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April 1, 1995
Vol. 52
No. 7

Adaptive Schools in a Quantum Universe

An examination of the “new sciences” offers insights into new approaches to school improvement and provides practical tools and ideas for school refinement that can lead to improved learning for all students.

Information from the new sciences—quantum mechanics, chaos theory, complexity theory, fractal geometry, and the new biology—can help educators rethink their approaches to school improvement and work in new ways within the principles suggested by these sciences. The new sciences reveal to us that we live not in a world of either/or but in the dawning of a world of both/and. Chaos and order are part of the same system; they exist simultaneously.
We tread carefully in our discussion of this topic. We recognize that simplification of the topic—albeit dangerous—is necessary in so brief an article. Concepts might be trivialized, and applications of new science principles might be made to sound too certain and concrete. In truth, the new findings are disturbing—even to the scientists who are discovering them—and their applications to human organizations are still far from obvious.

The Adaptive Organism

Let us look briefly at the field of evolutionary biology. As biologists and paleontologists observe animal species and examine their evolutionary history, they are redefining the meaning of success as a species. For example, more than 40 different species of wildebeests can be found in the national parks of South Africa. Wildebeests are specialists, grazing in dry, open spaces. They are willing to migrate long distances in search of such areas. Wildebeests, like other specialists, are more sensitive to environmental changes. And, like other specialists, they are under greater evolutionary pressure than are generalists. They are adapted through specialization to specific conditions within tightly defined boundaries.
Another significant species in the park lands of Africa is the impala. In Kruger National Park in South Africa, more than 72 percent of all antelope present are impala. Impalas thrive on a wide variety of vegetation, and can make themselves at home in many different settings. Because of this flexibility, impalas are highly adaptive and are able to adjust as conditions around them change.
All around us, organizations are struggling to attain the impala's degree of adaptability. For example, Eastman Kodak is aggressively embracing the electronic era as it shifts its core business from film-based images to digitally created and manipulated pictures.
On the other hand, consider the U.S. postal system, which may not be sure what its core business is. Year by year, the private express delivery firms and the newer electronic carriers are capturing more and more of its volume. The postal system, like the wildebeest, has a defined niche and has not yet found a way to adapt to new feeding grounds. The traditional American high school also serves as a striking form of an adapted—not adaptive— organism. Designed in another time, for the purposes of that time, the typical high school often shows a remarkable lack of flexibility.
  • basing decisions on these two questions and filtering responses through agreed-upon core values, such as a respect for human differences and respect and caring for others;
  • shifting decision-making authority to the people most influenced by the decision;
  • restructuring the day and year to increase the time teachers have to interact collegially with one another;
  • setting outcomes and standards that signal a passion for excellence and attention to qualities that are based on real-world needs; and
  • supporting faculty members in collaboratively setting and working toward self-defined goals.
If adaptivity is the central operating principle for successful organizations and for successful schools, then we must search for sources of energy to vitalize this process.

A World of Energy, Not Things

Our century-old school design draws upon even older models of how the world works. The architects of the 17th century scientific revolution—Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton—pictured the universe as a giant machine. Their then-modern metaphor pictured the world as a giant clock, governed by simple and direct cause-and-effect relationships. The world was seen as a collection of discrete entities or substances. Basic materials were composed of tiny bits of isolated matter, and this matter was separate from the sources of energy with which it interacted (Devall and Sessions 1985). All of science was shaped by this sensibility, and this in turn shaped the social sciences and the structure and function of institutions.
This view of the “nature of things” remained intact for almost 300 years. Then, in the early part of this century, a revolution in the field of physics began reshaping human thought. The formal name for this revolution is “quantum theory.” Exploration of the quantum world focuses on the identification, behavior, and interactions of subatomic particles. Quantum theory moves beyond the planetary model of the atom still pictured in most textbooks.
Typical textbook pictures of atoms show the inner parts as little colored BBs, leading to a belief in solidity and “thingness.” In the quantum world, thingness gives way to a conception of a world composed of energy, a world in which subatomic particles appear as waves of probability. These are not probabilities of things, but rather are probabilities of interconnections. This view of the natural world shows us a universe composed of webs of relationships created from and connected by energy in motion. The term quantum mechanics—the formal name for this way of studying the world—means bundles of energy (quantum) in motion (mechanics) (Capra 1991).
In the quantum world, elementary matter loses its thingness by displaying two identities. It can appear as particles—localized points in space, or it can appear as waves—energy spread over an area of fixed volume. The total identity of matter is known as a wave packet. It contains the potential for both particles and waves. The wave packet contains two complementary aspects of one existence. These two aspects cannot, however, be studied at the same time.
Physicists can measure the position of basic particles, or they can study the pattern of movement and momentum by concentrating on the properties of the wave. They are unable to do both at the same time. Quantum matter is influenced by the very act of observation. If the investigator chooses to study wave properties, matter appears in wave forms. The act of observation joins in the greater process, removing the ideal of a pure objective science. To observe and measure is to make a choice. In such choice making, the observer joins the system being observed. Thus, each act of observation is also an act of influence.
The paradoxes of the subatomic world are modeled today in human social systems. School improvement has a dual nature: a simultaneous focus on content and on process. We cannot consider one without the other. Our need to measure, record, and report may actually inhibit significant reform. The act of measurement becomes an act of participation, signaling value judgments about the use of time, talent, and money.
In quantum schools, leaders pay attention to the flow and interchange of energy. Energy, not things, becomes the avenue to attainment. Marshaling, focusing, and developing energy, information, and relationships become the roles of leaders (Wheatley 1992).

A New Symmetry of School Improvement

To use emerging understandings of the quantum world for school improvement, educators must move beyond information provided them by the five senses, and consciously work with that which is not so easily discernible (Chopra 1989). Precedent for this orientation began early in this century, when scientists devised systems for converting sounds into electromagnetic waves and transferring them, directly through space without connecting wires, to a receiving set. It wasn't long before radio was taken for granted.
Before modern times, the precedent existed in the ways we naturally used energy fields such as gravity, magnetism, and static electricity. We know of their presence because we have evidence of their results. We can experience their effects, but we cannot hear them. We can feel them, but we cannot see them. We can use them, but we cannot put them in our pocket, or even accurately diagram them.
In the future, we may take for granted that human energy fields exist, and that educators can deliberately tend, harvest, and use these fields to help schools and the people within them to be continuously adaptive. Costa and Garmston (1994) report evidence of five such fields, or states of mind. These five states are efficacy, flexibility, craftsmanship, consciousness, and interdependence.
The first four states are related to independence. In a quantum universe, each unit is independent and autonomous, a complete system unto itself. In addition, however, no one or no thing is ever truly alone or truly separate from the larger systems encompassing it. Interdependence is the connecting element.
These five states of mind are the catalysts, gyroscopes, and energy sources fueling self-renewal and high performance. For an individual, they represent the continuing tensions and resources for acting holonomously—that is, independently and interdependently. For an organization, they form an invisible energy field in which all parties are affected as surely as a strong magnetic field affects a compass. Taken together, they are a force directing one toward increasingly authentic, congruent, and ethical behavior—the touchstones of self-improvement and renewal.
Efficacy. To be efficacious is to believe one can achieve, and to be willing to exert the effort necessary to achieve. Efficacious people have an almost unassailable belief in the likelihood of their own success (Garfield 1986), work harder than those who are not efficacious, persevere through failures and disappointments, and experience less stress (LaBorde 1984). They control performance anxiety, recognize what they do not know, and productively seek to learn it. They regard events as opportunities for learning.
Flexibility. Peak performers exercise multiple perspectives (Garfield 1986). They are able to view events and circumstances in many ways: egocentrically, through their own eyes; allocentrically, though the eyes of others; macrocentrically, from an objective third party position; and historically, from a futures orientation. Flexible people are open and tolerant of differences. They are creative. They have the capacity to change their minds as they receive additional data.
Craftsmanship. High-performing individuals and groups strive for mastery and improvement. They persevere to resolve differences between present and desired states. They create, hold, calibrate, and refine standards of excellence (Costa and Garmston 1994). They seek elegance. They strive for precision in language and thought. They know they can continually perfect their work and are willing to pursue ongoing learning.
Consciousness. Self-reflective consciousness is a recent development in human evolution. It is a state of mind of catalytic properties, for it is a prerequisite to self-control and direction. Consciousness means one is aware that certain events are happening (thoughts, feelings, intentions, behaviors), and that one can direct their course (Csikszentmihalyi 1993). Awareness of others' styles, values, and behaviors; alertness to patterns in group interaction; the ability to hold and monitor one's progress within a plan; and moment-to-moment metacognition all flow from this source.
While everything one thinks, feels, smells, sees, or remembers is a candidate for entering consciousness, the nervous system has definite limits on how much information it can process at any given time. Therefore, an important capacity of consciousness is the ability to selectively attend to stimuli.
Interdependence. Interdependence is achieved by adults who have attained the highest developmental level (Kegan and Lehay 1984). Persons enjoying this state of mind regard conflict and divergent views as opportunities to learn. They are more likely to be altruistic and to see the potential within groups. They can set aside their own needs; they know that they and their work benefit from collaboration; and they are willing to change relationships to achieve those results.

Focusing the States of Mind

One fated day in 1961, Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, did something that changed forever our understanding of the use of energy and data in dynamic systems. Lorenz was working on a model for forecasting weather. Discovering that he needed to extend his forecast, he rounded off one number by 2/100 of a percent. He then went out for coffee. When he returned, he found a set of numbers that looked nothing like his original forecast.
At that moment, two fresh understandings of the world were born: First, that minor changes in initial conditions will produce major changes in dynamic systems. Lorenz's minute rounding of a number produced a significantly different pattern for the weather ahead. Second, more data will not permit more accurate predictions in such systems. Since each event affects another, which in turn affects another, more information complicates forecasting to a point of uncertainty.
Lorenz's work led to the butterfly metaphor popularized in the movie, Jurassic Park. Because the wind generating from the wings of a butterfly affects tiny air currents around it, and because tiny inputs into dynamic systems create major changes, a butterfly stirring the air in Peking can eventually influence a storm system over New York City.
The butterfly principle is at work when fractional changes in degrees of temperature on the ocean surface turn tropical storms into hurricanes. It was also working when, in a middle school, a small group of teachers decided to reverse the norm of negative and put-down humor in the hallways by modeling positive comments to one another and to students. They achieved major changes in this aspect of school culture within three months.
Schools, like weather systems, are nonlinear systems that change radically with the folding and refolding of feedback into themselves. And, since tiny inputs reverberate into big changes, we can work for transformational results by deliberately influencing the right inputs.
Which butterfly wings should schools be blowing on? Since everything influences or potentially influences everything else, the wings to influence are those that are most generative and positive in their effects (Briggs 1992). The energy fields and the events stimulated by the five states of mind are so webbed in the interactions among people in an organization that the slightest twitch anywhere becomes amplified into unexpected convulsions somewhere else in the system.
States of mind can be learned, mediated, and brought to bear fruit in an organization dedicated to tending them and harvesting them as resources. They are the self-referencing resources of high-performing individuals, and in an organization they create the interacting energy fields in which all parties are collectively affected (Berman and McLaughlin 1977). See Poole and O'Keafor (1989) for an example of the influence of efficacy and interdependence on curriculum implementation.

Out of Chaos into Complexity

A major tenet in the scientific study of chaotic and complex systems is that components that do not initially look related interact and influence one another (Gleick 1987). Each time the energy in a system feeds back into itself, it is slightly amplified, achieving results seemingly out of proportion to the degree of initial input. The feedback loop set up by a microphone placed too closely to a loudspeaker is an unpleasant example of this phenomenon. In the quantum world, subatomic particles jump from one energy state to much higher or lower states without passing through intervening levels—the so-called quantum leap.
We must learn to embrace complexity in human organizations. We must seek patterns of order beneath the surface chaos and search for structures and patterns of interaction that release and amplify the energies within the system. To do so in schools, we must attend to twin goals: developing organizational capacities for adaptivity, and developing the professional capacities of all employees. The subtopics related to each of these goals can be seen as an ongoing curriculum outline for school leadership teams.

Developing Organizational Capacities

  1. Initiating and managing adaptivity. Continuous renewal in complex human systems requires ongoing dialogue within the organization and between the organization and its surrounding environment. The essence of adaptivity is the ability to change form while staying true to core identity. This presumes that the organization's identity is deeply understood and that there is clarity and consensus regarding core purposes. The willingness to struggle and continually refine “who we are” is one hallmark of the adaptive organization. Another is shared knowledge and skills in managing change and the psychological transitions that come with change (Bridges 1980).
  2. Developing and supporting vision, values, and goal focus. An organization's identity is shaped by many interacting factors. Its responses to the questions: Why are we here? What should we do? and How should we do it? are evidence of the organization's commitment to its role and to itself. Congruence among vision, values, and goals releases and focuses the deeper energies within the hearts and minds of all engaged in the enterprise.
  3. Developing and nurturing interdependence. As we discussed earlier, interdependence is a state of mind representing both an organizational core value and an energy field that shapes the actions of those within it. It is a core capacity that must be continually nurtured within the system. It is the capacity to draw strength from one another and to seek clarity and cooperation.
  4. Developing and applying systems thinking. In chaotic and complex systems, cause and effect are often separated from one another by both time and distance (Senge 1990). Today's difficulties are rooted in solutions to yesterday's problems. For example, changing demographic patterns in a community accumulate over time until we notice that once-successful teaching strategies no longer motivate the students now served by the school. When we apply systems thinking, we look for patterns of interaction within the system and subsystems, seeking key and often nonlinear relationships between seemingly unrelated elements. In this way, new images of the territory emerge, making possible more creative responses within a greater sense of the whole.
  5. Interpreting and applying data. Data in and of themselves have no meaning. Meaning develops when skilled leaders support individuals and groups in interpreting, validating, and owning the data. When this is not done, objective and even high-quality data are rejected.
  6. Gathering and focusing resources. The ability to focus resources is a key organizational capacity. Deciding where and how to target resources becomes easier when purpose, core values, and goals are clear and widely shared within the organization. The most underutilized resource within most schools and districts is adult learning, planning, and reflecting time. Adaptive schools allocate time for adult interactions.

Developing Professional Capacities

  1. Collegial interaction. This professional function does not develop without mindfulness, training, and commitment to self and to others. True colleagues develop teaching materials together, plan together, seek one another's help, watch one another teach, and reflect together about their students and their teaching (Little 1982, Rosenholtz 1989). Coaching skills are a vital component. In too many settings, collegiality is confused with conviviality. Here we move beyond staff room conversations to real dialogue about teaching and learning.
  2. The cognitive processes of instruction. Teaching is among the most cognitively complex of all the professions. A teacher's decision making and metacognitive processes before, during, and after teaching may be the most important components of his or her portfolio of skills (Costa and Garmston 1994). These processes are the essential planning, monitoring, and reflecting tools that support high-performance teaching and continuous professional renewal.
  3. Knowledge of the structure of the disciplines. Content knowledge is insufficient to ensure high-quality instruction. Knowledge of the deeper structure of the discipline is required. Teacher's manuals and inservice sessions on teaching strategies typically do not explore this territory. The critical arenas for exploration here are: What do experts currently believe is the most valid content in a particular field? How do they think about this field? What is the path from novice to expert thinking and action in this field?
  4. Self-knowledge, values, standards, and beliefs. As we search for clarity about the essence of our professional identity, we uncover our values and beliefs about living, learning, and how to be successful. Related to these are the issues of standards for performance and standards for products. These standards apply to our own work and to the expectations we hold for others. Self-knowledge here is not enough; we must constantly filter for congruence between our inner structures and our outer actions and communications (Dilts 1990, 1994).
  5. Repertoire of teaching skills. Like the queen on a chessboard, the teacher with the most moves has the most options and the greatest degree of influence. As a profession, we must move beyond the folk wisdom that governs discussions about teaching and learning and expand our repertoires (Saphier and Gower 1987).
  6. Knowledge about students and how they learn. Students bring their own unique characteristics to the learning process and to the culture of the school. In any group of learners, we face a variety of learning style differences that require multiple approaches to both content and process (Gardner 1983). Within a typical classroom, we also encounter a remarkable range in developmental levels, often including a four- to six-year spread in cognitive age within any one grade level (Goodlad and Anderson 1987). Added to this are the significant variations in cultural beliefs, values, and approaches to learning found in our changing student population.

Shared Leadership Roles

  1. Facilitator. To facilitate means to make easier. A facilitator is one who conducts a meeting in which the purpose is shared decision making, planning, or problem solving. The facilitator directs the processes to be used in the meeting, and choreographs the energy within the group, maintaining a focus on one content and one process at a time. The facilitator should never be the person of positional power.
  2. Presenter. The role of presenter is most closely associated with staff development work. How content is presented often determines whether or not participants will interalize and act upon the content. An effective presentation requires clarity about outcomes, interactive teaching strategies, and methods to assess the learning that has occurred (Garmston and Wellman 1992).
  3. Coach. Coaches mediate the development of invisible skills: cognitive operations and states of mind. For groups, the focus is predominantly on the states of consciousness and interdependence; for individuals, through cognitive coaching, all five (Costa and Garmston 1994). Coaches take a developmental stance regarding the perceptions, mental processes, and decisions of high-performing individuals and groups. Coaches are nonjudgmental, employ skills of reflective questioning and inquiry, and help others direct the consciousness to the most useful stimuli. By focusing on the inner thought processes, perceptions, and decision-making processes of the person being coached, the skillful coach mediates the five states of mind, developing resources for present and future actions (Costa and Garmston 1994).
  4. Consultant. A consultant can be an information specialist or an advocate for content or process. As an information specialist, the consultant delivers technical knowledge to another person or group. As a content advocate, the consultant encourages the other party to use a certain instructional strategy, adopt a particular curriculum, or purchase a specific brand of computers. As a process advocate, the consultant attempts to influence the client's methodology (for example, recommending an open meeting rather than a closed one in order to increase trust in the system). To effectively consult, one must have trust, commonly defined goals, and the client's desired outcomes clearly in mind (Block 1981).
The adaptive school's leadership roles, goals, and states of mind are the “strange attractors” within the system described by the science of chaos (Gleick 1987). Because small inputs can lead to dramatically larger consequences, persistent attention to the development of consciousness accelerates learning, and results in more effective behavior.

A World Governed by Relationships

Increasingly, self-renewing schools are collaborative places where adults care about one another, share common goals and values, and have the skills and knowledge to plan together, solve problems together, and fight passionately but gracefully for ideas to improve instruction. This is not a fad that will pass this way and quickly be gone. This tendency for participation is rooted, “... perhaps, subconsciously, in our changing conception of the organizing principles of the universe” (Wheatley 1992, p. 143).

Berman, P., and M. W. McLaughlin. (1977). “Factors Affecting Implementation and Continuation.” Federal Programs Supporting Educational Change, Vol. 7. Santa Monica, Calif.: The Rand Corporation.

Block, P. (1981). Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used. Austin, Tex.: Learning Concepts.

Bridges, W. (1980). Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes. New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Briggs, J. (1992). Fractals: The Patterns of Chaos. New York: A Touchstone Book.

Capra, F. (1991). The Tao of Physics. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Chopra, D. (1989). Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine. New York: Bantam Books.

Costa, A., and R. Garmston. (1994) Cognitive Coaching: A Foundation for Renaissance Schools. Norwood, Mass.: Christopher Gordon Publisher.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1993). The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Devall, B., and G. Sessions. (1985). Living As If Nature Mattered. Layton, Utah: Peregrine Smith Books.

Dilts, R. (1990). Changing Belief Systems with NLP. Cupertino, Calif.: Meta Publications.

Dilts, R. (1994). Effective Presentation Skills. Capitola, Calif.: Meta Publications.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind. New York: Basic Books.

Garfield, C. (1986). Peak Performers: The New Heroes of American Business. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

Garmston, R., and B. Wellman. (1992). How to Make Presentations That Teach and Transform. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Gleick, J. (1987). Chaos: The Making of a New Science. New York: Penguin Books.

Goodlad, J., and R. H. Anderson. (1987). The Ungraded Elementary School. New York: Teachers College Press.

Kegan, R., and L. Lehay. (1984). “Adult Leadership and Adult Development: A Constructivist View.” In Handbook on Socialization Theory and Research. Chicago: Rand McNally.

LaBorde, G. (1984). Influencing with Integrity. Palo Alto, Calif.: Syntony, Inc., Publishing Company.

Little, J. W. (1982). “Norms of Collegiality and Experimentation: Workplace Conditions of School Success.” American Educational Research Journal 19: 325–340.

Poole, M. G., and K. R. O'Keafor. (Winter 1989). “The Effects of Teacher Efficacy and Interactions Among Educators on Curriculum Implementation.” Journal of Curriculum and Supervision: 146–161.

Rosenholtz, S. (1989). Teacher's Workplace: The Social Organization of Schools. New York: Longman.

Saphier, J., and R. Gower. (1987). The Skillful Teacher: Building Your Teaching Skills. Carlisle, Mass.: Research for Better Teaching, Inc.

Senge, P. (1990). The Fifth Discipline. New York: Doubleday/Currency.

Wheatley, M. J. (1992). Leadership and the New Science: Learning About Organizations From an Orderly Universe. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Robert Garmston has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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