Leadership, Opinion

Governance that Enables

Connecting Stuart Kauffman, Bedroom Closets and Radical Emergence

We’ve been avoiding making the decision to buy new carpet for a couple of years now. Our reluctance has had nothing to do with need. Our 12 year-old berber had become so worn that even deep cleaning didn’t seem to help the appearance. The real reason for our resistance, however, was the knowledge that we would have to completely empty bedrooms, move things around and make those important decisions on what to keep and what to give away. Until now, it has been much easier to live with the status quo. 

But an impending family gathering and a decision to move the boys into their own rooms forced us to bite the bullet and make the commitment. 

For one of my sons, taking apart his bed and moving the contents of the room that he had shared with his brother for several years was a little disconcerting. But for my seven year-old, the experience was pure magic. He discovered things in the process that he had forgotten about. He got the opportunity to clean out his closet and remember experiences from “when I was a baby.” But the best moment came when we had successfully emptied three different rooms on the weekend prior to the carpet installation. After a day of actively bouncing among these “new” spaces, the boys were tired. But when it was time to head to bed, my youngest was nowhere to be found. He loves to hide and I figured that, having disturbed most of his favourite nooks and crannies, it would be easy to find him. 

But it was his brother that made the discovery. Liam had taken his sleeping bag and his favourite pillow and had curled up in the corner of what had been his hyperpopulated toy closet. It seems that the new empty space that had been created was a perfect place to end the day! 

For the past two weeks, I have immersed myself in two streams of writing. On the one hand, I have been reading the reflections and insights of my fellow CEA bloggers as they began teasing out various aspects of governance and leadership in education.

But I’ve also started to explore more deeply the work of Stuart Kauffman, a theoretical biologist, medical doctor, philosopher, and inquirer into how the world came to be so darn complex. (Wouldn’t he be an interesting guest at your next dinner party?) His writing is both dense and daunting, filled with concepts and equations from both classical physics and quantum mechanics. But Kauffman is masterful in keeping one eye on the hard science and the other on what his discoveries and insights might mean as we navigate the complexities of economic, politcal and social life, allowing those readers unfamiliar with the scientific discourse to find the connections.

And here’s where those two streams began to converge for me.

Kauffman has a very compelling idea that he calls Radical Emergence, a way to describe things that are not directly or intentionally caused, but are made possible through the development of some other condition or reality. It’s something that emerges not because we wanted it to happen and not even because we imagined it as a possibility. But it happened! 

For Kauffman, the key “driver” (and that’s not even the right word) for this type of Radical Emergence is enablement. It’s not directed; it’s not controlled.  We can’t predict it. Heck, we might not even be able to imagine it so, in a sense, we can’t take credit for it. The possibility of it becoming actualized can only be enabled.

Our motivation and efforts for clearing out rooms and closets the weekend before our carpet installation had nothing to do with alternative sleeping arrangements for our son. But I guess we enabled the possibility of him turning an empty closet into a temporary bedroom. We couldn’t have predicted that it would happen. We may not even have desired it. But happen it did! And this new empty niche turned about to be effective for him.

Our conversations about governance usually revolve around four main ideas: power, authority, responsibility and accountability. New approaches to governance tend to look for ways of playing with the position of these ideas, leading to concepts like decentralization, empowerment, shared accountability and distributed leadership. 

But I believe Kauffman’s exploration of Radical Emergence offers some new insights related to how we might build into our models of governance the idea of enablement. I realize that it’s easier said than done, especially in institutions that tend to come under intense public scrutiny. And there is an ironic sense in which even talking about enabling Radical Emergence might prevent it from happening, but that’s OK for now. 

Over the next couple of weeks, I would like to explore the concept of enablement further. There is a whole bunch to unpack here and I realize that I’ve only scratched the surface on this one. But, a few ideas for you to ponder.

First, I would encourage you to take a look at Kauffman’s own blog entry, Enablement and Radical Emergence. Its concise and very readable!

Second, take a look around your own context. What signs of Radical Emergence do you notice? Are there things that have happened in your school or District culture that emerged quite unpredictably. Perhaps it was an idea that came to life while you were busy doing something else. Maybe it was a practice or strategy that became part of your repertoire quite by accident. Or it might be the emergence of a team of colleagues that has emerged out of something completely unrelated. You might be surprised at what you find when you start to look.

Finally, what dimensions of our current thinking about Governance and Leadership might seen through the lens of enablement? What would it take to infuse some enablement language into our current lexicon? Again, think of your own context, whether it be at the classroom or school level, or whether it is at the District or Provincial level. Where might we find the opportunity to introduce the language of enablement? (What is that language?)

In the midst of these questions, I’ll leave you with one of my favourite Kauffmanisms, in the hope that it might engage your imagination and some good conversation:

Not only do we not know what will happen, we often don’t even know what can happen.


Meet the Expert(s)

Stephen Hurley

Stephen Hurley

Education Consultant, Catalyst, voicED Radio

Stephen Hurley is a recently retired teacher from the Dufferin Peel District School Board in Ontario. Stephen continues to work to open up public spaces for vibrant conversations about transformation of education systems across Canada.

Stephen Hurley est un enseignant récemment retraité de la Dufferin Peel District School Board en Ontario. Stephen continue de travailler à ouvrir des espaces publics pour des conversations dynamiques sur la transformation des systèmes éducatifs partout au Canada.

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