Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Requisite variety

The law of requisite variety states that 
The larger the variety of actions available to a system, the larger the variety of perturbations (input variations) it is able to compensate more )
Although derived from cybernetics the underlying principle can be useful in considering a wide range of situations, including the schools:

The challenge

Schools as 'systems' must be able to compensate for perturbations in terms of the actions and responses of students, staff, families, the community, the school system and society.

There are two ways to increase the effectiveness of a school:
  • A school may increase the range of its possible responses that enable it to deal with the range of actual inputs from those involved, especially the student. Example: it may extend the curriculum and/or extra curricula activities and/or customise provision and support for individual students (BigPicture...)
  • A school may reduce the range of inputs. Examples; it may be selective, exclude some students and/or it may address common issues in order to prevent their recurrence (SWPBS, Broken Windows...)
These initiatives are not linear since the inputs from those involved are partly in response to the experiences, prompts and options provided by the school. 
Perhaps this explains why training is generally so much more straight forward than  education. Training usually involves 
  • a specific context (to which the training applies) leading to
  • well defined learning tasks (often related to specific competencies)
  • anticipated starting points (people seeking training are likely to have certain characteristics as a result of being ready for this particular training – readiness being more or less established in the entry process
  • anticipated previous experience (on which to draw)
All of this contributes to reducing variation in user inputs, that is, fewer perturbations to which the school must be able to respond.

In contrast, education is much more problematic in terms of the inputs arising from the learner’s context, needs and goals and the learning tasks that are likely to meet those needs and goals

From the perspective of the school perturbations reflect the mismatch between 
  • the assumptions that underpin the design and functionality of the school  and 
  • the user’s needs and/or the user’s attempts to meet those needs through engaging in the school
An ideal school would be able to
  • gauge the students needs, interests, hopes…
  • identify suitable tasks in order to address these matters
  • gauge the student’s zone of proximal development in relation to each task
  • place the next steps within the zone
  • mediate the student’s learning, that is, engage with the student in a way that helps them to 
    • reflect on how they responded to the inputs received, 
    • reflect on what thinking they used to develop a response to the input
    • prepare a response appropriate to the input received and the situation into which the response is to be made
    • reflect on how they presented their response to the inputs received
    •  monitor the effectiveness of all these steps and draw conclusions for future use 
  • respond to the student’s progress in relation to all of the above
Teachers with the requisite variety
Great teachers appear to take a sociological perspective with respect to  learning, rather than seeing learning as an almost clinical or linear  process. These teachers achieve the requisite variety by placing the learning within the life of the student, they are flexible and dynamic in making responses around purposes, meaning, provision of support, actual tasks, working arrangements, access to facilities and resources. And they need to be supported by a school system that adopts a similar perspective.
The Law of Requisite Variety prompts us to take a total system view and to understand the way in which control within a system moves from element to element on a moment by moment basis. The implications are that, while simple models can be useful for the purposes of design, the underlying assumptions should not be so simplistic that the practices and arrangements developed on the basis the simple models fail when placed in real situations. They must have the requisite variety in their range of responses to deal with the 'perturbations' encountered when situated in the lived experience and everyday activity of those for whom the arrangements and devices are developed.

[The original version of this article was written for the COLAT research project, UTAS 2002-2006]

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Comparing systems - mainstream & BigPicture education

For some time I have been a peripheral member of a research project being undertaken by BigPicture Education Australia. So how does BigPicture compare with a lot of mainstream schooling?

In mainstream schools, students are largely organised by the system which determines curricula, timetables, assessments and to a certain extent teachers as managers... and for many capable students this can work well. Minimal responsibility for students, economies of scale, a sense of order...

Mainstream schooling tends to…
  • assume a linear “production” system approach: input -> process -> output, and so,
  • provide blue-prints* for educating students based on the assumption which implies a concept of education as "processing"
  • result in schools being be managed as production systems - the rules are specified at each step, increasing lock down, reducing flexibility, production is measured
  • associate quality with uniformity
  • has limited capacity to accommodate special causes of variation
  • make minimal demands on students in terms of engagement (other cooperation)
Perhaps, most significantly, students are rarely, if ever, involved in the development and/or evaluation of the system. Their contributions are minimal which leads to a low sense of belonging for many students.

[*Note: the well-intentioned blue-prints also tend to be fragmented and most systems have only low levels of overall coherence, especially from the perspective of many students. The result is often something akin to an Escher architectural image]

In BigPicture, students and teachers are largely self-organising within the context of the Distinguishers

BigPicture tends to...

  • provide a flexible, modified supportive, coherent environment
  • promote and supports learning by the students, one student at a time
  • accept that purposes and activities emerge from the interactions in which the student is involved, that is, the members of the system interactions are largely self organising within the environment provided
  • provide a few simple rules: Students learning, "one at a time in a community of learners" that underpin this self-organisation
  • associate quality with consistency
In summary, the difference lies in the assumptions made about about the systems involved
  • Mainstream assumes a linear "production" system (centrally managed, aiming for uniformity...)
  • BigPicture assumes complex adaptive system (emergent, self organising, co-evolving, aiming for consistency rather than uniformity...
More soon...