Friday, 29 May 2015

Big system, little system – put them in a cardboard box

In a rare moment of escapism, I visited a city this week. On the journey there, I purchased a coffee from a vendor at a train station. It was one of those open shops where you stand and collect the hot beverage at the end of a line. I like excitement and variety, so I bought a white Americano.

“What is your name?” asked the lady behind the counter.

“Why?” I asked confused.

“We need your name to write it on the mug. What is your name?”

“But there is no one else in the line or queue,” I responded looking at the empty space surrounding the whole shop. Not a soul. Nobody lurking behind the sugar. Nobody hiding amongst the cakes and muffins.

“We just need to for the person making the coffee.”

“But, there isn’t anybody else it could be for. Just me. ”   

“I am sorry, sir, but it is the system we follow”.


“I’m sorry?”

“My name is Chris.”

“Thank you. If you would like to wait over there, we will call out your name when it is ready.”

“Yes, because you might lose me in the crowd of people here,” I grumbled.

“Sorry, sir?”

“I just said, thank you.”


I am not a miserable person, but this little exchange hit a chord for me. Somebody following a system because that is the process they always follow come rain or shine. The whole thing was ludicrous in the context. My coffee was not going to get lost in the making of it. There was only one customer and only one coffee. It wouldn’t take a leap of imagination to make a connection that the one coffee being made is for the one customer in the shop.  

The problem here is that a system was in place for dealing with a problem that at that moment wasn’t a problem.

Like cogs in a watch, schools run by a series of processes. Each person has a role and a job to do. The cogs turn and things progress. If there is a problem, then we try to fix the problem and get things running. How do we fix a problem? We put a system in place. All too often a system is introduced to staff through the medium of a flowchart.

My role in school is to deal with subject problems, but, occasionally, I address whole school problems. That little exchange in the line for a coffee made me think about new ideas, processes or procedures are introduced in the school’s machine.

Because people feel the need to pin down systems and processes in schools we have flowcharts made. Flowcharts, for me, are the epitome of evil. A series of box drawings reducing a complex process into a simple yes or no chart which only belongs in Cosmo magazine, helping me, or any reader, to make important life decisions like what kind of bikini that suits my body shape or who is my perfect dream date. When people read these kinds of flowcharts in a magazine, they know that the process is artificial. They know that the chart hasn’t included every possible eventuality, because readers are smart enough to understand that; so when they are deciding on which Bruce Willis character from a movie matches their personality best, the reader knows that Mr Willis has been in hundreds of films, yet the flowchart only has six possible options and one of those is a cartoon.

Flowcharts reduce the complexity of behaviour to a simple yes and no process.

A child is causing disruption in the classroom.

Is the child threatening the life of others in the class? Yes / No

If no, give a demerit.

If yes, call for assistance.


The Smell of Success
Of course, flowcharts are only the way a new system is introduced. The system itself often causes the problems. There are thousands and thousands of schools. Each with their own sets of systems. When I moved schools, I noticed how like a nasty odour they followed me.  And, that’s what is often happening in schools. They move like smells. Somebody visits another school and they like the smell of the potpourri in the toilets, so they bring the smell to their school. Smell this. What do you think?  Tah dah! The school has a lovely smell.  I know, I am talking in metaphors. But, it rings a lot of truth. Let’s call this the ‘smell of success’.

Schools are constantly in search for the ‘smell of success’ and it becomes something spread by rumour. This school uses pine fresh and they got an outstanding. This school used hint of mint and they got a good for this. This school got ‘Ofsteded’ and they did well and they used beef flavoured monster munch. The problem, and this is the big problem, is that the success of a smell or a process is often based on the context of the problem. A process used in a small school works well in a small school because it is… a small school. A process used in a large school will not always work in a small school and visa versa. The solution works because it is the right cog for the right machine. Each school is a different machine and needs a different shaped cog or smell – Oh dear, I think I am drowning in metaphors.  You get my point. This idea of people spreading best practice is good, but the assumption is that those people have the Holy Grail solution is false. Simply: it works for them.    

Mea cupla!
I am guilty of the next part. It is a universal truth: a recently promoted teacher in a school will feel the need to prove their worth by introducing something new. Very rarely will you get a person in a new position saying the following comment: “I am going to carry on with what the previous person did before me and not change a single thing. It worked before, so why should I break it.”

Yes, you could argue that schools need an influx of new ideas and processes, but that needs to be measured. Look at all the recent new changes we have had to deal with in education. Rightly so things have calmed down a bit as people realised that actually there were too many changes. A hard lesson I have had to learn is that you can’t change everything and you can't do it now. I have learnt that it is better to think tactically when to introduce something and give people time to adjust to things. Golden rule: the first day or week back is never a good way to introduce something new. Better to do it before a holiday so that it has had time to settle in people’s minds. People can handle change and they do embrace changes.

Spring Clean
It is funny how processes and systems disappear without any ceremony, but I think it is always handy to declutter before introducing new ideas and initiatives. People are far more likely to follow or support a process if they know that they don’t have to do another as result. Pile all the new processes together and on top of each other and you’ll have a tower that can only do one thing… topple.  


Plus, I think all the time the impact on teaching and learning should be measured. Every new idea should have the learning experience factored in when using it. There is no point having a new system if it reduces the quality of teaching in lessons. The lessons and the learning should come first. What will improve progress? Teaching. What will improve attainment? Teaching.  The more things people have to do, the less time people have to do the important things.


I am in reflective mode and I am looking at what are the problems I need to address and what are the possible solutions. Me cuppa from the shop made me think about the whole process of new ideas in school and departments. The sad truth is this:

The winning solution to solve problem X in your school is …. one of seven hundred possibilities. It is the school’s job to find the right solution for their school.

When looking to improve things, I think the questions I will be asking are these questions:

What is the problem?

Why is there a problem?

What are the different possible solutions people have used?

Why do those solutions work in those particular contexts?

Which solution best fits my school?

What is the impact on learning? Will it hinder or improve learning?

What are we going to stop doing to ensure this new solution is a success?


Thinking back to the lady in the coffee shop. I think it was the blind obedience to the process that bothered me the most. Logic was neglected as a result of the process. A process should not defy logic and a simple bit of thought could have highlighted how that process was a waste of time.


Thanks for reading,



1 comment:

  1. I like your list of questions - useful for classroom decisions, not just school-wide. Another question to ask might be 'Who does the problem affect most? Have they been asked their opinion?' I often use this question to lead me to a solution.