Universal Laws of School

Morgan Housel may work in the investment industry, but he is probably better understood as a student of human behavior—especially non-rational behavior.

Recently he wrote about “Universal Laws of the World.” [1] We want to put an Ed:Future spin on his observations by offering “Universal Laws of School.” (Bold text is Housel’s. Non-bold text is ours.)

  1. Littlewood’s law: We can expect “miracles” to happen regularly, because in a world with 7 billion people the odds of a one-in-a-billion event are pretty good. That social media nightmare that affected your rival school? It will happen to you sooner or later. (Probably sooner.) Plan ahead.

  2. Gibson’s law: “For every PhD there is an equal and opposite PhD.” In law and public policy, the observation that equally qualified expert witnesses can come to opposite conclusions. The evidence and the anecdotes that you have mustered to support a new approach to learning? Rest assured that there are faculty, staff, and sometimes even parents who will present opposing evidence and anecdotes.

  3. Brandolini’s law: “The amount of energy needed to refute bullsh*t is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” Like preventative medicine, the best communication happens regularly and in advance of conflicts. When that doesn’t work, avoid giving oxygen to bullsh*t.

  4. Goodhart’s law: When a measure becomes a target, it stops being a good measure. This is why grades and test scores work against learning. They should be internal process indicators, not external targets. For a thoughtful take on how this operates at the institutional level, consider Orly Friedman’s argument about inputs.

  5. Parkinson’s Law: Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. Give students two weeks to write an essay and you’ll get roughly the same result as if you had given them one week. You can probably think of the administration / faculty / staff version of this, too…

  6. Wiio’s laws: “Communication usually fails, except by accident.” To add some nuance: any ambiguity in your communication will be given the worst possible interpretation. Therefore, refer back to Brandolini’s Law (#3).

  7. Sayre’s law: In a dispute, emotions are inversely related to what’s at stake. It has been said that “academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low.” So think twice before relocating the faculty lounge, or changing the dress code, or… you get the idea.

  8. Mill Mistakes: Assuming the familiar is the optimal. School leaders regularly hear about what the school down the road is doing. Rarely, if ever, do they hear about what schools in other parts of the country (or the world) are doing.

  9. Hickam’s dictum: Problems in complex systems rarely have one cause. The same is true of solutions. (As Peter Senge has noted, “Today’s problems are yesterday’s solutions.”) Because culture = strategy, we should approach problems and solutions by thinking like a gardener, not a chess master (credit: Gen. Stan McChrystal, Team of Teams).

What examples from your school illustrate these universal laws?


[1] Housel includes two others laws that do not show up on the list above, but only because we couldn’t think of any obvious illustrations. If you have suggestions, we are all ears!

Dollo’s law: In evolution, organisms can’t re-evolve to a former state because the path that led to its former state was so complicated that the odds of retracing that exact path round to zero.


Stigler’s law: No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer.


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Christian Talbot