Wednesday July 17, 2024

Schools, not machines

By Shahid Siddiqui
February 09, 2019

Gareth Morgan, a professor of organisational behaviour and industrial relations at York University in Toronto, is the author of a popular book titled ‘Images of Organization’. In an intriguing manner, the book tries to describe the dynamics of an organisation with the help of metaphors.

For instance, organisations can be viewed as machines, organisms, brains, cultures, political systems, psychic prisons, flux and transformation, and instruments of domination. If we look around us at various educational institutions, we notice that most of them are being run like machines. In the neoliberal tradition, educational organisations are viewed and treated as machines. Decision-makers and managers also consider educational organisations to be mere machines and expect them to operate like machines in a routinised, efficient, reliable, and predictable way.

In a number of educational institutions in Pakistan, we observe a mechanistic model of management as it divides the responsibilities of employees into small units, which can be conveniently monitored for evaluation, leaving little room for creativity. A significant perk for managers in such a mechanistic and bureaucratic model is the exercise of power by treating employees as tiny screws in a big machine who have no emotions or ideas.

This kind of management was initially proposed for the production units of factories to ensure enhanced productivity and precision in the product that can be supervised, monitored, and measured. The model became popular with the corporate sector where employees were treated like robots and expected to be devoid of ideas and emotions. In modern times, famous food chains are good examples of ‘efficient management’.

The problem, however, started when the corporate model of management was applied to educational organisations in the hope for enhanced efficiency, ignoring the fact that factories and educational institutions are completely different entities, with dissimilar requirements, and need a different approach to management.

A prevalent approach, more so in private schools, is that of a highly straitjacketed environment where teachers are ‘non-thinking’ objects who are just supposed to implement instructions without any reflection as all the thinking is done at the top level. In a highly-structured and bureaucratic model of management, teachers’ creative initiatives are quashed without any remorse. They are made to realise that they are not there to think, reflect, propose and initiate, but to act like consumers by carrying out given chores in a robotic manner.

In his seminal book titled ‘Schools That Learn’, Peter Senge suggests that: “Our assembly line thinking forces us to treat the natural variety of human beings as somehow aberrant because they do not fit the needs of the machine”. With the passage of time, enthusiastic teachers lose their passion and confidence, and become passive robots in a fearful environment of centralised monitoring. But the managers believe that this mechanistic approach is a safe mode. They may be right to the extent that in the absence of opposing voices, one gets the impression that all is well when, in fact, teachers as well as schools emerge as losers in this cold and so-called rational way of operating.

Gareth Morgan believes that “both employees and organisations lose from this arrangement. Employees lose opportunities for personal growth, often spending many hours a day on work they neither value nor enjoy, and organisations lose the creative and intelligent contributions that most employees are capable of making, given the right opportunities”.

Is it important for educational institutions to have an open environment of learning, thinking and managing affairs? Is it vital to give academic freedom to teachers? The answers to these questions vary depending on the philosophy of education that one believes in. If the management believes that the function of education is to fit into the slots of society, then the instruction required is neutral, apolitical and unidirectional where teachers act as passive workers.

If the management thinks that the purpose of education is not just to fit into the various niches of society, but also to develop critical thinking and reflective practices among students to enable them to apply their knowledge in different contexts, it should adopt a learning organisation mode. What is a learning organisation mode and how can an educational institution be turned into a learning organisation?

There has been ample research on the need to shift the paradigm from a highly narrow and skewed view of school-effectiveness to a broader holistic view of school-development where the development of teachers as individuals and the school as an organisation are interdependent.

To turn educational institutions into learning organisations, it is important that teachers are considered important stakeholders in the system. They must be provided with the opportunities to develop themselves as professionals and individuals. An institution of learning revolves around the spirit of inquiry. This should be evident in the curriculum, pedagogy, evaluation, and research projects.

Educational institutions must also encourage the culture of shared decision-making, which is only possible through frequent meetings and dialogues. It is also important for managements to realise that creative conflicts are useful for the growth of such organisations. Conscious efforts need to be made to create an environment where teachers feel that their jobs are meaningful and satisfying. This sense of purpose makes one’s task more enjoyable and valuable. It is this enabling atmosphere that helps develop creative teachers who can then produce thinking citizens.

The writer is an educationist.