What is Adhocracy?
Recently, Dr. Michael Riendeau, Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs, and I gave our talk titled “Advocating Learning Diversity” at the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) spring conference in Austin, Texas. This particular talk, one which we have given many times in the last few years, invites participants to think about the radical notion that learning disabilities are not found in the individual but are actually a societal construct that aims to fit people into a bureaucratic structure where they are either abled or disabled.
Adhocracy is an alternative to bureaucracy. Whereas bureaucracies are intended to transform teaching and learning for collaborative endeavors based on authentic human relationships to factory-model assembly lines where standard practices are imposed upon us and our students, adhocracy brings those collaborative endeavors back into the teaching and learning relationship.
Adhocracy in Place of Bureaucracy
Adhocracy is an idea that organizational consultant Warren Bennis introduced to business leaders in 1968 and Alvin Toffler brought to the public in his book Future Shock in 1970. Thomas M. Skrtic explores adhocracy in education in Disability and Democracy (1995), but educational administrators, teachers, families, and even students are still, almost fifty years later, apprehensive to move away from bureaucratic structures at school.
Teachers often imagine themselves hamstrung by the organizational structures imposed on them by their leaders and also by state and national standards; as a result, they fail to reach their students in meaningful, creative ways. Students have the most to lose in this bureaucratic maze that seemingly has an entrance but no exit.
In schools where bureaucracy is imposed upon all education stakeholders, students are not afforded opportunities to thrive in learning spaces that privilege them as individuals or as a community of diverse learners. Instead of producing students who are prepared to go out into their communities after graduation and be positive agents of change, schools are instead producing students who cannot read competently, write effectively, think critically, collaborate on projects, or empathize with their peers. Who are these students, then, that we’re sending to college or hiring into our businesses? They are cogs!
The most frustrating part of school bureaucracy, at least for me, is that these students are creative and interesting and are looking for opportunities to thrive in whatever it is that they choose to do after high school. But the schools in which they have supposedly received a whole education have not prepared them to meet the challenges they will inevitably meet.
Our nation’s students could be prepared to go out into their communities ready to make a positive impact academically, professionally, and civically if our schools would move towards an adhocratic approach at all levels of operation. In what follows, I share with readers what adhocracy looks like on three levels of education: administrative, departmental, and teaching in the classroom.
An adhocratic body of K-12 faculty is one that meets frequently to discuss individual students, as well as current teaching and learning practices. At our school, the assistant head of school for academic affairs leads the faculty in a meeting once a week that is held in our school’s auditorium. We begin each meeting with what we call a student focus. The students on whom we focus are determined by the teachers based on a particular students’ academic and social achievements or struggles. Each teacher in the meeting is afforded an opportunity to speak about the student. The assistant head of school notes teachers’ commendations and concerns about each student and can then facilitate follow-up with faculty members, students, parents, and other stakeholders.
Obviously, the conversations tend to be more complex when the student focus in on one who is presently struggling. Teachers at our school craft different possible solutions to meet the needs of a student. Often these solutions are at odds with one another and it is the role of the assistant head of school to facilitate these important conversations, not hand down judgements or impose his will upon the faculty.
The assistant head of school will synthesize the student focus meeting into a conversation he or the student’s advisor has with the student. Sometimes these meetings are not expedient—they are long, drawn out, and even at times uncomfortable. The point of an adhocracy though is not expediency; it is to ensure that each person at the table has a voice and that these collaborative voices help our students succeed.
An adhocratic department is one where each member of the department has a place at the table to create courses, discuss the content of the courses offered, create and facilitate the objectives for each student in a course, and help create the department’s threshold concepts, or contingent heuristics, which the department will develop to manage continuity among the different sections of a course and students’ growth as they accumulate knowledge and learn skills at school.
There are at least three major roles of the adhocratic department chair. The first is to make sure that departmental faculty have the professional development opportunities they need to be the most engaging, prepared teachers for their students. The second is to work to preserve autonomy for individual members of the faculty as they choose the material that students will cover and the projects, activities, and papers with which students will engage. The third is to act as hub for ongoing assessment of programmatic outcomes to insure that students are receiving a quality education. This is where adhocratic assessment becomes an invaluable tool for department chairs.
An adhocratic assessment is not standardized, but organic. The knowledge and skills that are assessed—and how our students are assessed—are agreed upon by teachers, administrators, and even the students themselves across our campus community.
In the case of the English department, I put together a diverse committee to discover what we value about writing, and then the committee created an assessment to measure how our students are learning to write within the context of our agreed upon values. The adhocratic department chair must recognize that he or she is an expert in his or her discipline and that he or she is among many other experts who have important contributions to make for the benefit of a school’s students.
3. Teaching in the Classroom
The adhocratic teacher aims to know her students as individuals and as a collective of learners. The key to knowing your students is to consult with them. Adhocratic teachers reach out to their students, inquiring about what they would like to study, then design spaces that let them learn what they want to learn. It is of paramount importance that students invest themselves in their coursework.
This does not mean, of course, that in a writing class, for example, students can opt out of learning to write—or in a physical science class—that a student can opt out of learning about mass and force. It does mean, though, that I might come into the classroom and say “today we are going to begin a unit on persuasive genres. Here is a list of five persuasive genres. Let’s pick two and focus on these.” It’s the same with science and math—and every discipline. There are many projects from which students can choose to learn about mass, chemical reactions, and geometry.
Adhocratic teachers also survey their students about learning approaches, finding that students learn their best and are able to articulate themselves well when they can communicate with a combination of linguistic (speech and words), visual, aural (auditory), gestural, and spatial modes. When our students our in classrooms where learning diversity is practiced, school is transformed into a place where authentic teaching and learning are valued and not feared.
Finally, adhocratic teachers consider emergence a key part of their teaching philosophy. Emergence means being available to act on student and school needs in the moment. My classroom, an emergent writing and making studio, can physically and pedagogically come together and collapse in seconds, and it can also adapt to the presence and absence of students and their needs in the moment because I am aware that each student has his or her own academic and social needs.
Students enter into a classroom, bringing with them prior classroom experiences, abilities, apprehensions, and innovative ideas to put towards their academic work. Upon entering our classrooms, students are also interacting with us, their teachers, and also the learning spaces themselves, i.e., the technology, the furniture, the lights, etc…. All of this matters, and it all shapes how and what our students learn. The next thing you know, the bell rings, and in comes the next class and it all starts again, but differently.
Communities of Practice
What would be the result of our nation’s schools moving away from operating bureaucratically and instead coming together adhocratically on all levels of operation? Schools would become communities of practice. A community of practice, according to Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991), is a group of people who share a craft or a profession. These seminal thinkers in organizational studies write that communities of practice can either evolve naturally or deliberately by people sharing information and experiences with one another and as a result learning from one another and developing personally and professionally. Wenger, in his 1998 book Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, gives three structural characteristics of a community of practice: domain, community, and practice.
—a domain of knowledge creates common ground, inspires members to participate, guides their learning and gives meaning to their actions.
Community—the notion of community creates the social fabric for the learning. A strong community fosters interactions and encourages a willingness to share ideas.
Practice—while the domain provides the general area of interest for the community, the practice is the specific focus around which the community develops, shares, and maintains its knowledge.
At our school, the domain of knowledge that creates common ground for the community is that learning disabilities are a societal construct. Instead of labeling students as disabled or different, we embrace what Tom Skrtic calls the inevitability of human diversity. From this vantage point, our role as teachers and administrators is to work closely with each of our students, regardless of how they may read, write, solve mathematical equations, or move across a room, affording them knowledge, skills, and strategies that guide them toward success.
The practice around which our schools continues to develop, share, and maintain knowledge is adhocracy. Our school just finished celebrating fifty years—no small feat. The longevity of our school and its promise for the future is predicated upon our commitment to being one school that equitably shares the responsibilities of teaching our students.
You may be thinking now that Matthew and Michael teach at a school fundamentally different from my own school. I do not think that is the case at all. In fact, I believe that you can be a leader at your school and begin the process of moving away from bureaucracy and toward adhocracy by planting specific seeds.
If you teach at a public school, I know you cannot advocate for walking away from standards for an organic assessment. If you are at an independent school, you may be part of a community of practice that is deeply entrenched in practices that you find untenable, and I know that it is always terrifying to be the colleague who advocates for a change. However, if you are a teacher, ask your students to journal about what they want to learn and in which styles or modalities they most successfully to learn, if for no other reason than to get both you and them thinking about education differently.
If you are a department chair, sit down with your faculty and develop some threshold concepts with which you can discuss disciplinary knowledge and teaching practices. One threshold concept that my department frequently thinks about together is “writing is a social process.”
If you are an administrator, actively listen to your faculty when they share stories with you about teaching or about specific students and then respond thoughtfully. These interventions into your school day are not revolutionary, but they can be the start to an adhocratic school and a vibrant community of practice.
Bennis, Warren. The Temporary Society. New York: Harper and Row, 1968. Print.
Lave, Jean, and Etienne Wenger. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991. Print.
Skrtic, Thomas M. Disability and Democracy: Reconstructing (Special) Education for Postmodernity. New York, Teachers College University Press, 1995. Print.
Toffler, Alvin. Future Shock. New York: Random House, 1970.
Wenger, Etienne. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.