This week I had to deliver a talk on my activities, readings and other influences on my thinking regarding a research question/topic for the Master of Research degree at Macquarie University.

You can access the presentation here. I’ve broken a few rules regarding text amount etc, but as it had to form a handout as well… I’m afraid that’s that.

The key idea I wanted to briefly outline is that of starfish.. and organisations that reflect the starfish. On the recommendation of Cameron Paterson (@cpaterso) who teaches here in Sydney and has had a profound impact on my thinking, I read “The Starfish and the Spider” and found it fantastic.

Starfish and the Spider
Starfish and the Spider

Having been involved in teachmeets for quite some time now, the idea of a “starfish” organisation is appealing to me. A “starfish” organisation is one that functions similar to our maritime friend, in that it has no distinct ‘head’ and if one ‘limb’ is removed or damaged the organism or organisation continues to function at full capacity. This is in comparison to a “spider” organisation, where if a ‘limb’ is cut off it causes disability and if the ‘head’ is removed then the whole thing dies. The prime example cited is Alcoholics Anonymous (eerily, most TeachMeet talks begin with “Hi I’m Matt and I’m a teacher…”) where ‘chapters’ do not seek or require approval for memberships, meetings or other aspects of their function from a central authority – because there isn’t one. There may be some common rules and expectations such as the “12 steps”, but each chapter is an independent but connected ‘arm’ of the wider organisation. There are even examples of

Teachmeet Sydney, my (physically) local TM community is a prime example of a starfish organisation. With enough keen enthusiasts and active participants, it doesn’t matter if one or two people left or had other priorities, the ‘organisation’ would continue to function as well as it does now. Sure, there might be a few especially keen beans like me who push and promote TMs, but there is room for that in the starfish theory.

We grow up in a world of traditions, rules and expectations. Where people in power and positions of authority seek to maintain the status quo sometimes not for the benefit of the system but for their own. I even find myself exerting this kind of belief in terms of the classroom – students have no power until they are ‘given’ power by the teacher.

What if schools were starfish organisations, where knowledge was shared freely and collaboration was the norm? What if schools didn’t require a specific person to give approval to an initiative, but instead allowed innovation to happen and the ‘leaders’ created a supportive climate where mistakes could be made and reflected upon? Perhaps schools can never be starfish organisations. But, in a world of more open content, free courses, Khan Academy and MOOCs, all schools and school systems at least have to face the reality that they are not the only sources of learning for students anymore.

Are you a part of any starfish organisations? Or are we just surrounded by spiders?