Stop Swinging that Pendulum. Please.

If we are truly interested in school reform, we have to decide what to do about that pesky old pendulum. In each wave of reform, we see policies swing from one extreme to the other: from critical thinking to the “basics;” from inquiry to direct instruction; from process to product; from standardization to individualization. And back again. Even more frustrating is when the pendulum swings back and forth for day-to-day decisions on our campuses. When the pendulum swings from one extreme to the other, the inevitable contradictions can confuse and, ultimately, paralyze us.

The problem with that old pendulum swing is that a pendulum moves back and forth, back and forth, with no forward movement. It covers the same ground again and again. Or, as in Poe’s short story, its razor-sharp edge swings lower and lower with each pass, threatening to destroy whatever it touches.

No wonder educators are cynical about the potential for genuine and lasting reform.

This maddening focus on first one extreme and then another is grounded in a simplistic understanding of teaching and learning. It comes from incomplete and insufficient models of how human beings work together. When we don’t know how to deal with the complexities inherent in human thought and action, we tend to divide experiences into polarized categories, like those in the list below. See if this list of extremes is relevant to the pendulum swings you see in your school.


Figure 1. Extremes (Interdependent Pairs). Each of these dimensions represents two opposite extremes. The school reform pendulum tends to swing back and forth from one extreme to the other.

When we don’t understand how complex systems work, we tend to see these as either-or choices. We choose sides. We cite the research that supports our version of the world, and we quote the authorities who agree with us, whether John Dewey or Arne Duncan.

From a complex systems perspective, however, we think of these as interdependent pairs, each one naming opposing ends of a continuum along a particular dimension of the system. But they are not separate. Each extreme gives meaning to the other, and both are potentially useful to sustaining the system.

The answer to most questions about generative and sustainable instruction and educational policy should be, “It depends.” Reformers who understand how complex adaptive systems work know that individual actors, intentions, resources, and context are critical. Whether it is better to focus on standardization or diversity, for example, depends on many interdependent issues—identities, intentions, objectives, and current practices. Usually, the best path is whatever proves most appropriate at a particular point in time. The question is “What fits here and now?” Or “What is our next, most useful step forward?”

Often, for example, the most appropriate fit for some procedures is standardization; yet other decisions can focus on the diverse range of unique resources each teacher and learner brings. But how do we decide what is “most appropriate” and what will sustain the patterns we want to see in our system?

Glenda Eoyang and her colleagues who use principles from human systems dynamics (HSD) suggest the Landscape Diagram as a way to think about what actions are the most appropriate points between any two extremes. Think of the Landscape Diagram as a two-dimensional space within any system. One dimension is about the degree of agreement about specific options. The other dimension is about the degree of certainty that this path will lead where we want to go.
Take a few minutes to look back at the chart above. Think about how each of those extremes can map onto the Landscape Diagram—either toward more “Organized” or toward more “Unorganized.”
landscape diagram

Figure 2. Landscape Diagram. This diagram helps us think about how to avoid extreme “pendulum swings” by making decisions appropriate to particular issues or situations.

In situations where we all agree on the course of action and we are certain that a particular action will achieve what we need, we can choose more “top-down,” “convergent,” or “standardized” approaches. Here are some examples that may make sense:

  • payroll procedures
  • bus routes and schedules
  • fire drills
  • tardy policies
  • documentation of differentiated instruction
  • learning math facts
  • procedures and reports in science lab
  • writing a “how-to” paper in language arts.

In situations where there is less agreement on one right way to proceed or when the outcome is not certain, more flexibility (less organized or constrained decisions) is appropriate: • writing poetry

  • writing poetry
  • project-based learning
  • inquiry-based approaches
  • professional learning communities focusing on student achievement
  • attempts to shift the culture of a campus or faculty toward shared inquiry
  • transitional support for special needs learners into mainstream classes
  • supporting English learners who each have unique strengths and needs.

We might even think of options for action that apply to each of the extremes listed in the charts above. Here are possibilities:
rejecting extremes 7-27

Figure 3. Options for Rejecting the Extremes. These guidelines can help educators take action to avoid the swings from one extreme to the other.

This approach, grounded in complexity thinking, absolutely rejects that old pendulum metaphor. This approach requires, instead, that we have shared agreements, that we pay attention to what is happening in the moment, and that we think together about what makes sense to support student learning. In other words, it calls for “Adaptive Action” (Eoyang & Holladay, 2013; Patterson, Holladay, & Eoyang, 2013).

Please join me in this conversation:

  • Does one or more of these options for action fit your situation?
  • Do any of these make sense for your work?
  • Can you think of other options?


  • Eoyang, G. H. and Holladay, R. (2013). Adaptive Action: Leveraging uncertainty in your organization. Palo Alton, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Patterson, L., Holladay, R., and Eoyang, G. (2013). Radical rules for schools: Adaptive action for complex change. Circle Pines, MN: Human Systems Dynamics Institute Press.

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