Is it time for education to embrace entropy?

If you watched episode one of Wonders of the Universe you will have a basic understanding of entropy and the arrow of time. If you didn’t see it, watch this clip:

I found this fascinating and began to think about how entropy relates to learning and education.

It seems to me that many of us, involved in education, are constantly fighting against the arrow of time seeking to create ordered systems (ice cubes) with low amounts of entropy. However, the science would suggest that structures with low degrees of entropy are unsustainable; that they will eventually reach a higher state of entropy (water) over time.


If this is the case, would we not be better off embracing a less structured system of education, one in which there is a high level of entropy already. The way that I learn now (as an adult) through multiple feeds and sources of information is far less structured than the 5 lessons per day, two homework per night model that I experienced in school. I would argue that it is far more richer as the widening of sources of information are changeable and in some senses exponential. If this is, as I suspect it is for many others, the natural model of education after school then why not make it the method of education during school years?

The problem with a system of education that has a high level of entropy would be accountability. However, this is where I believe education, today, has gone wrong, particularly in the UK. We could embrace a less structured system of education if accountability rested with the learner rather than the educator. League tables and Ofsted force rigidity and structure upon us leading to spoon feeding, content driven curricula and mediocrity for many learners. If the accountability was with the learner, there would inevitably be an increase in failure (in academic terms) but I believe there would also be a significant increase in engagement and success. If we gave students, along with the accountability, the freedom and responsibility to define their own curriculum, their own learning paths, I believe they would flourish.

For this to work it would require many different learning models, sources and structures. The entropy would be high but arguably more sustainable and increasingly more likely to bear fruit. Why? Because it acknowledges the arrow of time and embraces change rather than continuing to try to shore up an antiquated education system; stuck in the past.

What do you think? Is it time for education to embrace entropy?

Published by

James Michie

Husband, Educator, Writer, Runner...

12 thoughts on “Is it time for education to embrace entropy?”

  1. Don’t think embrace is appropriate word – recognise or accept. This reminds me of a comment of G Siemens that learning was not controllable by the individual. Educartors need to embrace unpredictabilty, bio-diversity and their own impotence when faced with the trickling sand of time…..

    1. Gah, I used ‘accept’ in my initial draft. The reason I changed it to ’embrace’ was that I think many educators do accept it and that the system can not help but have to recognise it; yet still we fight against it.

      By using the word ’embrace’, I am implying that we (as educators and learners) should not only acknowledge entropy but actively seek to benefit from it.

  2. I think higher achieving children already feel accountable for their learning. It’s those children who feel it is the teacher’s role to make sure they learn and behave who inevitably achieve less, so yes you’re right – maybe more needs to be done to recognise the importance of this.

    I bang on about independent learning skills every parents’ evening and I think the main reason I’m a good teacher is because I focus on this rather than the curriculum, even if that isn’t quite what I’m expected to do in the eyes of OFSTED, etc.

    1. Absolutely right Clive; I focus on independent learning with my students too.

      I just wonder how we get to the ‘tipping point’ where the majority of teachers think and work this way, as right now I fear that the majority don’t.

  3. Are there enough teachers out there that actually question stuff? I don’t believe teachers as a whole, particularly in the primary sector, are interested in drastically changing the way they do things.

    Everytime someone suggests something drastic the teaching unions kick up a fuss and it gets watered down so much no change is made. I think teachers themselves need to be more accountable, not schools. Which goes back to your point!

    1. Agreed. It is sad that more teachers are not engaged enough to challenge the system. School accountability is both a burden and a get out clause.

      The question is then, how do you make teachers more accountable? And what about the students?

      1. Tough question, huh? Especially when it is resisted by so many.

        Start with removing accountability from the schools? Can performance-related pay work? Stop payscale rises based purely on experience? Highlight the best teachers more? At the moment, we don’t highlight the best teachers for fear of branding others failures, which is crazy.

        A big step would be agreeing that staff meetings and inset days should be more about teacher development than what we normally end up doing. Here’s my take on that:

        1. Interesting questions raised here. I think league tables are the under-lying driver rather OFSTED. OFSTED, in my experience, look for evidence of entropy and judge when they discover an inability to sustain entropy.

          Teachers I know are big fans of independent learning, higher order thinking skills etc. I would not criticise them for seemingly pandering to the judgement society places on their work. Clive identifies pupils that take responsibility for their learning. The higher achievers most often. They are teacher-safe: it doesn’t much matter which teacher they have. I am therefore not convinced that holding teachers accountable is the answer.

          The hardest thing as a teacher is to add value. As with many soft subjects, in ICT we handle more than an average of lower ability pupils. We work hard to generate in them a responsibility for their learning. Not always successfully. But our overall value added at A Level is good. How a teacher goes about adding value is up for debate but mostly I think it is about motivating pupils to work hard. And possibly the best way to do that is by modelling it yourself and maintaining firm boundaries.

          Like you James, my model of learning as an adult has changed enormously. I take responsibility for it. I’m not sure because that is right for us it is right for everybody. After all, we must examine how we have become teachers in the system we now critique.

          Having said that, my eldest is studying at Oxford and he does not get taught (in the way we are discussing it) much at all. He has to write essays and then discuss them. His learning comes from his work followed by supervised reflection including a peer undergraduate. He has always enjoyed work he finds interesting but has also done very well studying topics he has no interest in but simply takes the mechanics of the top grade and applies them to exams and coursework.

          Structure is important. I want pupils taking responsibility to match their accountability. But I don’t get them very often. I have to make the hand of cards I am dealt work. Isn’t that what every teacher does? It’s our job.

  4. Great idea and some interesting comments.

    I think the idea of learner accountability is an interesting one. To an extent it’s already there in exam results, but getting students to think that far ahead can be a challenge (!) for those that don’t have some other internal investment in the learning process.

    All the time politicians see the need for ‘accountability’ wherever public money is spent we will have a problem with them dictating the terms. We need to come up with some kind of way of demonstrating ‘value for money’ (whatever that is in the education context) while freeing the system from such central control / interference. This is the bit I’m stuck on at the moment!

    There’s also the question of how do you move this backwards in the system – at what point should a learner become accountable and what are the steps before that point? Also how do we redefine the relationship between teacher and learning in this context

    @Clive Portman – ‘Best’ and ‘Worst’ by whose criteria? The best at getting exam results or the best at inspiring children, because in my experience they are not always the same thing. Same problem with performance related pay. The reality is most teachers came in to teaching to teach, not to change the system. Agree about the inset comment though!

    Not one of my most helpful comments as I’m not sure how to move the situation on, but I’m pretty sure that complaining that not enough teachers think like us isn’t going to work! :0)

    Interesting idea though, one to ponder further!

    1. @Dave Stacey – ”Best’ and ‘Worst’ by whose criteria? The best at getting exam results or the best at inspiring children, because in my experience they are not always the same thing.

      – I know. It’s a problem.

      @Dave Stacey – ‘Same problem with performance related pay.

      – Yes, but I do feel it wrong to award teachers payrises based on their experience. How long you’ve done something is nowhere near as important as how well you’ve been doing it. For example, there are some really poor teachers out there at the top of the payscale whose skills are easily outclassed by NQTs working for much less money.

      @Dave Stacey – The reality is most teachers came in to teaching to teach, not to change the system.

      – Maybe, but the best teachers reflect on their practice and continually strive to improve. Should we just accept it as okay when others don’t?

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