This quintessential British value should be the basis of our whole curriculum

British values: Rule of law? Individual liberty? Mutual respect? Democracy? Yeah, yeah. Every country from Albania to Zambia claims those. Even insofar as they are true, they are certainly not uniquely British.

So, what is? What really differentiates us from the Germans, Americans, Russians and Chinese? To my mind, it’s…

…muddling through.


We muddled through two world wars (won both), building an empire (largest in history) and the Industrial Revolution (changed the world, mostly for the better). Right now we are muddling through Brexit, and that will probably turn out OK as well.

Muddling Through 2

So why is it that muddling through, such an apparently negative term, repeatedly outperforms German efficiency, American can-do spirit or Chinese organisation? I am going to suggest two reasons to you.

Reason one: emergent behaviour

Put a dozen tennis balls in a tray and jiggle it about. They will move in a disordered way. Now, fill the tray with balls and jiggle it again. The balls will fall into an ordered hexagonal pattern. What happened? Do tennis balls enjoy previously-undetected intelligence? No, of course not. The pattern was implicit in their form from the start, but only became obvious, i.e. emerged, under certain conditions.

British society also has a hidden structure that only emerges under stress. When the chips are down, we turn out to be innately collaborative and and intensively networked at multiple levels. The structure for getting stuff done is there, but it is implicit and occluded, leaving observers to believe that they are looking at randomness and thus completely confused when effective results emerge out of the muddle.

Reason two: tolerance of uncertainty

When faced with a problem, our cultural predisposition is to seek out all possible solutions and then debate them until a consensus emerges. This is very time consuming, and from the outside it looks extremely muddled. Contrast this with more authoritarian cultures in which the man (nearly always) at the top seizes on the most immediately-obvious solution, and his underlings jump to implement it. Fine when that happens to be the best solution.

In many cultures, uncertainty causes distress and is instinctively avoided, yet the British thrive on not knowing. Getting to the right answer eventually, and after much apparent confusion, turns out to be a winning strategy.

Muddling through is the winning strategy for the 21st Century

We are entering an age in which machine intelligence exceeds our own in many contexts, but not in all of them.  Artificial intelligence solves problems best when they are clearly defined, and the range of solutions is well-understood. So the problems that still need people, that will provide the highest-value employment opportunities for the foreseeable future, are those that will be solved best through the messy, muddled approach that is so quintessentially British.

What does this have to do with education? 

There is a very artificial “knowledge vs. skills” debate going on in English education at the moment. Each side makes the mistake of conflating skills with vocational training, rather than looking at the conceptual skills that our education system has traditionally developed.

Recently, I have been asking myself what a Muddling Through curriculum might look like. Clearly, it is not going to be heavy on either vocational skills or knowledge. As a start point for where we could be going, I find myself drawn to the classical Trivium: Logic, Rhetoric and Grammar. It’s not perfect, but I think if we all put our heads together, we might muddle through to a rather good solution.

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