A Murmuration of Boids: It’s Complex (1)

Posted on November 27, 2016


I’ve always had a fascination for murmurations.  Even though the English teacher in me loves the collective noun, it’s the visuals that do it for me.  The semi-simultaneous arcing and wheeling that is reminiscent of a shoal of fish.  The “now you see me, now you don’t” as the group moves from showing us a narrow profile to the birdseye view of the birds’ wings.  The sense of joy in what appears to be more of a playful than a utilitarian act.

And so, when I find a piece of video that blends the entrancing visuals of a murmuration with the equally entrancing sounds of Pachelbel’s Canons, how can I resist using it in conference presentations and a blogpost about complexity and school leadership.  Take a look for yourself.

C’est joli, uh?  But more than that, watching the flocking behaviour of birds (or fish, or ants, or indeed most animals) has long made me wonder about how human societies, not least of all schools, function.  What can we learn from the leaderless (or possibly leaderful – in a sense they are one and the same thing) swarms, shoals and flocks that appear to have blended the agency of individuals with the coherence of the community?  Just as importantly, what can we unlearn about our own hierarchical and bureaucratic system with its reification of decontextualised ‘best practice’, its celebration of followership (often dressed up as a Leadership with a big L) and its ever-multiplying statutory obligations, rules or top-down imprecations?

It has taken me years to even be able to ask those questions, let alone find the answers.  And then, last year, I came across ‘boids’ in my readings about Complexity Theory (or Complex Adaptive Systems if you would rather).  I’m not sure whether it gives answers – I’m becoming less sure by the day that anything ever gives a definitive answer – but it has opened up a line of enquiry for me that may one day lead me somewhere close to an answer, at the very least in my own world.

Before reading the rest of this post, I strongly advise that you watch this clip.

If you’re with me in the first class carriage of my train of thought you will already have noticed that at times these very basic boids, acting upon only three simple coding ‘rules’, have the look of a murmuration of birds, albeit a two-dimensional one.

As a written reminder, the three simple ‘rules’ are these:

  • The boid ‘alignment rule’ in which each boid has the instruction to match its velocity to the group of boids around it.
  • The boid ‘cohesion rule’ in which each boid has the instruction to move to the perceived (but ever-changing) centre of the group of boids around it.
  • The boid ‘crowd avoidance rule’ in which each boid has the instruction to maintain a certain distance from the group of boids around it.

What is noticeable in each of these ‘rules’ is that they refer to the relationship of the individual to the community.  One without the other would render the ‘rules’ meaningless.  Alignment, cohesion and avoidance can only be done by an individual boid considering the speed, position and movement of other boids.

The results are fascinating for a couple of reasons.  In an unobstructed environment the boids quickly find one another and travel together (but within their own space) in the same direction.  In an obstructed environment – and education has plenty of obstructions – they come apart as a group but then come back together in smaller or larger units depending upon the number of obstructions.

In short, the three simple coding rules for individuals within a community generate behaviour that is novel with properties that are emergent.  These ‘rules’ give the impression of agency to individual boids even though they have no consciousness and thus no genuine agency.  And this makes me wonder, as the Headteacher of a school with 150 staff, 1100 students and thousands of family members and community partners, just what the boids and the starlings of this blogpost might have to teach me about how to harness (for want of a much better word) the genuine agency of our flock to enhance our own murmurative behaviours.

For the sake of simplicity, and given the audience for this blogpost, let me outline the nature of my emergent thinking (the boids in my own brain are only just getting to grips with the organisational implications of complex adaptive systems theory) with regard to staff development, professional learning and a more organic form of school leadership/management.

The boid ‘alignment rule’

This is perhaps the easiest of ‘rules’ for school leaders/managers to understand, and yet (for that very reason?) perhaps the hardest for them to adapt/adopt.  Currently we see ‘alignment rules’ in an array of places within schools.  From performance appraisal to book scrutinies, from learning walks to capability processes, from exams analysis to mocksteds and from flightpaths to top-down lesson observations (whether graded or ungraded) there are swathes of rules within the ‘alignment rule’ designed to get all of our staff boids flying at the same speed.

But I wonder whether some, most or all of these school policies, procedures and practices are about command and control rather than alignment in most schools.  I also wonder whether most schools have forgotten to consider, co-develop and enunciate the over-arching ‘alignment rule’ at all and if, in doing so, whether they have ever engaged all of their multi-dimensional boids in the process of identifying what an ‘alignment rule’ might look like.

Has your school (or for that matter your team within the school) ever asked that most fundamental of questions:  how fast can we fly together as a community without leaving individual boids behind?  It’s not a question that FFT data alone could or should answer, and yet in many schools that’s how it feels (or in some cases, openly is) for staff.  In the words of my stepson, “it makes people sad and sad spelled backwards is das: and das not good.”

The boid ‘cohesion rule’

Again, this is a ‘rule’ that many school leaders/managers will partially understand, although it may well be understood by a different word:  consistency.  My aim (or my hope) within this blogpost is to challenge those school leaders/managers to focus a little less on the word ‘understand’ and concentrate more upon the word ‘partially’ because I have come to strongly dislike the use of the word ‘consistency’ as it is often used in schools.

I’m not alone here.  Philippa Cordingley has recently, in light of her recent report into TeachFirst schools, written this blogpost on the difference between consistency and coherence as constructs in generating school momentum.  In it, she cautions:

“In the face of multiple priorities, a focus on consistency through systems alone seemed to be linked with attention on the surface features of interactions, particularly for teachers whose practice was still developing.”

On this point the boids are particularly instructive.  Watch it again and notice how the centre of the group never stays still because the boids are constantly on the move – within the group and as a group – and, when faced with an object, they have to manoeuvre their way around it.  The centre of the group is a coherent concept, but it isn’t a consistent one.  In our ever-evolving, often-revolving educational landscape (who saw a consultation on selection coming and who didn’t see a response to a consultation on the EBacc not coming) coherence will offer us so much more than consistency, and the same almost certainly applies within schools feeling the impact of those landscape shifts.

And so the fundamental question that schools and teams within schools perhaps need to ask themselves is this:  what is central to our sense of community in times of stasis and flux and how do we help individual boids in making their way to that point?  It’s not a question whose answer will be found in the typical consistency questions of what we do within school but one that asks us to consider what we want to be.

The boid ‘crowd avoidance rule’

This is the one ‘rule’ that I suspect might challenge school leaders/managers most, particularly those that work in environments where there are lots of mini-rules on alignment or consistency because those school environments are ones that value homogeneity over heterogeneity in how they want professionals to behave.  I couldn’t write that sentence without sounding judgmental.  Most school leaders say the right words about valuing individuality or agency amongst their staff, but when push comes to shove (for example when exam outcomes dip or when a colleague suffers a crisis of confidence in the classroom) their actions often run counter to their words, and the messages this conveys to staff speak louder than the words themselves.

Again, I think the boids video is instructive here.  Remember the segment where the ‘crowd avoidance rule’ is turned off and the boids quickly form a line and stay in it regardless of the obstacles they encounter?  I know that some schools value this with students.  I’ve seen first-hand schools where students move around the school building exactly like this and how the staff are thereby corralled into the same behaviours in order to enforce the consistency of the desired student behaviours.  Their choice entirely, both as school leaders/managers that set the rules and the staff who remain there to enforce them.  My aim isn’t to condemn but to outline my developing thinking.  But I do wonder what those schools are missing when their boids are not encouraged and enabled to tread a different path to the flock.

In terms of crowd avoidance then, I propose that the fundamental question that school and teams within schools need to ask themselves is:  do we recognise, welcome and value the agency of individual boids so that the whole community can find a better velocity and more effectively recalibrate our central reason for being?  It’s not a question that can be answered by those who currently exercise most of the agency within a school or school team, but one that by necessity needs to be asked of our boids and it needs to be asked openly, without fear or favour arising from the responses generated.


In truth I’m not altogether certain yet what the boids programme tells us about school leadership/management.  In some ways I think that the simplicity of the three ‘rules’ is its strength and that the more convoluted and labyrinthine we make our school rules in order to mandate greatness, the further we truly get from unleashing it (to paraphrase that well-worn quote).  There is certainly no shortage of evidence of ‘perverse incentives’ and ‘unintended consequences’ resulting from ever more convoluted accountability measures at a school system, school and team level.

And then in other ways I wonder whether the simplicity of the programme is the main sticking point.  After all, our colleagues are not two-dimensional boids but reasoning adults who have enormous personal and professional histories in aligning, cohering and using their own agency.  Perhaps some of the issues that exist with school leadership/management is that it often too simplistic in its evaluation of the capacity and capability of colleagues: those pre-existing and constantly evolving personal and professional characteristics.

As well as that there is also the age-old question of whether or not schools can define their own alignment, cohesion and agency ‘rules’ when they are so deeply impacted by the ‘rules’ of the wider system, from the DfE, Ofsted, local authorities, the EFA, governors, media, families and so on and so on.  And within schools there is the question of whether teams can set their own ‘rules’ within the wider ‘rules’ of the whole school.  Many would argue that these are especially pertinent when a school or team are under significant pressure to improve, under pressure to comply rather than consider and create.

For those who think this way, I would seek to strain the patience of the reader further and ask them to watch the following:

Maybe, just maybe, by using the boids ‘rules’ in order to simplify what we do at an intra- and inter-school level we can better empower the complex and adaptive natures of our staff and our organisations to help us become more responsive to the challenges that face us and, in doing so, see off the hawks.  At the very least, for those of us in leadership/management positions, it might prevent us from becoming the hawks ourselves.






Posted in: Uncategorized