Schools as constantly self-improving algorithms: What driverless cars and biology can teach schools

Many years ago, a Norwegian criminologist, Nils Christie (1970), published a book with the title Hvis skolen ikke fandtes (If there were no school). He concluded that if schools didn’t exist then it would be necessary to invent them. More recently, Valerie Hannon (2017), in her book, Thrive, which is intended to be a “catalyst for serious debate about the purpose of education systems” (p.13), argued that schools are still needed for the task of thriving in a transforming world. While there are those who are suggesting that with Big Data learning analytics and other digital offerings, schools are dead; Hannon argued they are wrong. However, she did point out that schools do need to be “reinvented as a key part of learning eco-systems; webs of civil society institutions powerful enough to enable humanity to address the problems which both threaten it and offer spectacular opportunities” (p. 13). Some schools are already innovating around these and other ideas.

If schools do still have a part to play in the future of education, we really must explore how they need to look, feel, and behave, differently. In times of rapid change, such as the unprecedented speed of change we are now experiencing, schools cannot be static, but they must become organisms or eco-systems that are continually evolving in response to a wide range of soft and hard data. My friend sent me a link to a You Tube clip, and by mistake, I ended up watching this one – What a driverless world could look like. In this short clip, a self-proclaimed transportation geek, Wanis Kabbaj, paints the utopian picture of “a strange traffic that mixes the fast and smooth traffic of German autobahns and the creative vitality of the intersections of Mumbai.” He says the traffic will be “functionally exuberant”. In this Ted Talk, he uses the metaphor of the vascular system and a (not so) futuristic vision of driverless cities to suggest ways of addressing the transportation problems that are fast becoming a global problem.

However, when I watched the clip, I wasn’t seeing traffic. I was seeing schools. I realised that the metaphors he was using to provide a vision for traffic, fitted schools just as well. He suggested that in thinking about traffic, “We need a new source of inspiration.” Well, I think I have found it, for schools.

In a healthy system, the space inside our arteries is fully utilized. The reason blood is so incredibly efficient is because our red bloodcells are not dedicated to specific organs or tissues. Rather they are shared by all the cells in our bodies, and “because our networks are so extensive, each one of our 37 trillion cells gets it own deliveries of oxygen, precisely when it needs them.” Imagine a school system in which resources and capabilities are not held on to tightly by one teacher, one department or another, for the sake of convenience, but can be continually allocated and reallocated where and when they are most needed at the time. We would meet the needs of students better, while also reducing waste, reducing expenditure, and schooling would become a much more sustainable undertaking. 

Imagine if this happened across schools, suburbs and cities. When teachers and staff let go of their “ownership” of space and think about space as just another resource to be used to meet the needs of every student, then we would not have libraries that sit empty for some of the time, or staffrooms, or parent areas, and we would be better able to cater for the learning preferences of individual students. Students would be able to find the space that will enable them to learn in the ways that are best for them. If everything we have as schools is seen as dedicated, first and foremost, to the mission of meeting the needs of every student, then I suspect schools would find they are richer and better resourced than they realised. However, this would require a different way of thinking about schooling. We would need to stop thinking about “my students” and start thinking about “our students”. We would need to stop thinking about “my classroom” and “my resources” and think about “our space”, “our resources”.

In many ways, schooling has been a very individual undertaking. However, Kabbaj says that blood is both a collective and an individual form of transportation; and, as such, it offers a vision for schooling which is both individual and collective, where people are dedicated to a central mission and every part of the system receives what it needs to achieve the mission. He goes on to describe the situation of a driverless transport system in which the convenience of individual cars and the efficiencies of trains and buses is combined. He describes wagons detaching, while the train is still moving, and becoming express driverless buses that take people directly to their suburbs. Then, the section you are in might be able to detach and take you right to your doorstep. It would be collective and individual at the same time and convenient. No stops. No time spent in transit. No one holding you up and you not holding anyone else up. We could consider schools in the same way. What if, as schools, we have a central track, travelling in a particular direction (a general curriculum) to achieve the vision for learning that guides our direction as a school and as a society, but individuals or groups of students are continually detaching from the “train” onto other tracks and travelling to other destinations that meet their needs, interests and desires. Later they may reconnect with the “train”. Some may never reconnect for long because what they need is so very different. I believe that schools need to evolve to be able to make this vision a reality. Fortunately, some schools are already exploring how to do this.

Kabbaj suggests that in driverless cities as described above, you would have no red lights, no lanes. Transport will be able to drive much faster and take any rational initiative to speed travel up. If schools were like this, instead of being hampered by rigid rules, requirements and ideology; learning, though guided by a high-level educational vision, would be pragmatic - regulated “by a mesh of dynamic, and constantly self-improving algorithms.” Imagine the increased speed with which learning could happen when there are not rigid pathways and rules, when resources and space are fully utilized and always available to meet the needs of students. Students’ learning needs would be met quickly, efficiently and effectively. Schools would become much better places for students and staff and productivity will increase.

As a new school, which opened in 2012 to meet the needs of our 21st century learners, we realised that what we needed was a high-level vision and purpose for education to set the general direction for our educational offerings and curriculum. This vision or purpose would tell us why we are acting and create some broad parameters within which we could act. Just any strategy wouldn’t do. However, at the level of strategy or action, we realised we needed to be pragmatic (not bound by ideology), so that we could be continually responsive as we translated the vision for learning into practice. We needed to be able to respond to every bit of soft and hard data and constantly improve what we were doing. We needed to always look from vision to practice to ensure alignment and make quick changes when we took actions that didn’t align with our vision. In times of rapid change and a future that is unlikely to be as we imagine, the only way we can move forward, is to take a step, and then to critically think about the impact of our actions, readjusting what we have done when the evidence shows unintended and undesirable consequences. Then, take another step.When the future is unclear, we need to be critical, evidenced-based and aware of even micro changes in the context and continually adjusting what we are doing.

We have a tendency in education to choose a particular viewpoint or even strategy or action, turn it into ideology or into a label for our school which says we are this, not that. At Amesbury School, we have purposefully eschewed labels – we do have 1:1 devices but we are not a 1:1 device school. We do use Google apps, but we are not a Google Apps For Education school. Nor are we a Microsoft school. We have modern, flexible learning environments, but we are not an MLE or an ILE. Not labelling ourselves, allows us to keep changing and adjusting what we do in response to the ever-changing needs of students, the changing landscape and to ensure alignment with our purpose and vision. Who are we then? We are Amesbury School and we do what it takes to ensure that every student experiences what it means to be fully human and continually fulfils his/her potential. Full stop.

Of course, we are not there yet. But I do want learning at Amesbury School to be regulated by a mesh of dynamic and constantly self-improving algorithms. I want it to be both collective and individual, to look like the fast and smooth traffic of the German autobahns and have the creative vitality of the intersections of Mumbai. I want our school to learn from the vascular system and the vision for driverless cities. Mostly, I would love our school to be “functionally exuberant”.

It is surprising what driverless cities and biology can teach us about schools.