If you are outside of the education system it is difficult to appreciate quite how uncomfortable those inside it are feeling right now. There are many reasons for this, not least of all the responsibility we feel for the children about to come back to our schools, and for their families who are trusting us to make it safe. It is also hard to imagine just how complex the task of bringing even a few students back to school is. Having spent this week re-modelling how to accommodate less than 10% of my school population at a time on site (thanks to the goalposts being moved again), I can assure you that it is ridiculously difficult. Schools are designed to operate with a full load, as one entity: once you start breaking the whole into separate operational systems – childcare, work setting, online tutorials, in-school support, provision for those shielding – these different systems are in tension with each other. There are numerous ways of running each separate system, and an almost endless number of problems caused whichever way you then combine them. Schools have become the way they are today over two hundred years of evolution of mass schooling. We are inventing an entirely new model in a matter of weeks, and we’ll be re-inventing it again, and again, as we progress through various iterations of a phased return to full schooling (however long that will take). We’re playing God, but lack the omniscience: suddenly thrust into role as the watchmaker, not just the repair man.
Anyway, this blog isn’t about how complex it is. It is about another feature of schools which helps us understand why things are a little tense right now. That feature is looseness.
There is a tired cliche that schools are based on a factory model: that they mimic the mass production methods which came about during the industrial revolution. There are enough similarities between schools and factories to make this idea superficially attractive. Schools educate children in batches, they move from one ‘stage of production’ to the next, and there is an outcome which we attempt to measure to check the quality of the end result. However, no factory would ever operate like a school. It would go bust in days. The truth is that if schools are like some kind of factory (and they’re not) they would be considered grossly inefficient. Economies are built on businesses being endlessly on a quest to be super slick: to cut every cost and maximise output. Even if the idea of schooling at scale was in some way inspired by the concept of mass production, since then schools have dramatically failed to fall in line with this capitalist revolution.
Let’s consider just how hopelessly inefficient schools are. To begin with, they are only open for 53% of days each year – hardly utilising their capacity. Furthermore, in a typical school day students spend about 5 out of the 8 hours or so that they commit to the enterprise actually in lessons. Even if you add in a couple of hours homework a day, you are only productively using about 70% of the working day. Then we should consider how much of each lesson is actually used productively. Even a cursory reading of Nuthall’s ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners’ is enough to seed doubt about how much attention children actually pay to what the teacher says and the tasks they are asked to do. If you wanted to design a lean, mean educating machine, schools wouldn’t be it.
The effects of all this ‘productive’ activity are also highly questionable. How much of what students have been taught, or even appear to have understood and processed, is actually retained? This aspect of school inefficiency has come to the forefront of teachers’ minds recently, and there is a move towards dual-coding, retrieval practice and low-stakes testing to mitigate against the tendency for children to forget much of what they are taught. This is probably a good thing, but trying to secure in long term memory knowledge that the child’s brain is not very well set up to store will remain only a partially-successful enterprise. We wouldn’t run a business this way: expecting most attempts to add value to the product to unravel almost immediately and leave almost no trace.
And finally, there is the curriculum: the ultimate refutation of the factory model claim. Whereas businesses proudly boast of their just-in-time production system, delivering customised products to the consumer in super-fast time, with minimal waste, schools teach a curriculum which is defiantly just-in-case. Almost everything schools teach (particularly in secondary schools – at least primary schools do essential things like teach children to read and write) is likely never to be ‘needed’ in a direct sense. You are unlikely to ever need to employ the concept of long-shore drift, simultaneous equations or quavers. But that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? We educators like to remind everyone now and again that this isn’t about utility. Knowledge is like Mount Everest was to Edmund Hillary: we acquire it ‘because it is there’. With all the faffing about in deciding what to include in our carefully crafted curricular, perhaps the answer to every question about why we have included that particular thing is ‘just because…’ The curriculum doesn’t always need a rationale.
Put it all together and we see that schools are gloriously inefficient! They are about as far from being a well-engineered system as you can get. If our obsession is to improve outcomes then I have no doubt that reducing this inefficiency is the best bet. You can tinker around with pedagogy as much as you like, apply your lessons from cognitive science, craft a beautiful curriculum, or design zero-tolerance behaviour systems, but the bottom line is that time on task is where the gains are to be made. But in our quest for school improvement, we should be careful what we sacrifice.
In all this inefficiency, we find a valuable commodity: looseness. Looseness has two important benefits in schools. Firstly, it allows other educational purposes to flourish. Secondly, it makes the system error-tolerant: which means catastrophic meltdowns are far less likely to happen.
Looseness is about how the agents within a system are coupled. In a highly engineered, super-efficient system, there is tight-coupling throughout. There is no margin for error in such systems, but when they work they are incredibly productive. We find tight-coupling when there is a strong, linear cause and effect between two factors because they are closely tied and highly interdependent. At this point, you are probably imagining a machine (say a car engine), or production line, because when we commonly talk of systems this is what we are often referring to. And you are correct: these are tightly-coupled systems. However, we see tight-coupling in social systems too: where a change in one variable has a predicable and consistent effect on another. Such systems have cascading effects, which simply means that one thing leads to another, which leads to another, like dominoes toppling. It is this feature which makes the system efficient, but also makes it prone to multiplying error.
Sometimes, where the stakes are high, this error is catastrophic. If you want to know more about when, how and why this happens, I would suggest starting here. Catastrophic error is what happens when a nuclear power plant melts down (like the Three Mile Island disaster), a plane crashes (like the Boeing 777 Asiana Airlines crash) or there are multiple fatalities on a mountain (as on Everest in 1996). However, catastrophic error also happens at a smaller scale. Some family homes are complex, tightly coupled environments, where serious accidents, domestic abuse or neglect are an ever-present risk. Catastrophic error is only moments away where there are three factors at play:
These three factors in combination mean that spontaneous things will happen, when they do there is likely to be a cascading, multiplicative effect, and no-one will notice it is happening until it is too late. Meltdown.
Schools are both highly complex systems and have numerous blind spots. I may write further on the invisibility aspect at a later point, but for now let us just note that no-one really knows what is happening inside a child’s mind or inside every classroom each day. We have low visibility. Alongside the fact that anything can happen, and often does, schools are a fairly uncontrollable entity.
Given the above, looseness (or loose-coupling) becomes really important. Unlike a highly engineered system, schools absorb error pretty well. Here are some examples of small errors which are accommodated by the system without consequence:
- a student arrives late to class – other students ignore them, the teacher gives them a quick reprimand and the lesson moves on.
- the teacher accidentally swears – students giggle, teacher apologises, everyone forgets the event.
- a lesson goes badly wrong – there is enough slack in the curriculum to mean it is of little consequence.
- a teacher is off sick – a cover teacher sits in, students do less work, but no real harm is done.
- there is a false fire alarm – the school files out to the field then gets back on with the day.
You get the idea. ‘Errors’ happen all the time in schools and don’t cascade into catastrophic events. They are normal. Of course, if the system is more tightly-coupled, these minor errors may be more disruptive. The poorly behaved class will be far more disrupted by apparently insignificant event like a bee flying in through the window – everything is on more of a knife-edge – minor things have bigger consequences. This is tight-coupling in conditions of complexity. Thankfully, this doesn’t result in meltdown, but a trigger in an understaffed, high security wing of a prison may multiply and cascade much more quickly. Schools can become more like a rioting prison, but thankfully examples of catastrophic meltdown in schools are rare.
So, looseness is valuable in making schools error-tolerant. The looseness of schools also allows other good things to happen. Children get time to learn to be social, relationships between children and adults can be built, school trips and clubs happen, people make mistakes and learn from them, lessons go off at a tangent (often to more interesting topics), romantic couplings occur (hopefully not between staff), memories are made, children get to be naughty. Looseness is a defining quality of our education system – who would want to send their child to a ‘tight’ school?
When Covid 19 hit the UK in March, schools as we know them disintegrated, as did much of what we would consider normal society. Now we come to begin the task of putting everything back together again, we are faced with the fact that pandemics are a ‘tight coupling’ problem, one for which schools are just not geared up to deal with. In bringing children back to school, we are intentionally combining the three factors which must be present for catastrophic error to occur: complexity, tight-coupling and invisibility. We can’t see this virus, we know that it is passed on rapidly and exponentially if certain controls aren’t in place, and we understand that spontaneity and complexity cannot be eliminated or controlled, even with a small number of children.
Now, I am not saying that this can’t be done. On the contrary: if we proceed carefully, with full awareness of what it is we are dealing with, we can mitigate risks and begin the process of educating students face to face once more. However, until the virus is gone or its effects reduced, a misquoted Star Trek trope is relevant: it’s school, Jim, but not as we know it.
School isn’t school without the looseness. Placing students in ‘bubbles’, keeping them two metres apart at all times, allocating whichever teacher is available to the group (not necessarily ‘their’ teacher), staggering break and lunch so no-one can mix, reducing the curriculum to ‘essential content’ to make the best use of the time available… this may be a form of educational endeavour, but don’t mistake it for school.
If we appear to you outsiders like we’re making a song and dance about this, or are overly despairing or down-beat about the idea of schools ‘re-opening’, it isn’t because the task is difficult: difficult is our day-job. It isn’t because we shy away from putting ourselves at risk (we’re no cowards), or because we don’t want the responsibility. I will happily take on any of these challenges if it is for the greater good. What makes me reticent and despondent is that schools won’t be ‘back’ until the looseness returns: we will be sterile in more ways than one. The tremendous efforts schools are making to put Humpty back together again are done in the knowledge that, until this damn thing is defeated, we can’t put the soul back into school.
Face it: school’s out for summer.
But not forever.