Note: The following review appeared in Weston, M. E. (2009). The learning, self-organizing school. Educational Forum, 73(4), 368-369.
The Self-Organizing School: Next-Generation Comprehensive School Reforms, by Alan Bain.
Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield. © 2007. 232 pages. ISBN: 978-1578866021.
Efforts to improve schools have been problematic. In The Self-Organizing School, Alan
Bain presents a theory-driven, research-based model of school reform and an account of its 12-
year implementation at a New England secondary school. The results—improved student
achievement, faculty morale, and student conduct—are enviable and well documented. When
situated within the broader historical context of school improvement efforts, Bain’s self-
organizing school model stands in stark contrast to the uninspired outcomes from its more hyped
and better-funded reform predecessors, particularly the Comprehensive School Reform program.
Bain grounded his project on a belief that most reformers were ill prepared to reconcile
the drumbeat for change with the realities of schools and classrooms. Those realities, the
problematic history of prior efforts, and the resistance to change inherent in the prevailing
system of education led Bain to conclude that if dramatic learning gains are to occur, schools
need to move beyond the rational and static approaches that have long dominated school
improvement efforts. The dynamic alternative he presents has the capacity to respond to the
current educational realities while adapting practice in continuous ways that produce profound
A number of authors (e.g., Gell-Mann 1994; Prigogine 1984) reported that for a system to
consistently adapt and learn it had to generate, receive, and process feedback. When a system
receives feedback that something it did worked, the system reinforces and refines that action. If,
however, the system’s action elicited negative feedback, the system stops doing that action.
Inherent in Bain’s self-organizing school is the capacity to generate and use feedback. That
capacity requires the school to define and recognize effective teaching. In the current
approaches, such definition and recognition is rare. The ambiguity that characterizes the core
work—teaching and learning— at a typical school makes it nearly impossible for educators to
agree about what they value, believe, and should do, let alone receive and act on feedback about
whether they are actually doing it. That is why in Bain’s self-organizing design he links beliefs,
values, and practices with dynamic feedback processes so that a school can learn.
In the early chapters, Bain establishes that self-organization does not readily occur in
schools and lays out his theory of self-organization. His theory “is as much about the way things
happen as it is about the lofty, big-picture thinking that is usually attributed to the term (p.41).”
In subsequent chapters, Bain presents and discusses six principles that aid a school’s
migration to self-organization. One principle involves having a schema—a commonly held set of
professional understandings, beliefs, and actions—for teaching and learning. Such schemas are
rare in educational settings because individual teacher schemata are commonplace. A second
principle suggests that whereas a schema guides complex behaviors, simple rules are about doing
less to accomplish more. Simple rules require a school to assign value to what it believes about teaching and learning. That process guides the school toward the practices expected to be
commonplace. Essentially simple rules drive the form and function of a self-organizing school.
Bain’s third principle states that feedback is the engine of self-organization. Emergent
feedback is the way a complex system talks to itself. Inherent in self-organizing schools are
systems for gathering, analyzing, synthesizing, and using feedback in ways that support
stakeholders at the school to do their respective jobs. The fourth principle builds on this idea by
showing that these networks and collaborations epitomize disperse control and make it possible
for a school, and its stakeholders, to adapt to and respond to changes in circumstances.
The fifth principle shows that the schema and simple rules of a self-organizing school are
embedded in its design. That all elements—schema, rules, feedback, control, and design—are
embedded in all others at scale is principle six. Such embedding makes regularity of practice and
emergent feedback about those practices more likely at the school.
Bain’s self-organizing design for schooling represents a promising alternative to the
present educational paradigm. The book combines research-based practice with proven methods
of implementing those practices at scale. Anyone who doubts that profound change in education
is possible will benefit from reading this book. For those who believe such change is possible—
but do not know how to make it happen—this book can show them the way.