Updated: Jun 26
In Education we are obsessed with Boxes. We celebrate the individual, who thinks outside it; Dylan Williams coined term “assessment for learning” and put learning squarely Inside the black box. As Practioners we aim to tick all the boxes in a prescriptive method of achieving outstanding. However Matthew Syed in his book Black box thinking and the surprising truth about success, attributes the former to something we are all intimately familiar: Failure.
The “Black Box thinking” he refers to is the black data-recording units all aircraft carry. This Box is ironically not in fact black as stated, but is rather surprisingly Orange and round! Syed Makes the point that the Aircraft industry is rigorously committed to the aim of 100% flight safety, in order to do this the industry treats all failures as opportunities to learn lessons. What’s more Human error is expected, and systems are created to minimize opportunities for this. But this cannot be done without removing the need to judge people or place blame on individuals. Pilots are actively encouraged to report their mistakes as soon as possible after any incident. Rather than hide them.
Syed contrast this learning based mindset with the medical industry, where there is great reluctance to investigate failures. The perceived infallibility of surgeons is often counter- productive, because to admit to mistakes would destroy the image of their expertise. In so doing medicine continues to make the same mistakes over and over. Syed refers to these systems as “closed loops”.
In the USA 400,00 preventable medical errors occur annually. That is the same as 2 Jumbo jets falling out of the sky, daily! In Britain 1 in 10 patients are killed due to medical error. Syed argues this only happens as we have “an allergic attitude to failure. “
Of the two systems I would assert that schools are much closer to medicine than the aircraft industry, allergic to failure rather than embracing it.
Why do I make this assertion ? Due to the long held accountability of schools and their staff. We have arrived at a system based on data, and judgment. Rather than creation or invention. We pass or fail children, it is black and white. Schools are categorised and labeled according to their results or external judgements, which in turn are published in the national press. Schools are named and shamed, according to their results. Schools in affluent areas excel (generally) and those in more challenging areas struggle (of course there are exceptions to this rule).
Rather than creating systemic excellence we have instead created systemic fear. More sepcifically fear of failure. Children win or lose, rather than, win or learn. Which is what we are trying to role model. Like wise in his Independent review of Estyn ( June 2018) Professor Graham Donaldson acknowledged;
"In recent years Wales has introduced a number of measures designed to drive improvement in schools. These measures include the introduction and publications of tests results, colour-coded categorisation of schools and targets relating to national qualifications. This 'high stakes' approach can address the specific short comings but it can also limit development and does not sit well with the kind of creative, self-improving system being promoted by cultural reforms. "
In the 34, recommendation outlined in the report ' A Learning Inspectorate', which included things such as implementing a peer review system, with experts in curriculum design, and other innovations, which will be welcomed by the profession. There are still some lessons we could learn from other Industries, as in this case the aircraft industry.
By adopting the same mindset as the aircraft industry, removing judgment from culture and having a complete dedication to learning from our mistakes, we would undoubtedly raise the attainment of all children, particularly those from more deprived backgrounds who can be characterized as having lower self esteem, aspirations and resilience.
Such schools would be true learning communities, were judgment is removed, Innovation is valued and mistakes are celebrated as learning opportunities to improve. This is the real secret to a self -improving system. In such a system headteachers would welcome Inspections , in what ever their future form , as an opportunity to fine tune and improve their systems and processes.
In Short schools too, should have black boxes fitted. Such boxes, whether black or orange, could be examined forensically when things go wrong to ensure we all work towards the goal of 100% attainment for all children, regardless of their starting point.
Whilst the goal of 100% level 2 plus inclusive, might seem laughable to many teachers. Once the goal of 100% safety in the air industry seemed far away. This is admittedly not 100% , but we all fly in almost absolute safety on our annual holidays. Safe in the hands of professionals who take passenger safety as their number 1 priority.
Why not have the same aspirations for our learners and our new curriculum in Wales? Why not have your own black box fitted ?
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