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Our School Stories: They’re All We Are—They’re All We Know

Posted on: March 20th, 2011 by Stephen Hurley  3 Comments »

Recently Shannoninottawa reminded us of the Tom King claim about the truth and importance of stories in our lives. “The truth about stories,” King says, “is that’s all we are.”

A few days later I was listening to a talk being given by Roger Schank who began by reminding us that, “stories are actually the only thing we know.”

Stories are not only powerful and efficient ways of carrying important information and learning back and forth between individual human beings, but they are also a vital component in communicating about the lives of organizations and institutions, and our experience within these larger social configurations.

This is why I found it rather curious and disturbing that the recently released McKinsey & Company report, How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better, is completely devoid of stories. Read through the 126 pages of graphs, data and intervention strategies and you will not come across one iota of evidence that the systems being studied are actually populated by human beings.

No stories of the teachers, the children, the parents or the administrators that have worked so hard and so diligently to realize the progress documented in the report. There are no stories in the foreword, in the introduction or in the conclusion. No stories are used to illustrate the effect that the improved systems have had on the people who call school home on a daily basis. And, in a rather eerie editorial decision, the photographs used, are also devoid of human life or, at best, show only partial forms of children playing.

Some would argue that the purpose of the report is to take a systems approach to school improvement and, in order to do that, you must step back from the level of human interaction in order to examine data, patterns and the broader connections that are only visible from a distance. Fair enough. I get that–sort of.

Let me come at it from another perspective. The performance-based intervention clusters that form the set of catalysts that will move school systems along their improvement journey are based on Michael Barber’s concept of Deliverology. (I know, it’s not really an official word–yet!) Basically, Deliverology is a top down approach to management where poorly functioning organizations are taken over by a tightly controlled and monitored set of practices and output targets in order to deliver on promises of improvement. As the organization moves towards higher levels of performance—from poor to fair, fair to good and good to great, for example—control of certain aspects of work (and creativity), originally removed from employees earlier on in the process is returned to them with the blessing of the process!

Admittedly, that’s my brief view on Deliverology, but it’s a view that is gleaned from what is inscribed in the McKinsey Report, and it’s a view that is grounded in my own experience working as a teacher in Ontario, one of the study’s featured school systems.

But it’s also a view that allows me to make sense of the fact that, in talking about the improvement journeys of 20 school systems around the world, the authors found it important to cleanse their report of any real life. If you’re going to wrest control of an organization from the hands of those who are working every day to make it work, then stories become a problem. If you’re going to intentionally work to de-professionalize a group of people who, in the case of Ontario educators, are some of the most highly trained in the world, then stories become a burden to the process. And, if you’re going to make output targets and data sets the chief indicator of success when you sit down to evaluate progress and improvement, then stories just get in the way.

I’m happy to be working in what the McKinsey report deems to be one the of the best in the world. As someone who walks into a real, live, storied school every day, however, I know that there is something missing in How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better. What is missing are the stories of the children, the staff and the administrators who have been tremendously affected by an approach to management and control that has not always respected those stories.

I, for one, am not willing to have the stories that lie at the heart of the performance journeys outlined in this report  go untold. Some of them may be positive, some of them may be negative, but they need to become part of the public record, and the public memory of this type of approach to improvement. Only then will we be able to answer the question, “Is it worth it?”

Many more thoughts stemming from my reading of the McKinsey report, but I’ll leave it there for now and invite your comments and feedback…and your stories! 

3 Responses to “Our School Stories: They’re All We Are—They’re All We Know”

  1. Alan Stange says:

    Years ago as a grad student I was drawn to qualitative research. The importance of stories, both the factual ones and the ones we contrive fascinated me. The narrative of the lived experience is so important. I suppose that is why when I began to blog I included the phrase in my title.

    Is this simply the same old battle we are still fighting? Are we still struggling with the bean counters?

    • Alan, thanks for the comment, and for a link to your own work! I agree that it seems to be the same old battle, and part of me is at a loss to know how to continue advocating for our children. But I do have a refreshed sense of optimism these days, fueled mainly by the sense of voice that is possible from new media. Alternative voices are getting out there. Voices like yours, voices like mine and voices like the ones that connected us here. I think that as long as the stories continue to be told, the message will become undeniably clear. I’ll keep in touch!

  2. [...] previous reflections, I focused on the lack of stories connecting the data with the lives of real teachers and students, as well as the counter-narrative [...]

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