Departmentalism

BY Findings

It is a sad but enduring truth that sometimes some people think of a concept and then espouse it without considering the concomitant problems. One of those concepts is holism, or an holistic education (which is one of the many kinds of holism on sale these days).

In several of my previous posts, I have pointed out the shortcomings and difficulties of current ‘holistic’ thinking in education. Now, I am going to take a different tack. Let’s consider things which are manifestly not holistic.

The first candidate is obvious. It is compartmentalism. If you can segregate or ring-fence anything within an educational system or programme, then by definition, the resultant structure is no longer holistic. For example, if you say that student discipline will be run independent of student academic achievement (whether explicitly or implicitly), then you are denying the holistic. Of course it is possible to claim till your face is purple that by putting discipline and achievement together – in the same forum, boat or igloo – that you are conducting holistic education. You would be wrong, since having two peas in a pod does not make a single bean out of them.

The second (and often more insidious, stubborn and recalcitrant) is not so obvious. It is departmentalism, that modern bureaucratic descendant of feudalism. In departmentalism, it is often assumed that a school needs to be separated into independent fiefdoms (oops, I mean departments) in order to function like a school. It is also assumed that if you get the department chairs in the same room for a few hours (in what is called a school steering committee meeting, or the equivalent), you will get a miraculously holistic transdisciplinary outcome.

Well, you won’t. This would be like putting different flavours of jelly beans in one bag, shaking the lot up, wagging your finger at them and saying, “Play nice, now!” and then expecting them to become a single large lump of jelly which evokes all the possible separate flavours while not being completely indigestible.

But the skeptical administrator will argue (and rightly so, in a sense) that there is no alternative to departmentalism. Fine. Then you can have two possible types of responses. The first response to this is, “Since there’s no alternative to departmentalism, there is no possibility of holism.” The second response to this is, “There are a few alternatives. Here are some.”

Alternatives to departmentalism? Really? Well, yes. They might not be very good, but they are decent alternatives.

There’s the concept of holistic units. In some large schools, small consortia are formed, comprising teachers who together offer all the necessary subjects for an all-round education. Each consortium holds to its own philosophy while seeking to fulfill the overall mission of the school. The idea is akin to that of combined-arms assault teams. A team that combines counselling, discipline, academic, service, sports and dietary elements (among others) in a single seamless programme would be delivering one variety of holistic education. In a small enough school, this approach would include all members of the school.

There’s the concept of interdisciplinary units. Immediately, you might say that this is obviously not an holistic approach. Hmmm, maybe not. But it can be brought quite close. For example, consider a team of teachers, each offering a discrete area of interest, subject, approach or course. Then think of them working together flexibly to deliver a combined programme in which they actively worked to reinforce and support each other while retaining their own perspectives and biases. In a sports analogy, this would be a lot like basketball rather than American football – you don’t have special teams, but you do have players with specific functions and you can rotate elements around for different team purposes.

There’s the concept of knowledge webs. A clever ‘spider’ can spin connections between all the separate nodes in such a system. You could still have discrete areas, but the ‘strand coordinator’ is an agent who has enough of an holistic perspective that she (women tend to see more holistically) or he can tweak them until they appear to flow freely across the old functional boundaries.

Now here’s a last point. ‘Departmentalism’ doesn’t mean ‘departments’. In reality, you might still need departments of some sort, just to reassure the masses and to handle some admin functions. The point is that you cannot make department chairs the cornerstones of the admin system. You need deputy principals or strand coordinators or programme coordinators with the genuine ability to think across disciplines and help weave them together into a functional whole.

Life is messy, sometimes miasmic. Nothing in reality can be easily shoved into a departmental box or a box labelled ‘Discipline H’. At the very least we owe it to learners to give them an educational experience that, even if it does consist of discrete elements, includes pointers towards ways of combining them into holistic approaches for handling all their later life.

 

Original post here.