Control vs. Chaos, who wins in the end?

By Phil Slade

Control agents Maxwell Smart and 99 lead the battle against Chaos in the 60’s TV show Get Smart, which is one of my all time favourites. It’s one of the best depictions of the 60’s attitude that the world is in chaos, and the ‘smart’ antidote is to assert control that will bring peace, order and prosperity. The fact that Maxwell isn’t actually that ‘smart’ is part of the genius social commentary, because while this idea is very attractive – it’s not actually a smart idea at all.

The attitudes of classrooms in the same era also followed this populist idea. The world of the students represents chaos, and we are here to assert control above all things which will create peace and prosperity. The best teachers were the ones with the least chaotic classrooms. Chaos lies at the heart of everything bad, control is good. Many teachers still feel the shadow of this mindset today, interpreting any chaos in the classroom as a direct assault on their identity as a teacher which centers around a narrative that control equals competence. Nowadays, however, it’s becoming much more acceptable to challenge this point of view with much of the literature showing that problem solving, creativity and critical thinking skills develop significantly more successfully when there is an element of chaos in the learning environment. Allowing students to explore maths and develop a curiosity and love for maths will make them better mathematicians than those who learn rules by rote for 12 years.

However, too much chaos is obviously also a very real problem in classrooms today, with many teachers struggling to keep a lid on the fun in order to promote a better learning environment for all, and in some cases to keep everyone safe. In the reaction against the authoritative classrooms of the 60’s and 70’s, many feel we’ve lost all ability to give the structure and guidance students need in order to learn effectively. There is definitely some truth to this. Too much control, and you get authoritarianism. Too much chaos, and you get anarchy. Somewhere in the middle is the right balance between chaos and control, and that balance shifts based on two things – competence and context. This concept is at the heart of a great leadership framework called the Situational Leadership Model. Situational awareness and emotional maturity matter in the tug of war between chaos and control.

The Situational Leadership Model works very well when applied in an educational setting. The more emotionally mature and competent the students are, the more scope there is for self-directed learning and general curiosities. Similarly, when the context is threatening safety or there are elements of immaturity the teacher may need to be more authoritative, and less so when things are safe and secure. Even with the same group of students within a single day the balance between control and chaos can shift as the context shifts. Any good teacher, leader, parent or coach knows this, and learning to be comfortable at most points on this axis at any given moment is key.

With any of these roles if your core identity is threatened with chaos, you will instinctively snap into control mode and mistake other people’s compliance for success. Great teachers are able to see chaos as an opportunity, and set up the environment to dial it up and down as they see fit. They can pick up the energy, harness it, and then direct it in a more constructive way so others feel heard, validated, respected and motivated. They can set strong rules to fence the chaos, and enforce consequences when clear boundaries are broken. This is impossible to do if you are uncomfortable with chaos. You must embrace chaos, in order to be able to control it. You must be at peace with authority, in order to wield it. It is one of the great ironies of good leadership, and it all starts with managing your own reactivity.