Sighting order from the edge of chaos

4th November 1994 at 00:00
In 1961 A J P Taylor concluded his controversial study, The origins of the Second World War with the following sentence: "Hitler may have projected a great war all along: yet it seems from the record that he became involved in war through launching on August 29 a diplomatic manoeuvre which he ought to have launched on August 28."

He provoked a storm of controversy. In the 1960s and 1970s the fashion in historical explanation was to point to deep underlying forces or systems: nationalism, class conflict and economic determinism. Taylor's predilection for chance, accident and the intervention of the individual was thus considered provocative and misguided.

Thirty years later however his approach has become mainstream. Simon Schama wrote in the introduction to his recent study of the French Revolution:"The revolution was a haphazard and chaotic event and much more the product of human agency than structural conditioning."

The trend in history over 30 years thus appears to be from systems to chaos.

In science a similar intellectual trend is evident. For 300 years, as Thomas Gleick put it, "the search for regularity in experiment has been fundamental . . . .But that means disregarding those bits of messiness that interfere with a neat picture."

This was the scientific approach that ensured that those of us at school had to tackle endless maths problems that began: "Assume a perfectly smooth slope . . ." To satisfy our teachers and our examiners we suspended disbelief though we knew no such thing existed.

Since the 1970s a scientific revolution has occurred. Scientists have begun to study the irregularities or non-linearities as the jargon has it. Once they began to look for them, they turned out to be both everywhere and important. Science had discovered what it came to call "chaos".

One of its key principles is that tiny differences in input can result in overwhelming differences in output; a phenomenon which is described as "sensitive dependence on initial conditions".

In the study of the weather this is known as "the butterfly effect"; a butterfly flapping its wings over Beijing can cause a storm over New York a week later. The similarity between this idea and A J P Taylor's explanation of the outbreak of war is uncanny. Science too it seems, has shifted from systems to chaos.

Then think about management. Here there is no need to go beyond the titles of popular management books. 1947, Taylor F W, Scientific Management . . . 1979, Mintzberg H, The structuring of organisations . . . 1988, Peters T, Thriving on chaos . . .1992, Peters T, Liberation management, necessary disorganisation for the nanosecond Nineties.

Here too is the shift from systems to chaos. Yet, just as this trend becomes evident across the intellectual spectrum, in education we often seem to be obsessed with systems. At the recent American Education Research Association Conference there were 37 sessions on systemic reform. In this country shallow shouting matches about central government's latest systemic reform rarely leave space for serious educational debate.

If we threw off the introverted shackles that so often dominate our education debate, we would see that we have discovered "systemic reform" just in time to write its obituary. Systemic reform is dead. or put more modestly, systemic reform on its own is not the answer to the problem of underachievement. Waiting for the next battery of centrally determined change is not the solution. Indeed, we need not wait for solutions at all. They are already here. As the scientists who discovered chaos will tell you, it is simply a matter of knowing where to look. In Birmingham, Tim Brighouse and his colleagues are bringing about marked improvement not through changing the structure but through changing the culture.

In Nottingham, nine primary schools working with the local education authority, have re-examined the grouping of children, found a new balance in pedagogy which gives the teacher a more directive role and developed a creative educational role for non-teaching assistants. Their rigorous monitoring of pupil outcomes provides firm evidence of success.

At Haggerston School in Hackney an imaginative group of staff has taken the notion of the learning organisation to heart. Through their widely acclaimed conferences, their staff and pupils have provided wonderful learning opportunities for the outsiders. The result, in addition to a boost for the school, is the creation of a network united by an interest in urban school improvement. The London Institute of Education's School Improvement Network is consciously performing a similar role on a national stage. The fact is that the educational cutting edge is to be found not in the systems but in the chaos.

There is a danger of course, of exaggerating the point. Clearly some systems issues to do with the distribution of money and power are important. For example the shift of power and accountability to school level has unleashed a great deal of creativity. On the other hand the method of distributing funds remains insufficiently sensitive to the disadvantage some pupils suffer and primary education continues to be underfunded. However the greater danger is that because of our obsession with these systemic factors, we miss the tremendous potential for improvement that exists here and now in the chaotic swirl of change that is education today.

I am sure I was not alone in the past few years in sometimes choosing to describe the education service as chaotic. What never occurred to me, until Peter Tymms at Newcastle University introduced me to the butterfly effect, was that this might be a compliment.

As Brian Goodwin, professor of biology at the Open University put it: "The edge of chaos is a good place to be in a constantly changing world because from there you can always explore the patterns of order that are available . . . What you do not want to do is get stuck in one particular state of order. . ."

This seems to me as good a prescription for education in the late 1990s as any on offer.

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