The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Brad Kershner. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Brad Kershner. Brad is a school leader and educational theorist. He’s currently head of the Early School at Carolina Friends School in Durham, North Carolina, not too far from here, about four-hour drive. He earned an MA in philosophy of religions at the University of Chicago and a PhD in education at Boston College. His recent writings and presentations have addressed topics such as complex systems, mindfulness, meditation, human development, integral theory, racism, and the use and misuse of technology. You can follow him at @bradkershner. K-E-R-S-H-N-E-R on Twitter. Welcome Brad.
Brad: Hey Jim. Wonderful to be here with you.
Jim: Yeah, this is going to be an interesting chat. Today we’re mostly going to be talking from his relatively new book, Understanding Educational Complexity Integrating Practices and Perspectives for 21st Century Leadership. And as people who listen to my podcast know, that title manages to hit three of my favorite topics, complexity, education, and leadership. We’ve had shows all three of those topics. It’ll be an interesting conversation to blend all three of them together. So you start out early in the book and say, there’s complexity everywhere. What does complexity mean to you? Let’s not start out within the educational context, but more generally when you say complexity, what do you mean?
Brad: Yeah, so I think first off it starts with an understanding of interdependence. So we’re thinking about how things are interconnected and how, when you have an impact in one area of the system, it’s going to have reverberating effects often in non-linear and unpredictable ways. So understanding systems and in one simple sense to me is sort of understanding the ways in which we can predict and understand those reverberating effects and the ways in which we can’t and have to sort of be open. And there’s a sense in which we can understand complex adaptive systems and understand schools as complex adaptive system. But there’s a huge shift in terms of the sort of physics level understanding of complex systems and then the way that it’s applied in educational contexts. So I’m not sure if you want to really get into those differences or I’m addressing it mostly from the lens of, there is a lot of literature coming out now sort of trying to use the lens of complex adaptive systems to understand social systems and human systems.
Brad: And I know that you’re coming from probably more of a maybe physics and hard science background. So there’s definitely probably some tensions and some conversation to have around the differences between sort of hard systems thinking and soft systems thinking. And I get into that a little bit in the book, but my focus is more on really understanding complexity as a contrast to linear thinking is also one way of thinking about it. Because in the context of schools, the lens of complexity can be helpful to the extent that it helps us to actually see how certain approaches to education and education reform are not accounting for enough. And not really seeing the interconnectedness and the effects that certain reforms are going to have and taking it to linear approach to change.
Jim: Yeah, what you call soft systems or soft complexity thinking is something I’m very familiar with and I actually promote. And I do make a similar distinction, which is yes, we have a science of complexity of the sort that our scientists do at the Santa Fe Institute, got a lot of equations, agent-based models all kinds of hard-nosed stuff in there. But one can take the ideas, what I call the metaphors of complexity and apply them to all kinds of things in real life. I first started applying complexity metaphors in the business world in the late 90s and found that they were very useful. In fact, we have a business network that’s associated with the Santa Fe Institute. And one of the main things we do is try to educate people on what you would call soft complexity or what I would call the metaphors of complexity. And so you have a lens to look at the world and really in a fundamentally different way once you get it. Right?
Brad: Yeah. And one of the things I try to pull out in the book is I try to do a review of some of that literature in terms of how understanding organizations as complex systems and how understanding that sort of soft systems lens, how that’s helpful for leadership. But I also try to make the point that there’s also this distinction between thinking of systems as a way to describe reality. Like as though it’s objective like these are systems out there and we can understand organizations as systems, we can understand schools as systems, we can understand cities as systems, but also the implication of that on the perspective taker and the thinker and the leader. And what does it mean to have a complex systems view? And what does it mean to really understand what those capacities and skills and developmental requirements are for people to be able to take complex systems views? And then to what extent is that capacity to even see things in terms of systems really essential and important for leadership?
Jim: Yup. And what kind of leadership is it important for, right? And you go into that again, all topics I’m very interested in. So with respect to education, education lives in a context, you can’t look at education as a black box sitting there by itself. And you mentioned that in fact, you referenced the fact that it is part and parcel of our late stage civilization here and what you call the meta crisis. Could you say a little bit more about that kind of the context for which one must consider when looking at education?
Brad: Yeah. Well, in a sense that’s really what the whole book is about, is trying to sort of peel back the layers of context and to really help us think about what are all of the relevant and salient factors that we have to account for, if we’re going to try to understand education? And part of the premise of the book is that starting off from the lens of an educational researcher and spending time in schools and having certain theories to apply to understand what’s happening in schools. Part of the conclusion I came to and that I wanted to share was that you really can’t understand what’s happening in a school, even if you’re embedded there and you’re there for a year, there’s the concrete context of the particular school, right? So there’s so many particulars in each school, understanding the people, understanding what the culture and the demographics and the economics of that particular context are.
Brad: But you also can’t even understand what’s happening in any particular school context, if you also don’t understand the larger sort of macroscopic forces that are at play in terms of what are the dominant discourses and ways of thinking that have shaped policy. And how have those policies impacted that school district over the last 20 years? And how has that trickling down in the schools? What are the dominant ways of thinking in that particular context? What are the dominant ways of thinking that have shaped policy? And also a key lens for understanding education is psychological development. So that’s one thing I want to bring in as well is you can’t really understand an educational leader if you don’t really understand how they’re thinking and making sense and making meaning of their work and even of what education is all about.
Brad: So there’s the sort of social context, there’s the cultural and sense-making context, both small-scale and large-scale, that sort of impacts the school. And then there’s the individuals in the school in particular, the leadership and the teachers, and sort of how to understand their thinking. So this is why integral theory is still important. It’s actually one way of actually taking a step back and looking at what are the most important and relevant features of context, of any educational context that can help us understand what’s going on. And how do we ensure that we’re not taking an overly partial view of any particular system or context? What are the sort of basic fundamental touchstones that we need to check in with? And I personally feel like integral theory is helpful in that way, because it sort of helps you get a sense of covering your bases and not being overly reductive or collapsing your interpretation to any particular aspect like, “Oh, let’s make it all about culture or let’s make it all about policy or let’s make it all about leadership.”
Jim: Yup, absolutely. We’ll talk about integral theory here in just a second. And of course the stakes here are high and our country has been complaining about its educational system and ratcheting more and more and more and more money into it since at least the ’70s. I think Gerald Ford was the first one I recall who said, “Somebody had imposed this kind of educational system on our country, we would consider it an act of war.” I think he actually said that. And yet for all of our efforts and all of our money, it’s not clear that our school systems, at least our public school systems have gotten better. In fact it’s a pretty much a commonplace and you would allude to it that educational reforms continue to fail at least more often than not.
Brad: Yeah. Yeah. That’s also part of what I’m trying to explain in the book to give people the sort of philosophical and historical context on why that is. And this weird and interesting paradox where we can say we care so much about education and pour so much money into it. And yet we don’t see the kind of results we want and yet fundamentally even how we’re conceiving of what results are, is part of the problem, right? The way that we even think about educational success is part of the problem that is, it creates a sort of feedback loop on ensuring that we’re not actually getting the kind of school systems that we really want for our children, probably because we’re focused on the wrong things. And we’re thinking about it in ways that are not complex enough and are in some ways anachronistic.
Jim: Absolutely. It’s very similar to the way we think about things in our game B space, try to think about things the same way in multi-dimensional non-linear emergent kinds of contexts. But before we get into that, let’s talk about integral theory, just a little. Late in the podcast we’ll get into it pretty deeply. And I will confess I’m not any great expert in it. I did read one short book on it called The Brief Theory of Everything, I believe it’s called on integral theory. And I’ve been corresponding with a guy named Rob Smith, who is somebody in the integral world. And he’s been trying to arrange Ken Wilber to come on the podcast, but for various reasons that’s been difficult. I just got an email from him not too long ago saying, “Hey, I won’t be this month.” So I’m very interested in the area though, I don’t know a tremendous amount. So why don’t you give us a very high level view what integral theory is? And I will mention the one part I have actually found already is useful in my own life are the so-called four quadrants.
Brad: Yeah. And that’s sort of where I start in the book. I mean, we could definitely talk a lot about integral theory, but I think the four quadrants is a good place to start. And I even already alluded to them a little bit, just in terms of when you’re thinking about the context for interpretation and understanding something as complex as education, it’s good to sort of have a sense of not reducing that complexity to just one area. So for instance, in integral theory, we’re thinking of reality in terms of insides and outsides and individuals and collectives. So in terms of individual, we have to think about individual humans and their psychology, their development, their sense-making, that’s sort of the interior of the individual. And then the exterior of the individual would be their behavior. How are individuals acting in the world and why?
Brad: And then collectively we have to understand culture. So collective, meaning-making the sort of ideologies and frameworks and cultural codes that we use to make sense of the world and the way that our relationships are constituted and the sort of quality and health of those relationships and that collective meaning making. And then the external and collective sense is just having an understanding of technology, social structure, like how are the large macroscopic forces that I was referring to in terms of policy and economics and technology and demographics and all like how we live and how our living is structured in the world. All of these things interrelate to create our individual and shared realities.
Brad: So when we look at a school, we want to understand the culture. We want to understand how people are understanding and making sense of the world. We want to understand the objective sort of systems and infrastructure and technology and how that’s influencing life at the school. And when we think about the individuals in the school, we want to think about, okay, how are they acting and why? And also how are they making sense of the world? So that’s when we get into the importance of developmental psychology, when we’re looking at the interior of individuals. So those are the sort of four touchstones you can think of it as behavior, psychology, culture, and then systems.
Jim: Very good. So today we’re going to talk in some depth about your experiences observing two schools and their two principals. Tell us a little bit how you got to know them and how you got involved in that study. What was the purpose of the study?
Brad: Yeah, so this grew out of my work as a doctoral student at Boston College. I was in that area and I spent some time in a number of schools throughout the city. And it was part of a project where we were actually bringing school leaders from different sectors together. So I was working with principals from charter schools, district schools, and Catholic schools. And it was this ongoing leadership program where we brought principals from these three different sectors together. And we tried to have them work together and we tried to help them develop leadership projects and give them ongoing coaching and support to help them improve their schools. So I was embedded in these two schools for two full years, a little bit more than two years. So I was visiting them regularly. I was sitting in on meetings. I was sitting in classrooms. I was doing lots of interviews with teachers and with the principals and working with a team of grad students and a professor.
Brad: And the lens that we initially tried to bring to understand what was happening in these schools was connected to complex systems. So the professor I was working with was very interested in complexity theory and was having me read a bunch of books and articles related to complex systems written by educational theorists. So that was sort of the entry into the study. But as I continued that work, I continued to have reflections on what was happening in those schools that I felt like were not actually adequately captured by the theoretical frames we were using. So that’s what led me to really try to do a sort of meta reflection and bring an integral theory to really get at a more full explanation and understanding of what I was seeing at these schools.
Jim: And I think you also used the lens of leadership, right? And leadership per se, is not specifically a complexity science concept, though we do study networks of leaders and things of that sort using complexity. I think you also drilled into the more or less traditional and also the new cutting-edge literature on leadership, which I thought was interesting. One of the metaphors that looks like you did extract from your complexity reading is the idea of the attractor, you use the somewhat more formal language of the strange attractor. And I often just say basins of attraction, say a little bit about what you mean by an attractor or strange attractor, a basins of attraction, particularly in the cultural context of something like a educational system.
Brad: Yeah, yeah. And that context is important because again, there are different sort of conversations or context within which these concepts and metaphors can be used. So getting away from the sort of hard sciences strange attractor, which I do use some of that language and drawing some of that theory. In the context of schools and education it’s really has to do with culture. So it’s really in terms of integral theory, looking at that lower left quadrant and that quadrant and culture and understanding what are the animating beliefs and principles and shared ideas. And in some ways the ideology that are kind of bringing people together and pulling people in and helping people make sense of the world and part of leadership in that context. And you see it, especially in one of the schools where they really try to create very explicitly this framework of values and ideas, right?
Brad: And this happens at a lot of schools where naming what your values are, having some sort of slogan that’s like, “These are the values. This is who we are. This is what we believe in, and this is what we’re trying to instill in our students. And we’re going to repeat it a lot and we’re going to refer to it in different ways. And we’re going to keep coming back to these same themes and values.” Because that becomes an attractor for that community. So you’re having the behavior and the sort of social systems sort of organizing around these orienting principles that relate to particular themes and values.
Brad: So for a school community highlighting sort of what is aligned with their vision and mission and what values do they really believe in, a lot of schools, that’s a very influential and impactful thing that they’re trying to do. And the idea is you’re trying to pull the students and the staff toward these shared values to create a sense of cohesion, and to create environment and the context where people are actually growing and learning and actually cultivating these positive qualities and values within their own lives and their own minds.
Jim: Yeah, that’s really important stuff. We recently had on the show, Sam Bowles, and we dug into his work on the social evolution of cooperation, and he shows pretty convincingly using a complexity lens that you need norms and you need policing of the norms, and you may even need meta policing of the norms if you’re likely to see very much cooperative behavior emerge in human cultures. And so I think it’s a pretty decent argument that things like norms and such act as force fields to help create the nature of the basin that one is in.
Brad: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
Jim: And then the other point, this involves also my own work in the quasi-political sphere, social political is moving from one basin to another is not easy. One of the metaphors I use is you want to understand one of these basins is think of a metal salad bowl with a marble in it. And the salad bowl is the kind of possible phase space of ways that our current society could be. And yet still remain our society or our educational system that’s recognizable as continuous with its historical predecessor. If you move the bowl around, the marble starts to roll around, go up the side a little bit, et cetera. If you slam the bowl hard into the edge of a table, hit it hard enough, the marble will go flying out and will land somewhere else usually in another basin.
Jim: In fact, I have a very interesting paper, at least I think it’s interesting, called In Search of the 5th Attractor, where I lay out the concept of social political, economic attractors at the society level and use some pretty pictures and some simple metaphors to bring this idea across. People might want to look there if they want to get a, perhaps more vivid view on this concept of basins of attraction. And how they’re relatively resistant to change, but once you give them enough force onto them, big change can happen.
Brad: Yeah, yeah. And those reflections are relevant for sure in a school context when school leadership is thinking about cultural change, but it also in a school context or really any human context. It also begs the question of what is the appropriateness and sort of right fit of a particular proposed attractor, like that new basin that you’re trying to lead people toward it’s very hard. But you also have to make sure that it’s actually meaningful and relevant and appropriate. And part of the reflection that I was doing in these schools is really in some ways, critiquing and interrogating what the animating values and principles were that were actually driving change at these schools. Because part of the problem that we’re having in public education particularly is that there’s a lot of top-down push and pressure to create change.
Brad: And even if people have read some good books and can use the language of complex systems and the language of cultural change, and it all sounds like it’s for the good. Actually when the rubber meets the road and in the actual experiential embodied like felt sense of being in that school. Oftentimes it just doesn’t feel quite right. And it doesn’t feel like the changes that administrators are pushing for are really necessarily aligned with the education and the development of the children in the building. They’re often influenced and animated by external factors such as pressure to increase standardized test scores.
Jim: Let’s put that one on the table. I mean, that’s one of the great fucked up force fields that’s out there today. My friend, Zach Stein has been on the show three times. He’s coming back for a fourth time next month. And he and I have talked about that quite a lot how yeah, you can make the school better at cranking out test scores if that’s your goal, but is that a reasonable goal?
Brad: Yeah, no, it’s a big part of the conversation and yeah, Zach is a great theorist and also a good friend. And I’ve had a chance to talk to him about a lot of this stuff as well. And we’re very much on the same page in terms of understanding the dynamics of what’s wrong with the forces that are animating change and reform in education.
Jim: And it was interesting. I mean, I admire the fact that we were able to navigate at both levels. At times you talked about these big picture issues, but other times you drove it down to the level, mostly of what a principal actually has to deal with. I mean, they’re heavily constrained and it was good that you didn’t stick only in what would be utopia, but rather dealt with what do they actually have to deal with?
Brad: Yeah, yeah. Thanks. I mean, that’s part of what I’m hoping the value of the text is, is that it’s relatively easy to just think about how we want things to be, or to criticize from the outside or to come up with some ideal system. But to actually be working in schools with real people and to be actually be reflecting in real time with people on what they’re doing and why. And then to really utilize these very abstract frames like integral theory, but use them to actually assess these sort of qualitative research methods that I used embedded in these schools. For me it’s work that I’ve not seen done very, very often. So I really was trying to bring the concrete and the theoretical together.
Jim: Yep. The other thing I like from a perspective though, unfortunately, in the real world of schools, there’s not as much room for this as we might like, is the concept of turbulence and perturbation. Talk about that a little bit.
Brad: Yeah. So that was one of the key ideas with which I looked at what’s happening in schools and really my intention in using those ideas, which is just really getting a sense of how are you causing disequilibrium for people in schools? When you bring in change, if you have some big idea, you have the mandate or you have some reform, you’re going to cause disequilibrium for the individuals in that system. And there’s a way in which that’s necessary and important because you can’t actually enact or foster growth and change, if you don’t first kind of break loose the places that people are kind of stuck. So disequilibrium can be good and you have to have some sense of disequilibrium to enact and foster change, but there are limits within and ranges within which that’s healthy and helpful. So part of the problem of education reform is a lack of sensitivity to the extent to which we are perturbing systems and that we are creating disequilibrium.
Brad: And if you get too much disequilibrium, you’ll get resistance from people. So for instance, say you come in as a new principal and you got a bunch of big ideas and you want to create all this change. But if you push too hard, you don’t have trust. You don’t have good relationships. The lower left quadrant of culture really isn’t healthy and people don’t even know you and they don’t believe in you. And you don’t have that shared alignment in some sort of cultural attractor where it’s like, you’re on the same page and you’re resonating on the same frequency. If you don’t have all that in your cultural context, that disequilibrium is going to lead to resistance and it’s going to lead to failure of your reform effort. So it’s all about sensitivity and an awareness of how people are responding and sort of that gentle nudge, but not going too far.
Jim: Well, and of course this is the art of it. And this is why it was appreciative of the fact that you didn’t keep all in complexity theory, but also looked at actual leadership as it is. I was a person who had a pretty long and interesting business career. And I managed as many as 5,000 people at one point and develop my own theories of leadership. And you hit on some of those important things. And then as we will talk about later, when we go to the two examples of the two schools, one principal decided that their system could take a bigger shock than the other and proceeded accordingly. And that’s something that complexity science is not going to tell you. That’s a skill of leadership to assess what is possible in a given context and to push as hard as you can in a given context but no harder.
Brad: Yeah, totally. I mean, there’s so much to integrate in terms of ideas from leadership. And there’s so many different adjectives that you can use for leadership, right? There’s this leadership, there’s that leadership, but really some sense of fusion leadership is sort of where I land. Because it really is about integrating all these different capacities and skills that you have to have as a leader and taking a complex systems lens. And then reflecting on how developmental capacities influence leadership, which is a lens that you don’t often see in leadership literature. But I think is a direction we need to go more if we’re really going to make sense of an individual’s ability to actually enact some sort of meaningful and helpful fusion or integration of all the different skills and capacities that it takes to be a good leader.
Jim: Yeah. We’ll get into that very interesting psychological development part a little bit later, you mentioned fusion, which is great. Back in my day, people would say and this was business gurus running loose every which way, selling their formulas. And they’d say, “Hey, Mr. Rutt, you’ve been pretty successful as a business leader at every scale from small startup to public company CEO, what style is your leadership?” And I just made up a name just for the hell of it. I said, macho eclectic, which gave that same sense that it’s got to be a fusion of different things that believing that one single perspective is going to give you the answer of how to be a leader, ain’t going to do it.
Jim: And in those olden days, I could sort of highlight the fact that I’m a bit of a redneck, a bit of a table pounder. And so threw the two together and called it macho eclectic. I should mention one other person who I’ve learned a fair amount about this kind of stuff from who’s a colleague of Zach’s and that’s Theo Dawson. Had some conversations with her from time to time, very interesting thinker in this field. If you don’t know her, it’d be worth getting to know her.
Brad: Yeah. I mentioned electica toward the end of the book. And I use electica as an example of a place that people should look and where we should keep continuing to do future research in terms of understanding human development and Zach and Theo started electica sometime ago. So yeah. I am very familiar with that work and it’s really, really good stuff.
Jim: Really, indeed. A couple of things then we’ll turn to the actual experiences where we’ll go with that next. One of the things that seems to follow from this idea of turbulence and perturbation is what I like to call a experimental mindset, but with epistemic modesty, which means that it’s kind of big words. What does that really mean? It means that in higher order complex systems, we can’t really predict how they’ll all unfold particularly if we start making changes, we start to perturb them, but we don’t have any other way to find out. Because there really isn’t a principle theoretical way to predict the unfolding of a higher order complex system. So we have to experiment. The epistemic modesty part is that our ability to foresee the consequences of our actions are sufficiently bad, that we would be wise to make relatively small experiments at any one time and ones that are relatively unlikely to have disastrous outcomes.
Brad: Yeah, yeah. That’s meaningful. And I think in the educational context where that strikes home is in the contrast to how educational reform is typically done, where again, you typically have some sort of top-down reform idea of what needs to happen and you have certain goals that need to be met. And then you’re all about manipulating the process of whatever is happening in the school to achieve those quantitative outcomes. And it’s a very linear way of thinking. And it’s a very set and rigid way of thinking in terms of, look, this is where we need to go. This is what we need to do. And our job as administrators is to get teachers to do it and to cause of disequilibrium to make that change. And that’s what we call ed reform in some ways. And what you’re pointing to is yeah, much more this complexity way of thinking, which is very different from the beginning because you start from a place of not knowing.
Brad: And then that enables you to actually also shift the way that relationships unfold, right? Because when you’re going to have epistemic humility and when you’re interested in actually experimenting and tinkering and figuring things out together, it opens up a whole range of possibilities for how to engage the other people in that process. Right? Because if it’s genuinely open, then you can be open to decentralized leadership. You can be open to sharing leadership, you can be open to other people’s ideas and other people coming up with ideas that you and the people above you wouldn’t have thought of. And in general, having the people closest to the work come up with the ideas is a really important principle too. So having teachers and even students leading the change and generating the ideas and responding to their particular concrete contexts is so important. And having leadership that can envision that and see how to facilitate that is so crucial. And it’s really not. It’s definitely not the norm in most schools.
Jim: Yeah. As unfortunately contrary to the whole command and control top-down tendencies of bureaucratic organizations, frankly. Now, another thing before we go on, both of the two principles that you observe were participants in what you called the school leadership academy. And you referenced the school leadership academy a couple of times and alluded to some of the things that were done there, but you didn’t really go into it in much detail. Could you tell us a little bit more about the school leadership academy? I think it’s a euphemism, that’s not its actual name, but.
Brad: I’ll limit what I’ll say there, because that could have been a whole nother book. And part of my colleagues we were thinking about maybe writing some more about just the leadership academy and there’s a lot of complexity just to unpacking the dynamics of this academy. And so just to say just briefly a really high level, my university got a huge grant from an organization that typically is involved in business. And the grant had created a leadership organization to prepare principals, but using a lot of ideas from business manager. So some of these ideas of leadership and management and complex systems were connected to this range of literature and experience related to management in the business world. And I’d say that there were some good things that came out of that and it was a great project to be a part of.
Brad: And I was in at the ground level as a grad student sort of helping to develop the program and putting together workshops for these principals and then doing the research. But there’s also a sort of shadow side or a problematic side of that whole situation in that it’s part of this bigger dynamic in public education. Where actually it largely ties into this sort of linear top-down control orientation and thinking that we can take sort of principles from business management. And then just take them and teach principal basically to be managers and have them run their schools kind of like a business. Is actually, it gets complicated because there are some problems with that. And in some ways, what I saw was actually that orientation of wanting to run a school like a business and wanting principals to be like managers, in some ways, it actually takes the pedagogical and teacherly authority away from that role of the principal.
Brad: And it actually created layers of resentment and frustration from teachers who sort of felt like the culture of their school was changing when they get a principal who actually doesn’t have a lot of teaching experience, really doesn’t know what they’re talking about in terms of education. And they’re sort of a ladder climber who just was wanting to be successful and wanting to manage people and make more money, not just talking about the two schools I worked at, but just across the board, that’s a dynamic that’s playing out. So I had a trepidation in terms of really getting into sort of the messiness of that, because in some ways it was this program that had a lot of money and was trying to help. And I was able to learn a lot from that process. But at the same time, I had very mixed feelings about it.
Brad: Because I could see sort of taking a step back and seeing where the money was coming from and how it was being used. And I actually felt like some of the problems of public education were being reinforced and exacerbated by trying to push principals to sort of see their schools as businesses to manage. Because the obvious metaphor there or the obvious analog there is that instead of making money, we’re trying to actually maximize the sort of quantified output of test scores, right? So it’s like whether the student is the output or the test scores are the output. It really lends itself to this sort of linear and reductive approach to education, which is a big part of the problem.
Jim: Yup. In fact, in my circles, we refer to the unreformed public school education system as the sausage factory. Which resonates very much with your point of view, that if you think about it as a standardized product with weights and measures, i.e., test scores, it starts to look a hell of a lot like a sausage factory. Who the hell wants to spend 12 years in a sausage factory? You’re frankly, probably better off working with your crusty old uncle who’s an unreformed alcoholic and bricklayer, right? You probably learn more than you would go into the sausage factory for 12 years.
Brad: Yeah. I mean, there’s a lot and that’s the complexity of understanding all that’s going into the sausage. There’s a lot to unpack.
Jim: And there’s one of the things I found in my own reading of literature on leadership, some non-traditional sources, including indigenous cultures, how do they do leadership? And again, it did sound like your SLA did understand this, or maybe had some sense of it, but they weren’t really strong on it. And that’s the difference between position-based leadership and role-based leadership. Position-based leadership is, “I am the principal. I am the boss.” Well, role-based leadership would be, “Hey, we got to organize a bake sale. Let’s get Veronica to organize the bake sale because she’s the best person for doing bake sales.” And to apply that more widely though, and into more mission critical components. Because maybe the principal isn’t the right person to lead the instructional development of the other teachers, for instance. And getting away from position-based leadership, moving more towards role-based leadership strikes me as something that we really have something to learn from pre-modern people.
Brad: Yeah. Yeah. That’s a good point. I’d say in these schools and in most schools, I’d say there’s a lot of internal contradictions and tensions between some espoused philosophies and the theories that people espousing theories in use. So it’s like what people say and what people sort of the language that some of the principals were learning to use was definitely intention with some of the behavior and some of the defacto ways of operating. And a lot of that came from the pressures that they were under. Because ultimately in a lot of school contexts, I feel like people are being exposed to more and more sophisticated language and ideas around leadership. But ultimately at the end of the day, if the incentivization is around maximizing quantifying outputs and outcomes, then it’s going to be the tail wagging the dog no matter how well that dog can speak.
Jim: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Another idea that you came close to. I don’t know if you quite brought it out explicitly, but I’m going to float it for you and get your reaction. In the business related complexity metaphor field, there’s a distinction like Dave Snowden is most known for this, is the distinction between the complex and the complicated. And that something like a society with children that need to have intergenerational transfer of knowledge so that they can be successful in this high order complex society. It’s a fundamentally complex problem. And yet our standard solution is to build complicated machinery, meaning non-organic, non-adaptive, very prescriptive, et cetera. And that complicated attempts to solve complex problems tend to be short-lived in terms of their success. Maybe the John Dewey style school system was kind of good in 1922, but probably not so good now.
Jim: And inevitably becomes more and more costly as you have to patch and patch and patch the various failures of the complicated solution and the costs truly are staggering. Washington DC, I looked it up 2018, spent $22,000 per student. And New York State, the whole state, rural, suburban, and urban $24,000 per student. If one were to scale that in a different way, a one-room school house with 20 students and maybe a married couple as teachers, you could easily afford to pay them $300,000 a year. So there’s something broken from compounded complicatedness, trying to confront what is an inherently complex problem.
Brad: Yeah. Yeah. These distinctions run really deep and have so many iterations. And there’s so many ways to kind of come at these tensions and distinctions. So that’s one the complicated and complex. And to me that’s another way of really pointing toward the adaptive part of complex adaptive systems. And understanding how humans in human systems, not only are people going to adapt and not only can you not treat a school or people as though they are complicated machines. And not only can we not reduce the reality of a human system to something like a materialist clockwork input, output machine, that’s so deeply wrong. But also it sort of begs the question of, well then if you’re really going to look at it as a complex adaptive system and acknowledge and appreciate and honor the complexity of that situation as very distinct from just a merely complicated situation like technology. Then you really have to get into the intricacies of, okay, well what do we do to understand humans and that human interiority, right?
Brad: Because this is another big point of integral theory is that when we just look at interiors and exteriors, there are many ways in which we have reduced the complexity of our social reality to focusing on quasi objective, exterior material reality. And we’ve either bracketed or denied or repressed, or just failed to understand our individual and collective interiors. And there’s no context where it’s more important and more relevant than an education to really understand and appreciate and acknowledge and be responsive to, and to be cultivating our interiors, our thoughts, our beliefs, our ways of thinking and understanding and making meaning and sense. So that’s a big, big, and important point.
Jim: Yep. And we come at it from a slightly different direction in the game B space, but like similar intent, which is that to actually build something that works in a complex domain, you need to co-evolve the people and the institutions. The institutions can only be as good as the capacity of the people. And the capacity of the people is drawn forward by good institutions if they have good institutions. And the attempt to just take the people as they are period, and build institutions to minimize the harm that they do. And let’s call that the complicated versus complex approach. That’s not going to work, but only focusing on personal development, isn’t going to work very much better if you don’t have institutions that aren’t fulfilling to those people and draw them forward into the best of who they can be.
Brad: Yeah. Yeah. And again, that’s why just that simple four quadrant framework is so helpful because all of that is really implied. The interior and the exterior and the individual and the collective, it all has to be implied and all has to be seen as interdependent all the time.
Jim: And of course, unfortunately this kind of thinking is difficult to do in bureaucracies, the antithesis of a bureaucracy, essentially, it’s this kind of thinking. And it reminds me of a fairly famous Washington Post newspaper story. I grew up in DC area. And so I followed the Washington Post even though I didn’t live there. This might have been 20 years ago. They did a deep dive in compared and contrast the arch diocese of Washington’s Catholic school system, which had like 40,000 students and the Washington DC school system, which had 50,000 students similar in size. It turned out the Catholic main office bureaucracy consisted of 54 people, 54 people for 40,000 students while the Washington DC central office bureaucracy was 1500 people, only slightly less than the number of teachers. So it was like, no wonder they can’t get anything to work. This is the essence of a complicated organization where you layer levels upon levels, upon levels of staff to put patches upon patches upon patches on broken rigid systems.
Brad: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, and I don’t get into this in the book, but actually what that makes me think of off the bat is like the work of Peter Turchin and just thinking about the larger cycles and economic forces that we’re in. And the increasing bureaucracy and sort of competition and job needs for so-called elites, right? Because more and more people are getting degrees, more and more people are getting graduate degrees and the economy just keeps growing. And I feel like that could potentially be one manifestation of even much larger sort of macro economic manifestation, which is the increase of sort of elite and managerial, bureaucratic type positions throughout society.
Brad: And education is one sector which is sort of enacting that or actualizing that. And it is an issue. I’d say it’s an issue in higher ed too that it’s something that I’ve read a bit about in terms of the bloated administrative staff and budgets of higher ed. And the amount, the percentage of money that’s actually going directly to teachers and education is getting smaller and smaller. So that’s a huge, complicated, systemic problem as well just of many different sectors.
Jim: And frankly, even if you just paid the people and told them to stay home, we’d probably be better off because if they’re there at the central office, they send out diktats to the principals and the teachers and all this sort of stuff. So if we have the Peter Turchin overproduction of elites problem, make jobs, pay them, tell them to stay home, probably better off.
Brad: Yeah. It’s funny. I think we’re sort of heading toward the, again, I mean, this is one of the many factors that people are sensing we’re heading towards is some sort of collapse or phase shift. And I think there’s a renewed simplicity we need to find. And education is definitely a sector at which finding a new second simplicity where we can come back almost like you mentioned, like the one room schoolhouse. A much smaller, simpler context of educational transmission is maybe really where we need to go.
Jim: Yeah. And our little, very rural school system where I lived 200 kids in the K-12, I’ve more than once thought about suggesting that they close down the centralized sausage factory and offer 250, $300,000 a year for people to run 13 one room, school houses, one for each grade, or even better do them geographically where you have mixed grades. There were some very interesting things that came from those multi age, one room, school houses back in the day. And for $300,000, you could get a hell of a good teacher. I guarantee it.
Brad: Yeah, well also, I mean, even if we just think of private schools I mean there is already this sort of principle in place. And if you have a separate, smaller community of mixed ages, where there’s elementary K or K-12, we already have models of smaller scale, less top heavy, less bureaucratic organizations. The question is how do we scale that? How do we make it equitable? How do we ensure every child’s right to some sort of intelligent sort of collaborative educational community like that? And then what are the accountability structures? What are the ways of even determining and defining educational value? Right? So these are the complex questions that come into play.
Jim: Yeah. I’m going to skip over a bunch of other stuff because we’ve been having such a good conversation. I want to leave some room for the developmental psychology stuff at the end. And we certainly want to talk about your experiences at the two schools. But this is from your book. You quoted somebody else, but being a semi scholarly work, I know you quote them to say what you really want to think more or less, right? “A main point here is that we foster emergence by indirect efforts. We can only replicate the conditions that support innovation or reform, not the innovation or reform itself.” That’s actually a deep idea. Why don’t you unpack that for us?
Brad: Yeah. That one of those key insights from complexity thinking in leadership. And again, I think it’s most helpful and simply understood in contrast to the kind of overly linear thinking which predominates, which is that state you have some experience at some school or you have some successful school and there was a strong crest you want to replicate, right? So there’s a really strong push in education to replicate certain kinds of schools. And this is especially true in the charter school field where you have these no excuses schools, and it’s very particular in model and way of approaching education. And you end up seeing a lot of schools that are really copying and replicating each other in very cookie cutter fashion. And in many ways it kind of takes, it takes the life force and the creativity and the innovation and the collaboration and the emergence and the novelty out of the whole process of education.
Brad: And it really takes the power away again from the people who are closest to the work who should really be able to respond to the students who are in front of them. For me, the essence of that quote is really about creativity and it’s about actually leaving some openness and some sense for agency so that teachers and educators can really have sovereignty and agency and be adaptive. And it’s honoring the fact that they are enacting a complex system and they need to have agency and creativity in order to do that. And you can’t over determine people’s behavior. You can’t overdetermine people’s goals or behavior or process.
Jim: You won’t get the best out of them if you do, you’ll get something out of them, but it won’t be the best.
Brad: Exactly. And often you’ll get resistance, right? And you’ll get people not really putting their heart and soul into it. And there’s nothing more tragic than taking the heart and soul of teaching away from educators, right? If we want to have good schools, we need to have teachers who are on fire with passion and are empowered to keep learning themselves and to be them best selves and to create the best schools that they can create, where they are.
Jim: Indeed. And I’ve had the experience of doing two business turnarounds and I’ve talked to people who’ve come in and done essentially educational turnarounds. And in both cases, what you get from generations of rigid, but stupid leadership is passive aggressive resistance, right? And many people will tell you that you’ll find that in this public school system, I can tell you for sure, you’ll find it in kind of older, somewhat dysfunctional companies. And that’s not the way to compete in the 21st century. Another quote was that, “We should be demanding the creation of ecologies of innovation supported by experiments in novelty.” Is very similar to my own business leadership theories, which is we need to encourage an appropriate amount of risk taking. And one of the things that’s really important there is you can’t persecute honorable failure. You have to be willing to accept some level of failure, not catastrophic failure, but that, “We thought this through, it seemed like it should work. We’ll give it a try at a reasonable scale and it didn’t work. We’re not going to shoot the person as long as they did everything right.”
Brad: Yeah. Yeah. It’s really, really on that same theme and idea. And coming back to that thing that you mentioned about passive aggressive resistance, another really key insight is to see how that manifests at both the level of teacher and student and at the level of administration and teacher. And that’s one of the things I’ve really learned working in schools is you have to treat teachers and educators with respect and agency, if you really want that respect and agency and creativity to actually be also enacted by the students. So if we don’t give teachers any autonomy or agency or sovereignty, then they’re going to have that passive aggressive resistance. And then that also is a way of describing the way that the students respond to those same educational environments. So whatever principles you want to instill and enliven in students, you have to also instill and enliven them in teachers. So there’s a sort of fractal nature to these principles where you, if you want to see those principles manifest in students, it really has to be embodied all the way up and down the educational hierarchy.
Jim: Indeed. One last kind of theory quote, before we jump into the stories of the two schools, this is again from your book, “Leading for emergence entails four crucial steps, creative disequilibrium conditions, amplifying actions and experiments, nurture new seeds of change, drawing attention to promising possibilities and stabilize feedback, institutionalize new structures and increase feedback loops.” It seems bang on, a great summary of what we’ve been talking about.
Brad: Yeah. Really on that same theme of experimentation, openness, creativity, empowering others, and being in those relational dynamics to really genuinely be open-minded and see what’s going to happen and learn from it like to have a learning mindset as a school leader. Right. Which is, “Oh my God, what a novel idea.” Like [inaudible 00:52:10], that actually we be trying to learn, to be a learner engaged in learning again at every level, there’s this fractal quality, you want children to learn? Okay, then how are the teachers learning? You want the teachers to learn? Okay, how are the administrators learning? It has to go all the way up and down.
Jim: Indeed. All right. So that’s I think a pretty good grounding in what you presented in the theory perspective. Let’s move now to the actual stories. These are really intriguing stories, very nicely presented, well worth reading for the audience out there. The first school that you talked about, it was the Jeffrey Jackson School and its principal, Harold Weatherby, who was its third principal in three years. Why don’t you tell us what you saw and what you learned there at Jeffrey Jackson School?
Brad: Yeah, well, a big part of that story in context was that principal turnover. To have three principals in three years, speaks to some pretty big systemic issues in terms of what’s going on in terms of relationships and trust building and the degree to which teachers really trust and believe a principal coming in. And this was the principal who actually did not have a lot of teaching experience. He actually was a business world transplant who kind of went into education from banking. And he was a very likable guy, really, really a great guy, but didn’t have deep knowledge or deep thinking about education and the educational process. And was very much doing everything he could do to increase the test scores at this school. I mean, which is really what it came down to. And there was very explicit tensions between the teachers and this principle around how realistic it was and how actionable it was to basically manipulate and improve these quantified outcomes for students.
Brad: And there was some interesting internal contradictions and tensions in what was happening there, because again, he was in some ways, all about the ideas of empowerment and all about like he was getting these ideas from the leadership academy that had to do with distributed leadership and cultural change and creating this cultural tractor for a school and building up the school culture. There, all this positivity and all of these positive words and ideas, but ultimately it kind of fell flat. And at the end of the day, it was a really sort of high stress environment where he, and one assistant that he had just really had to work really, really hard, just perpetually pushing teachers to try to do more and more and more and more. And you got a lot of resistance from a group of teachers who had been there a long time.
Brad: This i is a big urban where many teachers had been there a really long time and their jobs are safe. There’s like no agency on the part of the principal to choose his staff. There’s really no agency on the part of the teachers to choose their curriculum or even how they’re going to teach or even what their goals for teaching are. So you could just feel this sort of agency and sovereignty kind of sucked out of people in the system. And a lot of tension, despite the fact that this leader was a very gregarious, positive likable guy.
Jim: Yep. That sounds like he started to do some things right. Like for instance, he figured out that in culture change communications is key. It looks like he invested quite a bit in communications techniques and infrastructure in his organization. Maybe tell us a little bit about that.
Brad: Yeah. He did again, lots of good things and good ideas. And he was really trying to build trust. I mean, he had a sense that it wasn’t there and he definitely had a sense of teacher resistance. So I’d say well-intentioned overall and lots of good things happen, but when it came down to it, the one X factor for him was increasing test scores and changing teachers teaching was the hardest thing to do. So what he ended up doing is creating a lot of changes, sort of external to the classroom and sort of putting energy into making things look better, creating a new school slogans and a new school crest and doing activities and community events and bringing parents in. And that was all great. And they’re getting parents involved and having sort of building that trust and community.
Brad: So some of that was really good, but fundamentally it didn’t change the actual educational ideology or architecture or system. And also as true to the story of the sort of systemic problems, he didn’t end up staying at the school very long, which goes even beyond the sort of story that I tell in the book. But I mentioned that at the end. So yeah, lots of, again, lots of good intentions, but one of my reflections was that those intentions are not enough. What we really needed to, to really understand and improve schools like this is first of all, understand the influence of the policies that are out of this guy’s hands and out of the teacher’s hands. And how do we give them more agency within the school?
Brad: And two, looking at the way this principal was making sense of things, I sort of did a little sort of informal, developmental reflection in terms of how was he making sense of things? And seeing that he really did not have a post-conventional perspective on his situation. He had a very conventional, very totally bought in apparently to the aims and goals of manipulating the test scores. And he didn’t really question it or reflect on that in a meaningful way. And for me, in my personal reflection about understanding him in this school, to me, that was really important. And something that we want to be aware of because we really want principals to be able to have a critical reflection and a sort of metacognition on their situation.
Jim: Let me talk about another aspect of what he did, which again, seemed to be following the SLA ideas and ideas that I would agree with. I’ve done similar things is that he attempted to develop numerous self-organizing groups. He had grade level teams, he had the instruction team, he had the school campus team, et cetera. And in theory, in theory, these were to be self-organizing decentralized organizations that had some authority. But the mode that he fell into unfortunately, was he ended up being the leader of most of these teams. At least that’s how I read it. You have a beautiful graphic that shows the various circles for the various teams and their overlaps. And then you have right in the center in about 40 point type, Harold Weatherby. Tell us about that.
Brad: Yeah. And I think the contrast with the other school is meaningful because they both came in with the same ideas. So yeah, they both principals at both schools had these ideas of decentralizing distributing leadership it’s basically was part of their charge. And this was part of the theory of what they were trying to engage. So yeah, the creation of all these committees and putting teachers in positions where they can be part of these decision-making bodies. And yet at this district school. Yeah. This principal Harold Weatherby, he very much kept control. There was a felt sort of visceral sense being in these meetings that like the buck stopped with him and he was driving everything.
Brad: And the energy of the teachers was often very deflated and even some passive aggressive resistance and some snarky comments here and there. And overall, he was not able to create the kind of energy where people really bought in and really were aligned with him and really believed in it, probably because he couldn’t loosen up those reins. He felt such pressure to perform. And he felt such pressure to manipulate these outcomes that he really felt like he had to push, push, push, and drive everything. And I was able to see from my perspective, especially in contrast to other schools, that it was really counterproductive.
Jim: Let me throw an alternative read on this, because actually this reminds me of one of my two turnaround things in the business world. Maybe he had no choice, again, you pointed out, and this is critical. And we compare and contrast it with the next example, this will become even clearer. He had no authority over his staff and he couldn’t fire anybody. He couldn’t bring new people in. He tried to bring some new people in, but there was no budget, et cetera. And maybe his people just weren’t up to it. And sometimes that’s the case. I have found trying to do culture change that truthfully, you’ve got to bring in some new and different people. You don’t have to turn over the whole staff, but you need to be able to have your kind of people in the organization to be role models to you, to be cheerleaders for what’s going on, et cetera.
Jim: And if you can’t do that, and if the people’s capacity isn’t high enough, you might for a time have to do that, have to lead everything yourself. I can literally think of a situation where I ended up having to do that, when I made the assessment that the capacity of the people on the ground just wasn’t there. Now they could be led to get there, but there was nobody with leadership capability to do it themselves. Now in a year, we changed that. We brought in a bunch of new people. That’s the advantage of relatively fast growing private sector company. And a year later, I was out of all of that, but that’s an alternative explanation that the nature of the personnel system might have made what he did, the right decision.
Brad: Yeah. I’d say it’s a both and, I tried to actually highlight the contrast between his school and the other school, because the interesting thing was him being at a district school, there were such limits on his hiring and firing people. And I mean to an absurd degree where it’s like he had a very high percentage of Spanish speaking students and actually found like a Spanish speaking teacher he wanted to hire, but he wasn’t able to because of sort of union seniority rules. That is definitely a big part of his context and a big part of his uphill battle. Whereas the other school was a Catholic school, private Catholic school, and the principal had many different contextual features, had much more trust because she had worked at the school a really long time. People knew her really well. They believed in her.
Brad: And ultimately as soon as she became principal, she fired a bunch of people and hired a bunch of young teachers and it’s pros and cons, it’s pros and cons, but that autonomy in general is really important. And it was definitely a huge factor in the difference between the district school and the Catholic school. And it was definitely a factor that was working against him, but I’d say just again, getting to know him and seeing it up hand. There was both really significant contextual challenges that he faced and real limits to his autonomy and agency. But also the way that he was operating within that context was limited by my sense of the limits of his basic worldview.
Jim: Let’s leave it there because as you say both and, but I can see being in a situation where that was the least bad strategy. For the time being until you can get some fresh people in there, you may have to take more leadership role than you want, but if you’re not that good at it yourself, then that may not be so optimal. So let’s now move on to St. Catherine’s School and Helen Matthew, who, as you say, had been there several years as a teacher and then assistant principal for a number of years. And then at the time that you were there, she’d been principal, what for about four years, something like that?
Jim: Tell that story. What was going on at St. Catherine’s?
Brad: Yeah, it was really interesting to see big differences and also big similarities. So, and again, coming in with a very similar ideas and intentions and charges as a principal wanting to create this cultural change, wanting to distribute leadership. But as I said, context is so different in terms of people really knew her and believed in her. There was very little resistance from teachers. The collegiality was at a much higher level and her power was kind of unquestioned. So she could really kind of do whatever she wanted. And the impact of that isn’t just the actual decisions that can be made, but the way that people respond to the relational dynamics, right? You don’t get the same kind of passive aggressive resistance from people when they know that they kind of have to shape up or get shipped out. So my sense that the Catholic school was, again, older teachers, who’d been around a while, who she kept on, who were really working hard to change and do things differently than the way they had done them for however many years.
Brad: And that was really stressful and difficult and created a lot of disequilibrium for the older teachers. And then she was able to hire a handful of younger teachers who had really strong work ethics, and were able to kind of come in with some new energy. And you really, it’s funny because it’s like this old Catholic school that’s been around for a while, but it had the energy, more of a startup company. Where it’s like, you just get the sense that people except without the money, because people are working really hard for not a lot of money, but they believe in what they’re doing. And she created this whole cultural idea of dream big. And everything was dream big, they just referred to it over and over and over again.
Brad: I mean, it was kind of cheesy and corny and simple, but people they seem to actually kind of get behind it and be energized by this thing of like, “Okay, they’re dreaming big and the school is changing and things are going to get better and this is going to be a great school.” And it just had a very different energy to the environment.
Jim: Yeah. And then as we go back to the same similar bubble chart that you had in the book, she generated even more teams, but rather than being the leader of every single one of them, she seems to have been much more a general behind the scenes and letting the lieutenants and captains run their own operations.
Brad: Yeah. Her enactment of the principles of distributed leadership were much more aligned with, I think the ideals that they were both striving for and she was much better, much more able to really, to really embody that vision and those ideas by really empowering her staff and really delegating more. And teachers for the most part, did a good job of stepping up to the plate and really taking on more leadership than they were used to, or probably would have asked for. And one important connection I try to make there is I do sort of sense that there was this overall difference between the two principals. It just kind of what I was referring to before was it wasn’t just contextual differences that influence their behavior. It was both contextual differences that influenced their behavior and differences of sense-making.
Brad: And I sense that even just in the way that she was more critical of her context, she was more critical of standardization. She was more critical of testing. She was just in general, more post-conventional and more reflective and metacognitive. That I saw that as being very much related to the fact that she was also able to have more epistemic humility in a way, and actually experiment more and empower other people more.
Jim: Yeah. Very interesting. And part of it is no doubt personal, right? That that’s just who she was, but it’s also partially the degrees of freedom that she had within the context of the institutional structure. So again, we get back to this game B theory of individuals and institutions that co-evolve and co-attract each other. If you have a certain kind of institutional structure, you’ll attract certain kinds of people that will do well in that institutional structure and that institutional structure can help upgrade the capacity of those people. Then you reinvent the institutional structure as you go, as she clearly did. So thinking this is a co-evolutionary context is really quite helpful.
Brad: Yeah. I mean, ultimately I think it’s kind of beautiful to be able to see schools and social systems in that way, a co-evolutionary dynamics in all four quadrants. And just seeing how things are unfolding through those interrelationships and interactions and being influenced by different levels of complexity of the agents themselves.
Jim: Yep. And then you had a final section comparing and contrasting the two. I don’t want to go through that didactically, but what’s the takeaway that one should get from reading these two stories?
Brad: Well, I’d say we’ve touched on a lot of the points that we want to understand, which is the importance of these systemic institutional factors and the downsides of really handcuffing and limiting the agency of school leaders. And then that trickling down to limiting the agency of teachers and ultimately students. So really having that up close, documented sort of qualitative sense of how those institutional and policy constraints trickle down and impact the behavior of people in schools is really important. And getting a sense of these sort of cultural, qualitative relational aspects of schools being really important.
Brad: The difference in trust and energy and competence that was more prevalent in the Catholic school than in the district school. These are the things that we have to have in mind as policymakers and as people who are thinking about education. There’s all of these dynamics at play that really impact the experience of students. And you cannot reduce the complexity of the school to again, to grades or test scores or any quantified outcomes. Because when you do that, all of the richness of all these other layers of what’s happening in these schools is lost.
Jim: Indeed. I think that’s good. That makes a lot of sense to me. Now let’s turn to our last topic, which is the idea of development, psychological development, or even as it’s sometimes called adult psychological development. Let’s start from there and then let’s move towards integral theory in a little bit more detail as much as we can do in 15 minutes.
Brad: All right. Yeah. I mean, in general, it’s sort of funny that it doesn’t go without saying that in order to understand education and the educational process, we have to understand the developmental trajectory that human beings are on in the first place. Right? I mean like our whole understanding of what education is about and what our goals are, sort of presuppose an understanding of what our potentials and capacities are for growth and learning and development. So and again, this is one of the deep problems of what has become normalized over the past sort of 20, 30 years, especially, is that a lot of the logic and ways of thinking about educational outcomes have really been determined largely by the bureaucratic and efficiency oriented mechanations of the educational bureaucracy itself and of the testing industry actually. And not of not being informed deeply by the learning sciences and informed deeply about how human beings grow and develop.
Brad: So it’s relevant in the context of understanding children. And then it’s also relevant in terms of understanding teachers and school leaders. Again, for me, there’s this sort of fractal way of looking at it in terms of children, teachers, and administrators, and in all of these levels, what you ultimately have are human beings who are growing and learning and developing or not. So understanding sort of what’s possible and what the trajectory is and what that spectrum of cognition and consciousness and skill and capacity looks like. And having as rich as possible of an understanding of that terrain, that developmental terrain is of the utmost importance.
Brad: And it’s a very complex terrain. There’s so many ways to cut the pie in terms of how we make sense of even the development of one individual. But what I try to do in the book is to provide some orienting generalizations drawing on some pretty simple theories like Robert Kegan. And then I bring in Torbert’s theories, which is a little bit more fine-grained and it fits within this integral frame where everything’s evolving and growing and developing. So that’s sort of the intro to the idea of development. I’m not sure where you want to go with that.
Jim: Yeah. Why don’t you start by talk a little bit about Kegan’s levels of development and why do we think there might actually be levels that you actually have to go from one to the other, which is not necessarily an intuitively obvious idea?
Brad: Yeah. So part of the fundamental thinking here is that there are these developmental stages and that you kind of go through them in some sense, sequentially, they are dialectical or hierarchical. So it’s very similar to, for instance, I know you’re familiar with the model of hierarchical complexity, so that’s just one of many models. So there’s many different kinds of developmental models. Some are domain specific which are really looking at specific skills and capacities that develop dialectically and hierarchically, and then there’s more global theories. So Kegan’s thinking is more of a global way of really looking at the development of the self and thinking of moving through the general stages of being sort of conventional or socialized. So having a socialized mind is being really oriented toward the group, kind of taking on the norms and assumptions and ways of being of whatever your group is.
Brad: And then moving into a more self-authoring phase of life, where you’re able to really, you start to get more individuated from your group. You’re thinking from yourself, you’re cultivating your sense of rationality. And then you can grow beyond that into a more self-transforming self, where you’re really starting to actually get post-conventional. And really reflect on the norms of your group in a way where you’re actually able to push the boundaries of thought and be creative and sort of those experiments and novelty and epistemic humility that we were talking about. It’s sort of like that in some ways, presupposes a capacity to be metacognitive and reflective on the thought process itself and to engage in not just single loop learning. Which is actually operating within whatever structure of goals and success and taking that as a given and then trying to be successful within that realm, that would be single loop learning.
Brad: Double loop learning would be actually reflecting on those goals and those pieces of positions themselves. And actually thinking about how do I learn, how to actually apply level, even the ways that I’m thinking about what success is all about? And then triple loop learning is actually doing that, but also in the moment being metacognitive and actually being aware of how you are reacting to things, how you’re responding to things in the moment, how you’re actually using theories and sort of conceptual architectures to make sense of your world. So there’s all these layers of complexity that we can bring to our metacognition. And in general, there’s a lot of research by a lot of developmental psychologists that overlap in a lot of meaningful ways. And it’s tricky to unpack because a lot of them, because they are domain specific, they’re actually looking at different capacities in different skills. But when you sort of take a step back and take a meta view on developmental psychology as a field, you can see that there are these pretty broad, general kinds of agreement where you can see people moving through these stages in different ways.
Jim: Yeah. And in fact, one of the things you quote, is there are a four interrelated research based claims, development as a specific describable and detectable phenomena. Development as a robust scientific foundation. Development can be encouraged and fostered through specific practices. And development has organizational practical, actionable value. Pretty strong claims. Let’s skip over the scientific foundation. As you alluded to some of that, it’s actually go back and say, what is specific describable and detectable phenomenon?
Brad: Yeah. So I think what’s being referenced there is actually simply what we are observing in individual’s behavior in a specific context that is looking at a specific thing. So there are many different kinds of developmental assessments and they’re all going to be really drawing upon and trying to understand the very specific describable phenomenon that people are manifesting. And then using is sort of progression of the way that people’s behavior and skills develop over time to sort of understand what the spectrum of capacity is. And one thing that’s interesting about thinking developmentally is there’s a way in which the individual like any individual human is so irreducibly complex that the danger of a lot of developmental thinking is that we reduce the complexity of the individual to a label, like are they abstract thinker or a formal or a systematic or a metasystematic?
Brad: And a lot of the value of developmental thinking is actually seeing patterns and trends across groups and across multiple kinds of assessments. So we don’t want to fall into the trap of trying to pigeonhole any individual and say, “Oh, well then your behavior or your output on this assessment, or your answer to this question, that means you’re at this level and then we’re putting you in that box.” So it’s kind of hard not to do that, but you can still look at the concrete, actual behaviors of people and the specific answers that people give to questions. And we can see patterns form, and we can see that those patterns have different levels of complexity to them.
Brad: And that’s sort of the background architecture of something like the model of hierarchical complexity or Kegan’s model, or Kurt Fisher was a developmental theorist at Harvard who had a huge influence on like you mentioned, Theo Dawson and Zach and electica. And looking very, very specifically in a very fine grain, fine tune ways based on particular assessments, how do we understand the sort of the dialectical progressions that we see in people ability to respond and behave and make sense? And what are the differences in complexity that people manifest in those responses and behavior?
Jim: That’s a very good point that this, unfortunately, so many of these pop versions of this stuff want to pigeon hole people. One of my pet peeves is this stuff called spiral dynamics with these color codes. In fact, I have a funny mocking meme that I created for it that has the spiral dynamics turned into a arch, a rainbow. And at the top I have orange and I have to the left going back down towards blue and red, I say more ignorant. And then I have to the right, going up from orange to green, to teal, to purple or whatever the fuck it is. I say more goofy. And that orange is the top goddammit, just to make fun of the whole concept.
Jim: And I think it’s really dangerous for people to fall into that simplistic thinking. Because I proudly call myself an orange man, goddammit. On the other hand, I rate level 14 and hierarchical complexity. And I’m full of all kinds of perspectives that go across that color spectrum. And so I go, what a crock of shit. So maybe sort of useful in a very, very, very broad brush, but don’t expect to have actual people fit nicely into these buckets.
Brad: Yeah, it is. It’s really dangerous. And it’s one of the sort of catch-22s of doing this work because the caveats that you mentioned are really important, the dangers of it are really present. And yet there is also this sense of developmental blindness, which is something that Hanzi Freinacht refers to in Listening Society, which I think is really true. And his basic argument is, look, if we act as though there is not development, if we act as though there are not dialectical and hierarchical differences between different perspectives, both within an individual’s lifespan and across groups and across individuals, then we’re just missing a huge part of reality. Right? And I’m trying in the book to be really delicate about this.
Brad: And I actually end the book really, really reflecting on that and how the theories that we developed to describe that emergent territory of our growth continue to change and grow over time. And a map is never the territory, but it’s no less crucial when navigating difficult terrain like we really need maps to understand what’s going on. Try to include all those caveats in the book and yet still describe these strains in ways that are meaningful and helpful, which is hard to do.
Jim: And then we’ll take a final turn towards that in just a second. I’ll mention Hanzi Freinacht. He’s been on the show three times. I love his work and he has a four-dimensional model as well as you know, and that feels to me about the right level of richness. You can be this in this dimension, that and that dimension, this and in this dimension and this and the other. And while there may be some correlation, it doesn’t have to be anywhere near 1.0. And so people can develop at different levels in these different dimensions. What strikes me is much more realistic than these single color code kinds of deals, whether the spiral one or my sarcastic rainbow one.
Jim: Let’s go into the integral. We alluded to it just a little bit, but let’s go more detailed into the integral four-part model, which as I say, I have found actually useful. I now try to make myself look at a complex situation from all four quadrants. I mean, at a very naive level, you can call it the I quadrant, the it quadrant, the we and the it’s quadrant. Why don’t you go from there and tell us more and then let’s get to the eight zones.
Brad: Yeah. So I kind of mentioned at the outset, I think it is really helpful to see these interior and exterior and individual and collective. And as we’ve kind of, we’ve sort of recursively been reflecting on this throughout this conversation in terms of just like even looking at something like a school. And seeing in some ways the beauty and the elegance and the sophistication and the complexity of how these things interrelate. Where like how does the perspective and sense-making of the principal influence the culture and then how does that culture influence the thinking of the individual students and teachers. And then how is that influenced by the building and the technology and the policies that are in place? And how does all that sort of tetra arise with individual behaviors that are manifesting? So all of these things are always embedded and integral theory goes into a pretty, I think well-developed look historically.
Brad: Because it’s also about life emerging and developing in all four ways. So I think which we won’t have time to get into, but I think some of the value of integral theory is really in our understanding of history and kind of how we got to where we are in terms of the complexity, like right now, the sort of the leading edge of where we’re at in our overall evolution and the complexity of our individual capacity, for perspective taking and consciousness and self-reflection. And then a cognition, like what is the process that brought that about? What is the process that brought about the evolution of technology and civilization, right? From foraging tribes to empire, to cities and not to the digital sort of globalized world that we’re in. And culturally, what are the cultural codes that have emerged over time?
Brad: And this is something that Hanzi also unpacks well and making this distinction between individual complexity and cultural code and how they are independent, but also interdependent and related. But you can’t collapse one to the other and you can definitely have sort of dialectical relationships in terms of how you understand different cultural codes. But you can have individuals of different sort of cognitive complexity interpreting those codes in different ways. So there’s a lot I’m trying to unpack for people who aren’t familiar with it. I definitely recommend, as we’ve mentioned Hanzi’s books and also really any of Ken Wilber’s books in terms of getting a lay of the land for these basic concepts.
Jim: I found Ken Wilber’s book, A Brief History of Everything quite accessible and quite understandable though, Rob Smith warned me it was a little obsolete, but.
Brad: Yeah. Well, that’s the thing about these theory. They just keep updating and refining and getting more, more advanced. And actually Rob Smith has some good, short eBooks that I think are good resources as well.
Jim: All right, well, let’s wrap it there because you’re right. There’s no time to go into the same old detail. We’ve reached our 90 minutes, which is about as far as my old and feeble brain can handle. So I’d like to thank you, Brad, what a wonderful conversation about three of my favorite topics, complexity, education, and leadership. Thanks for coming on the show.
Brad: Hey Jim, thank you so much for having me. And yeah, we just scratched the surface, but it was also a deep dive at the same time and it’s very rich terrain. And there’s so much to understand in terms of humans and learning and schools and education. And thanks for the opportunity to unpack some of it together.
Jim: Yeah. And before we go, give us the title of your book again, and as always the link to the book will be on our episode page at jimruttshow.com.
Brad: Yeah. Thanks. It’s Understanding Educational Complexity Integrating Practices and Perspectives for 21st Century Leadership. Thanks, Jim.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.