Teach & Serve
No. 26 * February 10, 2016
Related Content from And There Came A Day:
Is It Getting Hot in Here?
As a learned friend of mine said: “Anyone can call the fire department. Leaders are checking the wiring before the spark ever ignites.”
I am not an expert on Peter Senge, the brilliant systems analyst who is currently a senior lecturer at MIT and who is a leading Systems Theory expert, but I am familiar enough with him to say that serious professionals, educational and otherwise, should know who he is and what he does. In his deeply engrossing book The Fifth Discipline, Senge outlines a concept of how effective and dynamic learning organizations work. He is not talking specifically about schools; Senge is describing organizations that can learn, that can grow and that are dynamic. He is detailing how people can inspired to strive for the common good of the organization – no matter what that organization is or does – and how those organization can exist in a constant and healthy state of reinvention. His conclusions, especially as applied to schools, are at once exciting and harrowing.
They are exciting because Senge paints a vivid picture of what schools could be if they were built on principles that encouraged educational professionals to consider the school community overall as more important than their individual needs and desires and that supporting the broad vision and work of the school (assuming it is a high performing learning organization) actually has the effect of making their individual lives in it better. Senge’s work is harrowing because of what a tough sell that concept is.
Senge outlines the five disciplines that learning organizations share, hence the title of the book. He also describes what he calls learning disabilities that can hamper learning organizations from reaching their potential. “Learning disabilities” is a bit of an awkward appellation given its current connotation, but Senge published the first edition of The Fifth Discipline in 1990, so he can be forgiven for this.
As I reviewed the book for my work teaching a seminar in Jesuit school leadership this week, I found myself reflecting on Senge’s concept of learning disabilities in general and one of them in particular: The Parable of the Boiling Frog.
Surely, you’ve heard this parable before, yes? If a frog is put in a pot of room temperature water on a stove and the heat is slowly and incrementally increased over a span of time, the frog will not leap from the water even as the temperature approaches the boiling point. It’s not that the frog doesn’t feel the change, the frog does. However, because the change is gradual and incremental, the frog doesn’t sense anything particularly out of the ordinary. He notes the shift in circumstance and moves on. He takes it in stride. He adjusts and adapts. He resets feeling that each rise in temperature is simply the new norm. He doesn’t leave the pot and doesn’t react to the danger until it is far too late.
This isn’t a nice story for the frog, to be sure. It’s kind of disturbing, actually.
But the story is all the more disturbing if we apply it to human systems. Senge says this is one of the learning disabilities that holds human systems back from being truly effective learning organizations. When things get off course in small ways, without major crises or “big” moments or institutional blow ups – when they simply slide downward, slipping inevitably, losing grip and losing focus, people in those systems tend not to notice… until it’s too late.
Can this parable be applied to our academic departments? Does it describe our schools? Have we ever felt as though we were the frog in the boiling water?
I think we would be well served to make a practice of “taking the temperature of the room” and discerning whether our schools, or departments, our PLCs are approaching the boiling point. We would be well served to do this early and to do it often. Looking around the room and asking, “hey, when did it get so hot in here?” may be a necessary thing to do. It may be something that needs to happen at our schools right now. But, if the water is at 210 degrees already, we can’t pat ourselves on the back for turning the burner down now. The closer we get to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, the longer it will take the pot to cool. The closer we are to the boiling point, the more likely it is that we’ve done some permanent damage. We might be able to turn down the flame before the water bubbles over, but someone is likely to have already been singed.
Here’s the thing: it’s not particularly insightful, for example, to point out our schools are off track when our students aren’t scoring well on standardized tests they used to ace or that the school is off track when it doesn’t pass its accreditation review with flying colors or that the institution has a problem when enrollment dips 8%. Noting that something needs to change in light of these sorts of problems is kind of like fixing the barn door after the cow has come home… the farmer appreciates the work but isn’t going to get back the hours she spent looking for Bessie.
No, the insight comes in recognition of those problems before they become problems and dealing with them prior to their coming to a head. Leadership is when the potential issues are never allowed to become issues.
As a learned friend of mine said this week: “Anyone can call the fire department. Leaders are checking the wiring before the spark ever ignites.”
Check the wiring. Turn down the flame. Save the frog.
Oh, and read The Fifth Discipline.