Humans thrive when perched on the border between order and chaos.  Too much order and we become complacent, and hardly bother to monitor ourselves; too much chaos, and so much of our energy is used simply surviving that we hardly think about new ways of doing things.  Good teachers hold their pupils on this precarious boundary for it is here that learning is exciting, worthwhile and of lasting significance1.


In the early 1990s scientists at the Santa Fe2 Institute, exploring the nature of interconnectedness, co-evolution, chaos, structure and order, saw an explanation for the dynamic nature of living structures, in what they called Complexity3.  Complexity helped them make sense of everything from why economies behave in inexplicable ways, to how the random process of Darwinian selection produces such wonderfully intricate structures as the eye and the kidney.  They concluded that self-reflective thought, that is learning to plot your way through an idea you have never experienced before (what you are probably doing now as you read this and wonder where the argument is going!) allows experience to modify earlier assumptions, so continuously self-organising with ever more novel and intricate solutions.  Scientists now describe the human brain as the ultimate “complex adaptive system”.  A “complex adaptive system” is never in a state of equilibrium.  It is always unfolding, always in transition.


All of which is unnerving to those who believe it should be possible for a national system of schooling to be delivered everywhere to a single specification.  For 20 years, from the mid 1960s, teachers and administrators wrestled with designing a curriculum that would both transfer knowledge and develop skills that would enable pupils to think for themselves.  They tried to use the linear methodology of earlier centuries but didn’t have the advantage of understanding complexity; they were convinced that good schools could do it entirely on their own4.  Plowden had earlier tried to address this through experiential learning; HMI had sought to do so through their “areas of experience”, and it was what the Manpower Services Commission meant in the early 1980s when they spoke of “From Teaching to Learning”.  But none had succeeded.


This hadn’t satisfied the politicians, and so from 1992 they started to clear the decks.  HMI5, which had originated in 1833 with Matthew Arnold, was largely abolished, and was replaced by Ofsted.  HMI had been essentially independent of both government and schools, its job being to advise government on the state of the nation’s education and to critique government policy.  Their role was that of the wise, intelligent, yet critical friend; they were people whom either a Minister or headteacher would readily phone if they had a difficult problem to discuss.  Ofsted was to be solely about the inspection of schools to ensure they were delivering the national curriculum precisely in the ways that government had defined.  They were not expected to comment (other than in the most general of terms) on either the curriculum, or its methods of delivery.  Ofsted was answerable directly to the Minister.  Politicians explained this to the public as a splendid, objective and very transparent way of telling the country how well their schools were doing.  What that public has been slow to appreciate, however, is that what Ofsted defines as good, or very good, may well not be what the individual parent, teacher, pupil or the local community actually believes is appropriate.  In a nation that has always prided itself on separation of the Executive from the Legislative (a different body that administers the laws than one that makes the laws) the extreme closeness of Ofsted to the politicians of the day is dangerous, and without precedent6.  A body that was sold to the public as a public watchdog, more clearly resembles a political lapdog.


England has a problem not only with what its politicians think pupils should be taught, it has an even more serious problem in how politicians trivialise the way in which the population itself can think7.  It is this which brings the reality of “complex adaptive systems” into direct conflict with conventional linear thinking, especially management by objectives which is what schools now pride themselves on doing.  A story illustrates the essential differences.  If you seek to improve the functioning of a factory it’s rather like an athlete bending down to pick up the shot.  The athlete feels the weight of the shot, calculates the energy needed to throw this so that it lands in the exactly specified location, and then pitches it accordingly.  Depending on how well he does this we measure his efficiency.  Human, organic systems (such as schools, hospitals or universities) are subtly different.  Instead of bending down to pick up an inorganic shot, the manager picks up a very organic bird.  Correctly feeling the weight, he calculates the energy needed to throw the bird the correct distance, and so pitches it into the air.  He gets his calculation exactly right but, unfortunately for him, the bird has a mind of its own; mid-way through the air the bird decides it doesn’t want to go to that place, and simply flaps its wings, and goes somewhere else.  To stop this happening in the future the manager decides to bind the bird’s wings together so that next time the bird will land exactly where the manager wants it.  It does this, but because the bird can’t flap its wings at the last moment to de-accelerate, the bird breaks its neck on impact.  It lands in the specified place, but it’s of no use because it’s dead, even though it is in the right place.


Ofsted, and linear mechanical management systems, can all too easily squeeze the life out of what they are supposed to be sustaining.  Pupils are so much more than products waiting to be shaped; teachers are so much more than instructors; each are complex adaptive thinkers who need the freedom to grow their own minds8.

Thesis 75:    25th August 2006