In a previous life I trained to be a teacher of young children. Of the various visits I made to schools during that period, two stand out in my memory. School A was a very old-fashioned place, where the children sat in neat rows, the teacher was in complete control and everyone did the same thing at the same time. School B, on the other hand, was an anarchy. The whole building was one large, open-plan area. The children were not divided into classes, and each child acted as an autonomous unit, managing her own curriculum from her own, personal timetable. To the casual observer, school A was a model of organization, and school B was a disaster, with higher noise levels, no obvious structure and apparently no discipline. But the casual observer would have been completely mistaken.
School A may have been a well-oiled machine, but school B was an organism. Educationally, the children in school B were better motivated, more self-sufficient and were actively learning, rather than passively being taught. However, education aside, what I want to draw your attention to is the organizational dynamics of the two systems. Take robustness, for example. Dropping an inexperienced and, frankly, pretty useless student teacher into the system was a good test for each organization’s robustness. When I was let loose on school A, the result was an almost immediate catastrophe. Trying to do thirty children's thinking for them was beyond my underdeveloped powers of control. While I was dealing with one child, the other twenty-nine were skittering around like ice cubes in an earthquake. My attempts to institute learning in groups, using work-cards, rapidly had to be abandoned. Like the teachers before me, I was forced to subsume thirty individuals into a single class unit, simplifying the system purely in order to control it. On the other hand, when I visited school B it embraced and absorbed me like a skin graft. I had no problems of control, because there was nothing for me to control. I simply looked up my timetable and went to the place allocated. Children who needed expert help came to that place when it suited them and asked me, indifferent to the fact that I was a stranger. If I hadn't been there, they'd have sought help elsewhere, or simply sorted it out amongst themselves. I was left with the distinct impression that school A was a heavily damped, simmeringly sub-critical system, just waiting to explode into chaos at the slightest perturbation, while school B contained a mass of feedback loops that kept it in a lively dance, while allowing it to resist disturbance and heal itself when damaged.