Vol 3 . . . No 2 . . . November, 1992

The Fine Art of Paradigm Busting
and Flexadigm Breeding


Routine is the enemy of invention. Like deer who will follow the same path to a watering hole even after construction begins on an Interstate and even after the semi trailers begin roaring down the newly laid asphalt ribbons, we often allow our habits to govern behaviors long after those patterns have proven ineffective, wrong-minded or dangerous.

Many of the routines, patterns and scripts we follow derive from mind-sets and belief-systems which are deeply embedded, often submerged below consciousness. Barker might call them paradigms. Senge might call them mental models. These deeply held values and attitudes will dictate our actions, usually operating below the surface.

Sometimes the operating belief system may conflict with the professed or public belief system, as in the case of schools which claim to encourage each student to reach fullest potential but actually devote great energy to sorting, sifting and tracking students by race or social and economic status.

Successful adaptation to a turbulent, changing world requires the open exploration and re-examination of these mind-sets so that they will cease to command actions unconsciously, automatically and inappropriately. The healthy organization is wary of mind-sets because they are too much like concrete. They do not bend well. If the organization's mind is set, ostrich fashion, in the sand, all may be rear-ended.

Gone are the days when single paradigms or mind-sets will serve any organization. Given the rapidly changing context surrounding any decision or challenge, we will need to create and apply flexadigms, which are collections of paradigms or operating systems which can be called upon to fit whatever situation might arise. Organizations must foster open-mindedness rather than closed-mindedness, invention rather than routine.

Paradigm-busting is the process of re-examining old mind-sets and operating systems to determine whether they should still serve as governing principles. Paradigm-busting is actually an early stage of flexadigm-breeding. We must open up the way individual minds and the collective minds think about the way business is conducted, children are educated and futures are created. Once the collective mind is open, fresh thinking becomes natural. We develop an organizational culture which spawns new growth.

I. Schools: A Lack of Innovation Infrastructure

Schools possess little innovation infrastructure. If one were to design an organization ill-disposed to change, one might follow the following recipe:

* Isolate all of the employees from each other so that there is virtually no opportunity for planning, discussion or group problem-solving.

* Isolate the employees from the outside world and insulate them from new developments, trends and opportunities.

* Load the employees with tasks which consume most of their waking hours and make reflection an impossible dream.

* Stress the importance of routines, policies and manuals.

* Impose significant penalties for risk-taking. Reward compliance.

* Treat employees who question authority and routines as heretics. Throw them to the wolves.

* Provide no resources for learning, research and organizational development.

Just as communication and transportation systems serve as critically important infrastructure for the economy and society at large, healthy organizations require major investments in structures and systems which encourage innovative thinking and inventive adaptation to changing conditions.

In preparing students for the next century, school districts might consider how to establish the kind of organizational culture which engenders open-mindedness and imaginative thinking, replacing the recipe listed above with the following precepts:

Build 10 hours or more into each work week during which time teachers and other staff members can meet with each other or work with each other on planning, discussion and group-problem-solving. Provide significant summer time (2+ weeks) for staff development, curriculum development and school restructuring activities.

Establish idea conduits, linking staff with the most promising ideas and most important trends emerging from the outside world. Provide every staff member with access to journals, both print and electronic, bulletin boards and conferencing of various kinds. Connect with global electronic highway so that world's information resources are a mouse-click away.

Re-examine duties assigned to staff and reduce tedious, repetitious, non-professional tasks such as paperwork and baby-sitting in favor of invention, planning, communication and collaboration. Build reflection into the work day.

Stress the importance of adaptation, imagination, responsiveness and innovation within the parameters of the district mission statement.

Reward reasonable risk-taking and growth. Provide support and protection to the risk-takers. Clarify expectations for those who refuse to grow or change.

Treat employees who question authority and routines - responsibly - as heroes and pioneers. Reward paradigm-busting and flexadigm-breeding.

Provide generous resources for learning, research and organizational development.

This list will seem like pie-in-the-sky to most school people. The vision represents such a fundamental shift in the nature of the organization that it is hard to believe in its plausibility, yet higher ed routinely provides faculty with many of the resources listed above, freeing its teachers from custodial chores and distilling formal instruction into brief episodes.

The biggest barriers to the kind of organization envisioned above are K-12 paradigms about time, learning and the purpose of schooling. For example:

Old Paradigm - Purpose of Schooling

While the public or professed purpose of schools is the development of competent young citizens and workers, a long standing unspoken purpose is custodial care. Especially as social trends require most parents to work outside the home, the school is seen as a major provider of care.

Why is this a barrier to change? Those who try to provide staff development by sending students home early will usually face stiff parental and community opposition. Any redesign of schooling which sends children back into the community ahead of schedule will draw fire. If anything, most of the current pressure is to provide longer and longer school days and years, with the ultimate (undesirable) model a boarding school for elementary students which provides care from Monday through Friday. Students need only return home on weekends.

The challenge facing schools today is to find ways of providing custodial care while releasing the professional staff from obligations to provide such service. It is far too costly to assign highly trained teachers to such chores. It makes better sense to bring in paraprofessionals for such duties.

Old Paradigm - Learning

One paradigm blocking much restructuring is the belief that student learning is best promoted by increasing the number of hours of formal contact between teachers and students in classrooms. When we watch what happens during many of those hours, it is clear that many of the activities are custodial in nature, requiring little real professionalism. This view would argue for "instructional compacting," a strategy which would place students in formal, large group contact with teachers for fewer hours each week in order to taste carefully distilled lessons in a highly efficient manner while spending the rest of the school time working on research, projects and assignments which can be handled with considerable independence under the watchful and supportive eyes of paraprofessionals teamed with specialists.

Talk of differentiated staffing raises the specter of staff reductions. With considerable justification, teachers fear that fewer class hours will mean fewer teacher jobs, since there is little reason to expect that financially hard-pressed communities will entertain the belief that student learning will increase if teachers have more time to think, plan, learn and collaborate. Yet, because this topic has long been taboo, schools can do little to break the organizational gridlock posed by inadequate professional time for growth.

With the advent of new technologies there will be vastly improved opportunities for students to work individually and in groups without constant teacher supervision. We must seize the opportunity to free teachers up to serve an increasingly tutorial and inventive role. We must also let go of time-honored staffing patterns which may begin to resemble the feather-bedding which undermined the competitiveness of the railroad industry. Master teachers should be required for intensely interactive exchanges with challenging instructional demands, not assigned to monitor study halls or seat work.

II. Schools as Learning Organizations

Because paradigm shifters - the ones who first challenge the old paradigm's usefulness - are often viewed as renegades or heretics by the organization, according to Barker, it pays to institutionalize the paradigm busting process so that the responsibility is shared by the entire group. Shared decision-making and system-wide paradigm busting is the "path of least resistance." When only isolated individuals criticize, express doubt and judge the old ways and old mind-sets negatively, they are likely to set in motion defensive routines and mechanisms which will inhibit learning. The energy of the organization goes into protecting the status quo. Everybody circles the wagons to fight off the attacker rather than speeding the oxen to explore new lands. It is more productive to enlist all members of the group in the learning process.

Peter Senge's Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (1990) provides an excellent description of how to establish an organizational culture with a commitment to a systems perspective and four core disciplines:

1. Personal Mastery - Senge argues that resistance to change usually results from individual discomfort with what he calls "creative tension" which "often leads to feelings or emotions associated with anxiety, such as sadness, discouragement, hopelessness, or worry (p. 151)." The health of the organization ultimately depends upon the strengthening of individual capacities to endure such tension.

2. Mental Mastery - This discipline involves group members in surfacing the mental models (mind-sets or paradigms) which dictate much of the organizational behavior so they can be re-examined and adapted. Participants become model-builders, shaping the operating systems of the organization to fit the demands of a changing world. If all members of the group are engaged in the search for useful models, outmoded models are likely to drop away.

3. Shared Vision - Senge emphasizes the value of a vision constructed from the individual visions of group members rather than handed down from the top of a hierarchy. He describes the difference between commitment and enrollment on the one hand, where participants invest their selves in the journey, and compliance on the other hand, where people may go along, but only with reluctance and dragging feet.

4. Team Learning - Senge stresses the importance of teaching groups to work open-mindedly together, exploring ideas and possibilities as well as arguing about them. He differentiates between discussion on the one hand, which is generally adversarial, and dialogue on the other hand, which is collaborative. Discussion predominates in most groups with people taking positions, defending those positions and attacking the positions of other factions. Dialogue is rare and counter-cultural. Open-minded exploration involves "suspension of assumptions" while members of the group help each other extend their thinking and their insight. People come to meetings knowing they will leave better informed than they were when they arrived.

The first step in paradigm busting, then, is the creation of a learning culture, one in which questioning how we go about educating children becomes routine. Asking how we might improve quality becomes a daily challenge.

III. Issues of Scale, Choice and Heterogeneity

Because it is questionable whether groups can achieve passionate visions when hundreds of staff members must participate in the dialogue, districts may have to assign far more decision-making responsibility to small groups as is being tried in the Philadelphia system with charter "schools within schools" - 200 to 400 students with 10 to 12 teachers operating semi-autonomously. Profiled in the November 18 Education Week, this promising initiative sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trust places the responsibility for invention where it belongs, with the classroom teacher, but it does so with groups which can form a consensus around key values and can develop a program with strong appeal and identity, one which is not a mish-mash or disappointing amalgam of conflicting perspectives.

With the arrival of the Clinton administration, public school choice is likely to replace voucher systems as the hot reform topic. Instead of planning school programs so as to accommodate or appease all the various factions which might make up a typical faculty, public school choice allows each faction to build programs around passionately held belief systems and then identify students and families which find the resulting offerings attractive, appealing and convincing.

IV. Reaching the Breaking Point

In Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future - Today, reviewed in this November's Training and Development, Land and Jarman warn that organizations are facing a different kind of change which may not allow for smooth transitions and evolutionary adjustments:

"The entire notion of change turns out to be amazingly different from what we have long thought it to be. Change actually follows a pattern that results in momentous and seemingly unpredictable shifts. Long periods of great disorder can shift abruptly to regularity, stability, and predictability. Equally long periods of incremental, continuous, and logical advancement shift to an entirely different kind of change - one in which unrelated things combine in creative ways that produce unexpected and powerful results.

"At breakpoint, the rule change is so sharp that continuing to use the old rules not only doesn't work, (but) it erects great, sometimes insurmountable barriers to success."

Examples of breakpoints for the educational world may be the sudden shut-down of school funding in states like California, the sudden redesign of school finance in New Jersey, the arrival of a private educational corporation to run schools in Baltimore, waves of third world students in a particular state or region, or the introduction of new technologies which may replace brick schools with electronic, home schooling.

School districts which invest in organizational development to create learning organizations will suffer the fewest dislocations and traumas when breaking points arrive because they will have the ability to adjust and adapt while rule-oriented, hierarchical structures will provide too little flexibility. Instead of bending when the heavy winds or seas strike, such structures are likely to break.

V. New Beginnings

John Rollwagen, CEO for Cray Research, manufacturer of the world's most powerful supercomputers, stresses the importance of everybody being a "constant beginner." He tells the story of how company founder, Seymour Cray, used to build wonderful wooden boats each year, sail them for a summer and then hold a party to burn each boat so that a new one could be built that winter. Each boat was followed by a better one. "He was a constant, constant beginner." (Training and Development, November, 1992, p. 32). He quotes from Rilke:

"If the angel deigns to come, it will be because you have convinced her not by your tears but by your humble resolve to be always beginning, to be a beginner."

We are often reluctant to start schools from scratch, burning our boats behind us, and yet many of the most exciting and innovative programs in the United States engage teachers in exactly such new beginnings. Adjusting existing schools is very different than creating new ones with groups of teachers unified by a common vision. Incremental adjustments are all too often hampered by paradigms which have ceased to serve the best interests of either teachers or students.

VI. Future Scenarios

Those who would test the potential of new technologies to elevate the reasoning powers of all students and create student-centered learning will find countless obstacles placed in their path by those who would just as soon proceed with business as usual. As Larry Cuban notes in the November 11 Education Week, the "technophile's dream: electronic schools of the future now," is the least likely scenario for this decade. He identifies existing mind-sets and paradigms as the main reason for a much slower acceptance of new technologies:

". . . the sparing classroom use of computers is due less to inadequate funds, unprepared teachers, and indifferent administrators and more to dominant cultural beliefs about what teaching, learning and proper knowledge are and to the age-graded school with its self-contained classrooms, time schedules, and fragmented curriculum."

While Cuban predicts slow acceptance of new technologies and "the spread of hybrids of teacher-centered and student-centered instruction," he acknowledges wild cards such as the movement for national standards and the growing privatization of public schools as forces which could upset his predictions.

Cuban's article documents the lamentable co-opting of new technologies by old educational mind-sets. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars invested in hardware, the regular classroom has changed little in most places. We have our hybrids and our hothouses, but the potential of all this equipment to transform schooling and learning has been blunted by the momentum of old paradigms. Transformation and restructuring require the development of new structures in schools which empower teachers to explore, invent and challenge the ways that things are "spozed to be."

Credits: The background is from Jay Boersma.
Other drawings and graphics are by Jamie McKenzie.

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