Structural fixedness and its impact on innovation monkeys


Judging from the feedback I get, if you could find the average school somewhere in the country and asked what had happened to their budget over the last three years you would get the answer “unchanged”. That’s not a real terms unchanged, but a cash unchanged, including the impact of Pupil Premium. There have been those schools who have seen increases and many who have seen decreases (including those who have seen small cash increases eaten up by larger student number increases). Looking around at the economy it also seems likely that this state of affairs isn’t going to change anytime soon.

This week we have had Reform almost lobbying for an 18% cut in budgets for schools, on the rather odd grounds that their back of their fag packet showed that there is no link between school income and quality of educational outputs. It was left to uber-edu-stato-geek Sam Freedman to point out that this is not an undisputed viewpoint via the evidence he linked to here ( We have also had Sir Michael Wilshaw helpfully pointing out that in order to pay excellent teachers more we are either going to have to pay other teachers less, or have fewer of them, meaning larger class sizes. Cue “no they don’t”, “yes they do” debate on class sizes affecting outcomes*.

Independent schools manage to achieve smaller class sizes, but of course they do it by having, on average 80% greater income per child. I discussed in a previous post ( the issues around doing this in the maintained sector. Unlikely to happen.

Notwithstanding the above, there are questions we need to ask about how we organise schools. For many decades we have run on a very simple model, based on 30 kids in a room with a teacher for a period of time. This goes for primary as well as secondary. There are many reasons for this model including:

  • Its the one we have, and therefore its the one we will continue to have.
  • The school buildings we have tend to only support this model
  • Parents wouldn’t understand anything different so wouldn’t support it

There is an argument that “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it”. Unfortunately that has at least two arguments against it. Firstly, there is little evidence to suggest that this particular model is more efficient and effective than any other. If we accept the argument that our education system is broken**, then it is not possible to rule off any areas of it where we can’t look at possible improvements. Secondly, the money thing is not going to change. The range of possible outcomes with regards to funding of education over the coming 20 years range from slightly better than now to much worse than now. There is no future golden age to look forward to, for at least a generation. As educators we can rail against the iniquity of this for as long and as loud as we like, but at a certain point reality must bite. If we are going to change how we educate our children we have to do it within the budget we have.

There is a third argument. We have a better understanding now about learning. Its not a perfect understanding, but it gives a a basis for stopping and looking at the structures we have developed to support learning. I have seen no research that suggests the best way to improve memory retention in students is to make them change subjects every 45 minutes. I’ve seen nothing that suggests learning is best achieved by having subjects spread randomly across the week (or fortnight). I’ve seen nothing that suggests that having up to 19 different teachers helps the learning process. None of this helps to do what cognitive science suggests that learning is – the movement of information from short term memory into long term memory and building the retrieval pathways for the information. We are just assuming that, coincidentally, our school structures assist with this process. I’m not convinced this is correct.

There is no question in my mind that to improve schools we need not just to do what we already do better, but we need to innovate. Innovation requires us to think differently about how we do things. This process is often inhibited by the structures around us.

Lets use a non-educational example, the refrigerator. The fridge replaced the ice-box which was a simple device using blocks of ice that were put in a box at the top so the cold air dropped down to cool the contents. Items that needed to be kept very cold were placed near the top, closer to the ice, and other items which only needed to be kept cool, were placed towards the bottom. Despite years of improvements in refrigeration and manufacturing technology, the freezer compartment is still at the top of the fridge. So the everyday items we need to get (vegetables, salads) are at the bottom, causing us to have to bend to get them. We don’t think to change this model because when we think of a fridge, we think of a structure with a freezer box at the top.

I think education suffers from a similar structural fixedness when looking at how to improve learning. When we say the word “school” our brain draws on decades of experience and builds this structure that has small rooms, with 30 kids in, with a teacher. It seems that it is only at that point that the innovation monkeys can start working. Anything below that layer is blocked off to change. No doubt there are great changes that can be made above that layer, that improve the outcomes for children everyday. But it is below that layer where there is not only real money to be saved, but where significant innovation can be implemented.

It is not the case that a childs whole day needs to be structured in the same way. It is also not the case that each childs day need to be structured the same as every other child. Currently, we usually only change the structure of the day for a specific child as a punishment. But why should Joanne, an excellent mathematician need to sit in another lesson about fractions when she already knows that stuff and can be trusted to work independently? Why shouldn’t some lessons be delivered as lectures to large groups followed up with smaller workshops, followed up with individual tutorials for each student each week? Can’t be done? Well it is done in Sweden in Kunskappskolan schools. There are also schools in England that adopt some of these practices.

So there are other ways to organise schools that do not require 30 kids in a room with one person all day, every day. There are structural issues to overcome (our schools are built with rooms for 30 kids – barely) and that would need to be changed over time to enable a more flexible way of working. But over time that can be done.

I don’t know what the answer is. I do know how I’d like to get to it. I’d like to see teachers in every subject look at how their subject would be best taught/learnt without thinking about the existing structural barriers to that learning. Not “you’ve got 3 periods a week plus one home work in this room – what do you do to get the best out of them”, just simply “what do you need to do to get the best out of them”. Then we have to look for the commonalities across subjects. Then we have to make the compromises – there will have to be compromises. Then we can look and see what structures do we need to support this better model of learning. I think this is a better approach than always asking what model of learning does our structure support.

I started this post talking about money and the pressures it creates. What is needed is to get out in front of the money argument and move on. The real structural changes we need to see to generate the next step change in educational improvement is not at the system level but within the school. We have to rethink what a school is and how we can make it work better.

* Its a stupid debate – of course class sizes affects outcomes. A teacher working with a single student will get better results than the same teacher working with 100 students. The argument, as usual, is a false one over the impact of reducing class sizes from 30.5 to 29.5 students.

** If we use the term system in its widest sense, to include a societal model that enables children to enter formal education with vastly unequal prior life experiences, then the system is broken.