complex processes produce order and beauty when you zoom out and look at them from enough distance.

Nate Silver (2012)

In the 1960s, the US Navy coined the acronym KISS. It stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid. As a design principle, it takes some beating.

The thing is, we are not up to the job of creating complex systems that work. It has been said that the most effective complex systems emerge from simple ones. In other words, we can grow complex systems, but we struggle to build then from scratch.

However, the KISS approach does not deny that the problems to be solved are not themselves complex. We should not confuse the nature of the problem with the means of its resolution.

When it comes to the polarised world of opinions on school leadership, the subtleties of the above argument often get lost. On the one hand, some will opine that ‘the art of school leadership is keeping things simple’. On the other hand, school leaders wax lyrical about the inherent complexity and difficulty of their task. Some notable social media commentators claim it is both tremendously taxing and quite simple, really!

Are these positions contradictory? If so, who is correct? I think the answer may be neither – and both. How so?

Firstly, neither is correct on its own terms; they can only be true in tandem. If you believe it is simple to lead a school, you are fooling yourself as to the underlying complexity of the task. However, if you wallow in the complexity, you will never find the clarity and purpose that you and others need. It is only when you struggle to understand the nuance and uncertainty AND begin to cut a pathway through the jungle that you will succeed.

Framed another way, we may say that school leadership is a constant quest to find the signal in the noise. The author and economist, Nate Silver, writes authoritatively about this dilemma in his book, The Signal and the Noise. In it, he provides a good analogy for the risk that we pay attention to the superficial rather than the underlying structure of the problems we face.

Silver asks us to imagine that he sets us the problem of finding out how to hack a certain type of combination padlock. He gives us three padlocks to play with, each with a different five-digit combination.

Some time later, we return and provide Silver with the combinations which unlock the three padlocks. But he is angry with us! This is not what he asked us to do. He did not want these three padlocks open, but a way to unlock all padlocks of this design. Silver wanted us to figure out the underlying mechanism and the design flaws that would allow him to pick any lock, not just these locks.

Silver points out that we have provided an overly specific solution to a general problem.

We see this very thing when school leaders fail to look beyond the surface features of a problem and leave unexamined the complex detail and underlying structure.

To illustrate this in a school context, consider the following.

Imagine we notice a need for teachers in our school to ‘do more’ and ‘get better’ at retrieval practice. This perceived deficit is presumably a result of us believing that retrieval practice is generally a ‘good thing’ which is not being enacted with the frequency and quality we feel is optimal.

Fortunately, we have experience of solving this problem by introducing instructional coaching in a previous school. Same problem; same solution. Off we go.

However, is it the same problem? What exactly is it teachers don’t know or can’t do? What is stopping them? Are the outcomes being achieved in some other way we have not noticed? What mechanisms will shift their practice? What useful regularities will be displaced by doing so? Is the capacity to deliver the proposed solution present?

Understanding the contextual factors that colour this problem is essential. The causes, nature, and possible solutions to the problem may differ significantly between settings. The deficit you observe in your present school may be a symptom of a very different disease – or it may not even represent a ‘problem’.

The naïve actions of the complexity denier are apparent when they try a combination code that worked for them before.

When we talk of expertise, we mean the ability to see the underlying structure of the problem, and not be led astray by the surface features. Expertise means understanding the different manifestations of the problem. Expertise is being able to recognise if it is even the same problem!

As with all learning, we start with the specific, move to the general, then oscillate between the two as we build more sophisticated models of the world. We infer underlying structure by examining the diversity of manifestations of a ‘problem state’. To foster expertise, we must help people think about what they are seeing, and in so doing to build better models. More sophisticated ones. More complex and nuanced ones.

You cannot become a better problem solver without dealing with the specifics, which means repeated experience of problems in different times and in different places. Context is soil. Variety is nutrient.

When specific solutions work, they work for specific reasons. We should not attribute universal power to a particular strategy that was once successful in a particular instance. Or put another way, we must recognise that what we may have is the combination to this padlock, but not all padlocks.

If you are fooled into thinking schools are simple organisations, then you will only see the surface features of a problem and lack the dexterity to transfer your knowledge to new domains. However, if you are foolish enough to stop striving for simplicity and clarity, there will be no momentum. Compelling narratives provoke action and there is a thirst for simplicity and direction.

By all means keep it simple, but do not be fooled into thinking it actually is.

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