From turbulence to preturbance



In this week’s post I want to explain a little about the theory of turbulence in relation to school change or reform, and also apply this theory to students own development and change as they learn and develop.

In systems theory (which underpins my research), it is accepted that change is not possible from a state of equilibrium. Equilibrium in a system (such as a school that is made up of multiple parts to form a functioning whole) is equivalent to death. Systems theory states that from chaos, from the brink of failure and destruction, real change is possible. This is because all the aspects of the system are under threat and therefore have to adapt to their environment or any challenge in order to survive.

For example, Brian Beabout discusses responses of schools in New Orleans post hurricane Katrina. This was an area of schooling under strain before the disaster, poorly resourced and with massive problems of inequality. The destruction of school buildings, many staff leaving and the decentralisation of the running of the schools during the storm was the tipping point that forced inevitable change.

Turbulence theory (Gross, 1998) helps us to further understand this idea of optimal levels of threat to the system and change that might occur as a result. Turbulence is defined as any change in the school’s environmental conditions, for example a drop in funding, a sudden rise in student numbers, having to move buildings, staffing issues and so on. When the people that work in these schools are prompted to consider re-organsing the school in some way as a result of these environmental changes (such as making changes to how the budget is spent, hiring new staff, changing curriculum and so on), the turbulence becomes preturbance (which means that a change has been analysed by school staff who have considered changing organisational practice as a result).

There are of course, varying degrees to which the school will experience environmental change. Gross defines the different types as:


Light turbulence signifies an issue that requires some attention, but poses little threat to the school system’s functioning. Moderate turbulence poses measurable challenges to the system, and must be addressed in some way so that the school can continue to function. Severe turbulence is a strong disruption to the school system that could lead to collapse if immediate action is not taken. (Beabout, 2008)

In extreme cases (Gross referred to these as extreme turbulence), school reform was abandoned altogether – there was too much change to or around the school system to even consider making further efforts to change – no stability as a foundation for change if you will. Beabout asserts that the optimal amount of turbulence to a school system for healthy changes to occur in school as a result is moderate turbulence at the school level would be ideal for instituting educational change. This type of turbulence gives the school some time to learn about the problem and to collaborate on next steps in a way that higher levels of turbulence might not (Beabout, 2008).

Schools are known as ‘nested systems’, i.e. they are not a system in isolation but a system made of parts (people, organisations and practices) that is, itself part of a bigger system of parts (e.g. federation of schools or a county of schools) that is part of a bigger system (e.g. national schools, education policy), that is part of a bigger system (our country/culture). Applying turbulence theory to schools therefore, is acknowledging that turbulence does not occur in isolation n any component of the nested system but across multiple layers of the system. The ‘butterfly wings’ analogy rings true – one change in the system can have ripple effects of turbulence elsewhere.

This means that changes in policy can present turbulence of varying degrees at school level, and conditions of adversity for students or staff in their home lives can have an impact across the whole school system. Therefore, if we want to make positive changes in both school structure and culture that are sustainable – what is important to consider is: what are the factors creating ‘turbulence’ in our system? As a whole system, are we experiencing light, moderate, severe or extreme turbulence? What can be done to stabilise the system enough to make change manageable but still possible? What changes need to occur in the system to adapt to changes surrounding the system?

Finally, because it is the focus of my study, I am considering the current attainment gap that exists between disadvantaged / vulnerable students (as defined on government reports – those entitled to FSM , LAC and with SEN) and their peers. This is something schools need to adapt to, to respond to and to make internal changes to address the issue. Our changing culture / environment no longer accepts this gap and wants to close it. Considering how to do this, in the context of staff, students and schools experiencing their own personal and professional turbulence is the key to long term change in this area.

Beabout’s thesis can be found here:

Gross’s theory here:

As always, please feel free to comment and share ideas – I’d love to hear from you all, especially if you can think of a time when an external change prompted internal consideration of how schools might adapt and whether this was successful.


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