Black Box Thinking – a review and a challenge to universities

This post is a piece of procrastination.

And I’m partly writing it because Matthew Syed brilliantly describes a form of procrastination in his excellent book Black Box Thinking, but truthfully I’m just procrastinating because I’m putting off a task that I’m finding difficult. 🙂

The book deserves a better review than this, because I think it’s brilliant.

Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed

Syed starts with a contrast: essentially the difference between how the aviation industry learns from its mistakes and the way that all-too-often the health sector doesn’t. The old joke goes that the difference between a pilot and a surgeon is that if a pilot messes up, she dies, but if a surgeon messes up, someone else dies. Syed makes an important point though, whilst very funny, it’s essentially bollocks. Throughout the early history of aviation, pilots died. A lot. And it didn’t matter if they were careful, flying was for a long time inherently risky.

He argues that the most important reason why aviation became safer is because the sector developed systems to learn from mistakes AND developed a no blame culture in which people would own up to mistakes and actually learn from them. The health sector by way of contrast in most cases hasn’t learnt this lesson. The instinct is still largely to close ranks whether from fear of being sued, hierarchies, professional pride or other reasons. Learning can’t really take place in such a culture.

There are other really interesting ideas in the book, but I want to stay on this point because I think it resonated strongly with my current situation.

I work in higher education, my role is to find ways that we use learning analytics to reduce disparities of attainment and to improve social justice. We are clear that we can spot a large number of students at risk of early departure, we are less clear that we have the systems in place to actually change student outcomes. I think this is in part due to the difficulties associated with finding ways to help students change their approaches to study. However, I think there’s another factor, our role in meeting the needs of students and ensuring that our culture is open to change.

What needs changing?

Syed describes the history of blood-letting used in medicine. For hundreds of years doctors bled their patients. If the patient survived, that was evidence that the treatment worked, if they didn’t, then they were clearly already too ill. I’m aware that in the UK, there is a rightful increase in pressure on universities to change disparities of student outcomes, essentially, barriers such as class, ethnicity or entry qualifications will no longer be acceptable reasons for disparities of attainment between the most-advantaged and least advantaged in society (1). So we need lots of experiments, trials, interventions and we need them to start now.

Discouragingly, the sector appears to be failing to take best practice from within academic disciplines and applying it to learning how to impact upon student outcomes. I have seen plenty of research recently that demonstrates that students who participate in activities (work placements, voluntary activities etc.) are more likely to achieve better outcomes. We shouldn’t really need to still re-prove this, we need to move to understanding how we start to change individual student behaviours, even if only their help-seeking strategies. I know this is significantly harder, partly because of the difficulty of demonstrating the impact of a limited intervention (or inteventions) at one point in time over a subsequent period of a student’s life, but until we do this, we’re still only proving that blood letting works in some cases, but not in others.

And then for me, we strike an equally significant problem.

Do university cultures enable change or blame failure?

Assuming that you work in a university, which industry does your institution look like – aviation or medicine?

  • Is there an open culture, are colleagues willing to explain where and how they messed up, to accept responsibility maturely?
  • Or do people cover up and skip over mistakes for fear of losing face, being embarrassed or blamed?

I can sympathise with university leaders. The sector is under enormous pressure to improve student outcomes and it must be frustrating to lead meetings about change, but then see progression or attainment scarcely move at all. However, I’d argue that the frustration to bring about change quickly, may lead to blame culture, to people acting defensively and resisting rather than learning how to change. I’m not arguing that change shouldn’t happen, or incompetence or malice isn’t tackled, but I do suspect that the starting point is often to blame the individual without looking at the systemic problems first.

For an organisation to change student outcomes, it needs to have robust evidence about what needs to be changed and must also have a culture capable of learning and changing.

(1) Just to be clear, I am absolutely clear that this is an anti-scientific, populist example of the datafication of society. Morally there shouldn’t be such disparities, but universities alone aren’t powerful enough to bring about such changes on their own.

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