Chaos and order – the new working paradox


Mal Lee and Roger Broadie

Schools increasingly will need to work, nay thrive with the seeming paradox of accommodating seeming operational chaos at the same time as the on-going quest for order.

Tom Peter’s famously wrote Thriving on Chaos for the business world in 1987.

25 plus years on much of that advice is now apt for schools operating on a digital base and evolving at pace.

Couple that advice with the understanding provided by complexity science on the nature of organisational evolution and you’ll appreciate why in time all schools and their staff will work in what seems at first glance a paradoxical situation.

The pathfinder schools are unwittingly learning the art of thriving on chaos where daily they are contending with what to do with inadequate old practises, the promise of the new, the messiness, uncertainty and at times the seeming chaos associated with the substituting the old for the new and the order that comes with astute adoption and normalised use of more apposite approaches. What we found in all the pathfinder schools, in all four nations was a palpable excitement, student pleasure, and the very noticeable professional satisfaction of the staff.

On-going change and evolution that was orchestrated from within the school was increasingly accepted as the norm. Staff, the students and the parents appeared remarkably accepting of the on-going evolution. It was quite remarkable how quickly time honoured practises disappeared and new practises became normalised and accepted.

The new, but very pleasant challenge for the school leaders in the pathfinders was the need at times to apply the brakes on the rate of the school’s evolutionary transformation and to ensure highly committed and excited teachers didn’t over extend themselves and ‘burn out’. As indicated in the evolutionary stage attributes school leaders needed increasingly to monitor the work of highly committed staff, to identify how each expressed stress and to employ appropriate ‘welfare’ measures.

The contrast with the constancy and order in many of the paper based schools where change, internal and external, is frowned upon, many teachers have ‘switched off’ and where a sizeable proportion of the students find the teaching irrelevant and boring is pronounced.

Tellingly while as indicated in the earlier post on complexity science the digital schools constantly seek order in most of what they do they are simultaneously excited about taking advantage of the educational opportunities being opened. They appear to be very willing to move into unchartered territory if they believe it will assist enhance the student learning, knowing full well mistakes might be made and alternatives might have to be pursued. Moreover they seemingly better understand the macro scene, the increasingly interrelatedness of all school operations and the importance of ensuring the ever evolving school ecology provided the desired education.

The key in all the pathfinders was the existence of a culture, a school ecology that supported change and on-going evolution, which valued leadership at multiple levels and teachers taking risks and trying the new, with the concomitant implications.

While highly unlikely to be versed in the workings of complexity science the schools and their staff appear to be very comfortable working with the seeming paradox of chaos and order.


Peters, T (1987) Thriving on Chaos NY Alfred A Knopf

A Taxonomy of School Evolutionary Stages

Roger Broadie and I have posted on under the new Taxonomy section of this site and at a copy of our Taxonomy of School Evolutionary Stages and the complementary publication Evolution through the Threads.

Both publications are free.

We’d strongly suggest downloading both publications.

The Taxonomy posits, as mentioned in earlier posts that

  • schools globally evolve in a remarkably similar manner, particularly when shifting to a digital operational base
  • all schools currently sit at a point on six stage evolutionary continuum; a continuum that will over time continually expand
  • schools will evolve through a series of key evolutionary stages, demonstrating at each stage remarkably similar attributes
  • the vast majority of schools will need to evolve through each of the stages before moving on to the next
  • it is finally possible with the continuum to provide schools and their communities an international indicative measure, that allows them to readily identify their school’s approximate current evolutionary stage and the likely path ahead
  • it takes considerable time and effort for schools to move along the evolutionary continuum
  • schools in equilibrium are prone to the same risks as other complex organisations that don’t continue to evolve.

The Evolution through the Threads explores in depth the evolution that has occurred in the pathfinder schools that have or nearly normalised the whole school use of the digital technology in some 20 plus key operational areas. Vitally the analysis of the threads underscores the reality that the evolution in a school might well occur at a different pace in different operational areas.

Both works have emerged out of the research we have undertaken with pathfinder schools in the UK, US, NZ and Australia.

While as stressed both works are human constructs and indicative in nature we have both in our school consultations found the staff and vitally the parents can swiftly position the school and soon understand the many variables needing to be addressed.

Digital convergence, ever tighter integration and growing organisational complexity


Mal Lee and Roger Broadie

In moving to the digital operational base schools are – usually unwittingly – simultaneously moving themselves along the path to the ever-greater convergence of all the school operations, ever-tighter integration and associated ever-greater organizational complexity.

It is path all schools moving to a digital base will likely experience.

Inherent in the ubiquitous use of the digital technology in and outside the school walls is ever-greater digital convergence. Binary software allows the myriad of digital technologies being used within a school community to communicate and interact, in a way simply impossible with paper or analogue technology. That digital convergence not only markedly enhances the relatedness of operations, their synchronisation, efficiency, economies, communication, access to information, the automation of many mundane clerical tasks and the opportunity for synergies impossible with a paper base, but vitally also removes the walls around the myriad of silo like operations that have characterised so many schools and increasingly integrates the school’s operations.

Think back to the old analogue sound and TV systems, where largely separate units had to be patched together by a plethora of wires and compare it with the integrated sound and vision facility in your iPad where all works seamlessly – without a moment’s thought from you – and you’ll begin to appreciate the impact ever-greater, ever-more sophisticated digital convergence has had on the operations of schools that have normalised the use of the digital.

With digital normalisation comes ever more tightly integrated schooling, where all the school’s operations, educational and administrative are interrelated.

Bear in mind that the pathfinder schools are not only evolving at pace and daily seeking ever better educational opportunities, but are increasingly providing a 24/7/365 holistic education, collaborating ever more closely with all the teachers of the young and merging the in and out of school teaching.

All new programs and indeed the natural growth have to be thoughtfully factored into that ever more integrated ecology, the school always shaping the operations to the desired end.

In brief schools are moving away at pace – regardless of most government desires – from the traditional relatively simple, largely constant and continuous operation where separate cells or siloes administered their own patch to ever-evolving, ever-higher order, ever more tightly integrated, and complex organisations.

They are organisations that unwittingly demand of all the staff, teaching and professional support, but in particular the school leadership and the principal, the facility to thrive in ever higher order, often messy and seemingly paradoxical organizations, and to possess a macro understanding of the purpose of the school and how all facets of the school’s operations fit. While all staff will have their designated responsibility/ies they all need to understand the macro workings of the school if they are contribute collectively to its desired evolution.

Homer-Dixon (2000, p211) notes

Yaneer Bar-Yam, the American complexity theorist, …argues that the level of complexity of modern human society has recently overtaken the complexity of any one person belonging to it.. So as modern human society becomes more complex than we are individually, it begins to exceed out adaptive ability. In effect we are too short a repertoire of response to adjust effectively to our changing circumstances.

While the school principal, as the organisation’s CEO and ultimate decision maker must be across the total operations it is increasingly important to develop and invoke the collective capacity of the staff, and indeed increasingly the school’s wider community as the schools organisations shape their desired future.


Homer-Dixon, T (2000) The Ingenuity Gap Toronto Knopf



Empowering All


Mal Lee and Roger Broadie

Paralleling the pathfinder school’s graduated move to distribute the control of the teaching and learning was their quest to markedly empower all the members of the school’s community and enable them all to have a greater and more effective say in the on-going operation and enhancement of the school.

An important part of that empowerment was the more distributed control of the teaching and learning, however it entailed significantly more, particularly in relation to the empowerment of the salaried officers of the school.

The desire in all the schools – in keeping with other networked organisations – was to take advantage of the technology that made it that much easier for all to better understand the workings of the organisation and contribute to its enhancement.  Lipnack and Stamps (1994) in commenting on the opportunities opened in networked organisations speak of the importance of encouraging leaders at multiple levels and staff having the autonomy, the independence and the encouragement to take risks in enhancing the organisation’s agenda.

That is apparent in all the pathfinder schools and not simply with the staff but also in the parent and student contributions.  While the business literature spoke only of the staff the schools looked to all in the school’s community

Once again that quest was in marked contrast to what was found in traditional highly hierarchically organised schools at the Paper Based evolutionary stage.  In those schools not only are the students and parents disempowered but so too are a very sizeable proportion of the teaching and professional support staff.

The traditional, strongly hierarchical ‘Taylor like’ organisational structure found in many schools, ensures only the few managers at the apex understand the macro workings of the school.  The rest of the teachers are bid concentrate on their part of the assembly line.  Theirs is very much a highly convergent and micro focus that invariably leads to them viewing school enhancement through their particular micro perspective be it as a maths, physics, drama, special needs or early childhood teacher.  Possibly unwittingly, the ‘assembly line workers’ were professionally disempowered.

All of the pathfinder schools commented on the imperative of ensuring the school’s greatest resource, its human capital was used to best advantage.  One thus sees in the evolutionary stage attributes the graduated empowerment of all the teachers, the development of their macro understanding of ever-evolving, ever more networked and integrated schools and the opportunity for all to contribute to the school’s enhancement both holistically and in their specialist area/s.

The same kind of empowerment has been evident with the professional support staff, readying all to play a fuller part in the ever more integrated school operations.   In strong hierarchical school structures the support staff sat at the bottom of the pecking order, to do the bidding of the teachers and focussing only on their specified duties.  Invariably the professional support officers, even when involved in the teaching were not included in ‘staff meetings’ or provided any digital tools.

Jump forward to the Digital Normalisation stage and into the tightly integrated school ecologies where the traditional walls and boundaries have disappeared, operations are interlinked and where every member of the staff needs have at least a macro understanding of the purpose of the school, the desired educational benefits and its workings and you’ll find the professional support staff strongly empowered and assisting all the school’s work.

The children, their homes and the school community had little or no real voice in the shaping, implementation or enhancement of the paper based school (McKenzie, 2009), (Lee and Ward, 2013).  While a few might have a voice on a representative council or school board their views were often not representative or acted upon.

As the 2011 Project Tomorrow study revealed one is talking digitally empowered parents and students wanting to collaborate with their schools, wanting to acquire the technology their children will use in those schools but being denied that opportunity by school principals unwilling to cede their unilateral control.

In moving to the digital operational base that situation begins to change rapidly such by the Digital Normalisation stage all within the school’s community have not only been empowered but folk from all quarters are contributing to and helping enhance the school’s operations.

The normalised, all pervasive use of the technology, and in particular hand held technology makes it simple, swift and inexpensive for the school to communicate with all its community, to keep them informed, to provide the desired support and when desired to quickly secure and analyse its views.

Significantly the digital communication was complemented by extensive face-to -face communication, be it in formal meetings, focus groups, parking lot conversations or chats on the football sideline.

One is struck by the openness of the pathfinder schools’ activities and the all pervasive sense that all within the school community can readily talk to the teachers or the principal, and if needs be express their thoughts.  It might simply be to express a concern about their daughter but they have the power to share that concern.

It is largely antithetical to the schools we knew.

Lee, M and Ward, L (2013) Collaboration in learning: transcending the classroom walls.  Melbourne ACER Press

Lipnack, J & Stamps, J (1994), The age of the network: Organizing principles for the 21st century, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York.

Mackenzie, J (2009), Family learning: Engaging with parents, Dunedin Academic Press, Edinburgh.

Project Tomorrow (2011), The new three E’s of education: Enabled, engaged and empowered,

Speak Up 2010, National Findings Project Tomorrow.


Distinguishing Attributes of Digital Schools


Mal Lee and Roger Broadie


It is apparent from the research we are undertaking on those schools globally operating on a digital base ( is that all are demonstrating a distinct suite of distinguishing attributes that already sets them apart from the traditional paper based school and are on trend to forever amplify that difference.

Schooling, as we have all known it, has been characterised by its constancy, continuity and its relative sameness.  It hasn’t fundamentally changed its form in the last 50 – 60 years.  While the trappings vary between nations and sometimes regions in essence schools operate on a fixed number of days each year, between agreed hours, within a physical place called school.  The teaching is controlled and conducted wholly by the professional teachers, with solitary teachers normally teaching class groups, invariably behind closed classroom doors.  Paper – used in conjunction with the pen and the teaching board, be they black, green or white – has been the core instructional technology for hundreds of years and largely unseen and unwittingly has profoundly impacted the nature of the schools, their organisation, operations and teaching.

Generation after generation of children have experienced basically the same mode of schooling and teaching, to the extent that all know what is entailed in the schooling of the young.

That is until recent years and only then with those schools that have moved to a digital operational base.

Seemingly overnight those schools where all of the teachers in the school use the digital technology in their everyday teaching begin to abandon the long established ways and practices of the traditional school and transform every facet of their operation.

The fuller details of that transformation that has occurred in the pathfinder schools in their journey to digital normalisation are fleshed out in the six school evolutionary stages elsewhere on the site.

On first glance someone visiting those schools, be they primary or secondary could readily mistake them for a traditional school.  Tellingly the transformation has occurred in the existing buildings, of all shapes and sizes, with invariably no major structural change. However as they delve further they’ll soon recognise that not only is their modus operandi already fundamentally different to the traditional school but they are also operating in a mode where in general terms they will forever continue to change, evolve and transform their nature.

That modus operandi is so different to that experienced in the majority of schools it bears spending some time examining some of the distinguishing changes occurring and reflecting on the implications for later adopter schools.

The plan is to explore key attributes over the next couple of months in a series of weekly posts, with a view to alerting all associated with schools – be they the clients, the providers of the education or the shapers of the national education – of the developments occurring and the likely implications.  We’ll explore the

  • Impact of the digital operational base
  • Distributed control of teaching
  • Empowering the school’s community
  • On-going evolution of schooling
  • Digital convergence, ever-tighter integration and growing organizational complexity
  • Schools as living ecologies
  • Complexity science and school evolution
  • Ever – increasing school variability
  • Impact of school ecology on student attainment
  • Chaos and order – the new working paradox

It should be stressed that these attributes should be viewed in conjunction with the other writings on the site on the evolution of schooling, and that while each is addressed singly all are tightly interrelated and collectively add to the character and distinctiveness of the ever-evolving school ecologies.

In brief schools when schools shift to a digital operational base – go digital – they leave behind the constancy, continuity and sameness of the traditional school and

  • constantly change and evolve, with their operations forever transforming
  • develop ever more strongly a unique school ecology
  • become ever more tightly integrated, increasingly complex, higher order and networked teaching organisations
  • teach increasingly 24/7/365.
  • marry the once separate ‘formal’ teaching of the school with the ‘informal’ teaching of the children’s homes
  • create a mode of schooling in keeping with an ever more digital, networked and collaborative world.

Schools take charge of evolution and technology

Mal Lee

There are pleasing signs globally and across Australia that evermore schools are recognising they have to take charge of their own evolutionary development and the digital technology they employ to achieve that sustained development.

Evermore are recognising they have to be the prime unit of change, and as such they, and not the government of the day or their local education authority, are responsible for successfully addressing the plethora of variables that will allow them to evolve at pace and achieve the desired digital normalisation and provide an apposite 21st century education.

They are long past waiting for government or the system to provide the answers and funding for the way forward.  Yes, they will most assuredly use any apposite support provided by external agencies but they understand they have to take control of their own destiny.

The stark reality is that while in some fortunate situations the ‘system’ is providing apposite support most central offices are currently demonstrating little appreciation of what is occurring with the pathfinders, of the evolutionary continuum or how the continuum can assist individual schools in their journey. Many are adding little value to the teaching in the schools and simply frustrating the school’s evolution.

In many respects it matters not to the individual school what the Federal Government of the day is, whether it be the Greens, Labor or Liberal or indeed who wins the next election.

While governments of all persuasion globally, and not simply in Australia, like to project the profound impact they have upon the running and performance of the nation’s schools, and imagine that by the end of their term in office all ‘their’ schools will naturally have embraced and benefitted from the government’s policies the reality is that most government’s have limited impact on the school’s culture and operations.

The power lies primarily within the school.  To read more Schools Take Charge of Evolution

This article has been published in Educational Technology Solutions September 12 2013 –

Helping schools along the evolutionary path

We hope that people and organisations that are working with schools, to help them advance their educational offering, will make use of the evolutionary stages taxonomy and the resources you will find in this blog. We do however have a concern that sometimes those leading programmes for teachers and school leaders do not practice what they preach.

If we wish schools to provide an outstanding education for young people in the connected world, programmes to help them do this should be run by outstanding tutors. In the UK this has been considered very carefully in the creation of the Naace TOTAL programme for school leaders – “Towards Outstanding Teaching and Learning”. Being an outstanding tutor requires approaches very similar to those required of an outstanding teacher. As a result the way that tutors run their courses will model good teaching practice, as follows.

That this is being done should be made explicit to the course participants, to help them realise that their experiences on the course are in some ways similar to the kinds of learning experiences pupils should be experiencing in their school. For example, to help them realise why pupils might want to use their mobile phones, how much a visualiser can help learning, the ways that online classroom management tools work to stimulate better learning, or how much better collaborative aids understanding compared to just listening to the teacher.

High Expectations. Courses need to be tailored to the level and needs of participants. Relative to this the expectations of what the participants will achieve on the course and how their practice will change as a result need to be set high – and the participants made aware of this.

Using technology where appropriate. This means using the kinds of technology that you expect schools will adopt as they fully embed the use of digital and change pedagogy as a result. It is important that the technology works reliably for tutor and participant so check carefully what is available. Make sure the participants bring their own technology and expect them to use it whenever they need to.

– Internet access is of course required. If not available on site use a mobile phone hotspot. References to Internet sites that support what the course is dealing with need to be provided, in the presentation slides that will be made available to participants, or even as QR codes.

– Projector is required. If there is an interactive whiteboard endeavour to use it interactively, with the participants.

– Use of personal phones should be incorporated, for things such as taking photos of group work.

– A visualiser is required, preferably with some use by participants as well as by the tutor, so they can personally experience how they can demonstrate something to the whole group much more effectively.

– The courses should to be blended. Files should be both downloaded and uploaded during the course and the online platform is to be available pre and post the course, so that they appreciate how online resources can be used to support and extend the learning.

Active learning by participants.

– content delivery by the tutor, while some will be necessary, must be balanced by activities in which participants will lead their own learning and engage in discussion and activities.

– courses are likely to be more intensive than school lessons and hence examples of active learning used on the course may be curtailed compared to what would be done with pupils, but it is desirable to model such things as enquiry-based learning if possible and sensible in the course.

Collaborative learning.

– teachers are generally quicker to learn than pupils (except about technology) so the pace of collaborative activities can be set high. However teachers love to talk and will often go off at a tangent to issues not directly relevant to the collaborative activity, so the conversations need to be kept focused on the task.

– collaborative discussions need to be facilitated well, with the tutor avoiding too much provision of input and concentrating on drawing issues out from the participants.

Use of classroom management tools. Online tools can support various innovative approaches to teaching and learning, for example:

– use a random name selector to select participants for tasks.

– use an online voting system to RAG assess understanding.

– use a wiki to collate views on a topic.

Flipped learning.

– Some kind of pre-prep for the course should be provided and that this has been done should be checked up on.

– If the course is spread across two days (overnight, or with time in between as for TOTAL) there should be tasks to be done or thought about between the two days.

– There should be some follow-up activities proposed for participants to do, that are linked to their ‘day-job’ needs.

Assessment for learning.

– It is desirable to build in some kind of AfL processes, at least at the level of checks on understanding on each session, and possibly through technology (another possible use for their mobile phones).


– the course must produce evidence of the work the participants have done. Where at all possible this should be tasks that relate to their real job needs and that they can take further in their job roles (e.g. starting to create lesson plans to be completed later, doing first-stage technology development plans for their school).

– there must be some evidence of progression visible, which requires that their starting points are identified and evidence of these is captured so that it can later be related to where their thinking or skills have developed to.

– and the progression should not stop at the end of the course. On the TOTAL courses we use “Postcards from the future”, with the participants noting on a postcard what they expect to have achieved in their school in three months’ time, as a result of attending the programme – which we mail back to them in 3 months as a reminder of their intentions.


In schools that have normalised digital the quality of teaching and learning is improving very fast, driven by the teachers’ professional development networking and by the pupils showing how they can learn better, and discussing this explicitly with each other and their teachers. Very few current teachers and even fewer school leaders have any experience of what digitally-enabled outstanding teaching and learning feels like. Don’t waste the golden opportunity of them gaining some first-hand experience of outstanding teaching and learning when they attend your programme.