How Learning Organizations Handle Mistakes

Most of of Liza Kindred's Lullabot Case Study will interest only Lullabot fans, but 9 minutes in, she tells a story that makes a great subject for an Open Source Education post.

In brief: a key Lullabot employee makes a small data import error late at night that causes huge legal problems.   She fixes the problem and waits for a "you're fired" call from one of the partners, Matt Westgate.  The call comes:

"Angie, you made a giant mistake and you really screwed things up here....This is why you are now Lullabot's Data Import Expert."

Angie got promoted rather than fired because she was trusted to learn from mistakes, by a learning organization that deemed this quality more important than never making them.

Liza attributes Lullabot's success to its adoption of open source culture. (Although Lullabot uses open source, it is a commercial entity, and can choose its culture.)

Open source project organizations (like must be highly mistake-tolerant, since volunteers can't be fired. To turn mistakes to advantage, they rely on feedback (discussion forums and bug reports) and recalibration (software patches and new releases).

"Goofus, the open source hacker, does not read boards and apply patches, and loses hours of productivity by using broken tools. Gallant, the open source developer, contributes his own bug reports, workarounds, and patches"

This "feedback & recalibration" culture extends to users.  I suspect open source users are far more likely to file bug reports than commercial software users.  Know any Windows-users who ignore error messages and turn off automatic updates because they're "annoying"?  I do.

It's the difference between "buy-in" and "ownership": when I buy software from a company, I expect it to work perfectly. If I take ownership of an open source product, I want to contribute feedback to the community I am now a part of so they can make my software better.

What does this have to do with schools?

I'm 20% through "The Self Organizing School" by Alan Bain.  Bain cites two reasons for the statistical failure of research-based school reform efforts: 1) most teachers do not value professional research, and 2) the reforms never address the organizational structure of schools.

A teacher who ignores the feedback of educational research may have difficulty diagnosing and improving failed lesson designs.  Although there is plenty of feedback available from the teacher's own classroom, "trial and error" favors the prepared mind (to garble Pasteur).

A "profession" is characterized by specialized knowledge and academic preparation.  Why don't more teachers act like professionals?

Many teachers  said they consider academic research in ivory towers irrelevant to "the trenches."  In response, "action research" was rolled out in the early 1980s.  Action researchers were supposed to act like teachers but think like researchers.  I understand professional development "merit badges" in Action Research are still available.

I can imagine how it all went down:  A "superintendent's conference day" was devoted to "action research" and it was announced that all clinical supervision for the following year would include a post-lesson "practitioner reflection" analzing the lesson design, proposing a theory about what worked or didn't, and a plan for testing the theory.A month later, a follow-up report would be submitted, and administrator and teacher would meet again to discuss and sign off.

It would be wonderful if an external model like "Action Research" helped such a district become a learning community, reflecting on emergent best practices in teaching and professional development.  More likely it was a dog-and-pony show about Action Research that seemed like too much work to repeat the following year.


* Online communities like "Classroom 2.0" are connecting many teachers to research-based practice now;
Bain's assertion is based on pre-2007 research and may be outdated, at least among net-savvy teachers

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