The question of complexity as it relates to change in educational institutions is interesting from a philosophical perspective and it is certainly important to consider how change in an organisation is a result of a multitude of interconnected factors. The potential for reliably predicting the outcome of any change effort is surely difficult if not even impossible once the number of influences becomes large. Acknowledging the complexity that exists and seeing the potential for growth, creativity and innovation that can exist within an organisation at ‘the edge of chaos’ are useful strategies as schools face a period of unprecedented change.
Complexity theories point towards the importance of exploring the interactions between the intentions and effects of agents within organisations and reveal that the exponential scaling of these connections brings greater degrees of complexity than may be managed through traditional top-down structures. Schools confront complexity in part due to their size but also as consequence of the factors which influence their daily operations and functioning. Curriculum, politics, societal expectations, funding, standardised testing, quality teaching programmes, student needs, pedagogical practice, teaching styles, post school options, the list of factors continues to expand and transform such that very quickly the number of factors influencing the success of any change effort is immense.
Taken simplistically, there could be a feeling that due to the complexity of large systems such as schools, change becomes an uncontrollable beast with a mind of its own. If change can only occur where every element of the organisation is continually shaped by ‘massive interventions at all levels’ (Mason, 2008 p43) and even then the inertial momentum of the organisation means change is hard achieved. How can we hope to negotiate times which require ongoing, rapid change if change is such a complex thing?
I see a parallel here to the sport of curling, where a heavy polished stone is hurled across the ice towards a target. Competitors running alongside the stone attempt to keep it on course using brooms to gently shape a path for it to follow. If the organisation is the stone and we accept that its trajectory will be a result of many factors including the initial force (the change initiative), the surface of the ice and its interactions with the stone, (the organisation’s total context and the complex factors which shape this), the impact and influence of the rock on the surface (interactions and consequences which occur as a result of the change effort) then we should not be surprised when it does not come to rest where may have expected.
As change agents we play the part of the curlers, providing the initial force to get things moving and then running frantically alongside making adjustments based on what we see, guided by our judgement of how to best steer the organisation (or stone) in the intended direction. Each little adjustment has an effect, some towards the goal, some in directions we had not intended. Like the curlers, we do not have complete control and we can act only on the basis of what we are able to see and understand about the organisations trajectory and the forces influencing it; we act with imperfect knowledge.
With each change initiative we learn more but we also encounter unexpected consequences. The destinations we achieve may not be the ones we originally imagined and sometimes we will fall short of our goals. Each time we throw the stone (organisation) down the ice and attempt to guide it towards a goal we learn a little more about the sport (change management) and improve our chances of achieving our goals but each time we encounter slightly different conditions, some of which are a legacy from our previous efforts; the co-constructed history of the organisation and its experience with change.
Although we understand that we have little real control and are battling many complex factors, known and unknown, we continue to play the game and make every effort we can to steer the organisation towards the goals we have set.
So do we learn to manage change and is mastery of change an attainable goal?
Perhaps not. Organisations are in no way fixed entities. The constituent parts are ever changing; staff come and go, students move on, new families arrive, the changes we initiate bring changes and the wider context in which we function shifts with the times. What we learn about change today may not serve our needs tomorrow. The successful change we initiate today will continue to evolve and be shaped the factors which formed it. The organisational inertia which we struggled to overcome when initiating the change can act to sustain it but can also act in ways unimagined. The process of shaping our schools will never be complete but then that is the challenge which excites us and fills our days with new opportunities for learning and growth.
By Nigel Coutts
Mason, M. (2008). What is Complexity Theory and what are its implications for educational change? Educational Philosophy and Theory, 40(1), pp. 35-49.