Can we make our schools anti-fragile?

Over the last 18 months, I have been co-authoring a new book with Becky Allen and Ben White. It is about educational fads. More broadly, it is about why it is so difficult to improve the school system. The time we spent researching and developing our ideas generated far too much content to fit in one book. So, call them ‘offcuts’ , ‘proximate ramblings’, or ‘extension material’… we’re pushing out some content in blog form in the run up to the book launch.

This one is about the stressors which make our school system more resilient. If you like it, you’ll love the book!

The economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the term ‘creative destruction’ to describe the necessary process of new innovations replacing existing ones – the death of the old an essential part of economic dynamism. We may be nostalgic when the brands we grew up with are no more – Woolworths, Debenhams, Midland Bank – but their demise makes way for businesses more attuned to consumers’ changing tastes. The health of the system takes precedence over the survival of individual firms, ideas, or products.

Innovation is a brute force if allowed to be. In the school system, we long for creativity, but steer away from destruction. We cannot, of course, allow our schools to fail in the way businesses do. However, our instinct is also often to protect our cherished practices and resist critiques of our traditions. Whilst there are benefits to this tendency, one less desirable consequence is that we make our education system fragile.

As Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains in his book on the topic, fragility is defined by the harm caused by stressors, whereas anti-fragile means something that benefits from shocks. Unlike robustness (often thought to be the opposite of fragile) which describes things which withstand stress and stay the same, Taleb argues that anti-fragile things ‘thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors’. The anti-fragile property resides in all living and complex non-living systems: it is what causes these systems to adapt – to evolve. Furthermore, depriving these systems of stressors will harm them, as the over-sanitisation of an infant’s environment will prevent it from developing a robust immune system.

Stressors can remove weakness – vulnerability – from the system, like occasional bush-fires that prevent highly flammable material from accumulating. Randomness and volatility mean the system is unprepared, leaving its weak spots unguarded. Stressors are small acts of destruction which leave the system stronger than before as it mobilises its resources against the attack.

More like a cat than a washing machine

To what extent can we claim that a school is a complex system, like a living thing? Taleb explains the qualities which make an inorganic system behave more like an organic one.

Many things, such as society, economic markets, communities, and culture, are creations of human-kind but grow on their own to reach some kind of self-organization. They may not be strictly biological, but they resemble the biological in that, in a way, they multiply and replicate – think of rumours, ideas, cultural movements, or technologies like crypto-currency. They are (in Taleb’s words) ‘closer to the cat than to the washing machine’, but tend to be mistaken for washing machines.

There are mechanical parts to a school, but these parts combine to behave in organic ways. A school is indeed closer to the cat than the washing machine. The components of a school interact in a myriad of ways which are hard to detect and predict. Multiplier effects and unintended consequences abound, as anyone who has tried to implement change within a school will attest to.

Conveyors of information

To a complex system, stressors convey information. They signal a change in the environment and prompt adaptation. Schools really are ‘learning organisations’, but not in the usual meaning implied by the term. Learning is the purpose of a school, and this purpose may extend to the adults as well as the children, but we fail to appreciate that the organisation itself learns: not through any rational, computational approach (overseen by the logical apparatus of management), but as a result of stressors which require continuous evolution. Stressors are the rebellious cry against bad policy, the sign that all is not well, and the indicator that the status quo is no longer fit-for-purpose. Stressors are the falling applications when a school down the road improves its reputation. Organisations which are sensitive to this information are less prone to fragility: to damage. They bend with the wind, flinch from the punch, repair and re-group.

However, not all stressors are beneficial in promoting anti-fragility. Taleb argues that the frequency of stressors matters as complex systems need time to recover. Therefore, random, infrequent shocks are preferable to chronic stressors which will create wear and tear. For the human mind, a short burst of work pressure will promote anti-fragility, whilst the daily grind of emails, managerial interference, financial pressures, daily commutes, and endless administration will take its toll. Disorder must punctuate like an exclamation mark, not be littered predictably throughout the prose like a comma.

To illustrate the difference between an infrequent shock and a chronic stressor, consider the affect of Ofsted on schools.

School inspection has the potential to be an intentional interruption to the status quo – a positive shock which, where necessary, promotes a transformative change for the less effective aspects of our school system. The potential power of the ‘inadequate’ judgement, if used wisely, is to create disorder in the knowledge that this disruption is preferable to the unacceptable standards of education being received by the children in a school’s care.

Unfortunately, Ofsted has become a chronic stressor on the school system. Rather than the period between inspections being time to recover and adapt to the information provided, the presence of Ofsted remains in the building. The labelling of schools which provide a satisfactory standard of education (as requires improvement, good, or outstanding), and the implications for recovery that accompany these labels, means the ghost of Ofsted past haunts the school. This ghost wanders the corridors, rattling its chains and foretelling the possible futures which may come to be. This chronic stress creates fragility as managers attempt to steer the school towards the form it believes is desired by the inspectorate, ignoring the stress-cracks which appear as the contextual signals go unheard.

Designed to shock a complacent education system into a new order, Ofsted has now become a cause of fragility and barrier to evolutionary adaptation.

Anti-fragile leadership

In an anti-fragile view of schools, leadership can be seen as the art of judiciously employing shocks and avoiding chronic stressors which promote rigidity. How might this work in practice?

Anti-fragile leadership will recognise the self-organising nature of the school as a complex, adaptive system. This view is markedly different to the ‘command and control’ model which grossly over-estimates the influence an individual, or group, can have on the future state of the organisation and therefore places the system under persistent stress through its meddling. Whilst the primary purpose of leaders from this perspective is to steer the system towards order, it is also their role to recognise when the status quo is beginning to break down: the point where a step in any direction is downhill. At this local peak, it is time to call on randomness and disorder to kindle the emergent tendencies of the system to create new ways of being.

Deliberate shocks are risky and will require school leaders to develop a sophisticated sense-making capability such that they instinctively know when to employ marginal gains strategies and when to induce disorder – to shake it up. Leaders must be in tune with complexity and sensitive to local context. Rather than see themselves as above the fray, they should immerse themselves in it so that they are exposed to the ‘noise’ and can start to seek out the signals which convey important information about how the system is evolving. There are tipping points where more of the same is no longer tenable. At these points, a radical rethink is needed and tinkering ceases to be an option.

What might internally induced-shocks look like? One approach may be to dismantle existing structures and attempt to immediately introduce a new structure, for example:

  • A fundamental restructuring of the patterns of the school day, including lesson length, number of lessons in a week/fortnight, time allocated to subjects and the duration and timing of breaks.
  • An overhaul of the school’s approach to managing student behaviour.
  • A physical re-build of the school premises.

Whilst it is possible to ‘design’ a new ‘state’ in structural terms, the repercussions of such a reconstruction of working patterns are unpredictable and predominantly not within control.

Alternatively, disorder may be welcomed in place of something which had previously been quite ordered, perhaps to see what emerges from the disorder, for example:

  • Removal of all managerial monitoring and auditing mechanisms regarding teaching standards.
  • Liberating teachers from frequent data input requirements.
  • Decentralising decision making over assessment, homework or teaching practices.

Challenging people to make decisions where previously those decisions were made for them will reduce fragility. Empowered staff must be adaptive rather than follow prescription. Even where new structures replace old ones, there is a period of adaptation which will disrupt fixed working patterns, the rationale for which has long been forgotten. Well-established order creates rigour, but occasional disorder promotes anti-fragility. Leaders walk the tight rope between order and chaos.

Anti-fragile policy

Good policy is shaped by exposure to stressors – mini acts of sabotage and rebellion. Remember that stressors convey information in a complex system. If your new policy on punctuality is resisted by staff and students alike, this is a signal that the current state is discordant with the system. It is the starting point of an inquiry which will enhance your understanding of your school, not an opportunity for the policy-maker to stamp their authority. If bullying is on the rise, what was once an effective approach is in need of an evolution or a revolution. When any established policy is under stress it is a sign that the system has moved on and left the old ways behind. Responding to stressors will make your policies less fragile as they have developed in response to reality, not through the wishful thinking or grand visions of policy makers.

The only constant in schools is change. Volatility, randomness and shocks help make our schools resilient such that the ordered states which emerge are less fragile. Order is comfortable, but the occasional intrusion of disorder is inevitable and necessary.

The Next Big Thing in School Improvement is available now from John Catt Educational and all good bookshops.

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