Education is unpredictable. This statement makes us unstable and perhaps even a little shaken. No administrator would ever want to admit that something so important is unpredictable, especially since you are the manager. Few parents, teachers or students want to hear that education is unpredictable. We tend to avoid using this word, and I suspect it’s because we don’t fully understand it. Let’s embrace the chaos of unpredictability and let it work for us.
Unpredictability seems to occur in two very different forms. For clarity, I will call both forms “Type 1” and “Type 2”. They are very different from each other and have different implications for our reaction to unpredictable situations. Often we don’t like to use the word unpredictable because there is an implicit feeling that there is nothing we can do about it. It’s just a form of unpredictability, as you’ll see. We would never say that education is unpredictable and something we cannot control. It’s the other kind of unpredictable.
Type 1 unpredictability, simply put, is something that doesn’t care about our predictions. Think about the weather. It’s unpredictable. We spend most of our days trying to predict the weather and a good part of our lives getting those predictions wrong. The weather doesn’t watch the news and doesn’t adjust because of our forecast, obviously. Many events are type 1 and immune to predictions.
Type 2 unpredictability cares about predictions and responds to those predictions. The stock market is a good example. People make predictions in an unpredictable market and then they react to those predictions and it impacts the market. The recent rate hikes are a good example. The impact can be positive or negative. The market is always inherently unpredictable, but forecasts affect it. We see this happen in every election as well. People make predictions and those predictions then influence voters. The swing can go in any direction. Elections are completely unpredictable, but the prediction will influence the outcome. It’s a fascinating concept if you think about it. There is, however, an incredible danger for type 2 unpredictability, and we must be mindful of it. The danger is when we think our predictions will have the desired impact with certainty. If you are certain that your prediction will guarantee the outcome of a vote, the only certainty is that you could be wrong.
If the past few years have taught us anything in education, it’s that on a large scale, much of what happens in school districts is largely unpredictable (think COVID-19, lockdowns , student success, voting on bond results, etc.). Some of these events are type 1 and some are type 2. Forecasting a freeze has no impact on whether a freeze occurs, so it is clearly a type 1. Student success predictions happen all the time, however, and those predictions have an impact on the outcome. The danger zone is to think that these predictions will come true. Making a prediction could have a positive impact or even a negative impact. A student (or school or district) predicted to fail may respond positively or negatively.
This is why it is so important to distinguish between correlation and causation. Type 2 predictions are funny that way. This is also true for school bond elections. One could argue that property values are unpredictable (they are) and that they respond to meta-predictions (they do to some extent). Future fund balances are unpredictable and are also influenced by forecasts. The list of type 2 unpredictability may be longer than you initially think.
The overriding point is that things that have never happened before happen all the time in education. Much of what we do is unpredictable, but our predictions have a big impact on the outcome. When I was young, I had a naïve understanding of what it meant to be optimistic or pessimistic. I thought it meant someone who is positive or negative. I now realize that a true optimist is someone who realizes the future is uncertain.
Quintin Shepherd is the Superintendent of the Independent School District of Victoria.