Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Normal Accident Theory of Education

Education, both as an individual activity and social process, is a complicated, expensive and sloppy endeavor. The institutions that undertake to educate youngsters are effective and productive in some ways, and ineffective in others. Public, private, vouchered, charter schools--even parents at home--all evoke this variability, though in different ways. This is so because, being a complicated undertaking, education is susceptible to normal accidents, or normal failures.

To say a system is complicated, in the sense I'm using it here, means that system is composed of various parts whose relationship is characterized by some degree of complexity. That is, the many components of the system are connected together, and their interactions are vital to right functioning of the system. The degree of looseness or tightness of the coupling of these parts reflects the system's slack—ability to absorb problems without failing. Complex, as opposed to linear, systems are characterized by simultaneous processes within the system, and these processes affect other elements of the system.

Tightly coupled complex systems are subject to normal accidents. Unexpected interactions (of the system parts) generate unpredicted and (in a complex system) often unnoticed effects on the performance of other parts of the system. If a complication arises, it may be too late before anybody even realizes the problem, let alone does anything about it. Nuclear power plants are a tightly coupled complex system. The Valujet flight that fell into the Florida Everglades did so because of a normal accident in oxygen canister management.

Schools are loosely coupled complex systems. Plenty of slack is available in the organizational system of a school. Think of a teacher unable to make it to work one day. The school shifts people around, doubles up some classes, gets the principal to cover, or something like this, which means the whole system continues its basic functioning without much serious consequence.

Schools are complex, though, in the simultaneity and, often, divergence in the roles and goals of some the constituent sub-systems. Think about the sports teams, the arts programs and the math departments goals and self-perception of their roles. Add in the counselors, administrators and parents. And, of course, the students! To put it another way, there are a lot of stakeholders who have different expectations and views about how best to meet Billy's and Susie's educational needs. I've seen this in my own recommendation that a student participate in a reading support class prior to our standardized testing, but the band or choir teacher doesn't want the student removed from his/her class (which is the only time the reading class is available), and the parent demands for band, against the administrator's encouraging. While it's important that Billy 'have success at band' and 'enjoy school,' if he doesn't meet standard on the exam, it will be seen as a 'failure,' plain and simple.

So, education is a normal accident (if we mean 'failing to meet' not just standard but a variety of other expectations beyond the testing) waiting to happen in that the whole system—from home and parents to the school house and class rooms--must meet the needs of an incredibly wide variety of students with variant levels of preparation, commitment and support.

Schools are then a normal accident waiting to happen in the way we neglect the reality of the above and choose to redefine the organizational goals as 'meeting standard' in some few test areas for all students. This narrows the work of the organization, and then creates a situation in which we miss or minimize other needs a student might have.

And, well, there's more. But I'll save the elaboration for another post.

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