Order and Chaos

The most difficult thing of all… was the lack of teaching. Students began the day by working on their own weekly plan, approaching teachers in the middle of the ‘market square’ for advice when needed.

Uutiset News (Finland), 15.8.2019, ‘Parents file complaints over “failure” of new school’

Two contrasting news stories have caught my eye of late. The first, quoted above, was about a new school in Finland, set up with what what might be called extreme ‘progressive’ practices. The school is reportedly one of the first to implement Finland’s new curriculum, which is based on the concept of ‘phenomenon teaching’ – an interdisciplinary approach.

In this primary school, pupils are told to create their own study plans. One student with special educational needs, Aino, found the task too much. According to Aino, the most difficult thing was the ‘lack of teaching’. She found the beginning of the school day ‘chaotic’, as pupils congregated in the market square to negotiate the day with teachers.

One quote from the article stands out for me:

‘It was hard for me that the teacher did not teach at first, but instead we should have been able to learn things by ourselves,’ Aino said. ‘I didn’t learn anything.’

Contrast this with the reports following the announcement of GCSE results at Michaela school in London, hailed in the media as ‘Britain’s strictest school’. The school has been at the centre of the storm about ‘traditional’ teaching methods, silent corridors and ‘zero-tolerance’ behaviour practices. The impressive set of results achieved by their first cohort of Year 11 students has been widely cited as evidence that the school has been vindicated: that traditional values have won out.

It is tempting to view the above reports as ‘one-nil’ in the match between traditionalists and progressives. The apparently radically different approaches of the two schools does support a binary analysis of values – however, is the traditionalist/progressive scale the right one?

In Jordan D. Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, the author makes a compelling case for viewing the world as a constant struggle between two opposing forces: order and chaos. He argues that both these ‘personalities’ of the universe are potentially positive or negative. Our state of being is a constant balancing act between the two. Peterson draws on mythology, psychology and philosophy to illustrate his case, beginning with the biblical origin story itself: order from chaos, and the corruption of Adam by the temptress Eve.

The book appears to resonate with many (at least the sales figures would indicate as much). For me, having spent much time this summer thinking about the complexity of school environments and the difficulties of navigating through the ‘swampy’ problems of leadership for an upcoming talk, the arguments in the book were timely and pertinent. My contention, expressed in this previous blog, is that we need to come to accept a certain degree of uncertainty and ambiguity in schools – that this is part of the landscape – and find ways other than attempting to tame the beast of chaos.

When viewed as an order/chaos dichotomy, the schools described in the articles referenced above appear to find quite different centres of gravity. Michaela clearly represents the dominance of order over chaos, whilst the Finnish school appears to have sacrificed structure and routine. Perhaps the secret to their success or failure is in what delicate balance they have struck between the two? This begs the question: where should we bring order, and how much chaos should we tolerate in our schools?

In a school context, ‘order’ is the timetable, rules, turn-taking, queuing, sanctions, classrooms, demarcation, departments, hierarchy, curriculum, testing, tracking, monitoring of standards, the bell, the parsing of time, the allocation of resources, budgets, and our detailed plans for the future. Order means calm. It is welcome. It is certainty and knowledge.

However, taken too far, order is controlling, aggressive, oppressive, vengeful, claustrophobic, inescapable, suffocating, dehumanising, even destructive. Do you recognise these terms in the media stories and social media comments? The rational order imposed by some schools has, ironically, provoked an emotionally chaotic response – as if a raging storm of rhetoric will bring down the allegedly tyrannical order imposed by these schools.

In opposition to order, chaos needn’t be the bad-guy. It is merely the unknown, the new, the original. Chaos is possibility. Without chaos in our schools, there would be no spark of creativity, or wonder at what the future might bring. Chaos is the antidote to mundane predictability. If order prevents the school becoming your worst nightmare, chaos makes it the place you are excited to be part of.

But chaos, when it rages unhindered, is death, anarchy and darkness. It is the void. We take joy from the wildness of the lion, but fear that it will escape from its cage and wreak destruction; violence. We walk the line between greeting and fearing the recasting of the familiar. We see this in our response to change. We feel a nagging doubt that, if we are not in control, then who is? The threat of chaos is the source of our anxiety, and the imposition of order is necessary to our sense of achievement.

In my own school, each summer we attempt to push chaos back by imposing a little more order. This year we have put up barriers to guide students’ queuing for food, signposted one-way systems, re-written the classroom code of conduct, and refreshed our expectations about how student enter their lessons. It is not that the school is becoming ever-more constrained by order, just that we know that chaos keeps pushing back at us. If we stand still it will eventually consume us.

Order and chaos define our schools in ways we have stopped recognising. We cast students and adults in roles which support this narrative. Children are the instigators of chaos. They are the destructive force that needs containing. They are ignorant; naive; needy. Adults bring order, coherence and knowledge. Yet the chaos children bring is also appealing – the reason we want to be teachers – their unbridled enthusiasm, refreshing honesty and irreverent wit. Where the balance is struck correctly, joy can co-exist with sanity: relationships flourish because we define how much chaos is permissible, not despite the constraints we impose.

This role-playing defines the leader-follower dynamic also. Leaders set the standards and enforce them: we can only assume that without this parental authority, teachers would run wild. What is leadership (at least in the way it is portrayed in the popular literature) if not the imposition of order over chaos?

Is there another way to imagine the players in our drama? How might this change the narrative of our schools?

We can conceive of many features of our schools as an interplay between order and chaos. Chaos creeps positively into our curriculum (through the arts); provides the thrill of adventure on school trips; reigns in the semi-supervised social spaces at lunchtime; bounces around social networks; punctuates the year as holiday respite. We keep chaos hemmed in, but it is always there – pushing back the strictures of order to find space to breath. It brings joy, thrill, energy, a rush of adrenaline, laughter, expectation, revelation, and the motivation to continue. Chaos is the ray of sunshine through the bars at the window. What is results day if not the release of chaos following months of disciplined confinement?

Order is known – what has been taught. Chaos is the unknown – the remainder of human wisdom yet to be discovered. Learning itself exists between order and chaos. Peterson describes this liminal moment as having ‘one foot in what you have mastered and understood and the other in what you are currently exploring and mastering’. At the threshold of knowing, we are precariously balanced: in this place we feel the thrill of education.

The curriculum finds the ground between order and chaos. History imposes order on a chaotic past. Music creates patterns from noise: chord and discord. Maths examines the chaotic beauty of the universe by making it explainable. Each subject finds its own balance, and so too must the curriculum in its entirety find harmony – perhaps this is what we mean when we talk of a ‘balanced curriculum’?

When we tell the story of our schools – our journey of school improvement – we rationalise the past by pretending that chaos was tamed. We map out the future in our strategic plans, but no degree of planning will prove useful as a map. The future is uncharted territory. Order, or the pretense of it, provides the comforting belief that we are in control. But we aren’t: this is a trick of the mind which keeps us trying to contain the chaos.

Each of us will continue to find a balance between order and chaos. We should remember to value both: that the magic happens when they come together.

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