Organizing Basics for the Digital Transition & the Laundry

In the transition to digital, a lot of districts and schools are simply adding staff to the existing organizations instead of going back to basics to re-think things. Sometimes these are duplicates of the same sort of functions but in different branches of the same organization, as in instructional technology in both the tech division and in the curriculum division.
LeiLani Cauthen

The average organizational structures in districts all across the U.S. are governed by numerous laws, geographic boundaries and traditions. They tend to look the same as they did one hundred years ago.

There are various silos of activities, and sometimes not a whole lot of cross-collaboration between them.

In the transition to digital, a lot of districts and schools are simply adding staff to the existing organizations instead of going back to basics to re-think things. Sometimes these are duplicates of the same sort of functions but in different branches of the same organization, as in instructional technology in both the tech division and in the curriculum division.

How does going digital change education structures in real terms? What are the basics of organizing?

The best way to explain basic organizational theory is that an organization is a dynamic activity.It has an objective. Any organization has a “product” or outcome, even if it is a service. The outcome produced by schools should be “educated students,” whether that is knowledge or process-based education or both. The trend with project-based learning does tend toward teaching cognitive processes like discovery, examination, evaluation, prediction, and judgment that may be more appropriate for this age of abundant and easily-accessible information than mere teaching of facts.

Organizing towards the production of students who can cite facts and demonstrate a few skills (knowledge focused) versus students who can advance their own learning (process focused) adds a bit of a twist to how to organize.

Perspective on the Basics

The basics of organization are what we all do with folding laundry. The towels go in one pile, the items of clothing sorted out for members of the family are folded into other respective piles.Organization is a process of differentiation first and foremost. The person in-charge routes the correct items into the correct piles. He matches, or she (it could be a woman in the instance of laundry), the right sock with its pair.

In this instance, the organization is pretty simple:

In-Charge– Retrieval from Dryer – Sorting – Folding – Piling

There is a flow of action from the In-Charge person, a.k.a. “Assistant Superintendent of Laundry, Dryer Division,” in a direction of the final completed “product” of “folded laundry.” The flow of action is comprised of independent motions.

One thing to observe here is that the In-Charge is a person. Persons are usually boxes on the organizational chart and not motions.

Another thing to observe here is that it’s nearly universally true that motions are never represented on educational organizational charts – and to organize, a leader has to have considered them. He or she may even have had to assign a measure of how many motions each task takes in order to assign the number of people to tasks. This metric may also be a reportable statistic to measure the numbers of completed motions and indicate whether the job is getting done.

Another thing to observe here is that it’s nearly universally true that motions are never represented on educational organizational charts – and to organize, a leader has to have considered them.

For example, pretend there are now eight kids in the family and the load of laundry is huge. The In-Charge is going to need to get some help. Since he knows the activity inside and out, literally, and the end-product of what it looks like to do it right exactly, he is able to set up a more sophisticated organization by assigning the motions to others. He does so with an eye to the “flow” being continuous in the direction of churning out the end product.

Work Flow 1


Now the In-Charge finds out that the perfectly piled laundry is sitting on the folding table and not being distributed, so the “product” is not really providing any real value to the users of clean, folded laundry. The laundry needs to be distributed.

As the In-Charge he either has the Piling Deputy extend their duties to add the motion or effort of now distributing the laundry, or he hires someone else to be “Distribution Deputy.”

His job is then to police the efforts and make sure the people are there doing the motions required, distractions and barriers are removed, and that the product is quality.

But what happens when the actual Dryer suddenly does the sorting and folding by itself? The organization of people and flows needs to change.

Interestingly, the idea of flow lines of actions and people as the terminals/action points for each thing emanates from certain concepts in energy. It’s natural law. Electricity doesn’t flow unless there are two terminals and a base. Like two metal rods supported by any other non-conducting material. It’s not enough just to have two terminals, there has to be that base holding the two terminals apart for the current to flow– and that base in organizing people for the flow of effort and communication is the clearly held concept of what the outcome looks like. By itself that concept guides and brings order. Do the people in the organization have the right concept? If they do, then they, too, recognize when change needs to occur and they’re on board with it.

Energy in a confusion with no pattern can behave like lightning and is pretty difficult to control. This is also true of people. When there is a lot of confusion and the production of the needed outcome just isn’t really happening, maybe there is something wrong with the order or structure of the organization. 

Another way to organize is vertical flow patterns as well as a sort of horizontal flow pattern.

For example:

Work Flow 2

To not consider the flow of efforts is to have a somewhat motionless administration. There are crossed lines and people stepping on other’s toes. Every administrator is busy with compliance or meetings, and no one is creating motion. All the actual action is happening down at the “Nth” level of the organization chart – the teachers and students, that results in the actual product. The contributing “flow” of energy from administrators appears to the people who are down at that “Nth” level as random orders interrupting their attempt to get the job done. In other words, all administration efforts should be enablement and contribution to the flow, but a lot of it in education today is a hectic activity of coping.

One example of not considering how things “flow” is if there were a Deputy of Color Separation over in the Washer division. The Deputy of Color Separation separates all the laundry by colors so that all that ever ends up with the Dryer division is a random order of loads of blues, whites, reds, etc. The Dryer division can’t do anything about that because they are not coordinated with the Washer division. The customers of distributed laundry want to know why they send in all their laundry at once and get back random small piles based on colors. One of the clients, a.k.a. parents, really needs their reds and has only seen whites and blues for weeks. The Dryer division can’t respond to that because they are not coordinated with the Washer division. The Assistant Superintendent, Washer division, even tells the Dryer division that, really, it’s none of their business which loads go out when because there is this whole science to running a load only when it’s “full” and has enough to take up the full capacity of the washer. It’s not the Washer division’s fault that they need to stick to their efficiency method. The Dryer division needs to worry about customer satisfaction since distribution is their end of things.

Most emergency organizations consider first the triage of types of people and problems they will have to deal with. Schools have never really considered this as a precursor to organizational structure and yet are flooded yearly with a new wave of wild variants in the form of a diverse student population and standards or other governmental change. Triage and rapid organizational restructure may not get done, and the whole organization tries to retain its shape inflexibly, and of course then remains in cope mode perpetually and is seen as fairly dysfunctional.

Only the healthcare industry has as many variants as the education industry. There is no devaluing the sheer number of accommodations that will be requested when one is dealing with, as a primary product, humans -- and in education’s case, knowledge itself. This is a hard job to organize.

Yet the problem of education organizational structure needing to change is all too obvious. The outcomes are sometimes fantastic. Others are, well, unfolded laundry.

The idea of a flipped structure has started in the classroom, but it needs to be more than that. In the complexity of hundreds or thousands of students, the order of determining organization should start with these steps:

1. Determine the types of things the organization will handle (in this case types of students, new compliances.)

2. Work out the changes desired (as in retrieving, sorting, folding, etc.) to get each to the end product (or goal) for each type and thing

3. Post the people who will do the changing for each type and each thing along the sequence of changes for that type or thing in your educational institution.

    Again, the ultimate complexity lies in adapting the organization to the students who are individuals and have individual needs. With digital technology, there are efficiencies that allow for personalization without an army of administrators to pull it off.

    To reorganize, you have to be able to visualize the full sequence of events of educating one student using technology. These days that sequence is more, and sometimes less, than it once was. At one time a school leader had the ability to easily consider getting the laundry folded. Now the laundry is sorting, folding and piling itself. It just has to be retrieved and distributed. Actually, the laundry in most instances can be taught to even bring itself to the laundry room, wash, dry, and arrive back to closets and drawers. It’s intelligent laundry, with its own computer and internet access. 

    Really, the administration of it could be a lot simpler than it used to be.

    Modern digital curriculum can help assess the levels of a student’s ability and gate them forward into their next lessons when they master what they are given. Teacher-created digital lesson plans with group projects where the teacher can see what’s on any one student’s screen and intervene as needed can be the norm. Students can spend large parts of their day in study halls because the days of lecturing are minimized. Acts of discovery and interaction ready students for future work and allow them to explore areas of interest. Teachers could specialize in a minimum number of subjects to give the maximum advantage organizationally and professionally for students.

    There are many new directions leaders could be taking as they seek efficiencies with technology, but they have to be seeking them, and they have to know what’s current in technology and actually see it and probably play around with it themselves. They’ll need to ask questions like:

    • How much lesson time does this one Device/App/website/full digital curriculum take up?
    • How much does it take for people to learn it?
    • How could this change our organization and not just the classroom?
    • Where are the efficiencies for us that make it worth our while to change how we’ve been doing things?
    • What are short term costs to us organizationally in review, purchase, do the professional development, product cost, etc.?
    • What are long-term costs?
    • What are the skills needed to “govern” this new tech?
    • Will the skills be centralized as a service to all teachers or distributed? If distributed, are we expecting too much of certain staff to be, say, full analytics experts?
    • How does this change the teacher’s routine?
    • How does this change things for student experience, what is the flow of their learning now?
    • If a student can now speed ahead, or end up behind in a new personalized education, how do we accommodate that organizationally?
    • How many digital curriculum and content “things” are going to be needed for any one subject or teacher?
    • How should the procurement of these “things” change and be posted?
    • Who is going to have to talk to whom to pull off a coordinated effort?

    Of the three steps listed numerically above, the adherence to new Standards are really trying to do step two, working out the changes desired to reach the end product or goal. That, however is a very limited view of step two. There is much more to do organizationally, as demonstrated by the list of other questions to be asking. That list is certainly not all the questions, but does give a view as to how organizations will need to change in real terms.

    The first thing that leaders must do when advancing into step three is find out what the sequence of changes actually are now that digital curriculum and technology have or can change the process of teaching and learning. It’s up to the leader to know the new technologies well enough to envision that.

    Happy reorganizing!

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