This started as a comment on Dave Snowen’s Sassy Red blog post but it got a bit long and I wanted to expand on it a bit more (and save it in case Dave legitimately rejects the comment because of its length).
To put this in context Earl Mardle while mostly agreeing Dave’s post on IT education in school took issue with the statement that: In any complex system you can never replicate outcome, but you can replicate starting conditions.
It got me wondering whether there’s a useful distinction here between ‘starting context’, and ‘starting conditions’. It’s of course nonsensical to try to replicate the starting context in any learning situation (or any other situation for that matter). There will be different people, a different physical environment, different weather, there might have been national media announcements since the last event that have affected people’s mood (or in the case of a school announcements by the principal).
Starting conditions you can replicate because they’re much simpler. I’m fairly sure that if I put a soccer ball on the ground near a group of 6 year old boys that some kind of ‘soccer-like’ behavior has a chance of emerging. It can be a different group of boys from last time I did it, different playing surface, different weather. I can also fairly easily set boundaries by saying things like “remember, no punching”. If some ‘soccer-like’ behavior does emerge, I can wait to see if other interventions to stablise a ‘soccer-like’ pattern might be necessary. I might encourage two of the kids to take of their jerseys and make goal posts. There might end up being two sets of goals or just one. I might decide to say “remember, no hands”, or I might wait to see if some form of rugby/soccer hybrid (or some other game entirely) emerges.
Now to Earl’s objection to “In any complex system you can never replicate outcome, but you can replicate starting conditions”. I think he’s saying that you can’t replicate the ‘starting context’ for the teacher, because the teacher has already experienced the original outcome and process. The teacher is changed. They are no longer in exploratory/experimenter mode, they are well on the path to process entrainment and ritualisation (an important survival tactic for overworked teachers).
For me it comes down to outcomes again. If the desired outcome is ‘an exact replica of what happened last time’ then the change in the teacher’s starting context might lead them to impose structure to force the desired outcome. You might then end up with similar outwardly visible behavior as last time, but nothing like similar learning experiences taking place. I saw this often in my time at school, during my teacher training, and in the very brief time I actually spent teaching high school.
A good teacher (or parent, facilitator, manager) should however be able to let go of the exact, outwardly visible outcome, and focus on allowing the desired type of inward learning to take place. If the desired outcome was something like ‘the kids will learn some more physical coordination, how to interact with each other in a game, and how to negotiate and stablise adaptive boundaries themselves’ then as a teacher the fact that I’ve done something similar before shouldn’t be a hindrance. It should make it more likely that if I can identify what the important starting conditions were (as distinct from the irrelevant contextual elements), then I should be able to have something vaguely within the range of the learning experiences I’m after, occur.
It’s like good birthday party management. I’ve run 16 kids birthday parties and I’ve gotten fairly good at it. Not because I have a particular set of rituals or overt processes I follow, but because I know what to look for, when to intervene, and what kind of catalysts and boundaries to prepare in advance. The starting context is always different, but useful starting conditions can fairly easily be replicated.
I think we often have the same problem in organisational management, in particular poorly implement ‘management to outcomes’ approaches. In socially complex situations (which most workplaces are), managers try to achieve particular outcomes by replicating irrelevant aspects of starting context, or by having preconceived notions of how the process should work because that’s how they saw it unfold last time. They end up forcing behavior through extrinsic motivators or bullying, imposing arbitrary process, getting overt compliance with the process but tacit rejection of it, and in so doing miss enabling the creativity and myriad of interactions that led to successful results emerging in the past.