Saturday, January 2, 2016

How To Change The Education System: Think Inside The Box

Formal education can be considered as a system (indeed it is called a system) - a bounded entity with specific inputs and outputs. From this perspective the education system can bee seen as if it were a Skinner box - a behaviourist's stimulus-response conditioning chamber.

Behaviourism focuses on observable phenomena - that which can be objectively tested and measured, internal states such as thought, feelings, passion, emotion, motivation etc are excluded. This explains a lot about the obsession of the education system with objective testing, measurement and data and the number of times I have heard managers sincerely say things like " If it can't' be measured, it doesn't exist", "if you can't measure it you can't manage it" and of course if you can’t measure something you can’t control it". It also explains a lot about why progressive education ideas that focus on people's internal states fail to gain significant focus and attention from "the system" (those in positions of power and authority) and have failed to make any significant impact on the system.

A system is a set of interacting or interdependent component parts forming a complex/intricate emergent whole with a set of rules that governs its structure and/or behaviour. A system is a bounded entity with specific inputs, outputs and feedback mechanisms that maintain homeostasis despite a changing external environment. This explains a lot about why the education system has proved so difficult to change - as a system it is designed to maintain the status quo and for self preservation.

A behaviourist system is simple but powerful descriptive model of formal education - it explains a lot about its operation and its resistance to change but also suggests a method through which it can change and change quite radically and quickly.

At a simple level the formal education system can be considered and manipulated as a behaviourist experiment controlled by three key independent variables: money, inspection and measurement with a single dependent variable - exam results. Its a pretty depressing point of view but seems to describe the way many operate within the system - focusing on money, inspection, measurement and exam results, excluding "extraneous" non objective variables such as happiness and focusing on performance management through data on objective key performance indicators.

A key factor in experimental design is operational definition - the definition of the terms and variables used. If we consider the formal education system as a behaviourist experiment then we might just be able to induce a change in behaviour not by changing the system but by manipulating and redefining the key inputs to the current system (money, inspection and measurement) while maintaining the exam results but to a different purpose!


  1. Is it the dreich weather that makes you so pessimistic. Every school playground I pass is a haven of optimism. I read that learning cannot be seen never mind measured, hence the oxbridge entrance interview - better to look for the gift, though.

  2. Thanks for your comment Paul - it is good to be reminded bout the happy people and good practice that goes on within the education system - its a good reminder about human "spirit".

    In this blog though I am talking about the system rather than its components or the agents within it and there are always examples of good cognitive (rather than behaviourist) practice. I've run some innovative and creative practice and projects within the system - see

    I've been wondering why these examples of cognitive practice don't affect the system more widely - considering the education system as a behaviourist machine seems one way of explaining this.

    I have become pessimistic - I was around in the 1970s and the exciting MIT media Lab work and ideas about education (Minsky, Papert etc) - I used to teach heuristically and use Logo and turtles ... I've seen the system oscillate over 40 years - and now I see Nicky Morgan want to use computers to measure memory

    I am hoping to explore in these blogs different ways that might change the education system - I will write something about the power of people but I will also write about machines and systems.