On organisations as the sum of all their human parts
Can a postmodern approach save education? No.
Go ahead and unsubscribe, but I find myself agreeing with a lot of what Mark Latham has to say about education. When I initially heard his concerns about postmodernism in schools, I rejected his claims out of hand. But then I have taught Judith Butler, and every one of my Year 7 class knows ‘that guy, Karl Marx.’ I think a rich curriculum is a problematic one, and the caveat I make here is that I have offered Theory as a way of thinking around texts rather than prescribing now to think about them. And I certainly privilege classic texts — my little Marxists were studying Lord of the Flies and Butler was a lens through which to view poor old Blanche from Streetcar.
My main issue with postmodernism from a macro perspective is its inability to get very much done. When it comes to instruction, postmodernism tells us that context is everything1. When it comes to learning, we are told that students construct their own understandings independently. When it comes to leadership, we are told organisations are simply social constructs, built from a kind of distributed hive-mind. I don’t know about you, but I still take my orders from my principal, and I still quail at the thought of registration. Greenfield was one such postmodern theorist who noted that teacher beliefs had far more impact on student outcomes than systems, and he was right, but maybe not for the reasons he thought he was.
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Like many influential thinkers, Greenfield’s work was the right response at the right time. A reaction against the more positivist theories that went before2, Greenfield humanised conceptions of leadership. His work is a useful conceptualisation of the realities of organisations: far from being removed from the structures that govern and contain them, the beliefs of organisational members constitute the organisation itself, with far-reaching impacts for student outcomes. However, Greenfield’s relativism prohibits this approach from being a useful model for improving outcomes in education.
Greenfield’s conflationary approach denies the lived experience of teachers and leaders who labour under the very real impacts of disabling bureaucracy, particularly in monolithic systems. He says, “the belief dies hard that organisational structure is “real” and independent of human meaning and purpose,” (1973, p. 565). While organisations are to a degree “ideas held in the human mind” (1973, p. 560), with this idea of shared purpose an essential element of school transformation, the scare quotes suggest an absolutism that fails to account for the enabling and limiting structural factors that affect the work of teachers, and by extension student outcomes. Far from being pluralistic autonomous entities, control has been wrenched from NSW public schools with a ‘curtailing’ of principals’ freedom, giving them little ability to accommodate, shift or recruit for the values they wish to see in their school communities3.
At the other end of the spectrum, we see Greenfield’s relativism proliferate under the banner of ‘school choice.’ Greenfield observes that schooling (gerund) is shaped in our own image (1973, p. 570), saying, “for some of us participation, … authenticity … are good things; others may value knowledge … and ‘high standards’” (1973, p. 567). Again, Greenfield’s scare quotes betray a cynicism about ‘end’ goals. In the education marketplace, it is rare to see schools promote themselves as offering academics alone. Hartley describes “an increasingly pre-modern atavistic tendency … towards communities whose basis is an appeal to the non-rational,” or a “community of emotions,” with schools filling this need (2007, p. 208)4. Under Greenfield, its hard to see how postmodern theory would advance any measurable improvement in actual learning outcomes.
Certainly, organisations are inseparable from the values of their members. Through Greenfield’s lens, leaders can appeal to — and potentially shape — the values and beliefs of teachers, with implications for student outcomes. But in the absence of a shared conception of the ideal means and ends, or a pragmatic theory of action, relativism may continue to interact with market forces and limitations to reproduce both experiential and academic inequity.
Greenfield, T. B. (1973). Organizations as Social Inventions: Rethinking Assumptions About Change. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 9(5), 551-574. doi:10.1177/002188637300900502
Eacott, S. (2022). A History of Leadership Thought. In The Palgrave Handbook of Educational Leadership and Management Discourse (pp. 1-18). Cham: Springer International Publishing.
Baker, J. (2022, October 4). 'Unhappy' minister to curtail school principals' freedom. Sydney Morning Herald. https://www.smh.com.au/national/unhappy-minister-to-curtail-school-principals-freedom-20200228-p545f0.html
Hartley., D. (2007). The emergence of distributed leadership in education: why now? British Journal of Educational Studies, 55(2), 202–214.