From clockwork to webs of relationships

This article was written as a follow-up to the Brussels meeting of European Schoolnet’s Policy and Innovation Committee in June 2007 which was dedicated to improving the understanding of the relationship between policy and practice. This article draws on an earlier article (1) published on Connected Magazine in conjunction with a talk I gave at the Holland Open Software Conference 2007.

Webs of relationships

From clockwork to webs of relationships

The relation between policy and practice

Policy-making has to do with making specific things happen or not happen. Policy-making has to do with making envisaged futures present and sometimes maintaining cherished pasts in the future. Above all, policy-making has to do with changing or constraining practice, in other words, the organised way work or other activities are done. Effective policy-making requires a clear understanding of the nature of policy and practice as well as the relationship between the two. It is my belief that policy-making is clouded by a series of unchallenged assumptions about what policy can do with practice. In this article I explore the relationship between the two. 

Policy and practice

I will briefly summarise here and complete what I have written elsewhere (2) about the nature of policy and practice.
Practice is the organised way in which an individual or a group carries out a particular activity. Although it may be more or less tightly framed by guidelines or even laws, practice is necessarily the fruit of what individuals do and is largely composed of tacit knowledge rooted in the experience of those individuals and groups. Practice is difficult to exchange with peers on a large scale because it is context-bound and based on non-formalised knowledge. The major difficulty, but also advantage, with practice is its relative resistance to change. 
Policy is a set of statements about how a particular goal is to be reached. It seeks to structure and shape specific areas of practice of a large number of people. However only a small amount of practice is dictated by policy. Policy is generally formalised in writing, whereas much practice resides in experience. Although policy may be the fruit of wide-scale discussion, it is not based on the tacit understanding of a group like with practice, but is rather a decision of a person or body invested with authority. That decision is based on such things as underlying values or assumptions, wider concerns, research, study visits, consultation processes but also on chance encounters. The major difficulty with policy is putting it into practice.

The mechanisms of policy-making

The relationship between policy and practice is largely one-way in our education systems. Much policy-making is about controlling practice. It is based on the assumption that it is possible to change the way people work by starting from a written statement (called policy) about what should be done and how it should be done (called practice). In other words, much educational policy-making is based on a mechanistic perspective of change in which policy seeks to dictate practice. The overriding metaphor is that of the machine. A number of axioms govern the mechanistic worldview. These include the fact that the properties and behaviour of the parts of the machine determine the behaviour of the system as a whole. In other words, the machine is no more than the sum of its parts. The parts of the machine can be treated like discrete objects and are interchangeable. In addition, the functioning of the machine can be understood by studying the workings of its parts. If that understanding is incomplete, it is sufficient to further divide up the parts into even smaller parts. This process is called analysis. Decisions about the management of the machine rely very heavily on measurement and quantification of the workings of the parts. Change is linear, predictable and controllable. It results from the application of forces to its parts.


One of the major approaches to the relationship between policy and practice – that is symptomatic of the mechanistic approach – is to artificially divide up practice into a number of distinct areas and then to focus on only one of those areas at a time. This might be called the prioritising approach. One argument in favour of this approach is that it is economical. Policy-makers sensibly argue that they don’t have the means to deal with all the issues at the same time. In addition, this strategy offers what seems a realistic way of handling the complexity of the system. Prioritisation has dominated much of the policy-making associated with the up-take of ICT in education. The first priority was installing equipment and networks. Then came the need to train teachers and the development of new methods, which in turn was followed by the challenge of online resources. Although some overlap of priorities occurred and policy-makers were aware of the underlying inter-relationship between the different areas, prioritisation implied treating them as if they could be handled separately. The result was an on-going mismatch between different but closely related areas of practice. For example, the technology was available but teachers didn’t use it because they lacked the knowledge to integrate it in their classroom practice. Only in rare cases, for example in Northern Ireland’s “Empowering Schools” strategy (3), was a holistic approach adopted and even there the actors lacked a sustainable approach to budgeting that could handle budget cuts while maintaining the holistic approach.

Exemplary behaviour

Realising that practice cannot necessarily be controlled directly by decree, one indirect strategy employed by policy-makers is to use “influence by example” as a lever for change and to capitalize on networking as a “natural” vehicle to communicate those examples. Practice is said to be “good” or exemplary if it serves as an example for others, helping them to improve ways of working, making the latter more appropriate or more efficient or more satisfying. As mentioned above, however, practice cannot be communicated on a large scale because, in packaging it for communication online, it necessarily looses essential information that would be communicated in face-to-face discussion or by observing others work. There is also a key economic factor: converting experience into writing and then “re-converting” it back into practice on a large scale is not economically feasible.


Another approach to the relationship between policy and practice is to shift the responsibility for designing change closer to the actors whose practice is concerned. This might be called the empowerment approach. The belief being that the closer the responsibility for shaping practice is to the actors whose practice is concerned, the more effective is the influence on practice itself. Increased motivation is one of the arguments in favour of such an approach. Another is the improved appropriateness of practice because decisions about practice are better aligned to local needs and culture. Such an empowerment approach works best in a system that is prepared to delegate responsibility locally as in the case of Finland were trust in the competence and responsibility of local actors is a key facet of educational culture (4) and is reinforced by other activities of the system. An empowerment approach can also be adopted in more centralised and controlling cultures, but only associated with mechanisms to ensure accountability and to monitor results. This implies a cost that includes the danger of overload for teachers. The empowerment approach clearly does not work if policy requires practice to be unified across the whole country.

Software in the machine

One of the major arms of policy-makers in seeking to align educational practice as dictated by their policies is ICT, even if those technologies are no longer placed front-stage. The reason for this dependency on technology lies in the belief that technologies dictate, to a considerable extent, what people can do with them and thus can be used to enforce the adoption of certain prescribed new ways of working. As such, ICT is seen as an extension of the written policy statement with the added advantage that it can constrain practice by its very workings. If collaborative working is required, then insisting on the use of suitable collaborative software can make it happen. If extensive evaluation is necessary to focus attention on the appropriate levels of competences of all students, then online testing provides a manageable, cheap way of making it happen. If personalisation is the key word, then ICT can help enforce it by bringing teachers to provide personalised scenarios for each pupil. ICT is the long arm of the policy-maker. However, the extent to which technology, or tools in general, can constrain practice, especially in complex situations is limited. There is a delightfully optimistic book by Michel de Certeau (5) that explores the way people creatively misuse the tools that are designed to channel their behaviour. 

The magic of a vision

Sometimes the relationship between policy and practice is more than puzzling. For example, when an attractive radical and innovative policy is linked to a series of actions without there being any apparent way of influencing those actions and without any additional means being planned to turn that policy into reality. You could be forgiven for suspecting the use of some sort of magic. After all, what else is magic than an unseen force that binds reality to intention. Yet there is no magic or slight-of-hand here. In fact, the policy statement weaves links between a theory or a vision that seduces and actions that already exist independently of the policy. It is for this reason that no additional action is required because the prescribed action is already taking place. This is not simply a case of mapping so-called “new” policy to the existing actions. Rather, the seductive vision presented by the policy statement justifies and adds coherence to that which already exists. Such an approach makes particular sense in a highly distributed system when a central organisation that has little authority over local actors (not even the financial where-with-all to drive action) must be seen to coordinate what is being done (6). Although one could argue, possibly mistakenly, that this isn’t really “policy-making” as it doesn’t directly influence what happens but only seems to sanction what exists already, there is a very positive side to it. The policy provides a coherent and attractive vision with which the various existing actions can be identified and related to each other. As such, it may influence the way those actions are pursued in the future, casting their activities in a new light, opening the way to new interpretations of what is being done and, at the same time, winning additional support and adhesion. Naturally, such an approach to policy-making is less likely to be used in countries where policy-making is driven by a strong centralised vision of the actions to be undertaken.

The to-do list

Another example of the strange forms that a policy statement can take is the “to-do” list (7). At first sight it seems quite sensible and practical to draw up a list of what is to be done: a series of prioritised areas within which a number of actions are listed that have not yet been addressed. However, the to-do list makes no mention of how or why or when or with what means these actions are to be carried out. Unlike the “vision statement” mentioned above, the to-do list is accompanied by no vision or theory that inspires readers and encourages adhesion and understanding. In addition, the items listed often lack any relationship between them or any internal coherence: rather than making sense of the links between the parts, the list presents them as disconnected items. At best the to-do list is preceded by a short description of the general context or more succinctly the limited policy context. Bringing no vision and no internal coherence, the to-do list decreases motivation of those it concerns, in particular because those actors who are obliged to act on it have to struggle with the lack of means and support to do what has to be done. So why make such policy. Some of the actors concerned may gain legitimacy from an official document that sanctions what they must do, even if it does not grant them the means to do it. 

Bullshit as a strategy

When the gap between policy (as a statement of the practice required of actors by policy-makers) and practice (as the organised behaviour of the actors of a given system) goes beyond a certain threshold, most administrations will seek to reduce the gap by modifying the way policy is “put into practice” or even by modifying the policy itself. They are aware that they can’t afford to let the gap grow any further, if only as “authorities” whose role and responsibility is seen as requiring them to determine practice, so as to produce given outcomes. A number of administrations have chosen an alternative strategy, however. Recognising implicitly that they cannot force practice to comply with their wishes and not wanting to change their policies or their perception of policy-making, they increase control over the official discourse about practice so as to gloss over the differences between policy and practice and to praise the successes of their policy efforts. Such a strategy fits perfectly with Harry G. Frankfurt’s definition of “bullshit” (8). It is not a question of lying, as those who use bullshit are indifferent to how things really are. They are effectively trying to get away with something, but they firmly believe the “reality” they have invented. Bullshit might work for a short period, but as it makes it impossible for the administration to respond to the rising pressure of differing practice (as it is not possible to openly address the issues) that pressure continues to build up under the veneer of the official discourse requiring ever-increasing efforts to control the public image. At some point, no amount of control can prevent the pressure breaking through. Note that many large companies adopt a similar strategy, where their marketing discourse, at great expense and with considerable subtlety, seeks to have users believe in the reality proclaimed by the company about its products and what they can be used for. Strangely enough, we are more tolerant of marketing discourse than we are of the proclamations of administrations and governments. Deliberately and systematically misrepresenting reality is a very hazardous path to adopt. For those who use bullshit, their ties to reality have been severed. In extreme cases, it can border on a sort of “institutional schizophrenia” where the invented world takes on a life of its own and any tactic is justified to maintain it.

A living system

One of the characteristics of complex systems is that they seek to maintain a relatively stable state even though they are really far from equilibrium. This can give the impression, from a rather short-sighted perspective that they behave in a predictable, “mechanical way”. It is for this reason that the mechanistic approach to the relationship between policy and practice has managed to survive for so long. However, the more complex systems are, the more potential stable states that exist simultaneously at any moment for them, resulting in fundamentally non-linear and unpredictable behaviour. It is these unpredictable leaps from one stable state to another that move the system to a higher level of complexity in what we call paradigm shifts. 
The education system, as is the case with most complex human systems, is better understood using the metaphor of the living organism than that of the machine (9). The axioms of the living system are quite different from those of the machine. Firstly, the overall living system is always more than the sum of its parts. This implies that the parts of the system cannot be understood separately from the system as a whole. In other words, analysis cannot satisfactorily explain the workings of the system. At best, topology can give us “classes” of change that help us understand the form of possible changes but not their dimensions and directions. The living system is open and self-organising. Major change is the result of new properties that emerge spontaneously and unpredictably from the complexity of the system as a whole. You cannot “manage” a living system in a predictable way by applying forces to its parts or seeking to constrain its activities, as the mechanistic approach tries to do.

Approaching the future

What would policy-making look like if education were seen as a living system and how would it relate to practice? Probably the most fundamental difference would lie in how the future is approached. The machine perspective is centred on the belief that future practice can be shaped according to a plan drawn up in advance by a small group of privileged people. The future is seen as being built in the present, often on the basis of experience from the past. Furthermore, those policies are necessarily coloured by partisan perspectives and preconceived ideas. As I wrote in an article about leadership (10)“… we walk into the future backwards (our attention fixed on the past or present) with our eyes closed (blinded by habit and our self imposed limits)…” However, if the evolution of complex systems like our education organisations is necessarily unpredictable, we cannot count on the future to comply with our blueprints. If the most appropriate change is to emerge spontaneously from complexity through a process of self-organisation then we cannot rely on control as our strategy. On the contrary, deliberate efforts to impose a given future might produce a quite different and possibly undesirable outcome. 

This perspective is so radical that it seems to make the concept of leader and even policy itself redundant. Yet there may still be a role for a new type of “leader” that lies in the personal challenge of being attuned to the future as it emerges as lines of force in the constant flux of the present (11) and being able to act, if necessary, according to that knowledge. Caution is needed here because words can mislead us: the position of leader described here gives no special privileges or rights to tell others what to do. There is a whole corpus of literature about the possible role of such a “leader”, in particular those that talk of Wu We (12). The latter could be summed up as unattached, quiet watchfulness, in which intelligence is that of the whole body and not just the brain, and learning springs from experience and intuition. 

Relationships not information

Policy makers are convinced we need ever increasing amounts of information to build the future. Information has become their key asset. They order studies. They measure performance. They consult experts. They even proclaim that we are living in an “Information Society”. If this obsession with information didn’t make sense, at least locally, we wouldn’t have developed it, but in the larger context of complex systems and emergence, it is of little use to know, for example, that three out of every four children have access to a computer at home. No amount of measurement will help predict the unpredictable. What we need is a shift in approach in policy-making that puts less emphasis on quantification and much more on relationships and processes. It is a fundamental misconception to believe that understanding is based only on information. Understanding is built very largely on relationships, not so much on information. My hunch is that if there can be any awareness of the future as it emerges in the present, that awareness can only be “experienced” in terms of a complex web of relationships. And here lies a potential answer to the question about the possible redundancy of policy-making in complex, unpredictable situations: in that context, policy-making needs to embrace new ways of representing the ongoing web of relationship out of which the future will emerge and to clearly express and reinforce the intention (13) of society about desired futures in terms of underlying values. This reinforcement of intention can draw on the strategy mentioned above where vision is employed to grant coherence and direction to disparate actions.

Alan McCluskey, Connected Magazine, Nov. 4th, 2007.

(1) “Opening Education to the Future… or rising from the Second Fall from Paradise”, Connected Magazine, 2007.

(2) “From Peer Reviewing to Transformation of Policy and Practice”, Connected Magazine, 2005.

(3) See McCluskey A, Northern Ireland in Policy Peer Reviews ICT in Education, European Schoolnet, Brussels, 2005.

(4) See McCluskey A, Finland in Policy Peer Reviews ICT in Education, European Schoolnet, Brussels, 2006.

(5) See de Certeau M. L’invention du quotidien 1. Arts de faire, Gallimard Folio, Paris, 1980. For de Certeau in English try “The Practice of Everyday Life”.

(6) As a possible illustration of such a policy approach see the very stimulating and foresightful report published by the Swiss Federal Office for Professional Education and technology (OPET) in 2004 entitled “La Fossée Numérique en Suisse” (The Digital Divide in Switzerland).

(7) A possible example of such a “to-do” list policy statement is the ICT strategy of the Swiss CDIP which lists eight areas of priority, each with its items that need to be done. (No longer available on line)

(8) Frankfurt H.G., On bullshit, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2005.

(9) For more about these ideas see, amongst other books, Capra F., The Web of Life – A new synthesis of mind and matter, Harper Collins, London, 1996. Another inspiring book is Prigogine I., Stengers I., La nouvelle alliance, Gallimard Folio, Paris, 1979, translated into English as “Order out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature”.

(10) “Leadership, information gathering and the future – What if we have got it wrong?” Connected Magazine, 2004.

(11) See a very inspiring book about the role of leaders in an emerging world: Synge P., Scharmer C. O., Jaworski J., Flowers B. S., Presence – Human Purpose and the Field of the Future, SoL, Cambridge MA, 2004

(12) Wu Wei is an important principle of Taoism that has to do with knowing when to act and when not to act by being in contact with the flow of Tao. By extension it concerns governing and leadership. It is sometimes called, seemingly paradoxically, the “effortless doing”.

(13) For more about the power of “intention” in another context see: “Prayer. Going beyond emotional intelligence” Connected Magazine, 2002.