Happy Steve

Innovation and Learning

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Hello there, I'm Steve Collis! 

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/GAT Project/ Steve's Philosophy on Bureaucracy & Gamification

This is blog post #2 on the /GAT Project/ series. (In short, I'm working with a colleague to create a course for Year 9 and 10 that is radically student-directed, and easily scalable.)

Before the course starts, I want to proclaim my distrust of bureaucratic systems as a 'means of control' or 'means of measurement'.


- a prospective employee has a great CV, and is ok in interview, but turns out to be a poor performer. The CV was a poor measurement (and so was the bureaucratic and artificial interview process).

- a teacher has fantastic program documents but is a poor practitioner and the students are uninspired.

- another teacher has poor paperwork but students testify their lives have been changed forever.

- a student gets top marks in an exam but goes on to flunk university.

- another student performs poorly at school but goes on to become Prime Minister, or found the Virgin empire.

- there is an official school policy that no one follows.

- a student has messy 'bookwork', and is censured for it, but is highly gifted in many areas. 

Paperwork and bureaucracy are not functioning well in these scenarios. They certainly do not merit the investment and confidence often put in them. 

So, you can imagine my cynicism when my school is 'inspected' and the inspectors, just doing their jobs, spend three days in a room ploughing through paperwork.

Frankly, I've achieved much of whatever I've achieved so far in my career by tactically ignoring or 'fobbing off' bureaucratic systems in order to invest time and energy in initiatives I deem far more worthy. 

I see bureaucracy and paperwork as existing in a kind of parallel universe to 'the real world'.

In the worst case scenario, 'the system' is mistaken for the real world

I have two observations for how 'the system' might mesh nicely and serve us rather than distorting us.


Observation 1. Culture When paperwork does match reality, it does so because of the pre-existing culture that leads to the paperwork in the first place.

There is a kind of mass-complicity that occurs, and this complicity allows the bureaucracy to function. For example, tax returns. The tax system works well in Australia because there is a sufficiently honest, complicit culture of wanting to contribute fairly. In Greece, it appears there is less complicity in the tax system, and to that extent the system is less successful. Money, and democracy are two other examples that come to mind. My point is, it's the culture that matters, not the bureaucratic system around it.

This is why it is so very difficult to impose a democratic bureaucracy on a country that does not have a democratic culture. The democratic systems only work if there is an underlying complicity.

A school that, culturally, understands bullying and does not tolerate it, will obviously have an established and published procedure on the issue. Another school might have a published procedure, but it's irrelevant because it is ignored, or followed in a lip-service fashion.

So, don't talk to me about paperwork, talk to me about culture and complicity. 

For the /GAT Course/, I'll be looking for culture and complicity, not bureaucracy and paperwork.


Observation 2. Concretisation Everyone likes a tick in a box! We can generate extrinsic/concrete systems in local ways as a deliberate 'life-hack' fuel for our current ambitions.

When someone awards me a certificate, or gives me an 'A', or writes me a letter, or pays me money, or when I dress in a suit, or write a 'to do' list, or graph my car's tripometer, or get retweeted, or when I get a high score on Angry Birds, or when I successfully avoid walking on any lines on a concrete path... in all these diverse situations there is a process I'm going to call concretisation or externalisation.

What I mean is making sense of life, the universe, and everything by creating externalised measurement scaffolding.

Because life is insanely subjective. It's pure subjectivity. How, for instance, am I going to answer the question "How am I going here? Am I doing well?" For me it's an unanswerable question. For, in my internal reality, philosophically, there are no landmarks on my journey. I'm like a passenger on a train travelling through a countryside with no features - I have no way to guage speed or progress. Someone else with the same opportunities as myself might have achieved a lot more than I have by now. For this same reason I find the question unanswerable for others, too. I have no apparatus for measuring other people. I can only assume they're doing the best they know how, like I am. 

We all intuit this, don't we? Ask someone who has been deemed by popular opinion to have 'made it' whether they feel like they've really 'made it'. The answer will be 'no'. There is always another challenge, another goal, another ambition.

Yet there are others, and I aspire to be one of them, who have not by popular measurements 'made it', but reek of peace, centredness, and serene authenticity. 

So, personally, I give up on any abstract philosophical sense of 'progress'. I want to exult in the joy of life, connect with other people as if the moment stretched to eternity, you know, all that funky stuff!?!?

And another thing I love is a tick in a box, or to cross off an item on a 'to do' list, or to receive a certificate, or get retweeted. I love the view I get from the top of a look-out, especially after I've cycled up there. I also love levelling up in the 'Dark Age of Camelot' game. Beautiful music plays, lights come down from heaven and saturate me, and my avatar gets more power to kill more badies!

I have a project list which defines what I am trying to achieve in life at work and at home. I use this externalised system to track progress in each area, and I celebrate my progress at arbitrary but predefined check points.

We all love a tick in a box. We don't have to take it too seriously. It's not measuring absolute or philosophical progress, but that doesn't mean it's not a useful tool to move in meaningful directions.

I can use reward systems, intrinsic or extrinsic, as a kind of 'life-hack' to fuel my motivation and sense of momentum in directions I want to embrace, and I can train students to do the same. I can use the infrastructure even while I subvert it. It's cheeky. It's transcendant. 

This is where a bureaucracy can be used purposefully, as a means to an end. The levelling system in 'Dark Age of Camelot' is no less bureaucratic than my tax return or end of year examinations. Surprise, surprise, it depends entirely on how the process is framed, not on the process itself. When we discuss 'gamification' (a term so recent it doesn't even feature on Google ngrams), we must acknowledge that school is already a game, and that every human reward system gamefies life to some degree. 

In applying this to the /GAT Course/ I'll be looking to teach the students to understand how the joy of learning can dovetail seamlessly with the life-hack of concretisation. They can make road-maps, celebrate milestones, win badges, and leave their own badges behind for other students to win too. It will be just like scouts! Students and staff can define, and redefine, and deconstruct, and reconstruct the game in a local, improvised, and collaborative fashion.

I wonder if I've lost you on this second observation. Does it sound like post-modern fluff for Generation Entertain-Me-Now? 

Have a look at Lawrence Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development.

In the modern era we were infatuated with A System. A criticism of the modern era is that we mistook The System we discovered as final, objective, universal reality. 

To flourish in the aftermath of the modern era we can do better than a bureaucracy. We can work locally, meaningfully, with our eyes on invisible things, and clothing and reclothing ourselves in visible systems only to serve what we stand for. 

Why can't we help every student to reach stage 6 or 7 in Kohlberg's model? Why not aim that high?

Yet, how often does the school system operate at stage 4, and encourage the students to do the same?

We can do better.


This is the second in a series of blog posts entitled /GAT Project/ They will appear regularly at this website, categorised under 'GAT Project'. If you'd like to receive future posts, you can:

- click here to subscribe to Steve's blog in general by email, or here in a reader.

- click here http://www.happysteve.com/contact/ and indicate 'GAT Posts Only' in the message body - I'll email you when I update the GAT Project just for the duration of the series.

- or regularly check this link for new posts: http://www.happysteve.com/blog/tag/gat-project