in education systems as nearly everyone is a teacher. All education systems would have in operation a Curriculum Directorate or Teaching & Learning Directorate, with multiple sub-groups made up of experts, such as primary and secondary teachers and/or leaders. There would also be particular experts in specialist areas that go across K-12, such as Special Needs, Curriculum Subjects, EAL/D (English as Another Language or Dialect), Student Welfare, Innovation, eLearning, Gifted Education, and so on. For the most part, each of these sub-groups would operate within their own area, with minimal communication between groups, and nowhere near enough opportunities for collaboration. So we have the unfortunate situation where silos exist side by side, within a larger silo.

It is quite clear that our current structure of education is based on a factory or industrial paradigm, but as a collective, education is about growing learners, not manufacturing them. If we were to move away from our current structure, there are a growing number of alternatives we could consider. Many education systems are becoming more aligned to a corporate mindset, which brings its own set of hierarchical complexities. Personally, I have had enough of ‘top-down’, vertical structures. I see education as more of a natural, ongoing creative process, so maybe there is a benefit exploring industries with a totally different mindset.

A critical friend of Organic Learning, Tom Barrett, introduced us to the Valve Corporation a few years ago whilst we were exploring ‘flat leadership’ structures. Valve is a video game developer and digital distribution company in the United States. It is not the kind of company, one would think, could offer genuine insight for education, but when you read their Handbook for new employees, it is very explicit about their preferred structure to enhance creativity. They write: ‘Hierarchy is great for maintaining predictability and repeatability. It simplifies planning and makes it easier to control a large group of people from the top down, like the military. When you go out of your way to recruit the most intelligent, innovative, talented people on Earth, telling them to do what they’re told, obliterates 99 percent of their value. We want innovators, and that means maintaining an environment where they’ll flourish’ (page 4).

Does that not sound like an enticing introduction to a structure within which a creative education system, filled with intelligent, innovative and talented teachers, might possibly exist? Governments could definitely learn a thing or two from Valve. Can you imagine how the educational landscape would change if Government funding was based on measured growth in creativity, critical thinking, empathy, metacognition, depth and breadth of innovation, and capacity to collaboratively find and solve problems, across any area of learning? I can.

In Valve’s structures for work, instead of setting up silos of experts to work on projects, they take a different view. People are not told what work to do, they are expected to be constantly looking around for the ‘most valuable work they could be doing’ (page 9). At Valve, people are not employed to fill a specific job description, they are employed for the value they can bring to Valve.

Let us put this into the context of education. Imagine a Curriculum Directorate that is filled with multi-talented, cross-curricular experts; that is, people who are highly competent across a broad skillset and expert in a particular discipline. Instead of being allocated projects, they are encouraged to assign themselves to multi-disciplinary projects based on priority and their capacity to make critical contributions. Each project would be established with its own criteria, protocols and governance structure, thus taking the focus away from the people and placing it on the project. On any particular project (identified by need, Government funding or whatever), there could be contributors from primary, secondary, leaders, or teachers with significant experience in Special Needs, Student Welfare, eLearning and so on, or anyone who has ‘that something extra’ to offer a project. In fact, it does not need to be restricted to only educators, as long as contributors have the right skillset needed for the project. There would be an expectation for employees to put themselves forward (we call this initiative) for projects where they believed they could make a difference, to collaborate and create. Tenure within the project team would be fluid and once their contribution was no longer required, they would then move to another project.

dnaThe idea of multi-disciplinary project teams (or nests) formed organically, given free license to be self-determined with its own explicit governance structure, sounds like an enticing, creative way to operate. The internal structure of the team/nest would evolve naturally, based on who develops the required knowledge or as Valve puts it, ‘who can be used as a resource to check decisions against’ (page 16). Prevailing assumptions would need to be checked regularly and the intended and enacted plans would have to be tested and critiqued by ‘other’ colleagues, at predetermined intervals (this would be seen as a norm), via the project’s protocols and governance structure. Multi-disciplinary, self-determined project teams could become the DNA of education systems.

Whilst there are no hard and fast rules regarding the relevance of joining a project, Valve (page 9) recommends consideration be given to things like (altered for education): the most valuable thing I could be working on now; the project most critical to [our students and schools] and the possible depth of impact stemming from my input; availability of anything interesting or rewarding; projects that leverage my individual strengths the most; whether the [Directorate] is not doing something that it should be doing; and the point of difference I can bring to a project.

This thinking comes from a video game developer. They make games! We are teachers. We grow and nurture contemporary learners and leaders of the future!! We owe it to our students to do better.

I am certain if Government and Education systems worked synergistically and operated through a new lens, instead of our current paradigm, we could create ‘next practice’ structures and processes more aligned to contemporary learning, and be significantly more effective as educators.

3 thoughts on “Exploring the Removal of Silos in Education

  1. This is a really interesting post to make us think more deeply about what our role is as educators and, indeed, as leaders within educational systems. ‘Valve’ seem to have some great operating principles that would appear to build capacity rather than just merely house it. In my experience, I am finding that schools are working hard to lose the silo effect but this is all dependent upon leadership taking the courageous step of trusting staff to collectively and collaboratively work on common ground. However, more and more, it is the systems within which schools operate where the silo effect is becoming blatantly obvious. I will certainly be thinking a little more about Valve’s recommendations and how these can be considered in my work this year.
    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Steve.

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    1. Hey thanks for sharing your thoughts Toni. You’re right, schools (primary in particular) already employ lots of innovative practices, especially when principals ‘lead with’ rather than ‘from the top’. If education systems operated more like primary schools, things would be different, I am sure. The other tension lies in Government dictating the playing field through funding ie making us jump through unnecessary hoops. I believe this is limiting our capacity as a system to become truly innovative and operate as a Self-Determined Learning Community. Good luck in your new role this year. It’s a wonderful opportunity for you to step outside your comfort zone!

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