28 October, 2009

Nudge - don't shove!!

A recent posting on the FASTForward blog commented on the Emergent behavior and unintended consequences in social systems.

While the author described emergent behaviours as 'unintended consequences that make you happy', this definition was actually created tongue in cheek. Of course not all emergent things are desirable. So, what to do?
Possible implications include the following
  • Focus on what is (the future being unpredictable)
  • Make small (reversible or containable) steps in the preferred direction (the outcomes of large steps being unpredictable and irreversible)
  • Move to a complexity theory approach and learn to work with emergence, that is,
  • Apply action learning (insightful questions) to the present in order to move forward
As the shampoo ad says, "it won't happen overnight but it will happen".

20 October, 2009

More on emergence in schools

If we are going to help shape the future then we will need some understanding of why things happen (cause and effect). Such understanding will helps us to appreciate our limitations and to make wise choices about the methods we adopt.
Because organisations have conscious entities (people) it is possible to nurture emergence by acting in the organisations environment. For example, at a macro-level, international conventions on arms, trade and human rights are all examples of efforts by the international community (as an environment) to shape the emergence of certain behaviours by, and within, countries Properly understood government and school system policies and plans make similar attempts to prompt and nurture the emergence of certain changes in schools. Plans and policies are generally thought to cause the desired changes and are assumed to do so. However significant changes in schools are emergent and the plans and policies are something less than causal.
Attractors and Boundaries
The behaviour of entities in complex adaptive systems is largely is response to attractors and boundaries existing within the system. If the plans and policies are linked with meaningful attractors and boundaries then the intended changes may well occur. However, social systems are particularly fraught, because individuals, and/or groups, may or may not respond to, or even acknowledge the intended attractors and boundaries. The 'overloaded curriculum' may be understood as too many attractors and too few boundaries.
For the above reasons, leaders working in the field of complexity suggest modest "try, learn and respond" approaches to organisational, rather like a form of ongoing action learning.
For example, "Pick something small and try it. If it works, extend it. If it doesn't, learn from it. ", David Gurteen, Twitter, Aug. 28 2009. Similarly when working in the complex domain, Snowden recommends undertaking a few small-scale trial initiatives. If the outcomes are desirable then support and extend them. If the outcomes are undesirable then undermine the initiative, and try something different. He also advocates a 'safe-fail' approach rather than a 'fail-safe' approach. In the former, it is OK for the any initiative fail without serious damage to the organisation, hence the use of small scale trials. The latter approach is only suitable for systems where the outcomes can be accurately predicted, e.g., bridge building and other engineering tasks.
Nurturing emergence should not be confused with the more familiar "design, develop and then implement the system it" approach that is form of engineering. Such approaches work well when cause and effect are known and consistent over place and time. Consider the variability in the use of ICT in teaching and learning. This suggests that any cause and effect relationships between ICT and teaching and learning are not consistent over place and time. Rather, the relationships, say, between ICT, teaching and learning emerge locally. A basic principle of complex adaptive systems is that small differences in the starting conditions (and every school is different) can result in very large differences in the outcomes.
As mentioned previously, while developments may be understandable in retrospect they were not predictable at the time of their instigation.
Thus, professional development may really be an exercise in nurturing emergence. Thus, if Rob Paterson at Fast Forward the Blog is correct, then perhaps we might achieve a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities involved by using this new approach.
[Note: Emergence is also likely to be a more accurate explanation of our previous successes, and failures. One uncomfortable implication is that our heroic leadership in our major successes may not have been as pivotal as we have believed. Everyday leadership may be less about expertise, insight and heroic actions and more about creating conditions that promote and nurture emergence. Of course changing those starting conditions may require insight, strength and courage at times.]

Requirements for emergence - the right starting conditions

1. Some kind of Container - an environment that is optimal for the emergence in question.
  • The environment contain meaningful attractors and useful boundaries such as suitable purposes, curriculum and pedagogy
  • The ways and means for activity are available, e.g., reliable and effective infrastructure & technical support
  • Governance promotes, supports and acknowledges the desired emergent practices
  • A community of practice contains, enables and/or develops the working knowledge, matching and sustainable practices, and promotes interaction (see 2. below)
(a) Many teachers work largely in isolation from their colleagues for the greater part of the day. Implications?
(b) The available technology is changing continually and rapidly and is thus disrupting the match between the technology and its use, and making demands on the infrastructure and technical support

2. A lot of Optimal Contact Points - emergence is all about patterns
  • A community of practice with an ongoing conversation/discourse sharing knowledge, insights and experience (including stories)
  • A collaborative culture that increases the number of optimal contact points for members of the group (class, staff, school, community, profession, school system....)
  • Regular, and frequent interactions (especially in the form of ongoing conversations).
Note: For many high performing practitioners the majority of their optimal contact points are outside their own school.
3. A few Rules that both shape the pattern (e.g., of ICT use in teaching and learning) and also keep it coherent
  • It can be difficult for many teachers to develop and adopt a set of coherent practices in the context of continual change without a consistent and agreed and endorsed framework.
  • A few simple rules focusing, endorsing and promoting action and collaboration enable confident, coherent and sustainable interaction even in a changing environment.
  • For example, Riverside Primary's 'job description' that applied to everyone (staff, students, visitors) proved useful in improving all aspects of the school
    • Know what is happening
    • Work with others to improve what is happening
    • Make it easier for the next person to do well (achieve success and well-being)

Note: The traditional approach to curriculum has been to provide teachers with little detail and much choice, or, a great deal of detail and little choice. Few, if any, curriculum writers have attempted to identify and articulate a few simple rules that are likely to prove effective in enabling staff and students to work together to achieve success in their teaching and learning endeavours


  • Baring some dramatic or catastrophic event, we can usually envision the immediate future with some clarity and confidence
  • Envisaging the longer term future is problematic - the probability of significant unforeseen/unforeseeable changes in the external environment increases rapidly as our timelines extend.
  • Changes (even small ones) of staff, policies, leadership, resource provision, technologies... may have a profound impact.
    • For many schools/school systems, a change of Principal may be as profound as the combined effected of the global financial crisis.
    • And who would have predicted that a global financial crisis would result in major physical development costing $14bn in thousands of Australian schools?
    • Similarly, "Why I don't believe in 5 yr plans:5 yrs ago, YouTube/Twitter didn't exist, & Facebook was for college kids", johnniemoore, Twitter 18 Oct 2009. And consider the emergence of devices, services and practices associated with YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.
  • Professional development in relation to teaching and learning is more about nurturing emergence through understanding, attending to, and bringing together
    • the factors involved in teaching and learning (especially governance and collaboration)
    • well developed matching pedagogies
    • action learning in a range of forms
    • the nature and mediation of activity
    • communities of practice
    • an understandings of cause and effect in its various forms
    • knowing what is happening (particularly as the starting point) in order to improve it

13 October, 2009

Nurturing emergence for a better school

Schools cannot be managed as machines. Rather schools are complex entities and are therefore largely emergent. For example, over time, particular values, purposes, ways of interacting and practices transform: some emerge while others diminish. Continuity and change are concurrent. These changes are, at least in part, responses (adaptions) to changes in the school's environment. Of course, at any point in time, certain aspects of schools may be treated as simple or complicated and managed using approaches that approximate engineering.
However the complex nature of any school means that development and improvement is really about promoting and nurturing emergence of desirable aspects and constraining other aspects.
But to have Emergence we need 3 elements:
1.Emergence requires some kind of container - an environment that is optimal for the emergence in question. This can be physical and energetic such as the physical and the social environment needed for a baby to be set on her way to reach her potential. For better or worse a school (together with its community and the school system) can be such an environment.
2. Emergence require a lot of optimal contact points. Emergence is all about patterns. To have patterns you need many points of connection. A Human with too small a social world cannot reach her potential. 3 birds cannot make a flock. A few breezes don’t make a hurricane. A few stars do not make a galaxy. No flow in water and you cannot have a vortex. When man had no complex language, he could not communicate widely enough to make much technical progress. He could not create patterns. A father might show his son how to carve a hand axe but an emergent breakthrough like a throwing stick or a bow and arrow would be beyond them. For without complex language enabling abstractions and enabling a large circle of participants the creation of patterns abstract thinking and design cannot happen. For then, if it could not be seen and copied it could not happen. Most schools can meet this requirement, provided the majority of members (staff, students, families...) of the school see themselves as belonging and participating.
3. Emergence requires a few rules that both shape the patterns of interaction and also keep it coherent. As we learn more about complexity, we are astounded by how few the rules are and how often they are so simple. With computers it is easy to model bird flocking now. But, to get the pattern, we also need the process of iteration and we need a computer to do the math. But to model, we need to know the rules.
In the meantime, one school (Riverside Primary School) adopted three simple interactive rules for all of its members: staff, students, families, community members and visitors:
  • Know what is happening around you
  • Work with others to improve what is happening
  • Make it easier for the next person to do well
And it worked well... click here for more information
Acknowledgement to Rob Paterson at the Fast Forward the Blog