A Consideration of Predictability

Much of my work with schools surrounding learning space design requires addressing organizational change. That’s to be expected - the reason for creating new spaces or redesigning existing spaces is to shift the teaching and learning experience to something new and different, and that means change.

Admittedly, many of the schools I work with can be characterized as being comfortable in what they do and what they offer. They are all good schools, some are very good schools, and they all do a great job working with kids. And if you know anything about change and successful schools, they are perhaps the most difficult to change. They’re already doing good things, so why change?

But many schools could benefit from creating an experience that helps students develop additional skills and dispositions that students need for success in today’s world. Many could benefit from developing more community connections that enlarge where learning can occur. Many could benefit by adding variety into the learning experience. And, of course, many could improve their spaces. Those are all starting points. More options for change certainly exist.

It is appropriate to consider and explore the concept of systems to understand organizational change. In their book, Design Unbound, John Seely Brown and Ann Pendleton-Jullian define a system as “dynamic contexts where things happen” that are “containers for complex relationships and exchanges.” As an example, a school organization operates within the fluctuating, dynamic and complex system known as education.

To operate within a system efficiently, and perhaps effectively, organizations rely on different structural elements that help them make sense of the complexity of the system. Schools have grade and ability levels, bell schedules, courses, units, and lessons, among other things, that help them create stability and predictability- things that provide order to the system. These elements help schools negotiate the system. They help to make a complex and unpredictable system predictable.

There are unfortunate outcomes of predictability - the comfort I previously mentioned and the development of a school culture where change and improvement efforts are met by the very elements and structures that enable the school, in its current iteration, to work in the first place. And the result of this can be stagnation and resistance to change.

In my opinion, organizational change is predicated on intentionally and strategically introducing unpredictability back into the organization.

So, several questions. Where could a school strategically introduce variability into its practice to create unpredictability? How much unpredictability is the right amount? Where can unpredictability be applied as a creative driver to rethink practice and experience? And how could a school organization always embrace some level of unpredictability in order to keep evolving and improving?

Breaking traditional norms and practice relies on building the organizational skills required to address operating with some degree of unpredictability. It means developing an organizational disposition that embraces the discomfort and uncertainty that accompanies unpredictability. By doing so, an organization can develop the ability to understand the balance between predictability and unpredictably that will enable growth and a continual progression of improvement.