Stories, Learning & Place

Monday, June 22, 2009

Hierarchies as communication filters 7/24
   The way of the teacher

Nobody really wants or can handle all the information that would be needed to make all the decisions that need to be made. Thanks to hierarchies, nobody needs to. Oddly enough, people talk as though soon networks and mobs will replace hierarchies. Our egalitarian ideals will be realized.

Imagine a McDonalds without a hierarchy. After the teller took an order for a burger, he might run back and grab a patty, slap it on the grill, then get started preparing the bun only to open the refrigerator and discover the ketchup was all gone. So, he heads out the back door for a quick trip to the grocery store–actually, I’ve eaten in cafes that came close to that nonhierarchical ideal.

Most social hierarchies don’t exist because they elevate some people. Their main function is to sort information so it can be dealt with effectively. Most organizations receive more information than a single level can manage, and too much information can paralyze us or drown out what we most need to hear.

As director of an ambulance service, I’ve taken part in many after-incident debriefings where all the agencies involved in a disaster get together to critique the way the incident was handled. At every single one of these, communications ends up being the topic most discussed. At a large emergency involving ambulances, fire departments, and police, people are spread out dealing with multiple urgent situations. Though each responder is vividly aware of what he sees and what he needs, none knows what else is happening, which hospitals are at capacity and which ambulances and helicopters are available.

Getting the communications to work is the overwhelming need, and the hierarchy is primarily dedicated to making sure the right information gets to the right place as quickly as possible. It has nothing to do with domination, oppression, despotism or anything like that.

We always appoint an incident commander not out of any principle of superiority--many of us can fill that role--but out of a principle of order. If communication hierarchies are not established and if people do not discipline themselves to communicate through channels then no one has the big picture and serious mistakes get made. When a clear hierarchy is in place, people are free to concentrate on the task before them.

Most organizations are like that. Consider two messages that enter a school system: A ninth grade student is killed in an automobile accident, and the state legislature enacts a ten percent cut in school funding. Now consider the way these two messages are “heard” at different levels in the school: by the teacher of the student and by the superintendent.

The teacher hears the news of the student quite loudly. It will affect his mood, his teaching strategy for the day, his conversations with other students. The news from the state legislature, however, probably sounds quite vague and distant. He may have a momentary opinion, but it soon passes as his attention is engaged with more immediate concerns.

The superintendent has an almost opposite reaction. The news about the student will probably catch her attention, and she may check to be sure subordinates arrange appropriate messages and interventions, but the issue can’t dominate her work. She is accustomed to dealing with slower-moving information, such as the decades-long deterioration of buildings and depreciation of buses, the changing demographic makeup of the community, and the trends affecting teacher preparation. In general, the higher levels in a hierarchy are responsible for larger-scale, slower-moving information. The news from the legislature is scaled to the level of her concerns, and it will trigger a flurry of activity: reviewing budgets, revising plans, and calling various committees together to adjust their work.

A similar dynamic is going on in classrooms, of course. Students are prone to paying attention to small-scale, fast-moving information, such as the funny noise Bert made. Teachers are trying to turn their attention to large-scale and slow-moving information, such as MacBeth gaining a kingdom but losing his soul.

No one can pay close attention to all the information that enters a complex system, so for large systems to work smoothly people at various levels need to trust each other. The superintendent needs to trust that the principal and the teacher will do the right thing with the mourning student, and the teacher needs to trust that the superintendent will do the right thing with the fiscal crisis.

If, due to distrust, we come to feel that we have to solve our problems by making sure that everyone gets to hear and speak on every issue, the system grinds toward a standstill, and, unable to respond to surrounding realities, it risks collapse. The public school system in some places is nearing this state. As anyone besieged by memos and meetings may suspect, there is far too much communication.

Does the teacher or the superintendent have the more important work? In important ways this question makes as little sense as asking which level in the body, the cells or tissues, is most important. Each needs to be free to work within limits. Each has a stewardship.

People have been taught to be hostile toward hierarchies by those who have an egalitarian vision of society. Having seen frequent abuses of authority and power, they imagined that authority and power might be removed. They can’t. Even simple hunting and gathering tribes have considerable need for both, although disgruntled individuals may find it easier to leave a clan of a few dozen surrounded by undeveloped nature than they do a metropolis extending past the horizon.

It’s true that people should be treated equally before the law, and I believe it’s true that they have equal dignity before God, who, I think, is less impressed by the wiley cunning common to despots than they themselves are. This doesn’t lead me to believe factories can dispense with managers, or to imagine that most workers on the factory floor could manage the factory, even if most wanted to, which they don’t.

Social hierarchies are not going away, though it is true that changes in communication technology will drive significant changes as much of the information available to leaders is also available to everyone else and as the power of individual workers to get work done is greatly increased due to their tools.

I think we will get better at keeping our essential equality in mind despite our varying roles. Most people that I know do tend to be pretty good at this. When I was a high school principal, one of the teachers I supervised was director of the Sunday school where I taught a class. She also directed a play in which I was an actor. In some of our work, I was “above” her in the hierarchy, but in other parts of it, she was “above” me. But this only meant we had different pieces of the common work that we were responsible for, and it was obvious to us both that, as people who extended beyond our institutional assignments, we were simple equals.

I think such insight is now quite common. Still, our consumer culture creates a thousand chances for people to feel superior to those who do humble work or drive basic cars or drink cheap coffee. Pity.

In addition to allowing us to organize our work efficiently, hierarchies are also critical for protecting us from catastrophes. When a fire sweeps through a forest, individual trees are dramatically changed by the information that is communicated to them, but at higher levels in the system, at the level of climate, for example, the fire changes nothing. The average temperature stays the same, as do the amount of rainfall, the length of the days, and the total amount of solar energy received in a year. Similarly, levels below that of trees are also unchanged: the lives of bacteria in the soil, the permeability and nutrient load of the soil, the potential of seeds that have not yet germinated, the earthworms churning and fertilizing the earth.

The levels above and below the trees were isolated by their scale from the disturbance of fire, and they begin immediately to recreate the forest. Within decades, the forest returns. Despite its apocalyptic appearance, the raging fire was in reality too limited to destroy the forest. It operated on too few levels.

Something quite similar happens when a teacher fails dramatically. The chaos of one classroom doesn’t destroy the school, but other levels including students, parents, colleagues, administrators and board members begin to act in ways that restore order.

Such self-replicating hierarchies can be incredibly robust. The downside, for school reformers anyway, is that they can be excruciatingly hard to change. The difficulty is that if only one level changes–such as often happens when a few teachers receive training in some nifty new approach–the other levels, including students, administrators and board members who didn’t hear the message, will tend to recreate the system as it was before the teacher was changed.

To be successful, a reform needs to communicate to all the levels, with messages scaled to the concerns of people at those levels.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/22 at 09:21 PM
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©2009 Michael L. Umphrey
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