Balancing Inquiry and Advocacy in Educational Systems


In his book, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge writes about the necessity of “balancing inquiry and advocacy” (p 183-187). When building a learning organization, what is the appropriate level of inquiry about and advocacy for the system?

While I don’t pretend to be an expert in any one educational system, yet alone the many diverse systems in place across the world, this is a question I often wrestle with as an aspiring educational leader.

On one hand, without an in-depth examination into the root causes of systemic challenges, an organization is doomed to repeat prior mistakes and perpetuate a cycle of stagnation, constantly “fixing” the same recurring problems, applying the same methods that have “worked” in the past only to see diminishing results.

Many of us are also familiar with the phrase “paralysis by analysis.” Learning organizations, by their sheer definition, must be able free to learn in order to grow. Learning happens best in a system where stakeholders share a common vision and purpose. Without both, there is no sense of urgency among the people and the system begins to unravel.

At the same time, there is a danger in engaging in vacuous debate, in talking in circles but going nowhere. This experience has frustrated many educators over generations. Nonsystemic inquiry is analogous to a crew team all rowing in competing directions. Despite all the hard work,  the boat isn’t going anywhere.

Endless inquiry is also not practical. Our schools are not ancient Greek civilizations, capable of of an ongoing in-depth exploration of the philosophical underpinnings of every issue that drives the system.

Therefore, implementing a Socrative method of inquiry into the root causes of everything in order to design and enact better solutions is a systemic impossibility. There are simply too many logistical and constraints acting on the system from outside, including limited time and resources.

However, this does not give school systems permission to be inquiry-free. Any system that expects blind obedience in the absence of clarity and focus is a system will become incapable of sustained growth, adaptation, or innovation.

Therefore, while discouraging inquiry may be a comfortable approach for systems leaders in the short term, the rewards will only be temporary. The same problems will re-emerge and become worse over time.

Furthermore, if those that ask the tough questions rarely ascend the leadership hierarchy, a system of strict compliance and blind advocacy emerges. People learn to get along to go along, much to the detriment of the system. If the system consistently crushes those that ask the tough questions, it will never reach it’s full potential and it will become more unhealthy over time.

If we get a cut and it becomes infected, we do not ignore the problem, hoping it will go away. We know enough to go to the doctor and inquire into the root causes of the problem, possibly getting antibiotics or another treatment that will provide a solution to the infection. We do not let the infection spread, taking over more and more of our body, eventually presenting a real threat to the overall health of our system.

Similarly, our school systems should invite a certain level of purposeful inquiry in order to make continual improvements to the system.

In conclusion, a certain level of disagreement and conflict are good for the health of the system as it enables those working in the system to diagnose, treat, and cure potential problems that emerge within the system, not just at a surface level, but at deeper areas of root causality.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

~Brad Hurst

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