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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

Chaos Theory and the Unpredictability of School Advancement

I was discussing my previous blog post with a colleague this week.

Whilst he recognised that the proposed Admissions Decision Making Cycle had a ring of truth about it, he also wanted to make it clear that real life is rarely that simple.

Which got me thinking.

Actually, it reminded me of a conversation with NoTosh consultant Dr Kynan Robinson, more than a year ago. I had just pitched the idea of The Periodic Table of Advancement, only to see in his eyes that my intentionally reductionist view of the Advancement world was not exactly how he was seeing things.

I prefer Chaos theory, he said.

For more than a year, I have kept returning to this conversation. Not because I was doubting the value of seeing patterns in things that would otherwise appear to be random or disconnected. I just had this lingering feeling that there was something in Kynan’s statement and that Chaos theory offered something new to our understanding of Advancement in schools.

A photograph of a cloud illuminated by a setting sun
Chaos theory helps us to understand why the weather is so hard to forecast.

Chaos theory, to make a long story short, has it origins as far back as the 1890s and begins from the assumption that the natural order of things over time, far from being a predictable chain of cause and effect, is irregular, discontinuous, and erratic. Not that there aren’t laws and structures that govern the Universe. It is just that, in reality, these patterns, order and structures are subject to numerous minor variations that dramatically affect our ability to predict the future in any meaningful way.

So how do we build this into our emerging understanding of the role of Advancement in schools? Here are just three ideas to get us started.

What you put in is not necessarily what you get out Chaos theory is essentially about nonlinearity. In a world in which B should follow A, it suggests that “real life” is not as simple as that because of the number of other factors and variables that come into play.

So when it comes to even our best Advancement efforts, it is important to remember that the “perfect” theory might look very different in practice; that there is always a degree of messiness in what we do; and that there will always be surprises along the way. We need to learn to regard this messiness and unpredictability as the rule, not the exception.

Focus on monitoring the process, not measuring the product If the above is true, then it follows that measurement instruments that focus only on outcomes will tend to misrepresent our efforts. We can build the best website, launch the most innovative fundraising campaign, or offer the warmest of welcomes to prospective families; but this doesn’t automatically mean that we will raise sufficient funds and meet our enrolment goals. Chaos theory challenges us to see beyond the naive world of formulaic cause and effect, which is little more than Advancement “painting by numbers”, and to recognise that the tiniest of variables can have an enormous impact.

Build feedback loops Much of what we have described here is the “Butterfly Effect” at work and it is, consequently, our responsibility to think on our feet, roll with the punches, design on the go, and, where necessary, be prepared to change course entirely.

In other words, as we come to terms with the fact that real life really isn’t that simple, Chaos theory compels us to build into our Advancement work multiple feedback loops that allow us to listen, reflect, change, adapt. To learn.

So where does all this leave The Periodic Table of Advancement™ and related models that are helping to frame and bring some points of reference to our craft?

The more I think about it, the more I realise that Chaos theory doesn’t override the idea of a physical order to the Universe, nor the possibility that there may be a series of irreducible Elements to the work of Advancement in schools.

But it certainly does suggest that we would be naive to conclude that anything that we do can be reduced to a predictable or universal formula.

Which probably also means that we should be actively seeking out Advancement colleagues who are prepared to embrace a bit of chaos, listen to the nuance, constantly seek out feedback, and are not afraid to stop in their tracks every once in a while to figure out how to adapt to a future that was never foreseen.


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