The Machine and the Organism

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Can we create an outstanding school based purely on routines, policies and metrics…?

The contemporary lifestyle we enjoy is only possible through the rational application of mechanistic principles. Our society has advanced due to our ability to track, predict and control the physical world, and such a formula now seems both obvious and extendible to every aspect of human life.

So, we’re swamped with ‘how to improve…’ courses drawing upon the machine metaphor, along with the assumption that the fulfilment of such approaches should inevitably result in excellence everywhere. Efficiency, accountability and measurable efficacy seem to be all that industry, the inspectorate, and (consequently) our anxious parents appear to be interested in….

What’s not to like …?!

Well… it is – I think – perfectly possible to get children to pass exams, and to get inspectors to be satisfied with what you are attempting to do as a school leader, simply through the careful use of ‘machine’ principles. This might be because you are a devotee of Taylorist management principles, Skinnerian behavioural principles, or just an adherent of any other tick-list of ‘best practice’ in how to succeed at something…

But, but….but……but…………BUT…………….Nothing will be outstanding.

We’re not machines. Neither are our classrooms, our schools, nor the wider societies in which they’re embedded. Work in Artificial Intelligence may strive to get robots to information process such that they can accurately replicate our behaviours, but, there is no pretence that they accomplish these activities in the same way that we ourselves carry them out.

Humans simply AREN’T computers! We are biological organisms which happen to have evolved the capability to perform computations at various levels of abstraction. The substrate of the human brain – and the general principles leading to ‘action’ – function entirely differently to the binary digital processing of invented computational devices.

Human reasoning only occasionally uses the slow process of logical deduction and syllogisms. In practice it tends more accurately to arrive at inferential outcomes based on a combination of evolutionary survival mechanisms: genetic, chemical and subliminally cognitive. Indeed, rational discourse is more often than not just an outward manoeuvre providing socially and psychologically respectable justification for what we’ve already done, or what we’d like to do.

So don’t think you can completely engineer the learning of a child simply through cognitive principles. Don’t think that you can just convince them rationally to become mathematicians, have a ‘growth mindset’, or to see the uncontestable logic of working hard and consequently behaving perfectly in class. Children might arrive at a point where they thoughtfully articulate the logical ‘truth’ or value of such things, but that will rarely have anything to do with you directly designing their thinking.

The idea that we can rationally plot how to move another person forward with any certainty is an illusion. We can never know for sure exactly what anybody else has experienced in their life, what their biology predisposes them towards, nor what their personal life experience will most demand of them in the future. We cannot plot in any detail a ‘personalised learning’ course for them. It’s a vanity to think we can plan much beyond simply treating the symptomatic behaviour which appears before us in any particular moment. We can’t even achieve this for ourselves….

Ultimately, human beings are organisms who need to be nurtured, challenged and sometimes cajoled towards the pursuit and fulfilment of excellence in a particular area, until such a goal happens to align with their search for personal satisfaction. If a teacher confidently declares their impact on a student, more often than not any certainly reflects simplistic hindsight. The process of progress is a subtle and messy business, emerging only after many competing interactions.

Similarly, classes too are more like organisms than machines. Do not think that you can just “manage” into existence a class of excellence through behaviourist principles, as if the children are simply a set of resources. Yes – structures, routines and consequences will benefit every child in your care, helping to channel and normalise behaviour and expectations. However, the key consequence of such things will lie primarily in as much as they enable you to connect personally with pupils as both individuals and – crucially – as a healthily functioning community, where the whole emerges independently of the strengths of the individual elements. An excellent class needs nurture.

And – yes – don’t think that you can engineer an excellent school through commercial management principles, as if your staff and children are ‘merely’ a business. Yes, you might be able to avoid a pastoral worst-case scenario with a child. Yes, you might be able to help some struggling children achieve the bottom rung of skills assessments. Yes, you might be able to pass an inspection. But that’s it. You cannot manage a school, or a class, or a child to excellence. For that, you require leadership.

Leadership principles are not just for designated ‘leaders’. Rather, they are for any of us who wish to positively influence an individual or a group. Leadership relies on the engagement of you as a person with the lived reality of the individual in front of you. You need to connect with them – one human with another – and provide for them the sufficient conditions for them to be able to grow; sometimes through firm structures and constraints; sometimes through warm nurture and freedoms, but always through an authentically human relationship which enables the child – or indeed the community – to know and trust the difference.

We are a species of social beings, and this process transcends the individual to the collective mind of the class and the school. Great classes and schools need a sense of identity, of tradition, of camaraderie, of pride, of aspiration, of empathy, of humour and – above all – of compassion and charity. We can’t simply ‘manage’ these things into being in a way which will create a healthily functioning organism.

Rather, what we need are teachers and leaders who can inspire, empathise, reassure, and generally collaborate as co-participants in the human condition.

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One thought on “The Machine and the Organism

  1. Well said. I’m tempted to suggest it chimes well with a certain book. But how mang of those running education want to hear, let along follow?Too much vested interest in the system for them really to care very much…

    Liked by 1 person

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