Rethinking the Complexity of Learning Organizations
Today’s educational system is wrought with complexity—from the work of educating students to the lack of financing in heated political climates.
Working in the educational system can be complex, but it can also be rewarding.
The challenge is finding the right people with the right passion who are able to view the world from a systemic view—people who are willing to fearlessly delve into the chaos of the current system and make sense of it.
I work in an office that focuses on career and technical education programs. Even though our role is limited to vocational education, we try to keep a whole-student view of the educational system—a view that makes student success the primary focus supported by a system that encourages this success.
Earlier this year, I had a long conversation at work with two of my colleagues for a Saybrook class paper concerning complexity in the workplace. Our discussion helped me see that a lack of clarity seems to be fueling the complexity issues affecting the current educational system.
Some employees don't have a clear understanding of the expectations they're required to meet while others find themselves struggling to figure out how to move the system forward holistically rather than just focusing on individual pieces.
Identifying the Challenges and Opposing Forces
In our discussion, we identified several challenges creating blockages in the educational system. They include:
- The expectation to navigate many different—and sometimes opposing—systemic influences that can also act as competing expectations,
- The inability to clearly understand the system's interconnections, and the inability to deal with a system that's in constant flux—every time new textbooks, new learning, and new pedagogies are developed, new paths need to be carved out.
Once the challenges were identified, we turned to the opposing forces, or elements that work against each other, create tension, and negatively impact communications. In our office, this includes the influence and expectations of different departments.
To resolve the complexities of opposing forces, the systems perspective tells us to find ways to allow them to live within the system that emerges. When my colleagues and I did this, our conversation returned to expectations.
We found that we're expected to understand competing interests happening within the system, without additional support to understand those interests. We're also expected to understand the complexity of outside forces—or external systems—and how they interact with the educational system.
The flux of the current, internal system, we found, creates greater complexity.
Fostering Teamwork in the System
In their 2000 book, Bringing Your Soul to Work: An Everyday Practice, authors Cheryl Peppers and Alan Briskin noted that the strength of a group can be a great aid in addressing opposing forces.
"The power of a group lies in its collective capacity to bring out the best in us, to accomplish what no one individual can do, and to connect us in the most personal way to meaning and purpose," Peppers and Briskin wrote.
My co-workers said they both find it a struggle to attempt to navigate the system independently with so many competing forces vying for the same knowledge, information, and resources. Existing in this space is a struggle because of a lack of communication and understanding.
I, however, have been trying a different tactic: I've changed the way I show up to events. Instead of arriving ready to profess problems and wallow in the challenges, I arrive with a mindset to develop solutions.
As a team, we are open about our communication and the complexities that exist. This openness to communication has helped us improve the tension that exists and work together to solve the challenges.
Navigating a Changing System
My colleagues and I agreed that what helps most in navigating our increasingly complex workplace—both personally and professionally—is continuing to learn and gain insight into how the educational system works.
One co-worker—the one who had recently joined our office—said she wants to gain more experience so that when a similar situations arise, she is better prepared to manage the systemic complexities and help others know what to do.
Our more experienced colleague said she believes that learning is the most important aspect, both personally and professionally. She said she strives to learn as much as she can about the world around her so she can be "present" in the complexities of the systems.
To me, navigating our increasingly complex educational system is a work in progress. I know more today than I did a year ago and I will learn more as time goes on.
We concluded that learning from others, learning from self, and remembering to remain in the present moment all work together to help navigate the complexity of learning organizations and the educational system.