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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

The Problem of Experience Entropy in Schools

The second law of thermodynamics says that entropy - a measure of molecular disorder - always increases with time. In organisational theory, the concept is used to describe the tendency of an organisation to become disorganised and chaotic over time if left unchecked.

One way of thinking about this is to think of the amount of useful energy that an organisation has to perform useful work or achieve its objectives. As time passes - so the theory goes - entropy (disorder) increases and the organisation is able to achieve less and less in exchange for ever more time and resources.

Image of a mirror that is slowly falling apart

But what does any of this have to do with schools?

Well, first off, have you ever noticed how often the once acclaimed "best school in town" is taken by surprise and starts to lose out to the "new school on the block"? The silent progress of entropy within the organisation means that, even though School A is doing what it has always done (which previously was always good enough to keep ahead of the pack), the reality is that, despite its best efforts, is it able to achieve less and less in exchange for ever more time and resources.

The antidote, of course, both in thermodynamics and organisational theory is the injection of energy. And, in organisational terms, this energising process will often mean things such as realignment around core values, simplification of key processes, or company restructuring.

But how can we apply this to the concept of experience or, more particularly, the experience of school?

I've tried to find reference to the concept of experience entropy, but so far have not stumbled on its use. So, acknowledging the risk that someone is going to prove me wrong, I'm going to coin the term and try to explain why I think that this is such an important concept when it comes to building an effective experience strategy in schools.

Experience entropy, at both a macro and micro level, is essentially a way of understanding the law of diminishing returns on any given experience. It's linked to the idea that the more we are delighted by an experience, the higher our expectations become in relation to future experiences, and consequently the harder it is to maintain satisfaction over time.

Let's imagine, for example, the first time you fly business class on a plane. The fast lane at check in, access to the lounge, the reclining seats, and even tablecloth and silver cutlery dinner: each moment produces a mix of surprise and delight and exceeds any previously held expectations of commercial flight. But if you are lucky enough to always fly business, experience entropy starts to set in pretty quickly. Minimum expectations are reset, the bar is raised, and you might start to notice "gaps" in the experience - small things that didn't quite go as you now have come to expect each time you fly.

So as we apply this to schools, perhaps it is useful to begin by reflecting on three key questions:

  1. What are the experiences in your school - anything from events, communications, rituals, processes, and much more besides - that are suffering from a degree of entropy to the point that they require too much energy for so little in return?

  2. Where are student, parent, and employee expectations changing to the point where yesterday's experience of wonder and delight is now regarded as "the least that should be done"?

  3. Who are the people, programmes, systems, technologies, and ways of organising that can provide your school with the "energy" required to shift the experience into one that continues to satisfy and delight?

Whether we tackle these questions or not, what we cannot afford to do is assume that the experience of school that we are providing will survive the test of time and that we are immune from the inevitable entropy that accompanies even our best work.

Oh, and if you do find reference to experience entropy on your travels, be sure to let me know!

Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash.

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1 Comment

Nicholas Alchin
Nicholas Alchin
Oct 02, 2023

There is wisdom here, for sure. I think Dan Gilbert and others refer to this as 'hedonic adaptation'.

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