Simple Rules: An Important Step in School Transformation?

Simple Rules: An Important Step in School Transformation?

Here is something I bet we can all agree on: simple is almost always better than complicated. What if we could take those messy problems at our schools that always seem to circle back on us, that confound us with inertia, dead ends, and multiple stakeholder turf battles, and find some simple guidelines to sort through to a better solution?

imgresThat is the premise of another impactful, guiding book I read this summer, Simple Rules:  How to Thrive in a Complex World, by Donald Sull of MIT and Kathleen Eisenhardt of Stanford. I plan to use the key elements of this book extensively in my strategic work with schools.  Simply, if schools can create a set of simple rules or guidelines to decide complex questions, the efficiencies will be enormous.

The authors cite many examples of simple rules; here are two to give you an idea of what simple rules are:

  • Prior to WW II, battlefield injuries were treated at field hospitals largely on a a first-come, first served basis. Fatality rates were staggering. Doctors came up with the triage system of sorting patients into four groups based on simple guidelines that could be very quickly measured upon patient arrival, focusing scarce resources  where they could do the most good for the most patients. Survivability of battle field injuries amongst those who make it to a field hospital using triage rules have risen ever since, and the triage method of decision-making has expanded well beyond the field of war medicine.
  • Athletic trainers for Stanford football found that just three eating habit guidelines were more beneficial to the entire team than the set of complex rules they replaced: eat a good breakfast; hydrate; eat as much as you want of things you can pick, grow, or kill.

 “Simple rules” is about deciding some of the boundary conditions before we start solving the problem or playing the game.

Here is a concrete example that many schools are struggling with: We want to find time in the daily schedule for… (take your pick: mindfulness, balance, reflection, global programs, capstones, new courses, more sleep for students, teacher collaboration, etc). But there are a limited number of minutes in the day. And everyone has their own pet need or bit of turf to protect. How do we decide what to add, what to keep, and what to let go?

Let’s start by drafting some simple rules; they might sound like:

  • “The social and emotional needs of students will take precedence over higher performance on tests.”
  • “Time will be apportioned based on student identification and pursuit of knowledge, not pre-determined subject areas.”
  • “Learning takes place where knowledge resides, not necessarily within a classroom.”

The rules for your school might look nothing like this; that is not only OK, but powerful. Schools and the students they serve are not all the same, so the rules will be different.  By creating sets of guiding rules like these, though, we will make decisions, some of which are uncomfortable, based on what we think is most important overall, not what is most expedient in the moment.

I will be writing more on this in the weeks to come: how do simple rules interact with a design thinking approach to problem solving?  Are there any universal simple rules upon which most schools would agree?  How might we best create simple rules within a school community?  And I will be piloting the use of simple rules at some of my workshops this fall, so stay tuned for practical updates!


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