The Local School District owns a Complex, High-Tech System that allows Various Powers to send broadcast telephone messages to various groups: all the parents of students at School X, the faculty and staff at School Y, all employees of the district, for example. Unfortunately, nobody quite knows how to update phone numbers in the Complex System. I discovered that when I stopped using my landline phone for much of anything and requested that such calls be routed to my cell phone instead. “I’ll see what I can do,” said Ms. J, who was in charge of such things at the time. “But I honestly don’t know how to do that.”
Somebody probably does know how, but the knowledge hasn’t spread to all the potential users. That’s not unusual in a large organization that’s structured vertically, around lines of authority from Powers That Be to the folks they supervise. But it’s frustrating in a world where information flows horizontally and in all directions.
The calls still arrive on the landline, and One Ms. X doesn’t get them at all. Another Ms. X somehow got left off of the “All Teachers” email list, and it took quite a while to discover what had happened and get it corrected. The Complex Phone System doesn’t understand about voicemail and answering machines, either; it will ask you to “press 1 to listen to messages,” but it won’t call back if the voicemail system or answering machine doesn’t comply.
That’s one reason I was glad to be at home on Sunday evening, a time when I sometimes visit a Local Coffee Shop or the Local Bookstore to do some writing, reading, or planning. But Official Lesson Plans for the Rest of the Year were due last week, and I’d been invited to a Google Hangout on an interesting topic, and I was still tired from all the events last week. So I was home and able to listen when the Official Phone Message came. It was full of information that I would have put in an email … but maybe I wouldn’t have, because the Relevant Powers know perfectly well that Ms. X and Mr. Y “forget” to read emails and “accidentally delete” them. There was praise for the “professionalism” of the faculty at Graduation, a reminder about a Great Big Important Planning Session later this week, a request or two regarding Important Dates in these next few days.
But it struck me that, like the Complex Phone System itself, the message was structured vertically. Information flowed one way, from the expert Powers to the less-expert faculty and staff members. The request for input before the Great Big Important Planning Session seemed jarring in that context. The Relevant Committee has a lot of work to do, of course, and it actually both needs and wants input from teachers, students, parents, and others involved in the life of the school. But the whole unexamined vertical structure of factory-model schooling makes it really hard to give or receive that kind of input.
When I was a young teacher, I asked my students to do a formal course evaluation at the end of the year. They’d turn in their final exams, pick up the paper survey, and complete it anonymously, and I’d spend some time over the summer tabulating the data and reading the comments. Then came online survey tools (I loved the ones at Quia.com) … but then the responses grew more and more perfunctory, and eventually I realized I wasn’t getting value for the time anymore. As schools grew ever more obsessed with numbers and data, with task completion and measurement and collecting evidence of things, apparently our students grew more and more skeptical and doubtful that anything would actually be done with survey results. “I give a getting-to-know-you survey,” one teacher-participant in the online professional development course told me around that time, “but I don’t have time to look at them. I guess I should start doing that!”
Yes, you probably should look at the results or not give the survey, Ms. X, I thought at the time. But now I see a connection between Ms. X’s unread survey and those former students’ perfunctory survey responses … and it’s a connection that even embraces the Complex Phone System, the Lengthy Message, and Ms. X and Mr. Y’s passive-aggressive email deletion. All are symptoms or indicators of a central paradigm of Industrial Era organizations: the notion that knowledge and expertise flow downwards from The Top to The Bottom of the organization.
That wasn’t a bad paradigm for a manufacturing company in 1920 or 1930, especially one where the production workers were relatively unskilled, relatively unfamiliar with the new processes of the assembly line. It was outdated, but still functional a generation later, when many of those production workers had a lot more experience with assembly-line processes than The Immediate Boss or The Boss’s Boss.
But for educational institutions in 2014? Does a one-way vertical flow of information make sense in that context? Is it even possible to design or implement a one-way vertical flow anymore?
The last group of Latin Family members will be taking their Final Exams this morning, and as I watch them (and grade the results) I’ll be thinking about vertical and horizontal flows of information, knowledge, and wisdom. I’ll be thinking about how joyful learning communities manage the flow of hyper-abundant information, and how we work together to transform raw data into usable knowledge. I wonder what other insights and discoveries we’ll find on this phase of our journey!