How Can Schools Thrive On Uncertainty?

When it comes to crises, Nassim Nicholas Taleb is worth listening to. Often regarded as one of the few people to predict the 2008 global financial crash, he coined the term “black swan” to mean a rare and unpredictably catastrophic event.

Since then, Taleb has argued for a radical change in the way we think about – and design – our systems to not just survive but thrive on volatility, uncertainty and randomness. As he wrote in 2012: “If antifragility is the property of all those natural (and complex) systems that have survived, depriving these systems of volatility, randomness, and stressors will harm them. They will weaken, die, or blow up. We have been fragilizing the economy, our health, political life, education, almost everything … by suppressing randomness and volatility.”

While resilient systems can resist those sudden changes and shocks, it’s more interesting to look at those that thrive when the unplanned variability of the world forces their disruption. As the world copes with another black swan event in COVID-19 and we seek to build back better, I asked: how does “antifragility” apply to education? Can there be an approach to system-design in education that sees our schools, and the organizations that support them, benefit from a forced disruption – whether it’s a pandemic, or an environmental catastrophe that drives students and teachers out of classrooms and leaves school leaders with no choice but to throw away their playbook called ‘How to Run a School’?

Addressing this question means stepping outside any debate over the purpose of education, or the political agendas that drive reform. It requires us to look at schools as microcosms of society, in which learning is intensified and accelerated in order to gain the necessary adaptability and versatility, the savoir-faire, that enables current and future challenges to be faced down and taken on. Similar to the foot-square intensive approach to gardening in which conditions for growth are optimized, schools are designed to provide children with a safe environment where opportunities to tackle mini-challenges prepare them for the complexity of the evolving world that awaits them.

But what if making schools more robust and resilient is not enough?

Since March 2020, I have worked with a group of colleagues at Qatar Foundation (QF) to understand the effects of school closures on different aspects of schooling. Across 14 QF schools, we’ve looked into the way relationships between stakeholders, curriculum balance and the quality of feedback were affected by a sudden shift into distance learning. The purpose was to search for possible insights that could inform the eventual reopening of schools, which happened in August, and to design a support system that ensures continuity of teaching and learning regardless of how the Covid-19 pandemic evolves.

What emerged was a set of recommendations for improving learning designs via blended models and leveraging technology to boost engagement by addressing student-to-student relationships and improving assessment for learning. But the report was also the catalyst for a conversation on the existential question of how ‘antifragile’ our pre-university education system was.

The schools within QF include academies that offer International Baccalaureate programs; others focusing on educating students with special learning needs; and schools with experimental or progressive curriculum models that challenge the staple features of mainstream education. The initiative by QF to open Academyati (which means ‘My Academy’), a progressive school where students are not organized into grade levels, have much more control over what they want to learn and where educators are called collaborators, reflected our intention to shake up the status quo long before the coronavirus crisis made it a necessity.

In order for this eclectic group of schools, with their multinational teams of educators, to reach consensus on any matter, you would think that they would have to have a fixed set of guiding principles; some established ethos that allows for a common direction and approach to decision-making. They don’t.

And so what I believe makes the QF system of schools an interesting case-study for antifragility in education is the fact that school governance is loosely-coupled, with central office leadership. It’s a peculiar configuration, and the result of ongoing push-and-pull between the autonomy of these schools and the organization’s overall strategic direction. It is also the result of a pragmatic commitment to academic growth, student-centered and inclusive approaches to teaching, and learning without mandating what this should look like on the ground.

Essentially, in the absence of a rigid authority with a one-size fits all approach, schools can develop their own response to emerging challenges, all by influencing each other’s decisions and consequently self-regulating into a balance between models being consistent and being diverse.

When faced with sudden disruption, a system like this triggers multiple attempts to solve the problem instead of a desperate search for the most effective solution. The closures of QF schools that the pandemic forced, immediately set in motion the need to document the impact of this move on learning, trial alternative technological solutions, and develop and implement different models of blended learning – all by engaging into a wider-scale conversation on what works and why. These were mechanisms that were not part of any plan, but catalyzed by a crisis within a school system, equipped to accommodate and appreciate them.

Over the coming months, while most education systems look for ways of bringing things back to normal, at QF my colleagues and I will be thinking about how to provide education anywhere anytime – developing partnerships with universities, research labs and community development initiatives to build an open campus ‘multiversity’ where learning trajectories are non-linear, personalized and inclusive.

We’ll do this by conceptualizing and honing the features that make our system ‘antifragile’, and communicating our intentions to disrupt education with clarity and coherence. And we’ll do it because we believe it makes learning more sustainable – regardless of the color of the swan.

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