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Welcome to The Learning Curve, 

Black Box Thinking is a book by the British researcher and author Mathew Syed. I highly recommend it. The core idea of this work is based upon a comparison between one of the safest industries in the world, the aviation industry and one of the unsafest, ironically the health industry. 

When comparing the two he found that the health industry had a deep rooted culture of not questioning authority. Individuals whose status led them to not be reflective or respond well to criticism and a euphemistic language designed to protect, mislead and hide errors, ‘technical error’, ‘complication’, ‘unanticipated outcome’ etc

Conversely, the aviation industry made huge changes following a tragic United Airlines crash in 1979 caused by a breakdown in cockpit communication because of hierarchy and unwritten conventions. Nowadays, pilots are encouraged to be open and honest about their mistakes. The industry has powerful, independent bodies designed to investigate crashes. Failure is not regarded as an indictment of the specific pilot who messes up, but as a precious learning opportunity for all pilots, all airlines and all regulators. 

Black box thinking.

Schools can learn from this too. They are complicated systems that have many smaller systems within them. Thousands of interactions happen every day between and across ages, cultures and backgrounds. Many schools fall into the trap of trying to appear perfect, to not make mistakes or to portray that they have got everything sorted. Such schools are fooling themselves or those who trust them. Black box thinking teaches us that we should:

  • See mistakes as opportunities to learn 
  • Not let hierarchy get in the way 
  • Seek data that helps us to identify error 
  • Not dismiss clear evidence that we could be doing something better.
black box thinking

This must not be confused with complaining, blaming or criticizing. That is not black box thinking. It’s just unhelpful. 

This week saw our first black box parent session with the first staff session next week. Following the feedback from the Start, Stop, Continue exercise our focus was on the car park, drop off and pick up. The 12 parent team identified the core issues and looked to develop some realistic and actionable solutions. I will now be working with the team here in school to see what we can put into action. I can’t wait to share those outcomes with you. 

There will be another session in two weeks so look out for the details in The Learning Curve next Friday. 


Have a great weekend everyone

James Wellings
Head of School