“Today’s meeting,” said the email with the agenda, “should last approximately an hour.” As I looked at the agenda items, I saw about 25 or 30 minutes … and as it turned out, the meeting itself only stretched to 45 or so. I was able to get to the other meeting, the one about preparing for end-of-year tasks in the New Student Information System, without a frantic rush, and that was over in time to avoid a frantic rush to Book Group. But the whole day got me thinking about purpose and process, and about how factory-schools and other large, hierarchical institutions often get those two elements confused. It’s really easy for the process to become its own purpose!
“Back to Basics Reminders” have been a recurring agenda item, as the Relevant Powers try to maintain some semblance of Business As Usual in the midst of rapid structural change. “Be sure,” said a Relevant Power, “to hold students accountable” for things like arriving in class on time and wearing appropriate clothing. “If you just write them up and send the form in, I guarantee you they’ll get punished. But we aren’t getting those forms from everybody!”
If you’ve ever worked in a factory-model school, you’ve certainly heard that promise … and you’ve certainly seen the overt or covert eye-rolling from Ms. X and Mr. Y, who know perfectly well that it won’t happen. Sometimes Ms. X and Mr. Y actually know this from personal experience; sometimes their knowledge is so certain that they feel no need to test it. “They just need to be honest,” One Ms. X had said a few days ago, “and tell Us which rules will be enforced and which ones won’t. That’s all I want. Is it too much to ask?” Meanwhile, no one pauses to ask what it means to be accountable for showing up on time or wearing what you should … and nobody ever stops to wonder who should have ownership of the timeliness or the proper dress.
“Just fill out the form,” Powers plead and promise, “and everything will magically happen. Just punish the bad, lazy ones, and everything will get better.” Ms. X and Mr. Y “don’t have time,” and the Powers In Question “don’t have time” to deal with Ms. X or Mr. Y individually. So the process rolls on, nothing changes, and the new “Back to Basics Reminders” (or whatever the new phrase will be) and the next new program or mission statement will be “guaranteed to solve the problems” again next month or next year.
I feel for Ms. X, Mr. Y, and Those Powers! They’re all caught in a process that has no greater purpose, a process that’s become its own purpose. “Hold those students accountable,” they declare, somehow not noticing that the very next agenda item refers to “following mandates” and “completing paperwork” that Ms. X and Mr. Y themselves don’t follow and don’t complete. “It’s really strange how many honor code violations there have been this year,” someone noted in reference to students who found the online key for the worksheet or test that Ms. X and Mr. Y downloaded and printed out. “I’m sure we can fix that by writing them up and by moving around the room while we teach.”
The meeting concluded with a mission statement exercise, since the Local School District has decided it needs a new one. “At our next meeting in a Particular Configuration,” the agenda said, “we will discuss how to incorporate that new statement into our school mission statement.”
“But we just did that!” fussed One Ms. X, referring to a similar exercise several years ago. “And I can’t find the document in Google Drive!” Another Ms. X had printed out the agenda but not the other document, and someone else wasn’t sure if “what you type” in Google Docs “really stays there” when the document is closed.
“The thing about it,” Someone Important said at the later meeting, “is that This Shiny New Software will really change the way we do business. It will change the way we treat Those Teachers, because it assumes they are competent and professional.”
I’d love to believe that. I’d love to believe that the New Curriculum Document will magically “raise the level” of instruction and learning, that the New and Improved Tests will change the focus from broadcast teaching to personal learning. It would be nice if the New Mission Statement made everyone reconsider the organization’s purpose, and it would be great if “writing them up and sending in the paperwork” magically created timely, properly-dressed students who “did their own work” and “got great scores.”
May I have a pony as well?
The underlying problem with factory-style thinking, of course, is that neither people nor learning itself can be reduced to identical inputs and outputs, no matter how hard you work to standardize the process. It would be so much easier if you could subject everybody to a perfect process … but you can’t, and even if you could, you still wouldn’t get the perfect outcome that Ms. X, Mr. Y, and the Relevant Powers are seeking. If you hold fast to the process, you probably won’t achieve your purpose … but if you’re really clear about your purpose, you have to be flexible about the process.
But that kind of flexibility is scary. In fact, if you really believe in the factory-paradigm, that kind of flexibility is terrifying. Letting go of standardized process and standardized outcomes is hard enough in a joyful learning community, but at least there you have the support of your fellow learners, and you don’t have to be perfect from the beginning. Is there a way to help Ms. X and Mr. Y let go of their factory-model isolation and perfectionism, or will they have to get there by themselves?
We’ll see what happens over the next few days. I wonder what new insights and discoveries await!