George Lucas Educational Foundation
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After watching my high school's academic departments struggle with creativity while organized according to a traditional department chair model, I began to wonder if the hierarchical department structure might be the obstacle preventing greater collaboration and creativity among my faculty. After much consultation, contemplation, and research on organizations like IDEO and Zappos, to name just a few, I grew increasingly convinced by the anecdotal evidence suggesting that flat organizations tend to foster creativity and collaboration better than hierarchical ones. With this in mind, I set out to make a radical change.

I. The Problem

Over the last several years, I've become increasingly convinced about the importance of both creativity and collaboration in American schools, and in my school specifically. In my search for the key to both creativity and collaboration, I read numerous articles and nearly as many books on the topics. I shared my enthusiasm with my faculty and encouraged them to cast off the chains of tradition and try new things, to collaborate about new ideas for educating our kids, and to innovate and redesign some of the things we've done successfully for years. Most loved the notion of collaboration and creativity, and we all agreed that the two traits would be important in our students' future. Somehow, though, collaboration and creativity lacked staying power with the faculty, even though we often discussed how we should model these traits for our students. Perplexed, I went back to reading -- and what I found gave me a new outlook on my conundrum.

II. A Potential Solution

After reading several articles about the internationally-known design firm IDEO, I immediately ordered and read two books, The Art of Innovation and Creative Confidence, the latter of which rocked my organizational world. In Creative Confidence, authors Tom and David Kelley describe the remarkable environment that thrives at IDEO, where collaboration and creativity happen in a flat setting. Put simply, all designers working on a project at IDEO operate on a level playing field with no hierarchy so that new ideas are encouraged, all ideas are given equal consideration, and all opinions are valued. Even when the company's founders join a team for a project, hierarchy goes out the window.

Intrigued, I found articles about other organizations, such as Zappos, that have experienced terrific collaboration and soaring creativity because of flattening. The more research I did, the more evidence I discovered pointing to the same thing: in a flat organization, collaboration and creativity happen often and in meaningful ways, self-starters thrive, teamwork increases, and ideas come out of the woodwork.

III. The Decision

I began to wonder if this radical idea possibly could work in a school setting. Could a high school with traditional academic department chairs transition successfully to a flat model with no department chairs, where department members generated ideas and made decisions collaboratively minus the department chair hierarchy? To be clear, our department chairs were neither stifling nor dictatorial. However, the collaboration and creativity within the academic departments did not reach the level we all seemed to agree that our students would need for success in the remainder of the 21st century. I first approached some of my more creative teachers and they, predictably, seemed encouraged by the idea. I next approached a few of my department chairs. After I explained how I envisioned departments working in a flat school, they began to warm to the idea. I also approached some of the executive-level leaders of the entire school (we are PK-12), including my head of school, and all encouraged me to continue working toward that end. After more reading and more in-depth conversations with my most trusted team members, we made the decision to move the high school toward becoming a flat organization.

IV. The Preparation

I knew that faculty who had never worked in a flat organization would need plenty of support and training if this experiment were to have any chance of success. Therefore, before I shared my plan to flatten the school, we began collaboration training. During several professional development and in-service sessions on campus, I led my faculty through a number of collaborative exercises in which we sought solutions for existing challenges and brainstormed about ideas we might like to try in the future. To provide a template for the collaborative work, I shared IDEO's 7 Tips for Better Brainstorming, and focused especially on "defer judgment," "encourage wild ideas," and "build on ideas of others." Once I sensed the faculty growing more comfortable with the process after a few months of collaborative sessions, I finally shared my plan to flatten the school and go all-in on the untapped potential of my dedicated teachers.

V. The Outcome

Stay tuned for how this experiment turns out. As the school year wound down recently, we headed into summer anticipating a flat school upon our return in August. We spent part of each of the last two teacher days in department meetings recapping what we'd learned about collaboration, discussing a recent Edutopia post about collaboration in schools, and looking ahead to what collaboration and creativity sans department chairs would look like next year.

I believe we are as prepared as we can be for this new adventure, and I'm excited about the possibilities, but I also know we will need more training and support along the way. During the school year, I will document our challenges and successes -- and we're sure to have both -- so that I can give a midyear report and update you on our new, flat school.

Have you had a similar experience in your school? Please tell us about it.

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Nathan Barber's picture
Nathan Barber
Head of Upper School, Houston, Texas

Great points, and I agree. Thankfully, we have a schedule that allows us to intentionally build in time for collaboration.

Nathan Barber's picture
Nathan Barber
Head of Upper School, Houston, Texas

Many of those activities will be shared, some will handled by the Dean of Academics.

Jennifer Davidson's picture

As a department chair, I love this idea. Like some of the other commentators, though, I wonder how all the administrative stuff will be handled. Who will write the orders, who will organize and facilitate a book count, who will matriculate the administrative directions from the district office, attend meetings, etc. I spend so much time on these little tasks that get stuck with me because I'm the one getting paid to be in that position. Teachers are so busy already that they do not want to volunteer for this extra work unless they get extra time or money in return. If the business tasks are given to a "dean" that is getting paid for it, then that would leave the teachers more time and energy to actually collaborate and be creative. What I'm afraid will happen, though, is that more administrative busy work will just be piled on the teachers instead, without more time or money.

Nathan Barber's picture
Nathan Barber
Head of Upper School, Houston, Texas

Jennifer, you certainly raise valid points. I serve in a relatively small independent school (approx. 360 students and 50 faculty & staff), so many of the district burdens you mention do not exist on our campus. Regarding the administrative/business tasks, there probably are fewer than you might expect on my campus. The extra tasks will not fall on the teachers at all. In fact, one of the things I'm most committed to is never adding something to teachers without simultaneously removing something. Contact me via Facebook, Twitter or email and I can provide more specifics if you're interested. Thanks for taking the time comment.

steven_gatlin's picture

Voyager Academy High School (A charter school in NC) has a flat model of exactly the sort described here. We are a Project Based Learning school, but the focus is on collaboration. Feel free to contact me if you have questions.

steven_gatlin's picture

I think you are making a great move. I currently work at a school where much of what you mention is in place. Let me know if you would like to discuss operations. Our principal would be glad to help out.

Ellen's picture

I would like to know how this is going so far. Update?

Nathan Barber's picture
Nathan Barber
Head of Upper School, Houston, Texas

Ellen, thanks for asking. Things have been very smooth thus far. I definitely have seen an increase in creativity and innovation, especially in my science department. I've seen more collaboration from most of the departments, too, but not in all. A few of my departments would describe the move as liberating. The first real challenge or hurdle lies ahead of us as we begin to weigh our options on some textbook choices for a few departments. Our second language department, which already cleared that hurdle, did a great job collaborating on and making a unanimous decision about a change for a new text for Spanish I and II. We're considering a change in chemistry, and we're considering a move away from a textbook for government. I'll be very interested to see how this process works for those two. I believe we have established enough trust among department members in each of those departments that we can have healthy conversation and make a good decision.

Grant Lichtman's picture
Grant Lichtman
Author, speaker, facilitator, "Chief Provocateur"


Great stuff! What school are you at? It is exactly this kind of implementation of a more distributed leadership model that schools must move towards if they hope to actually BECOME more innovative as an organization, as opposed to just TALKING about innovation. I have an article coming out next week in Independent School Magazine that validates your work; it identifies this kind of collaboration amongst adults as the number one thing that educators want...given the opportunity to freely express what they want. So in my workshops I have been getting people to use those same design thinking-based activities to imagine school structures and processes that break, rather than re-enforce silos, and the results have been virtually infinite. I look forward to hearing more about you work and helping to share it with other school, where there is tremendous interest.

David Miles's picture

At our school teachers are paid for being Heads of Departments, and there is an accompanying time allowance. This has led to a situation where encouraging teacher leadership is quite difficult because there is an expectation that they'll be paid for the additional responsibility and/or given a reduced teaching load. This HoD structure is historical, over the past few years it has taken on a more significant role (i.e. there are now actual real expectations that they do something!) and the HoD group now meets as a fairly regular forum in which issues are discussed and some decisions made.

Were you paying Chairs a stipend for their positions? If so, how did that change when you moved away from that approach? What about time allowances? It sounds like you have an environment in which teachers WANT to take on leadership roles, but do you have any advice about how to go about stimulating leadership participation where there is minimal interest and limited resources which prevent much flexibility with time, etc?

There are multiple areas in which we could really use additional participation in leadership processes. I'd love to hear any advice you might have about where to go in developing this aspect.

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