Thought for the Day: Entropy and School Ecosystems

I’m reading Sean Carroll’s lucid From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time at the moment, and as I was reading about the concept of entropy—or the second law of thermodynamics—I couldn’t help but consider it in application to the concept of a school as a complex adaptive system.

To review, entropy (or ‘entroopia’ in Estonian) in the case I will be using it can be “interpreted as the degree of disorder or randomness in the system.”

Caroll states that in an open system, “we can only decrease the entropy of one thing by creating more entropy elsewhere.”

So if we are to produce order within a smaller subsystem, such as a school, by exerting “energy,” the result is greater disorder within the larger system.

He then makes an interesting declaration from which I’m going to deliberately draw unintended connotations: “The situations that we characterize as “low-entropy” seem to be easily disturbed by rearranging the atoms within them, while “high-entropy” ones are more robust.”

He’s talking entropy at an atomic level, but the word “robust” made me consider this in terms of organizational systems thinking, where right now “robustness” has become significant as we consider how to better mitigate against volatility in the economy, climate, and so on. We also want our children to be robust—we call this “grit” or “persistence.” Robust, in this sense, meaning “able to withstand or overcome adverse conditions.”

So with that divergent lens in mind, let’s apply this to a school. If we have created a low-entropy environment—an orderly, structured environment—then it is more easily disrupted. It’s more fragile. And indeed, this is how most schools are—they are delicate and easily disrupted by the churn of policy, budgets, and human capital, as teachers come and go. As Nassim Taleb might say, we want to go beyond mere robustness, and create “antifragile” schools that can adapt and grow stronger from such disruption and turbulence, rather than merely endure them.

To bring this back to entropy, it may be of more benefit, then, to allow for greater disorder within the school itself, as this will lead to greater robustness, as opposed to creating greater disorder within the larger system.

So how does one do this? Again, let’s return to Caroll, as he traces the evolution of understanding of entropy from Maxwell to Boltzmann: “in an isolated system entropy tends to increase, because there are more ways to be high entropy than to be low entropy.”

Entropy increases in an isolated system. If one begins with low entropy, it becomes high entropy. If one starts with high entropy, it maintains at equilibrium.

In a recent interview with Jean-Claude Brizard by Andy Smarick, Brizard points to a practical formulation of this principle: “My primary goal as a teacher, assistant principal, and principal in several schools in NYC was always to find ways to shelter my classroom and school from the central office dysfunction.”

The role of school leadership, in other words, is to isolate and shelter a school from the disorder without.

If a school maintains a healthy dose of orderly disorder within, it may be better sheltered from disorder in the larger system without, as they would be closer to equilibrium, as opposed to allowing for the exertion of outside energy to create order. When external “energy” from the state or district is exerted to impose order on a school, it not only further disrupts the larger system, but creates a fragile school environment.

Kind of abstract and out there, I know. Let me draw a relation to my experience in working as a manager in retail. The first day I started at my store manager position out in Queens, I was overwhelmed by the seeming chaos of the store environment. I couldn’t tell what other workers were doing nor whom was instructing them on what to do. The back storage area could get so small and packed that you had to slide past other workers with your back against the wall.

But by the end of my time there, I saw the store environment for what it was: carefully controlled chaos. It looked like disorder, but it was intensively managed by leaders who knew how to allow their employees the right amount of space to problem-solve and get their tasks done, while ensuring quality and timeliness.

A good school probably looks something like this. To an outside observer, it may look chaotic. But once you begin to see what’s actually happening, you begin to see the orchestration of a complex adaptive system.

Allowing such schools to persist requires that leaders outside of the school know enough to allow school leaders within the schools to do their jobs with a similar amount of leeway.

Let’s return to Brizard on this:

“In the absence of a compelling reason to retain control centrally, school leaders, as the primary agents of change, should have freedom and flexibility over how best to use their resources (time, people, and money) to create meaningful changes that directly impact students. Let’s start by believing that operating within a clear framework of standards for student success, highly effective school leaders must use their resources to develop effective practices and innovative school designs, to best meet the needs of their students.”


3 thoughts on “Thought for the Day: Entropy and School Ecosystems

  1. Pingback: Smorgasbord: Sundries, Inclusion, and Democracy – Schools & Ecosystems

  2. Titus Cotton

    Fascinating stuff. I’ve come at school leadership from an evolutionary view, allowing lots of creativity and freedom,
    But best practice wasn’t being picked up and so I have started a low entropy approach with planned aspects of randomness and freedom, explicitly as an anti-fragility structure. To embed a relatively stable environment and then allow an element of chaos to play across the top. Your article has given me another lens to view it all with, thanks!


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