Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

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  • David Willows

School Advancement as Conversation and the Threat of Organizational Dementia

You can't do Advancement, in any shape or form, without talking.

And talking is arguably a form of madness unless it is part of a conversation with those around us.

With this in mind, I returned this week to David Perkins' book King Arthur's Round Table : How Collaborative Conversations Create Smart Organizations to reflect again on the idea that conversations that we are having are the "virtual neurons" that make up the collective mind of any community or organisation.

Taking this one step further, one might say that if you want to measure the health of an organisation, you could do worse than eavesdrop on the kinds of conversations that are taking place.

Healthy organisations, if we follow Perkins' logic, are those that thrive on truly collaborative conversations.

Nevertheless, he adds, "putting our heads together" is not always easy. In fact, talking often slows things down and leads to complex and often unpredictable social situations and challenges.

Conversations are the virtual neurons of an organisation often appear to be firing in every direction.

(Perkins calls this The Lawnmower Paradox. The fact that a team of ten individuals can mow a lawn 10 times as fast than one, but that when it comes to mental tasks such as designing a faster power mower, ten sets of ideas can be much more difficult to coordinate. In short, pooling mental effort is not so easy because the virtual neurons of an organisation often appear to be firing in every direction.)

Perkins' point, though, in the end, is this: when we give space for certain types of conversations to occur, we create the opportunity for specific organizational neurons to fire that, in turn, inspires us to imagine new possibilities, new connections, and new inroads into the future.

When all goes to plan, Advancement in schools is founded upon - even requires - precisely this kind of mental or cultural health. It's messy, make no mistake, but at the same time these clusters of conversations - at once disruptive and building upon existing patterns - form and reformulate the story of learning in our schools.

Unless we are sick.

We cannot ever avoid the threat of what I call "organizational dementia". It is hard to diagnose at first, but eventually the symptoms become clear.

It is when a school becomes strangely silent for long periods of time, turns in upon itself, regularly loses its words, and becomes unnecessarily focused on ad hoc irrelevant details. All evidence of the "collective mind" or culture of the organization starting to break down and fragment.

So, yes, Perkins is right. Pooling mental effort about the future of our schools is difficult. It requires focus, agile leadership and regular practice. And we certainly won't always get it right.

But I'd rather be part of a school that has an ambitious, even eccentric, mind than one that has lost its mind altogether.

Photo by Josh Riemer on Unsplash