a simpler way

A-Simpler-WaySome thoughts on school improvement and self-organization from a simpler way by Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers, that I couldn’t figure out how to fit into my final Masters paper.


The world we work in, and into which our students will graduate, is very different from the one many of us were prepared for when we went to school. Mobile technologies, the internet, VoIP, video streaming, and all the other incredible affordances that we take for granted are changing the world forever, and should be changing the world of education. We currently live in what Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers call a “world of wild exploration … which tinkers itself into existence” (p.17), but many of us are not aware that we are living in this wild world; we use the technologies, but are blind to the new frontier they are creating. Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers make a number of observations about tinkering and self-organization that I think are very relevant to current technology integration efforts.

Tinkerers have skills, but no clear plans. They make do with the materials at hand.

This is often the position teachers who use technology are in. If they give up because there are not enough computers, or the internet is slow, or (insert excuse here) they will never use technology sustainably. Instead, they need to be willing to make do with what is available, and be prepared to figure things out as they go.

Analytic plans drive us only toward what we think we already know.

This is the danger with technology integration. Teachers can only make plans about things they already know, and in the case of information technologies teachers might know how technologies work, but rarely do they have experience with what the technology can do.

Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers also suggest that organisational change is the result of parallel-processing “dedicated to finding what works, not by careful stepwise analysis in the hands of a few experts, but by large numbers of a population messing about in the task of solution-creation” (p. 23). Part of the power of this approach is that “parallel systems are not afraid of error. Errors are expected, explored, welcomed. More errors create more information that results in a greater capacity to solve problems” (p. 23). Thus “the space for experimentation increases as we involve more minds in the experiment, as long as they can operate independently” (p. 24); “the system succeeds because it involves many tinkerer’s focused on figuring out what’s possible.” (p. 25). To me this is what a community of learners looks like. Everyone trying new things, sharing what they learn, giving each other feedback, but never supposing that one particular person or approach has all the answers. As soon as someone decides they know best and try to impose this, the system becomes rigid and linear again.

Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers are clear that tinkering is not aimless, but neither is it constrained by a particular end goal. Tinkerers “experiment with what is at hand until they discover a workable solution. The solution is discovered through the doing” (p. 25). This runs counter to many professional development approaches to technology integration, which try to make the teacher an expert before letting them loose in the classroom with technology. Teachers however, are supposed to be experts, which makes “discovering by doing” with new technologies feel risky. Further: “playful tinkering requires consciousness”;“staying present is the discipline of play”;“playful enterprises are alert. They are open to information, always seeking more, yearning for surprises”. This highlights the importance of reflection throughout the process of “discovering by doing”.

If you agree that teacher’s tinkering with technology is the way forward, then the question becomes, what happens at the organizational level; won’t tinkering teachers lead to chaos? In answer, Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers turn to the science of self-organisation, which is the organizing principle of life. “In self-organization, structures emerge. They are not imposed. They spring from the process of doing the work.” The key is to avoid trying to design specific structures, but to encourage the conditions that support the emergence of necessary structures. From a k-12 technology integration perspective, I see some of those structures as being: a clear vision; time and support for teachers to tinker; data based decision making; personal learning communities and mentoring. Self organization is about relationships. “Patterns and structures emerge as we connect to one another. Even simple connections lead to organized patterns of behaviour. Life always organizes as networks of relationships, spinning dense webs that can’t be disentangled. As we organize, we need to keep inquiring into the quality of our relationships. How much access do we have to one another? How much trust exists among us? Who else needs to be in the room?” (p. 39). We regularly hamstring this process by trying to “engineer human contribution. We set clear expectations for performance. We ask people to conform to our predictions about their contribution. We freeze them into their functions.” (p. 40). There is something compelling about having someone tell you that there is a right way to do something, and a nice linear process to follow, but this is a trap. “Sameness is not stability. It is individual freedom that creates stable systems. It is differentness that enables us to thrive” (p. 41).

Wheatley, M. J. (1998). A Simpler Way (1 edition). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/Simpler-Way-Margaret-J-Wheatley/dp/1576750507

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