Hi, I hope you’re well, I hope you got some rest over Thanksgiving, and I hope that these 9 months since we first closed schools have given you some insight into how powerful you are.

This Coaching Letter is about systems, entropy, and strategy.

At some point yesterday I looked up from my usual seat at the kitchen table and thought to myself, entropy is now visible in my house. Then I had to double check myself to make sure that I knew what entropy means: “Entropy is a measure of the degree of disorder in a system… The concept of entropy says that any system will tend towards disorder“ (from this website on systems theory).

The stacks of books on the coffee table are now unsteady piles and are about to become a heap. My kitchen floor is disgusting. And the vacuum cleaner is in the middle of the living room and I realized today that I don’t know how long it’s been there. And then, as if the universe is mocking me, this week’s New Yorker showed up with cover art of a woman very well dressed from the waist up, with a laptop propped up in front of her and a screen (as in a room divider) behind her, and everything else in her house is in disarray—dishes in the sink, takeout containers on the table behind the laptop, and Amazon boxes on the floor. The reason I know that the universe is poking fun at me in particular is that she is drinking a Manhattan, and I own that exact same screen. She doesn’t look anything like me, though, so there’s that.

The one thing that I have managed to keep up with is cooking. At any given time the fridge is well stocked with home-cooked vegetables, starches and proteins that can be assembled in a variety of combinations to form a wholesome meal within a matter of minutes. And there are also either cookies or cake on the counter, and sometimes both. (Jim, this is just to say, I made you snickerdoodles that I was meaning to send you, but we ate them.) To be explicit, I put energy into the maintenance of the routines that keep the food production system in my house operational, and energy is the antidote to entropy. (For more on this, you may wish to read this entry on James Clear’s blog—he writes on many of the same topics as I do, and also has a newsletter if you’re interested.)

Then I had a conversation this afternoon with one of my more philosophical clients, and I realized that the state of my house is a metaphor for the choices that districts are making right now. All systems tend towards disorder—entropy—and there is limited energy for keeping the routines that keep them orderly and productive. We all make choices about where to invest that energy.

But the crisis we are in at the moment is only highlighting what is often the case—we start things in motion and we neglect to plan for the energy it will take to keep them functioning as intended—let alone improving. I remember, nearly 30 years ago now, when districts and schools first started writing strategic plans and school improvement plans, we were told not to include in the plans work that we were already doing. So, of course, schools felt pressure to add to the list of things they were already doing, and there was no value placed on what was already being done. I see in that choice the early roots of initiative fatigue we are all familiar with.

This additive approach was monumentally stupid, because the obvious truth is that initiatives, programs, innovations—whatever—are not clockwork mice. But we tend to treat them as though we can wind them up, put them down, and they will keep going forever.

OK, that’s probably enough for one night, but if you’re willing to take a leap with me, watch this TED Talk. Yes, I did mean to take you to a video on making toast. Trust me, there is so much to unpack in this short talk. He covers—very briefly—the concept of systems, how we communicate, and how much more complexity we can handle if we participate in co-construction of meaning rather than transmission of information. But what he is building to is the visualization of how a system works which, if we engaged in from time to time, would give us a tool for analyzing how well it is functioning, where the energy has to be infused to keep it going or, ideally, improve it. I don’t know how many times I have watched this video (thank you, Harold, I remember when you first told me about it!) and every time I do I take something else away from it that I hadn’t noticed before.

I want to end by hammering on a point I know I make a lot—any plan is necessarily reductive; it cannot possibly reflect the complexity of the system it seeks to improve. Let’s not fall into the trap any more of thinking that it does. Let’s spend some time figuring out which of the many things we could work on will get us closest to our vision, and then put effort into making those things more transparent and meaningful, so that we can make realistic plans to nurture them.

Thanks for all you do. If there is anything I can do to support you, or if you have any feedback for me, please let me know. Best, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
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