Education: An Open or Closed System?

At the weekend I read this essay on the public realm and urbanism by Richard Sennett. In it, he draws a contrast between two kinds of systems that affect the way that our cities evolve: the open – ‘ a system in unstable evolution’ – and the closed – ‘a system in harmonious equilibrium’. He argues that the latter has a paralysing effect on a city’s development, whilst the former leaves it free to evolve and incorporate difference.

aylesbury-estateSennett actually points out the danger in applying systems thinking from one sphere of knowledge to another, but I think his insights apply to education. His vision that cities are “clean and safe, possess efficient public services, support a dynamic economy, provide cultural stimulation, and help heal society’s divisions of race, class, and ethnicity” easily reflects a broad philosophy for our schools. So is education an open or a closed system? And why does this matter?

Closed system development plays to our desire for planning and stability. The underlying assumption is that we collectively have the capacity to generate a single vision and construct a future environment that will be to the benefit of all. But it’s a hit and miss enterprise. For every Barbican Centre, you get a housing project like the Aylesbury Estate. In education, for all the sense of control they afford, you get the straight-jackets of the national curriculum, Key Stage examinations or Ofsted.

Open systems on the other hand challenge our desire for control. Sennett chooses to call these ‘unstable’ precisely to undermine the notion that stability is always a virtue. He argues that openness in urbanism gives us the cities that we love today, the box rows of Georgian houses in London, the shifting cultural and socio-political landscape of New York’s lower East-side. Within our schools, the equivalent move involves indulging students’ curiosity, diverging from the timetable, seeking new forms. These activities rarely occur.

State education is still essentially a closed system, in both spirit and law. At the macro level, the culture remains one of mistrust and fear, fuelled by media misrepresentation and political ping pong: politicians don’t trust teachers to do their jobs; teachers, kids and school leaders fear the GCSE league tables; teachers even distrust one another. This spiritual problem is exacerbated by policies that further erode a collective sense of endeavour, creativity and achievement. More exams, curriculum changes, a tougher approach to tenure.

And yet we can sense an undercurrent of openness of emerging. A tentative autonomy is being conferred upon leaders of academies and free schools and there is a consensus building that bureaucracy is hampering innovation and collaboration. Individual examples are springing up of schools and organizations that are defying convention, both in their results and in their approach. Burlington Danes or High Tech High, Khan Academy or the School in the Cloud, Ark or Reach are just a few examples of those that are beginning to thrive.

So what is right for education? In his essay, Sennett argues that the solution for urban planning is to embrace ‘incomplete form’. Although it would be anathema to the money men, this would mean architects embarking on projects that are designed to be incomplete, that might change, that can’t be defined in advance in the plans. However scary it might seem, we need to expand our ability to do this in education too, to admit that we have been unable to plan and implement the perfect comprehensive system, and to open our minds to new forms and approaches.

Embracing incomplete form in education will require the right spirit and the right laws. Without fully opening education to the vicissitudes of the market, policy makers should continue to develop the internal market within education, inviting new actors, freeing teachers and school leaders to act in community interests. This will require bold decisions to scale back exam regimes and loosen curriculum demands, and demand a continuation of the trend towards autonomy and professionalism. Changing the spirit will require more training and support, and a national conversation about what education is for in the 21st Century.

At the moment, education is a confused terrain of open and closed systems thinking. Instead, we need to be clear that opening ourselves to difference is the route to successful evolution. And I think we all want to see that. Business as usual for education would equate to building more housing estates in the 60s style. That’s in no-one’s interest.

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