From the silo to the beach

In the conversations at this year’s NYSAIS think tank (Twitter hashtag #NYSAIStt11) the language we use has not been the primary focus. It has, however, had a cameo role as we take a second and passing look at the labels and language we use to describe our work.

Best practices, professional development, silos – is it time to retire these as concepts and/ or the words we use to explain and label what we mean?

“Best practices” has been – well – a best language practice/ use for a decade or so now. Groups decide on them and organizations list them. Very admirable and without doubt very helpful. But in the growth and knowledge business can there ever be such things? (I leave aside the issues of legality and safety that perhaps should be followed as matters of prudence and requirement rather than practice.)

If change (flux, flow, switch, growth evolution, flexibility, creativity, experimentation) is the name of the game then the best a best practice can be is a model of what worked in the past. Like the history section and the current version on a Wikipedia entry – that was what we knew then but this is what we know now. So best practice becomes a best template of effective past practice to be used as a model but never a strait-jacket.

And what of professional development itself? Doesn’t it come with the whiff of the PowerPoint laden training session where dutiful people are lined up in uncomfortable rows to be lectured at and improved? Doesn’t have to mean that of course but ask people for their associations and it is a rather dismal picture that can emerge: The forced feeding of isolated nuggets of just-in-case indigestible wisdom. We’ve all been there and we’ve all done that – flying of course in the face of everything we have ever known and espoused about learning.(Hand-up – I’ve been there, done that, still feel the guilt.)

So if we think about learning and what we actually mean by PD and try to think of what it is when it actually works a very different model emerges. Vygotsky told us that learning is social – and he was right. Even solitary learning is social as we use the alone time to rehearse for the social interaction to come. We don’t learn learning – it always has a purpose and that purpose is connection.

So yesterday I was delighted to hear the phrase “learning and collaboration” emerge as an alternative. We had already established that the world of learning (and the world of Google) is one of community, inclusion and interaction. So this simple linguistic switch had significance.

And silos. for the last few years it has been the metaphor of choice to describe the isolated pods of operation and knowledge – the lack of communication and interaction within and between between organizations and institutions.

And the cry of the age has become: “Break down the silos!”

When I hear the word I see the silos of rural New York and I think of nuclear silos. One is bucolic and the other sinister. But both are isolated towers serving a purpose but standing alone. Dane said we should move from the silo to the farm and since then I have been trying to think of alternative metaphors for the silo-less world world.

The unsiloed world is interactive, connected, social and networked.

And it came to me that Asparagus Beach might work. Asparagus – aka Atlantic – Beach in Amangansett, NY was known in the 1970’s as the summer haunt for Manhattan’s mental health professionals on their therapeutic August break. It earned its nickname from the aerial view of the beach – full of said psychologists away from their couches, in their beach wear, standing around talking and moving and socializing and networking. From above they resembled an asparagus bed in late spring.

So that’s the best I have come up with so far for metaphor of the unsiloed world we need to create. Who’s got another metaphor that might work?

1 Comment

  1. Josie — Breaking down the silos is definitely what we need to be doing. I think that sharing and learning need to be the focus of all work we’re doing. So maybe the group needs to focus on creating new opportunities (like the NYSAIS Community, and hopefully some themed conferences) that focus on silo bashing.

    What strikes me about the event we just left was that we didn’t have any full time teachers present. If we’re really to make a move in our learning, don’t teachers need to be included in this high level conversation?

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