Some ideas are just worth repeating.
Achievement gaps provide educators with a significant nemesis and have done so for about as long as any of us can remember. Akin to sales figures and profitability in the private sector, gaps in the achievement of various groups of students are a constant focus of leadership and the fodder for perpetual criticisms of our business. We work hard to determine how we can close these gaps and while there are ebbs and flows as a result of our efforts, these gaps still seem to plague us. While it is true we have made some strides, the conversation we have as a business continues to center on reaching those students whose success continues to elude us. But, consider for a moment, this idea: what if we are focused on the wrong gaps?
Peter Senge is a prolific thinker, management guru, teacher and author and is most famous for his book The Fifth Discipline. In that book, Senge introduces the reader to the concept of a learning organization. A learning organization is one that continuously facilitates the learning of its members and at the same time continuously transforms itself. It strikes me that while I would imagine that most schools and districts have made significant commitments to the learning of its members, we have been less than successful in transforming the nature of education such that we can meet the need of today’s learners.
The root of the ability for organizations to continuously transform themselves lies in the degree to which any organization embraces systems theory. Systems theory by definition, is the degree to which organizations can discover patterns, clarify and consider those patterns for applications to differing systems within an organization. Systems thinking is nothing more than understanding that there are patterns in every organization and those patterns continuously shift and morph. The more we can understand those patterns and their random nature, the more likely we can bring about improvements in organizations. I recognize this idea sounds rather thick and murky, but really it is actually much more simple than it appears to be.
Of Rubber Bands and Creativity
In his book “Good To Great” Jim Collins wrote about Admiral James Stockdale. Briefly, Admiral Stockdale is most famous for his imprisonment during the Vietnam war and also his brief foray into politics as the running mate with then presidential candidate Ross Perot. In his book, Collins tells the story of interviewing Stockdale and writes about what he calls the Stockdale Paradox.
Stockdale spoke of the harsh conditions of his imprisonment and shared that he never lost sight of his reality; a reality that was at best bleak. However, simultaneous to this, he never lost hope that he would be released and returned to his family. The paradox, of course, is to have simultaneous thoughts of ones current reality and vision of what could be.
It strikes me that this very notion is the same or at least similar to the concept touted by Senge with regard to his notion of creative tension. Creative tension is described as the space between the reality of where organizations are and the vision of where they want to be or the gap between the vision and the current reality. Senge is famous for his rubber band metaphor in helping to understand this concept.
If one takes a rubber band and vertically stretches almost to the breaking point, the band represents the creative tension within any organization, or, the gap between reality and the desired state. To lessen the tension means to somehow move the rubber band so that it is no longer stretched to its capacity. If you put ten people in a room (which I have repeatedly done), give them a rubber band and have them stretch it vertically using two hands, you might find the next movement interesting. More often than not, when people are told to release the tension, they lower their top hand toward the bottom. Less often do we find people who raise their bottom hand toward the top hand. There is a difference.
Senge would argue that most organizations “lower” their expectations and standards to relieve the tension in the organization. He further suggests raising the lower hand toward the upper hand is symbolic of raising expectations in organizations, rather than lowering them, to relieve organizational tension. When there is a vision that differs from the current reality, a gap exists. “Truly creative people,” says Senge, “use the gap between what they want and what is, to generate energy for change and remain true to their vision. They embody a relentless willingness to uncover the ways we limit and deceive ourselves from seeing what is, and to continually challenge the ways things are.”
I do not hide the fact, nor am I bashful about admitting the great influence business theory and management has had on my leadership as an educator. This idea of creative tension, the gap between the current reality and the vision, resonates with me on my levels. It suggests to me that of all of the gaps we are trying to close in our business, it very well may be the most profound and most important one. Moving an organization, any organization, from reality to a clear and purposeful vision implies that with it, the achievement gaps upon which we are all focused, will significantly benefit.
It might be time to look at different gaps.