School leadership and organizational structure – Systems thinking and heterarchical governance

I’ve been tweeting with someone at @edReformer who recently wrote:

You wld think that with all the knowledge in classrooms, and the intelligence, teachers would be given more say in how to teach. U wld think

This put me in mind of Systems Thinking theorist Russell Ackoff’s explanation of the difference in functionality (and effectiveness) between hierarchical and heteroarchical governance. Systems Thinking, Ackoff and colleagues explain (Ackoff, Addison, and Carey, 2010), “…looks at relationships (rather than unrelated objects), connectedness, process (rather than structure), the whole (rather than just its parts), the patterns (rather than the contents) of a system, and context” (p. 6).

The authors then explain that “no-one is directing this system of connections and interconnections…political and organizational leaders are probably less in control of things than they imagine. Things self-organize. What happens next in any system is an emergent property of everything that has gone before.”

By definition, according Ackoff, hierarchical control is ineffective in some fundamental ways and it is vulnerable to attack and to change. What are the implications of this for organizational design? Ackoff points to heterarchical networks, which are “much more resilient; instructions can get through via multiple channels’ they are based on goodwill rather than fear’ they set out to foster creativity; and so on.”

Hierarchy is not the only way to get things done. At the REAL School, we believe that emergent leadership should actively be cultivated at all levels of the organization. Teachers, students, and parents collaborate together in creating the design of the school. It’s not that there aren’t decision-making structures, there have to be for things to get done.

We have designed a committee structure by which representatives from the various constituencies of the school are responsible for governance and decision-making. Furthermore, members of the community, including students, families, and teachers, are voting members of the organization–they elect board members and vote on major changes to the by-laws and school program.

We also believe in rules and norms to guide and limit the rights and behaviors of community members. The difference for us is the assumption of trust. Ackoff et al write, “Cooperative systems dispense with the stick, checks and controls and rely on trust…So it’s the feedback loops and the interconnected structure itself that make the system work in this interconnected way of thinking” (p. 16).

Finally, we recognize, as Ackoff et al emphasize, that all organizations grow, change, grow old, and eventually die (or at least transform). We must be aware of the changing needs of the world around us and we must grow and adapt to both the current needs of the students and communities we are invested in, and we must be aware of how the world is changing ahead of us. This requires learning from the bottom and constantly sensing the periphery.

This kind of sensing requires the construction of effective feedback loops and purposeful ways for different elements of the organization to learn from each other. In our case, we begin by engaging all members of the community in collaborative inquiry into our own practices. In this work, teachers are perhaps the most powerful sensing instrument. Teachers must be agents of change. You would think, as @edreformer laments,they would be involved in designing learning.

Systems thinking requires recognizing when we have become outmoded and adapting or ceding the work to a more capable organization. Changing times require changing systems. We advocate for a wide array of purposeful learning systems serving a wide array of needs (see “what is school design“).


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