The Darwinian Paradox

One of the more acceptable and helpful tenets of good management theory is that managers should adopt a reflective stance. Continuous, systematic and careful reviews of the processes and outcomes of the business are, indeed, an invaluable and essential aid to the effective manager.

The Further Education (FE) sector, as all the educational sectors, has much to reflect on at present. The parenthesis model of management has never been more valid. As you will remember, the parenthesis model challenges the whole of the existing thinking on organizational theory. It identifies a new type of person, namely, the parenthetical person, one who reflects and reacts to the new societal circumstances facing the world. Simple definitions of inputs and outputs, as currently defined, are naive.

The approach states forcefully that it is not enough merely to manage an organization but it is necessary to attempt to manage the whole environment in which the college exists. It is essential that all managers perceive the broader societal implications of their managerial functions. Colleges are now exposed to a very volatile environment. The landscape in which they operate comprises a series of fragmented elements including funding sponsors, many of which introduce policies and strategies that are contradictory and paradoxical- These impact on the institutions and require totally new forms of leadership skills. The continued development of market-force philosophies operated increasingly in a quangocracy environment makes it difficult to seek sanctuary in the past It often strikes me as being a classical example of Darwinism.

Historical practices and sign posts are often of little help This is in itself is no bad thing. Many practices in education are still plagued by atavism so one must be prepared to accept change, development and improvement as inevitable. One, however must ask whether all change’s are necessarily good for the educational service and are some of the changes precipitated by questionable external imperatives just bringing about change for changes sake?


So, during a period of reflection I explored the possible linkages between Darwin’s theory and current educational management Evolution theory is about progression by the process of natural selection and the imperative of the survival of the fittest and strongest This looks a promising connection, especially in the current climate of market forces where competition and institutional autonomy is encouraged. Recruit more students with less resources, which clearly means do more for less’, threaten some strategically important provision in such areas as engineering and built environment which, for very understandable rea sons, still fail to attract viable numbers This was starkly shown by the recent course vacancies in the UCAS clearing system and a similar situation exists in many key vocational areas of study in FE. The often simplistic accountancy driven methodologies make it increasingly difficult for managers to protect high-cost, low recruiting programmes of study

The funding regimes being introduced quite rightly require gains in efficiency and effectiveness and the elimination of anarchic practices, but the regimes are not able to recognize certain vulnerable areas of study. It would therefore seem that we do manage a Darwinian scene. Managers must make certain that some threatened strategic programmes are protected from the extremes of the current environment.


Figure 01

Figure 01

Just as Darwinism is about progression and advancement, in the natural world education must be about constant improvement of the service offered to all its students whether in employment, or entering employment or as citizens in general. Provision must be of the highest quality and must match the future requirements of life and work The early theories of evolution were of long-term change and improvement: this was called phylogenic gradualism. Species coped successfully or otherwise with a whole range of external forces and adapted to these influences. It was usually about long-term developments and could be simply represented as above (fig.01).

In the light of more recent observation, data and field research a refined theory has been postulated, ‘punctuated equilibrium’. Distinct and discernible changes are observed, often over short time scales. This can be shown as illustrated below (fig.02):

Figure 02

Figure 02

So, which of these two hypotheses is more valid in the current climate? Changes come thick and fast and often precipitate rapid and unforeseen mutations, so it would seem that punctuated equilibrium — or should that be ‘rapid punctuated equilibrium’? is more appropriate to the world of education. Where the analogy with Darwinism breaks down, or weakens, is that much of the change in education is regressive, not progressive. Mass scale introductions of accountability structures and bureaucracy, much of which seeks information to a ridiculous and questionable degree of resolution diverts the colleges from their true business, namely improving access and participation of students and increasing learning and teaching effectiveness This diversion seriously affects the quality of the service as the learner-staff have to respond to innumerable requests for information and become more involved in administrative tasks.The classic case is teachers attempting to deal with the national curriculum

Staff in Further Education (FE) are quickly following this trend. Perhaps a modified version of rapid punctuated equilibrium indicating regression can be drawn thus (fig.03):

Figure 03

Figure 03

Different sponsors/organisations require different forms of information at different times, although in many cases they are asking for the same measures. No apparent coherent or long-term strategic planning process exists between these sponsors/organisations, especially in the area of education and training. To extend the Darwinian hypothesis perhaps one could identify these sponsors/organizations as forms of predators? – maybe – but that is worth a longer and separate period of reflection.

So there are a number of parallels, some strong, some weak, between education and Darwinism. The external environment can be supportive and hostile and managers must deal with a multitude of external influences operating on short-term policies, often in contradictory fashions.

Policy, planning and strategy determined by humans is driven by a range of many interconnected values eg political and ideological which are placed on human worth. The parenthetical manager, referred to earlier, will also assert some values for the organization and the external environment which means that the manager must be aware of these values and as a result cope with change – or should it be rapid punctuated equilibrium?

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