Saturday, 2 April 2011

Evolving transparency

A truth window. This is an external wall (seen from the interior).

A recent personal incident and ongoing reform debates in my workplace, coupled with today's new definition of 'transparency,' prompted me to write this last CoTAIL blog post. Here's a relevant definition of transparency from Dan Bricklin's website:
"Today, to be transparent means that your are providing data in such a way that anybody with access can drill down on the data and ask unanticipated questions. They should be able to explore interrelationships that were not thought of by those that provide the data."
Data in the educational context may be different than data in the business world, yet the similarities are notable. Granted, teachers are not able to access leadership reports via the Internet as Bricklin discusses (although it is possible), and we do receive 'minutes' of some meetings via email, however, it's still apparent that no matter the report or the number of reports disseminated, data can still be manipulated in the sense that humans can select information to report and are automatically biased in their reporting, despite any appeals to transparency. And, of course when confronted, any number of interpretations of the original data can be made to suit the purpose, or even to perhaps the less ethical side, to self-serve. Warren Bennis, Daniel Goleman, James O’Toole and Patricia Biederman have published three essays pertaining the topic of transparency in a world where where it's become more difficult than ever to hide things. In the five summary points stand out, the second suggests that those coming forth with 'unpleasant truths' be praised. Point four suggests we'd all be best to welcome counterarguments but leaders especially need to check on their partiality and be willing to listen to dissent. Bennis, Goleman and O'Toole in Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor say that leaders need to embrace the flow of information via candor and honesty and forgo the fear of the 'truth will out.' 'Reward the principled contrarians.' And, regarding other perspectives, it's the feminine touch that wins out according to 'Speaking Truth to Power: The Role of the Executive' by Jennifer Pittman:
"While not typical traits for our leaders, “feminine” virtues of humility, inclusion, vulnerability, service to others, and respect for people, are characteristic of truly great leaders."
It's the concept of 'truth' that we're both drawn to and yet fear. It seems apparent to me that the fundamental definition of 'transparency' involves knowing the truth by being in touch with one's feelings to the extent of being able to empathize and introspect and thus understand the feelings of others. The action one takes then stems from this vulnerable, yet sincere position—and perhaps is more likely to be a 'right action.' In studying the Human Sciences in the Theory of Knowledge, we learn about Verstehen—this very approach involving empathy and introspection that human scientists use in their attempts to study and make conclusions about human behaviors within their respective fields. Isn't this what we're all doing as educators at virtually every interaction we have with colleagues and with students? We should be especially good at this given the daily practice we have. Yet, even when the truth does surface through the mess of thoughts, we're caught up with attempting to do what we think is right within the context of the situation—softening the truth or often times—avoiding it. Best to tell the person what s/he wants to hear, or what might be 'politically-correct' to say. Telling the truth is a two-edged sword alright. Leo Bottary seemed to be inspired by Bennis' words on transparency and came up with some key points on 'speaking truth to power effectively.' Among them: 1) That bad news coming from the leader is better than no news, and that 2) trust in self and in one's leadership prevail.

Shouldn't F2F interchanges be the primary way to show one's transparency? After all, look what's missed without looking at the slightest muscle twitches on someone's face, or seeing the honesty in someone's eyes. This may be true in one-to-one interactions, or with manageable groups of people. But with the constraints of time and in other contexts, the use of blogs, wikis and social networks can then be seen as solutions to some of these challenges. Will Richardson's weblog on 'Transparency = Leadership" and the extensive blog comments offer diverse insight into what leaders need to be doing to be in step with today's forms of practicing transparency. Richardson's whole point is for educators of all sorts to:
"Build a learning network online, and make your learning as transparent as possible for those around you."
There are assumptions to consider here, but the one being that we educators are immersed in the digital world today, despite our position as 'digital immigrants' over our students' position as 'digital natives,' there's no real excuse as to why we all shouldn't be on board with professional social networking. Given our school's move to new assessment, grading and reporting, wouldn't professional blogs, run by our respective school leaders provide the line of thinking, the rationale and justifications for decisions, the research links to peruse, links to other schools having similar discussions, comments and questions for teachers and even board members to ask in that transparent mode that such a communication offers? The different points of view would be welcomed instead of feared. Here's one among many of the pertinent comments from Richardson's post:
"I would say that the two most important principles for leaders in education today are (1) encouraging and facilitating innovation at all levels of the system and (2) fomenting clear and honest communication among all stakeholders in the educational process (teachers, parents, students, administrators, support staff, et cetera)." Chris Johnson
There's also the need for peer review to keep the writing professional. But the nice thing about blogs, for example, is this peer review is built in. Certainly, a professional would want to carefully formulate ideas, state findings, make observations, and provide accuracy with research knowing such writing and research is open to public scrutiny (especially in the case of a high school faculty).

In any regard, today's digital world seems to be bringing transparency to the forefront in new ways never before considered. And this can either be problematic or advantageous for those, like leaders, whose transparency or lack thereof drives the wheel of change. Ending on a more Utopian note, is it possible that the combined transparency of both the old, traditional F2F and new technologies today would lead to a fundamental change in human nature such that we might develop less fear of telling the truth? Or, even with a more metaphysical consideration, we have to prepare ourselves for the day we can actually come to read each others' minds! Ponder this. If babies can do it, Ray Kurzweil predicts so can we! We may be destined to tell the truth after all! But, if nothing else, at least we can rely on Shakespeare's prediction in reference to transparency: 'The truth WILL out.'

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