Designing, Building, or Growing?

Building a joyful learning community.  Building and sustaining … and designing.  I use those phrases a lot, both in this space and in my work with students and colleagues.  But I woke up a bit early this morning, and as I skimmed over my Google+ feed, this post in the Conversation Community led me to this blog post by Kevin Simler about finding and attempting to overcome blind spots in your thinking.

What if building and designing, as metaphors, conceal as much as they reveal about community?  What if we thought about growing and shaping communities instead?

I need to think about that … a lot.  Building and designing and sustaining are terms I use constantly when I refer to community … but what aspects of community do they conceal?  And what would be revealed with different terms like growing and shaping?

Over the weekend, I read another chapter of Douglas Rushkoff’s remarkable book Present Shock, a chapter in which he connects strands as diverse as zombie movies, folks who build underground bunkers to survive The Coming Apocalypse as they foresee it, and the idea of humanity itself as a temporary step in the evolution toward something else.  He points out several unifying factors, but one is the notion of technology and organizations as existing independently of their human creators, of the product eventually turning on its producer.  That’s not a new fear, of course, and I wish Rushkoff had spent a bit more time with early 20th-century and late 19th-century dystopian future visions … but it’s important to keep in mind, I think, especially when you’re working on the inside of a large, complex system.  It’s easy for a process, originally designed to be helpful or supportive, to take on a life of its own (interesting metaphor in context!) and become an end in itself.  When that happens over and over, when it seems to be the natural course of things, the zombie metaphor becomes powerful.

With the bad weather last week, first-semester report cards in These Parts were mailed out several days late, and students couldn’t receive their personal copies until yesterday.  But “the calendar says” that mid-reporting-period progress reports for the new reporting period should go home tomorrow, and it seems that the Relevant Powers want them sent out then … after five or six class meetings, when Ms. X and Mr. Y probably “don’t have any grades yet,” but with a note to “remind” parents and students about the bad weather and “explain” that there might be fewer grades than usual included in That Number.  The calendar, it seems, is more powerful than its writers, at least from its writers’ perspective.  “I have to give a test,” says Ms. X, “so there will be enough grades in the book” … or, these days, in the Student Information System.  The measure becomes the purpose, the helpful process becomes the goal.

“Why isn’t there a Latin word for zombie?” students ask.  You can express the notion, but it’s difficult, because the Roman world view doesn’t seem to have a place for such things.  Bloodthirsty ghosts seeking revenge on the living?  Sure.  Potentially benevolent ghosts that turn ugly if not propitiated?  Of course.  Undead, soulless bodies seeking to feed on the living?  Not so much.

Both Rushkoff and Simler (along with the Alan Watts book Simler cites in his post) draw connections between the notion of technology taking over and the Western paradigm of organization as machine, and they also bring up the very different, predominantly Asian paradigm of organization as organism.  If a machine isn’t working properly (or isn’t working the way you want it to work), your natural tendency is to ask what’s wrong with it, to find the malfunctioning part, to fix it … and that’s why, in factory-school after factory-school, the “malfunctions” of Low Test Scores and “bad, lazy students” are met with Shiny New Program after Shiny New Program.  But if an organism is “malfunctioning,” isn’t behaving the way you want it to behave, the successful approach is quite different.  What’s going on? we might ask.  Or why is The Dog doing That Annoying Thing?  What factors in the environment might we change to yield different results?

And yet, as both Simler and Rushkoff note (I really need to spend a lot more time with Simler’s post), in some ways organisms and machines are quite similar, as are our approaches to them.  Simler describes them as “two poles at opposite ends of a spectrum,” with a perspective he calls cultivation in the middle.  As all three current branches of the Latin Family work on designing, cultivating, and growing our first Minor Assessment products today, I’ll be thinking more about learning communities and about learning itself.  Do you build communities, do they grow by themselves, or do they need to be cultivated?  If they’re built or cultivated, who does the building, and who (if anyone) is the architect or master planner?

It’s a busy day, with much to do, so I’ll end here.  But I’m intrigued by the notion of organizations and communities as organisms, about what that metaphor might reveal and conceal.  I wonder what other new insights and discoveries await!

Published in: on February 4, 2014 at 11:42 am  Leave a Comment  

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