Chaos, complexity, and emergence in strategic school design

Recently, I posted a model for understanding school design literature that posited three categories of school literature–theoretical, strategic, and technical. In this post I consider an example from the strategic school design literature by my advisor and mentor, Dr. James H. Lytle.

Dr. Lytle (1998) shared  a conference presentation based on his experience as a school leader in which he details the centrality of strategic leadership and explains a key component of strategic school design–emergence.

Cook (2004), as I discussed in a previous post, distinguishes between a managerial, prescriptive approach to planning that is “comprehensive” and a “strategic,” approach that allows for emergence. The author explains that management, which is concerned with the maintenance of the status quo, is generally in opposition to strategy which is about creating a different reality. Cook writes:

Here is the difference. Management is about compliance; strategy is about creation. Management is about rationalistic science; strategy requires intuitive imagination. Management is about probability; strategy is about possibility. Management is about preserving the existing order; strategy is about destroying existing structures to generate new formations. Management is about implementation; strategy is about creating capacity for constant emergence…However, planning can be considered strategic only if it sees a new reality and does whatever it can to push the existing system toward that reality or to begin working outside the existing system. (p. 73)

A strategic plan imagines an alternate reality and sets out a design for creating it and a strategic design creates “the capacity for constant emergence.” This orientation towards emergence is opposed to an orientation towards a prescriptive bureaucracy or ideology. Theories of design, with all of their prescriptions, can be applied strategically, but it is not strategic to unilaterally impose a pre-established design template on a school and call it “designed”—strategic design adapts and changes over time.

As Lytle explains, at the large city high school he took over, the bureaucratic structures of the traditional design of the school and the traditional hierarchical governance structure were not effective in accomplishing school purposes. Lytle reorganized the school to empower the teachers and students to engage in design–to find and solve challenges for themselves. Lytle writes about the results of the design process:

Recognizing that linear planning was not workable in this setting; Instead, proceeding on many fronts at once, trusting that the sum of our efforts would be a more livable and effective school…Much of the transition has been accomplished through trusting that self-organization would occur and would generally lead in positive directions…positive feedback leads to increasing returns. Controls are being learned from the bottom up… (p. 3).

By emphasizing emergence and empowering the members of the community to take initiative and control in the process of design, Lytle models a strategic approach, one based in emergence and chaos theory, which can be employed by designers. In this case, Lytle demonstrates how emergence can drive planning of means and resources, determine the design of implementation, and allow for members self-monitor to improve their own work over time.


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