Schools are busy and complex places. Whenever you bring several hundred people together for an extended period of time on a regular basis complexity is likely to thrive. One way to consider the complexity involved in the average school might be to map the connections and interactions which exist. Start the process with one person, consider all of the factors and experiences which make this person who they are. Now connect this person to one other and make note of the interactions which occur between these two people. Be certain to consider all of the factors and experiences relevant to this second person. Repeat this process again and again and again until you have mapped the interactions and intersections of everyone directly involved in the school. Then keep going, you need to consider all of the people on the periphery of the school and so far we have only considered the people; don’t forget the environment of the school and its community, the culture of the place, its history, its place in the world. Now that you are almost finished, go back and start the whole process again, things have changed since you started.
Education is inherently complicated and any attempt to reduce it to simple terms is likely to fail. The tendency to simplify things to one or two easily addressed factors is behind much of the frustration that teachers experience whenever they listen to politicians or the media offer a soundbite on the state of education. Teachers know how complex things really are, after all they spend much of their time in schools and large chunks of their day thinking about what goes on inside schools. Politicians and the media make short visits or rely on memories of their school days. When a new plan is announced to re-focus education in one way or another it is almost inevitable that it will fail to address most of the complexity that occurs in schools. Those in the know are hardly surprised.
This unavoidable and irreducible complexity means that schools are challenging place to study, to understand and to manage change within. Even for the teacher who spends everyday inside the school there is so much going on that unguided observations and the plans based upon them come with no guarantee of success. This is a fundamental tenet of complexity theory. Complexity theory points towards the importance of exploring the interactions between the intentions and effects of agents within organisations and reveals that the exponential scaling of these connections brings greater degrees of complexity than may be managed.
Perhaps the closest that complexity theory comes to a positive statement on the outlook for managing complex systems is that ‘despite complexity theory’s relative inability to predict the direction or nature of change, by implementing at each constituent level changes whose outcome we can predict with reasonable confidence, we are at least influencing change in the appropriate direction’ (Mason, 2008 p46) This points us in the direction of a lens that enables a clear perspective of what occurs inside schools; a lens that allows us to retain our perception of the whole while permitting us to then influence that whole by targeting its more manageable parts.
Such a lens is offered by the ‘cultural forces’ as identified by the research of Ron Ritchhart and colleagues at Harvard’s Project Zero. In the cultural forces, we find a set of naturally occurring factors which are present in all schools, all classrooms and between all members of a learning community. From an extended observation of schools engaged in the business of education the cultural forces emerged as the factors which have a significant impact on the culture of the organisation. The cultural forces are present without any deliberate action and they are either exerting a positive force or heading an organisation in the wrong direction. While the cultural forces occur across all settings, how they are expressed varies immensely.
Ritchhart identified eight cultural forces; opportunities, time, modelling, language, environment, interactions, routines & expectations. The teacher armed with an awareness of these cultural forces seeks to ask questions to uncover how each force is currently experienced within their sphere of influence and linked to a particular goal. As Ritchhart was seeking to understand how we might build a culture of thinking questions such as ‘What opportunities am I providing for my students to engage in critical thinking?’ were common. In a different context with a focus on building capacity for positive social learning one might ask ‘How might I offer more opportunities for students to apply their new social skills?’.
As lenses, the cultural forces encourage a focus on actionable items that influence the culture of a school or classroom. For example, by looking at and asking questions about how ‘Time’ is allocated in schools we gain a perspective on what matters most and often find that much time is spent on items which have little to do with our core purposes. Through the lens of ‘Interactions’ we see how the connections between people (teachers, students, the community) are either supporting or hindering learning that matters. Are we focused on interactions that support collaborations and responsible risk taking or are we focused on aspects of command and control? Do we provide our students with effective “Modelling’ of the habits of an effective learner or do they only see their teachers as pre-formed experts? Each cultural force provides us with a fresh perspective and we can then move to how we might make changes to how that force is expressed so as to move us towards a desired state.
The cultural forces do not remove the complexity that exists within schools but they do allow us to see what is there and to see it in manageable chunks. Having used the cultural forces as a lens for understanding what is there, a school might decide to focus on tweaking just one of the forces as they work their way towards their goals. A teacher might notice that her students have difficulty settling after time in the playground and decides to implement a new ‘Routine’ to help the students re-focus at these times. While all eight of the forces are in action all of the time, there is no need for us to address them al at once.
Daniel Wilson of Harvard’s Project Zero speaking in Melbourne noted that designers achieve greater success with complex problems than others. Designers have a capacity due to their thinking dispositions to cope with complexity and to adapt solutions as needed while working towards a vision or shared goal. Daniel indicates that complex situations, such as those which schools increasingly confront as a result of rapid change and previously unencountered challenges, require emergence as a path to solutions. A bubbling forth of ideas which may be transformed into plans and drivers of change from all areas within an organisation is seen as the best approach to change where solutions have not yet been found and cannot be passed down from above. Ewan McIntosh indicates that much of the success that the Designer has is a result of their use of a design thinking process. Their capacity to generate, apply and evaluate ideas is a result of an approach to problem solving that is flexible enough to enable creativity yet provides sufficient structure to avoid complete divergence. ‘You need the box to think in’.
The great strength of the cultural forces as an approach to problem finding and solving in schools is that they provide educators with enough structure while being adaptable to all contexts. The cultural forces do not constrain or describe the solutions that might bubble forward. The change leader in a school is merely offering their team a lens with which to see, a common language with which to discuss it and a lever with which to move things. Armed with the cultural forces a school can allow great ideas to bubble up and to be acted upon purposefully.
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
Ritchhart, R. (2015) Creating cultures of thinking: The eight forces we must truly master to transform our schools. SanFrancisco: Josey-Bass