Metamorphic problems

We introduced a five-minute movement time between lessons this year. It works really well. Every transition (between lessons, start of the day, end of breaks) is five minutes long. Given the layout and size of our school, this is enough time to walk purposefully to the next lesson, get lined up, enter the classroom, get your equipment out and be ready to start. There is no time for dithering.

The change was an attempt to resolve a number of interlinking problems. We had made a larger change to the timetable and timings of the school day. The ‘movement time’ innovation helped make the timings work so that the end of the day wasn’t too close to the finish time for the primary school at the end of our driveway. Traffic is a problem and safety was paramount in our decision making.

However, we also wanted to improve punctuality and create a stronger start to lessons. The previous approach (which had a definite end, but a woolly start to a lesson) left students leeway to find excuses to be late. Most still got to their lesson promptly, but an intransigent minority would enter late. Challenging students for lateness was difficult when a clear start point was not defined. This ambiguity meant that the de facto ‘rule’ was determined by the majority of the class – you were late if most of the students were there and you weren’t. Such ambiguity was bound to result in inconsistency and conflict.

At the same time, we tightened up the consequence for lateness. If a student arrives even a moment after the bell, we asked teachers to mark this as late. The students must then report at the start of lunch to a specified location. They are spoken to about their lateness and kept for a very short time. It is less a sanction than a minor inconvenience (missing out on getting in the lunch queue early). The principle behind this accountability was that it should be certain (happen every time) and immediate (same day). Our view is that the ‘weight’ of a sanction is less significant than its immediacy and certainty. It is usually enough to remind a young person why we insist on a standard, and their responsibility to help us create an orderly, calm and productive environment.

For the most part, this new approach has worked incredibly well. Punctuality has improved and lessons are starting promptly and strongly. We have increased time spent learning by more than an hour each week, we estimate.

However, in a complex system, there is no such thing as a perfect solution. As Nassim Taleb points out in his book ‘Anti-fragile’, when a rule is imposed for an intransigent minority (dawdlers), but applies to the flexible majority (keen students), unintended consequences result.

One of these unintended consequences is about what happens when a ‘nice kid’ turns up late for a ‘valid reason’. We have asked teachers to follow the system consistently and record this as late anyway. However, teachers find this really tough, even though the sanction is really not punitive. Why, their logic goes, would we ‘punish’ a good student for something which was outside of their control? This is particularly difficult when the student is late as another teacher has made them so. An authority figure asking a rule-obeying student to speak to them for a few minutes is hard to say no to. It becomes even more difficult to follow the system when virtually the whole class turn up late from PE because they did not have enough time to get changed. It feels bizarre to record all of them as ‘late’.

At a system level, it is entirely logical to follow the rule religiously. However, at a human level this creates a cognitive conflict for the teacher. The personal incentives work against the system – what does it matter if the odd exception is made for legitimate reasons? But once teachers start to ‘free ride’ on the system, the overall impact is reduced. There is a public benefit to everyone following the procedures, but this quickly erodes if individuals place themselves outside the system- benefiting more than they contribute.

The above is an economic analysis of the system’s flaws. But we can look at this from a complexity perspective also. What we see happening is the inevitable consequences of attempts to create order within a complex system. Problems do not get killed off, just pushed underground to emerge later somewhere else, in a new form.

What is fascinating is how the nature of the solution imposed manifests itself in the form the problem takes when it re-emerges.

It is like the regeneration of Doctor Who from the perspective of his (or her) adversaries who try to destroy him (her), except imagine that the new form taken by The Doctor was shaped itself by the nature of his (her) demise. For example, it would be like Jon Pertwee’s Doctor being strangled to death by a long, woolly scarf, only for the murder weapon to resurface as a defining feature of the Tom Baker regeneration.

[Note to the BBC – do you see how difficult your sex-morphing has made it for bloggers to use Doctor Who analogies eloquently?]

The gradual ‘failures’ of our new approach are inevitable, and will eventually require new ‘solutions’ to fix the problems created by the last one. This is not due to the weakness of the original solution, but the fact that our attempts to impose order on complexity are part of an evolutionary dance between us and the system.

Why do complex systems, like schools, behave in this way? Douglas Adams’ fictional detective, Dirk Gently, would have explained that it is due to the ‘fundamental interconnectedness of all things’.

In schools, and other complex systems, problems sit within problems. The strands of the system are interwoven, meaning there are unexpected repercussions to deconstructing and reconstructing parts of the system. Everything is connected, but there are no traceable paths or linearity when domino effects occur. Complexity is spontaneous, ambiguous and generative.

The ‘movement time’ solution came out (opportunistically) from an attempt to solve a bigger, knottier problem – something about the timetable, financial constraints, curriculum breadth, blah blah blah. Problems within problems.

The punctuality component of the problem (itself a consequence of previous solutions to past problems) had multiple causes and could be defined in various ways. The goals we hoped to reach through the change were many: more time spent learning, stronger starts to lessons, calm and orderly transitions, to name a few. There wasn’t ‘a’ problem and ‘a’ solution. There was a whole, messy heap of stuff going on which we had to make sense of and, by simplifying this complexity, hope to find a ‘good enough’ way forward.

And all this was just the way we saw it as school leaders – just one sense-making perspective. Looked at through the eyes of anyone else in the system, the whole thing probably seemed entirely different. Had we taken more time to explore other perspectives we might have better anticipated teachers’ reluctance to treat students with a valid reason for lateness punitively, however there is never enough time to explore everything in this way. The only certainty we have is that you won’t have thought of everything.

The problem we are now grappling with (let’s call it the ‘valid reason’ problem) bears the scars of the previous solution. There is a persistent problem which has presented itself in a new guise. Our leadership intervention is one more variable in the evolution of the system: it will affect what happens next, but not in the ways we might expect.

As much as leaders might like to believe they are part of the solution, they are also inevitably a part of the next problem.

Understanding that problems re-emerge in new forms should help us come to terms with the imperfection of our attempts to ‘improve’ our schools. This isn’t failure, it is just how complex systems behave.



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