In this post, I want to explore a vivid image developed by Larry Cuban to characterize the peculiar nature of teaching and learning in schools. Scholars have frequently argued for a form of educational exceptionalism that sees schooling as a social structure that is distinctive from the normal patterns of bureaucratic organization that one sees in private companies and public agencies. Think of Karl Weick’s depiction of educational organization as “loosely coupled systems” and John Meyer’s depiction of them as “institutionalized organizations.” Scholars have also argued that teaching is an odd form of professional practice that doesn’t follow the norms of other professions. Think of David Cohen’s account of teaching as a “people-changing profession” and Dan Lortie’s account of the weak control that administrators exert over teaching.
Cuban has distilled these scholarly insights into a single salient distinction between organizational practices that are complicated vs. those that are complex. Rockets, he says, are complicated; schools are complex.
Sending a rocket to the moon is a fiendishly complicated endeavor, involving a lot of sophisticated calculation and planning. But it has the enormous advantage of being a determinate process. With enough intellectual and technical firepower, there is a solution that reliably works.
The same is not true of the process of schooling. The problems that make classrooms and school systems so difficult are not technical. They are social — depending on the complex interaction among a large number of individual and organizational actors. They are motivational — depending on the voluntary buy-in of all these actors. And they are normative — shaped by the conflicting purposes that these actors seek to impose of the practice of schooling.
Here’s how Cuban makes his case in the opening section of the final chapter in his 2013 book, Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice.
The path of educational progress more closely resembles the flight of a butterfly than the flight of a bullet.
— Philip Jackson, 1968
What’s the difference between sending a rocket to the moon and getting children to succeed in school?
What’s the difference between a surgeon extracting a brain tumor and judge and jury deciding guilt or innocence for a person accused of murder?
Sending a rocket to the moon and extracting a brain tumor are complicated, while getting children to succeed in school and arriving at verdicts are complex, closer to the “flight of a butterfly than the flight of a bullet.”
According to multidisciplinary scholars and practitioners, complicated procedures like brain surgery and rocket launchings require engineer-designed blueprints, flowcharts breaking actions into step-by-step tasks, well-trained staff, and exquisite combinations of computer software running carefully calibrated equipment. Think, rocket landing on the moon in 1969, doctor-controlled robotic arms doing brain surgery, and the U.S. “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq in 2003.
A complicated system assumes expert and rational leaders, top-down planning with a ”mission control” unit pursuing scrupulous implementation of policies in a clockwork-precise organization. Complicated systems use the most sophisticated math, technical, and engineering expertise in mapping out flowcharts to solve problems. Work is specified and delegated to particular units, and outcomes are monitored. Confidence in performance and predictable results is in the air the organization breathes.
Yet even those sophisticated systems fail from time to time; for example, the Challenger shuttle disaster, the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Like complicated systems, complex systems such as legislatures, the courts, health-care, and schools are filled with hundreds of moving parts, but many of the parts are human, and these players have varied expertise and independence. Moreover, missing in such systems is a “mission control” that runs all these different parts within ever-changing political, economic, and societal surroundings. The result: constant adaptations and compromises in design and action.
Recall the U.S. president, Congress, lobbying groups, and scores of interest groups trying to pass a health-care reform bill into law during 2010 in the midst of a slow recovery from the Great Recession of 2008. Blueprints, technical experts, strategic plans, and savvy managers may be necessary but are insufficient to get complex systems with hundreds of reciprocal ties between people to operate effectively in constantly changing and unpredictable environments. These web-like, complex systems of interdependent units adapt continuously to turbulent surroundings. They are constantly changing just to maintain stability.
Hospitals, courts, and schools — even with their facades of command-and-control mechanisms, flowcharts, and policy manuals filled with detailed procedures-are constantly buffeted by unpredictable events and interrelated factors over which participants have no control. Picture a hospital emergency room; judges presiding over successive arraignments; and, yes, teachers teaching first-graders, algebra courses, and Advanced Placement U.S. history in the black boxes of classrooms.
These complex social systems have time and again foiled reform-driven policy makers’ efforts to get doctors, judges, lawyers, and teachers to change their routine practices in any substantial way. I now return to the central question of this book to connect the complexity of school systems to classroom practices: With so many major structural changes in US. public schools over the past century, why have classroom practices been largely stable with a modest blending of new and old teaching practices leaving contemporary classroom lessons familiar to earlier generations of school-goers?
To document the complexity of the K-12 school system, look at figure 6.1, a representation of the external political factors and organizational forces that frequently impinge, sometimes unexpectedly, on what occurs in classrooms. Such figures, of course, give the mistaken impression that these stakeholders are static when, in real life, they are constantly using policy talk drenched in reform rhetoric as they lobby school board members and interact with administrators, teachers, and each other producing tangled web of interdependent players in a complex system aimed at human improvement.
Now look at figure 6.2, which tries to capture the different factors again, not static but in dynamic tension with one another-within a classroom. In the helping profession of teaching, the interdependence of teachers and students and relationships with peers and other adults inside and outside the school community are but a few of the influences that come into play when teaching and learning occur.
Keep in mind the different levels of interaction and interdependence in these complex social systems. At one level is the mutual dependence of students and teachers in classroom interactions over content and skills during lessons in the black box. Next is the school level, where groups of students interact with adults who have reciprocal ties between themselves across many age-graded elementary and secondary classrooms. Parents and governmental agency adults also bring in concerns and resources that influence school wide relationships and routines. Then there is the district level, where decision makers use policy talk and take action in connecting those outside the organization and those inside who are expected to carry out decisions-the administrators and teachers who implement the policy. At the district level, community, state, and national economic, political, and social factors impinge on the community (e.g., immigration, economic recession, mayoral control of schools) and ripple through schools and classrooms.
This multitiered view of a complex system aimed at human improvement suggests the intricacies of overlapping and interacting levels comprising K-12 schooling. At each level, change and continuity are in dynamic, even tense, equilibrium-almost like running as fast as possible just to stay in the same place.