The Transition from Bureaucracy to Learning Organizations

Traditional American public schools are bureaucracies (Max Weber), the best are learning organizations (Peter Senge), and most are in a transitional form between the two. I believe that the structure of open source communities, like Drupal, can inform this transition.


Bureaucracy supports tightly-coupled systems: organizational hierarchy, proscribed duties, and strictly enforced disciplines are designed for efficiency and control of people doing work. Factories, governments, and armies must be like this, so that everything keeps working predictably as people are replaced.

As an element in a wider government bureaucracy, public school districts must conform to external pressures, sacrificing changes that support their educational mission.  Weber called this sacrifice of mission goals for system goals an "iron cage".  Anyone who has worked in, or with, a bureaucracy knows that cage.

We are constantly trying to "fix" our schools with bureaucratic solutions (more standards, more enforcement) and it never works.  One reason is that schools are not factories - they cannot be tightly coupled, because they deal with autonomous individuals in changing circumstances.

Learning Organizations

Learning organizations eschew bureaucracy for individual autonomy and self-organization. The Drupal community, an open source organization, is a current example I am familiar with. When many Europeans who planned to attend DrupalCon San Francisco last month were trapped by a volcano in their airports, they used Twitter to find each other and create mini-conferences, and used conference website tools to be active participants.

My bedtime book now is Christopher Alexander's The Timeless Way Of Building (a cross between the Tao Te Ching and Town Ordinances).  In Alexander's characterizations of "living" and "dead" buildings I see  similar contrast between bureaucracy and learning organizations.  Alexander writes of  "pattern languages" that inform the organic creation of builldings and communities by autonomous individuals.  Each barn adn home and field is different, adapted to its environment and the builder's will - and yet all are the same, and recognizable by their patterns.  

(Unfortunately, the term Alexander came up with for building informed by this process was "the quality without a name" - so it may have failed to enter popular discourse as well as it might have. "The Tao" was good enough for Lao Tze...)


Anyhow, this morning, my Google Alert for "open source education" revealed Marie Bjerede's post, Educational Technology Needs To Grow Like A Weed, in which she discusses the same mismatch between bureaucratic paradigms and the facts on the ground.  She paraphrases Alan Bain's description of "emergence"  in The Self-Organizing School.  Bain describes emergence the way Alexander does pattern language: autonomous individuals informed by formative rules and feedback loops create buildings, schools, and communities.  Gregory Bateson, in Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity, used the same language to describe how life forms evolve.

Bjerede paraphrases Bain: "As with the emergent behaviors of ant hills and flocks of birds, the simple rules drive elegant, complex system-level behaviors that adapt to changing circumstances."  So to describe the quality of a learning organization in contrast to a bureaucracy, instead of Alexander's "quality without a name", I now have "emergence."  That works - thank you, Alan Bain!

This same quality of "emergence" informs open source projects, and explainis how primed their members are to adapt to changing circumstances in informed, coordinated ways - armed with technologies that speed up evolution.

Over the past ten years or so, open source communities have been mastering the art of distributing collaboration and ownership of knowledge work, blending face-to-face and online work to stay in sync with rapid change.  The same tools those stranded European Drupalers used to support and reinforce principles of self-organization and coordinated collaboration are available to schools.


"Emergence" was what some of us thought we were heading back in the late 60s and early 70s as visionary radical educators created "free schools" and moved toward autonomous, community-based schools with totally leveled (="democratic") governance structures and organizations so flat that you couldn't see anything. Lots of charter schools come from the same "self-organizing, autonomous" impulse. I worry that I've heard this rhetoric, and all the hopes and dreams it embodies, before, only with less of the New Age-organization-ese that we have learned so well in recent years. Last time through the motive force was going to be the purity of our intentions; this time it's going to be technology. All things considered, I guess I will take technology, but perhaps only because the road to Ronald Reagan, G.W. Bush, and the Tea Party is arguably paved with all those pure intentions.

But I recommend a deep breath for anyone who thinks that autonomous, self-organizing learning communities infused with technology are just going to pop up and fix everything in American education. What the idealists of previous generations discovered is that even good intentions and self-evidently righteous ideas and ideals can clash, and so do the people who hold and promote them. It's harder to form these collectives than we'd like to think; even Open Source has its trolls, and viciousness is never far away on Wikipedia. A week of volcanic ash, like Three Days of Peace and Music and rain at Woodstock, does not an epoch make, much as we admire those who made the best of these challenges.

But I do want to believe, I do, I do.

Rhetoric and "Emergence-Watching"

Yes, this is rhetoric, I'm afriaid.  I wish it were anecdote (a personal report of interpretations of experience) or socially constructed knowledge (peer reviewed by a knowledge community with rules about well-formedness, validity, etc.). Not yet.

I don't imagine that anyone who has used online collaboration tools effectively would argue against their power to increase depth (and provide more data for emergence-watching). Can a culture of "emergence-watching" can be nurtured and shared enough to become, if not dominant, at least competitive with "who gets their idea blessed" or whatever other responses bureaucratic dynamics generate?

(I understand Vernor Vinge's latest book is about a group of monks who learn to recognize emergence and stand around waiting for it to happen so they can help it....I'm waiting for my best friend to finish it.)

Seeking an anecdote to ground this rhetoric, a school administrator could try "emergence-watching" and explore whether, in the course of responding to upwellings from others, he or she found conceptual value and practical power in noticing and selectivly reinforcing emergent patterns.

That proposition doesn't seem new-agey to me....but until I'm in the position to test it, rhetoric is all I have.

Maybe there will be an "Emergence in School Organizations" conference one day, and we can present papers...or maybe there will be a reality TV show called "Emergence Watch". :-)

RE: The Timeless Way of Building

Last night I read chapters 14-15 of "The Timeless Way of Building" by Christopher Alexander.  WOW. He clearly spells out what "patterns" are and how to recognize and define them.

Alexander's definition of a "pattern" includes the concept of supporting "the quality without a name" (e.g. LeCorboisier's design for skyscrapers surrounded by green meadows is a "structure" (you can follow it) but not a pattern (the green spaces do not meet human needs for territoriality and are unused).

Weber's "iron cage" description recognizes that bureaucratic structures lack this quality: they persist (like pyramids or skyscrapers) but they do not enliven members or evolve (they are not "learning organizations").

The above blog post posited that online communication and collaboration strongly support the transformation from bureaucracy to learning organization, and that the structure of learning organizations is emergent (rather than imposed).

If true, members of a school community who have taken on this transformation and use these tools should be able to recognize existing and emergent patterns the way Alexander finds them in buildings.

It will be harder to describe emergent patterns of learning organizations, because bureaucratic pattersn are so deeply a part of western culture, from the pyramids to skyscrapers.

The "structures" of bureacratic organization are familiar (e.g. "delegation presentation": the boss calls a meeting and tells the subordinates what to do,) but are not  "patterns"  (input from subordinates that might inform a better choice of individual and collective action is blocked; and then the plan fails to achieve goals, and the subordinates de-couple their sense of mission from their participation in the organization, etc. etc.).

The "structures" of small schools experiments at learning organizations are familiar, but may not be patterns either (endless meetings lead to unsustainable achievements and burnout). 

I imagine that if we look at what consistently works in collaborative learning classrooms, we'll find well-diagrammed patterns that can also be found in the conference rooms and chat rooms of learning organizations. 


So, following up on yesterday's comment, how do we move from "rhetoric" to "validation" of emergent patterns?  Alexander says:

  • A pattern is something you identify, validate, diagram, and name. .
  • A pattern includes a context (e.g. classroom), a system of forces in conflict (e.g. students with individual and social learning needs, a teacher needing to direct attention and activity to execute a lesson plan), and a resolving configuration (e.g. Think-Pair-Share: alternating presentation, discovery, and collaborative learning, and not all groups cover the same content).
  • Pattern discovery is hard because we look for parts within wholes, but patterns are holistic.
  • Pattern identification begins with observation of a postive experience ("that felt good - there's a pattern there"), a negative experience ("that felt bad - a pattern was broken") or analysis ("theoretically, this should be a pattern - let's set it up and feel for it").
  • Pattern validation (does this depends on making a distinction between rational thought (what we "think" should work) and intuitive feeling (what "feels right").

That's all I have time for today!




Going a step further

Very interesting discussion. Seems to me that in such a learning organization one potential outcome could be attempts to maximize the notion of "flow" as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

-Jim Lerman

How would "flow" relate?

Hi, Jim. 

Could you say more?  I remembered "flow" as a subjective state (one person).


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