Opinion: Reimagining our school system

Anthony Montgomery and Ian Kehoe ask why schools get so little attention from organisational psychology

Schools are organisations, and moulders of organisational life.
We – an organisational psychologist and an educational philosopher – passionately believe this and would like to ask why organisational psychology tends to overlook school as the first important organisation.  

Could it be that the field is simply too emotive and resistance laden? The experiences of Duckett et al. (2008) represent an excellent example of how analysing young people’s experience of the school as an organisation can induce severe resistance. Such strong resistance is due to the fact that the analysis of a school, unlike many adult organisations, cannot be done without referring to values, an area organisational psychology tends to avoid. Indeed, designing schools is an almost religious pursuit – which is perhaps why religions have been allowed to dominate their design for so long. Interestingly, the School Effectiveness and School Improvement (SESI) movement has been criticised for evading the fundamental questions of ‘effective for what’ and ‘effective for whom’ (Bogotch et al., 2007). In this article we are going to suggest four reasons why organisational psychology needs to be involved.

The first important thing a young person learns in school is how an organisation works, who it works for, and how to belong there.Schools are organisations. The extent to which they are organisations is most strongly felt if you have ever visited one as an outsider, that odd anxious feeling you get when you cross that invisible boundary into the school. Like any organisation, they are defined by these boundaries: of time, space, task, and inclusion and exclusion.

It is this organisational aspect of schools that is the most overlooked but most important part of their nature. Schools are usually the first formal organisations every human experiences, the first place we find ourselves in an organisational relationship with the ‘other’. From the moment we start school we are anxious about finding a safe place to belong there, a safe group to belong to – safe ways of managing our relationship with this all-powerful organisation. Throughout our school experience this is our central concern – adults tend to characterise these as adolescent anxieties, but they are anxieties all humans experience in organisational life. To date, research in education (not organisational psychology) has examined the variable of school belonging (e.g. Holt & Espelage, 2003), but it has tended to viewed as a dependent or outcome variable. Our experience of working with both organisations and schools strongly suggests that belonging is an independent variable.

The organisational experience dominates not only when we are there, but also retrospectively. As adults all our memories of school relate to the process we experienced, not the content we learnt – indeed one could argue that the process is what we learnt (Aronson, 1999).

Indeed schools, it has been argued, are where we first develop our ‘organization-in-the-mind’ (e.g. Armstrong, 2009; Bazalgette et al., 2006), the mental picture of how organisations work and our place and status in them, which predicts much of our organisational behaviour and social identity. We learn how to belong to and form protective groups, how to lead, how to deal with authority, what motivates people, how people control people, how to get a high social status in an organisation, and so on.

Of all these processes, perhaps the most important is how values are always indirectly expressed through organisational systems – to communicate who is valued and who is not. For example, we asked some adults, all of whom had been academically successful, about their experience of streaming. They spoke of perceiving the other students in the lower streams as less valued by the school, and ultimately felt that these students had ‘been forgotten’. They recalled being frightened that this exclusion would happen to them, and have never forgotten this experience.

The second important thing young people learn at school is what role
they can, and are allowed to, take. As we are learning how the school as an organisation works we are also learning how to take roles there – a way of relating to the school as a system. The roles we find play a major part in defining our sense of self, and particularly our sense of agency and self-esteem as adults. Indeed, many of us will find ourselves later taking the same roles in organisations as adults.

For example, a young person entering a private performance-centred school focused on, for example its rugby culture, is going to have a very different sense of what it means to belong there than one entering an inner-city comprehensive school. Indeed, every school will be different. All schools indirectly send messages about what kind of student is valued and what isn’t by prioritising certain sports, certain subjects, certain students, and certain pictures of how society is. Certain behaviours by certain groups tend to be overlooked, certain bullying behaviours are usually allowed, certain career paths are valued over others, etc. All these things reinforce certain values about who is included and who isn’t, who is valued and who isn’t. For some students belonging may come easy, but the problems we see in schools suggest that for too many it does not. Many end up taking roles that enable them to belong but are not the roles they need or want. Bullies are perhaps the clearest example: bullying behaviour is an attempt to reinforce one’s belonging by picking on people who everyone in the school unconsciously agrees don’t belong. The irony of bullying is that bullies are usually the ones experiencing the most anxiety about belonging. This is not a role they wish to take but a desperate attempt to be included, valued and accepted.  

How included a young person feels in the school culture is a primary indicator of a young person’s well-being and academic success.
Why are some students more successful than others? This question has been examined in many different ways, though the clearest indicators suggest that academic success tends to relate to parental attitudes to education (Alexander et al., 2001). This is certainly true, but there is another process at work. Do students perform better because they experience school as a safe place to belong?

The experience of countless practitioners on government initiatives
is that young people who have difficulty belonging also have difficulty learning. This shouldn’t be surprising to us, as we behave exactly the same way as adults – we underperform in organisations we feel excluded in. These young people do not receive positive projections for the aspects of themselves that they value and don’t experience recognition at an organisational level so they react; they take flight (truancy, underperformance), or they fight (disruptive behaviour).

If the experience of inclusion is a prerequisite to learning in a school then there may be millions of young people who underperform simply due to feeling excluded in school. We have an ethical obligation to provide inclusive schools, and the contribution of organisational psychology to this aspect of the debate is surely clear.

Schools don’t passively prepare young people for society, they create society by creating young people’s perception of their role in it. Nowadays we tend to think of schools  as somehow passive, as preparation for society; but schools are actively moulding society through what they teach us about organisational life and through the roles we learn to develop in them.

The argument that schools passively prepare young people for ‘the realities of society’ is often used to justify organising schools ‘to feed the markets needs’. This takes on its most dangerous form in the attitudes that see a person’s value in terms of their function (Fielding, 2007), and in more extreme cases see no difference between the personal and the functional. When a young person is seen in terms of their function they are seen as only important as ‘learner’ or ‘pupil’ – and valuable only in as much as they fit well into this function. So, for example, a parent might ask us what is wrong with sending my child to a high-performance school? Our short answer is that it’s a huge risk: if your child fits into the role of ‘learner’ of ‘pupil’ as defined by that school then they will be fine, and may even flourish (assuming you wish them to acquire the values and worldview of that school), whereas if they struggle to fit into those roles they may have significant problems belonging there, which will probably disable them from learning, lower their social value in the school, and cause them severe long-term distress.

Ultimately when schools are designed to mirror the ‘realities of society’ they are not designed to mirror the way society is, they are designed to mirror someone’s idea of the way society should be, and are thus open to being used to forward certain worldviews and value systems. Perhaps, then, the purpose of schools should not be to push a certain view of how society should be, but to enable young people to develop their own ideas of how society should be.

We have identified four core issues about the future of schooling that are important for organisational psychology. Firstly, that we learn a lot more from the process we experience at school than from the content of what we are taught. Secondly, the really important thing young people learn at school is how organisations work and what roles they can take in them, which will have a considerable impact on their adult organisational behaviour. Thirdly, if experiencing inclusion in school is a prerequisite to learning, then schools need first and foremost to be organisations all young people feel they can belong to. Fourthly, if school is young people’s first experience of society, indeed the place where society starts, we need to make it an organisation young people feel they can question and transform.

Organisational psychology clearly has an important role to play. We need to have a clear idea of what a school designed around process rather than content looks like, of how a genuine person-centred learning community works, of how we can have a school where our children, rather than be enabled to become a function, are enabled to become whole people.

With this in mind, we are gathering a group of organisational psychologists and educationalists together to design an inclusive process-centred school from scratch. We invite anyone who feels impassioned about the ideas in this article to get involved and contact us. 

Anthony Montgomery is a senior lecturer in work and organisational psychology at the University of Macedonia, [email protected]

Ian Kehoe is an organisational consultant working in the field of education
[email protected]


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