Tuesday, October 13, 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 (ideally principles) 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

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