Ugandan talks,spiders' webs and all that jazz

6th June 2003 at 01:00
Nic Barnard hears the latest in leadership thinking for schools

CHAOS theory: it's not (just) a description of education funding.

It's how we should be running our schools. Teachers, heads, managers, prepare to enter the unknown and - gulp - the unknowable.

These are post-Newtonian times, chaos times - that, at least, is one message from an international conference for school leaders in London.

Forget all that stuff about knowing what happens when an apple falls on your head. The latest theory of leadership tells you that you know nothing, will always know nothing, can in fact only ever know nothing.

Delivering this to a Heads Teachers Industry conference is Professor Amin Rajan of Create UK, a research centre. This is the "age of dilemmas", he declares, and chaos theory is the best way of understanding it. The answer is relationships, the new orthodoxy in leadership studies - something the Government and its advisers have been quick to grasp. Tony Blair is particularly keen on it because it's easier than having an ideology.

In the world of shoulder pads, fixed grins and timetabled networking sessions (some people call them coffee breaks) that is today's leadership conference, Rajan's message is strangely reassuring. While sessions collapse under the weight of their own jargon and educationists from Uganda talk like council officials from Warrington, Rajan offers some lively metaphors.

Physics is a way of understanding particles and planets, but according to the professor, it illustrates people pretty well too. In the old Newtonian world (so 20th Century), we thought we knew what happened when we did something. There was cause and effect - the action and the opposite, equal reaction. The organisation was a machine with the leader pressing the buttons. Quantum physics and chaos theory did away with all that.

"We perceive all these dark spaces in the cosmos but they're not blank.

They're fields of particles we cannot see. It's the same with leaders."

Somehow we always suspected as much, but how do you lead in such unpredictable territory?

"The best strategy is to interact with somebody and see what the outcome is," Rajan concludes. "It's a game of chess. You revise your strategy after each move.

Do our leaders do that?

No. "They pursue a fixed strategy or they're seen as weak and indecisive."

At this point, metaphor overload sets in. The best organisations are like spiders' webs. Good leaders are like great jazz players. Playing chess, obviously.

Rajan concludes with a couple of cheery suggestions: think again about the teacher training curriculum (too Newtonian); and build closer links to industry.

"Everything you're trying has been tried before and 98 per cent didn't work."

There's one other comforting thought: "If an idea doesn't appear bizarre, there's no worth in pursuing it."

That's a motto to live by.

And the next time running a school feels like playing chess on a spider's web in a black hole, just remember: that's because it is.

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