Sunday, May 25, 2008

Can school change society or do we have to change society first to have a different school?

This week I attended a conference on the PISA and PIRLS surveys. As the conference had been organized by a teacher union there were some tension concerning the interpretation of the results of the surveys. If the results are poor, it could well be that not only the government but also the teachers have their part of responsibility because they may be doing a bad job or because they had their say in the defining of the curriculum in use. That neither the second nor the latter conclusion can be easily accepted by teachers and their representatives is easy to understand.

What was raised then, was that education may well be victim of circumstances set by society itself. Circumstances that were mentioned were growing individualism, consumerism and strong economic interests. From this perspective it is clear, that society is responsible for the disaster and that it should change first. But is it as simple as that? Maybe the science of complexity could help us out.

According to complexity theory, school is a complex adaptive system which is embedded in and connected to other complex adaptive systems. School is not loosely connected to society, it is an itegral part of society. The actors in the educational system are at the same time actors in other systems like the national economy. Furthermore, what makes school special, is it's long-term influence on an individual - from early childhood to adult life. And as schooling is continuously being extended, the probability is growing that it will have a strong influence on the individuals hence on society. So why shouldn't educational systems be in a position to change other social systems?

If there are doubts that school can change society, we have reasons to doubt that any subsystem (unions, non-profit organizations, governments, laws, family structures etc.) can have a considerable impact on the global system. Is this the case? If we turn to what the science of complexity tells us, I would say that the answer is yes and no.

What is highly probable is, that small changes in school, won't lead to major changes in short-term. At the same time some of the changes will have a long-term effect, but it is impossible to predict which of the changes will have a major effect, when this effect will be perceivable, and if this effect is going to beneficial. Changes in the curiculum, in the the training of teachers, in the way schools are organized will without any doubt, have a short-term impact on school life, but long-term outcomes remain unpredictable.

We have also to consider that while changes in the educational system take place, other subsystems change at the same time, influencing one another and the global system like the society in which they are embedded. We cannot stop the economical system from evolving to have enough time to analyse the impact of changes brought to education. This means, that we make decisions on assumption at a certain stage of a process an this process, or parallel processes are changing the conditions that have lead to these assumptions.

The question is now, how we should decide on what actions to take, if we have no possibility to identify what long-term outcomes an action or a decision could lead to.

In his book "Complexity and Creativity in Organizations" (1996), Ralph D. Stacey posts that "The criteria for quality actions become, not ends, but ethical considerations and criteria having to do with maintaining positions, keeping options open, retaining flexibilty, and revealing errors as fast as possible. The quality action is not one with a predetermined outcome, because that effectively excludes all creative actions, but the action that is morally good in itself, the action that keeps options open by allowing an organization to stay in the game (...)."

If this is true, which I believe to be the case, then we should invest time to define an ethical framework that would help us to choose between possible actions. We should also set conditions in which creativity of a large number of actors is possible so that through a double-loop learning process innovation is possible. The science of complexity also tells us, that there is no justification to an organizational model in which change is built on a decisional hierarchy where "a few do the thinking and the creating while the many do as they are told." (Stacey)

For all those who would like to know precisely what to do (stakeholders or teachers alike), who want to be in controle of the outcomes, who need a blueprint for change that they would then impose on others, and who think that self-organization only leads to disorder, this may not be a very satisfying position. From such a perspective there is no guarantee for success, not even a lot of control and obviously many actions will be futile and will have neither visible or beneficial short-term nor long-term outcomes. But if uncertainty is the price for creativity (and according to complexity science we need a lot of creativity to increase the probability of innovation and to avoid that a system gets stuck in a stable equilibrium) then, we should opt for uncertainty instead of top down control.

Some Reading Milestones

  • Towards reflexive method in archaeology : the example at Çatalhöyük (edited by Ian Hodder) 2000

  • The Book of Learning and Forgetting (Frank Smith) 1998

  • Points of Viewing Children's Thinking: A Digital Ethnographer's Journey (Ricki Goldman-Segall) 1997

  • Verstehen lehren (Martin Wagenschein) 1997

  • Computer im Schreibatelier (Gérard Gretsch) 1992

  • The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter. Uses of Storytelling in the Classroom (Vivian Gussin Paley) 1991

  • La cause des adolescents (Françoise Dolto) 1988

  • Scuola di Barbiana. Die Schülerschule. Brief an eine Lehrerin. (Edition of 1980) / read in German 1982
    Letter to Teacher by the Schoolboys of Barbiana (1970)
    Lettre à une maîtresse de'école, par les enfants de Barbiana (1968)
    Lettera à una professoressa (Original Edition) 1967


  • Vers une pédagogie institutionnelle (Aïda Vasquez, Fernand Oury) 1967



Documentary Films on Education

  • Eine Schule, die gelingt (by Reinhard Kahl) 2008

  • Les temps des enfants (Jacques Duez) 2007

  • Klassenleben (by Bernd Friedmann und Hubertus Siegert) 2006

  • Lernen - Die Entdeckung des Selbstverständlichen
    (Ein Vortrag von Manfred Spitzer) 2006

  • Die Entdeckung der frühen Jahre
    Die Initiative "McKinsey bildet" zur frühkindlichen Bildung (by Reinhard Kahl) 2006

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft - Wie in Deutschland Schulen gelingen (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft / Incubators of the future / Les serres de l'avenir; International Edition (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Journal de classe, 1ères audaces (1), Les échappés (2), Sexe, amour et vidéo (3), L'enfant nomade (4), Remue-méninges (5) (by Wilbur Leguebe, Jacques Duez, Agnès Lejeune) 2004

  • Spitze - Schulen am Wendekreis der Pädagogik (by Reinhard Kahl) 2003

  • Journal de classe, (by Wilbur Leguebe and Agnès Lejeune; Jacques Duez) 2002

  • Etre et Avoir (by Nicolas Philibert) 2002

  • The Stolen Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2002

  • The Angry Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2001

  • A l'école de la providence (by Gérard Preszow) 2000

  • Blue-Eyed (by Jane Elliott) 1996

  • A Class Divided (by Jane Elliott) 1984

  • Eye of The Storm (with Jane Elliott) 1970

Past quotes of the day

For every problem, there is one solution which is simple, neat and wrong. Henry Louis Mencken

Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.
Antonio Machado

The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Immanuel Kant

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. Albert Einstein

To paraphrase a famous quotation, all that is necessary for the triumph of damaging educational policies is that good educators keep silent. Alfie Kohn

We used to have lots of questions to which there were no answers. Now, with the computer, there are lots of answers to which we haven't thought up the questions. Peter Ustinov

I had a terrible education. I attended a school for emotionally disturbed teachers. Woody Allen

A professor is someone who talks in someone else's sleep. W. H. Auden

When I was an inspector of schools I visited one classroom and looked at a boys book. He'd written, 'Yesterday, Yesterday, Yesterday, Sorrow, Sorrow, Sorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Love, Love, Love.' I said, 'That's a lovely poem.' He said, 'Those are my spelling corrections.' Gervase Phinn

Real thinking never starts until the learner fails. Roger Schank

If what is wanted is a reexamination of schooling in terms of purpose, structure and process, then testing programmes are the wrong vehicle (...) Caroline V. Gipps

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Albert Einstein

Act always so as to increase the number of choices. Heinz von Foerster

Another way of avoiding teaching is by relying exclusively on a textbook, workbooks, and other commercially packaged learning materials. Teaching is reduced to administering a set curriculum without giving any thought to the substance of what the students area learning or to their particular needs. H. Kohl

The right to ignore anything that doesn't make sense is a crucial element of any child's learning - and the first right children are likely to lose when they get to the controlled learning environment of school. F. Smith

Learning is the human activity which least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful activity. - Ivan Illich

Too often we give our children answers to remember rather than problems to solve. - Roger Lewin

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. - Mark Twain

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