The Thorndike-Skinner Complex conundrum


Just imagine. No more Ofsted. No more rigging the figures. No more game-playing. Inspired by his headteacher, John Wootton considers what school life without Ofsted would look like.

Have you ever watched, The Big Bang Theory on TV? If so, you will know the character Sheldon Cooper. Sheldon is a boffin and in today’s terminology, a physics geek. He has a massive intellect but as all teachers know, with such genius comes a particular kind of madness. Sheldon’s madness is his OCD: Star Trek and in particular Mr Spock. His eidetic memory leads to his obsessive attention to detail.

Every time I see Sheldon I think of my headteacher. He’s not a physicist, socially inept and doesn’t have an unhealthy relationship with Mr Spock – but he does appear to have a little OCD. He can recall all of our GCSE results for the last 10 years, (he keeps them all on his phone Mr Ebbinghaus); on our daily morning, “hurry the latecomers” trawl, he can’t walk past a piece of litter without picking it up and he never fails to tell us every day that “the devil’s in the detail” and “we have to sweat the small stuff”.

I know he’s right because this school isn’t what it was since I first arrived here and he became head 10 short years ago. So has he developed educational OCD over these 10 years? I don’t think so. Most of the things he is OCD about have nothing to do with education – just great leadership.

Litter collection, obsessing about uniform, apostrophes and sweating the small stuff are all about creating an atmosphere of good order through modelling for a group of people he happens to lead. People like to see the headteacher around the school doing things that they do, on the frontline.

But is his OCD developing in response to the educational landscape set by Mr Gove and Sir Michael? Known to some as Thorndike and Skinner, their latent work and practices in “operant conditioning” – the practice of modifying behaviours by reinforcement and punishment – are patently obvious. Teachers already work in the Thorndike-Skinner puzzle boxes (search “Skinner box experiment” online). For the next part of the cunning plan, the duo start to “shape” headteachers, forming increasingly complex behaviours by “chaining”. I realise that by now you want to chew your arm off, but stay with me.

Headteachers in the system are literally being titillated, then torn apart because they have to play the game, waiting for the next nugget of shaping and chaining. But here’s the great bit! My headteacher knows how to play the game. 

He stays inside the puzzle box, looking out and respecting his shaping superiors for trying to solve the educational puzzle. I’m just not sure he likes the way they go about it. His OCD therefore is his greatest ally. The attention to detail to keep Thorndike and Skinner happy is worth the effort, yet ultimately he concentrates on what really matters; developing the skills and talents of staff and students.

So what’s the solution to the Thorndike-Skinner Complex conundrum? Let’s start with Dr W. Edwards Deming. He would disband Ofsted straight away I reckon. Just read five of the 14 points he puts forward in his book, The New Economics:

  • Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for inspection on a mass basis by building quality into the product in the first place

  • Eliminate management by objective by numbers or numerical goals. Substitute leadership.

  • Eliminate work standards (quotas) on the factory floor. Substitute leadership.

  • Institute vigorous education/self-improvement programme.

  • Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s job.

Just imagine. No more Ofsted. No more rigging the figures. No longer would exam boards have to compete with each other and provide “easier” exams, no more game-playing. All of those people who work for Ofsted could work in schools supporting school improvement. Thorndike and Skinner would go down in history as the pair who really made a difference. My headteacher could concentrate all of his OCD on the things that really do matter.

Then when it’s all over we could retire together, watch the whole boxset of Star Trek. Live long and prosper.

  • John Wootton is senior vice-principal at a school in Birmingham. His recent book is called The Three Trainees: Learn how to manage the classroom (


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