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What's Involved In Reinventing Education?

From Forbes, by Steve Denning

The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.   --  Albert Einstein

The US education system is in crisis, putting the long-term future of the economy in question. The evidence is well-known. A root cause of the crisis is the application of the factory model of management to education, where everything is arranged for the scalability and efficiency of “the system”, to which the students, the teachers and the parents have to adjust. “The system” grinds forward, at ever increasing cost and declining efficiency, dispiriting students, teachers and parents alike.

Root cause: factory model of management
Given that the factory model of management doesn’t work very well in factories any more, or anywhere else in the workplace for that matter, we should hardly be surprised that it doesn’t work well in education either. It is less obvious to administrators schooled in traditional management as to what to do about it.

There is a terrible tendency to think: if something is amiss, then we need “better management”. Let’s have stronger management. Let’s have tougher management. Let’s apply private sector methods. Let’s have more rigorous standards. Let’s do more testing. Let’s hammer the teachers who don’t perform. Let’s ruthlessly weed out “the dead wood”. Hence much of the thinking in Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind.

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However when the problems have been caused in the first place by introducing the practices of “management”, then a more rigorous pursuit of this kind of “management” will only make things worse. It is like medieval doctors trying to cure patients by bloodletting, using leeches, which only made the patients worse.

The five shifts that are needed in education

Just as in reinventing management, where five fundamental and interdependent shifts are needed, so in reinventing education five fundamental and interdependent shifts need to occur:

  1. The first shift concerns the goal which has to shift from a focus on the efficiency of “the system” to one of putting students first.  This is a shift from running the system for the sake of the system (“You study what we tell you to study, when we tell you, and how we tell you, and at a pace that we determine”) to a focus on the ultimate goal of learning (“Our goal is to inspire our students to become life-long learners with a love of education.” All parties—teachers, administrators, unions, parents and students—need to embrace the goal.
  1. The second shift stems from the first transition. There was a time not so long ago, when the education system could tell little Freddie what to study and if he mastered that, he was set for life. Today, apart from a few core skills like reading, writing, math, thinking, imagining and creating, we cannot know what knowledge or skills will be needed when young Freddie or tiny Janet grows up.

Hence education has to shift from imparting a static package of knowledge to a dynamic goal of being able to create knowledge and deploy skills to new situations, whatever they turn out to be. In this world, teaching by transfer of information doesn’t work well. Instead the role of teachers (and parents) becomes one of enabling and inspiring the students to learn, so as to spark the energies and talents of the students.

In this world, the administrators have to realize that managing the teachers through a traditional hierarchy isn’t going to work anymore. The role of the administrator has to shift from being a controller to an enabler, so as to liberate the energies and talents of the teachers and remove impediments that are getting in the way of their work.

Instead of the teacher or the administrator being the judge of progress, there are explicit criteria where both the students and the teachers can understand themselves how they are doing (in real time) and thus learn how to improve.

Over time, further collaborative developments need to be incorporated over time. As suggested in MacroWikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World  by Don Tapscott and (a) teachers and schools share course materials on-line as MIT has pioneered; (b) collaborative innovation by teachers and schools to enhance learning; (c) collaborative learning so that students can take courses and learn from institutions beyond those that they attend in person.

To support and sustain those two shifts, three other shifts are necessary:

  1. The mode of coordination and accountability needs to shift from hierarchical bureaucracy to dynamic linking, i.e. to a way of dynamically linking the education system to self-driven learning of the students. One of the great achievements of the modern organization was disciplined execution with scalability. Very large numbers of people could work together and achieve consistent results. Through the use of detailed plans, rules and processes, management specified both the goal and the methods for achieving that goal; progress was systematically tracked by reports to managers. In a word: bureaucracy. It’s stopped working in business. But it’s still being introduced into education with similar dispiriting results. Hierarchical bureaucracy doesn’t work when it comes to inspiring continuous learning.

Instead, what is needed is an approach called “dynamic linking”. It means that (a) the work is done in short cycles; (b) the teacher sets the goals of learning for the cycle. (c) decisions about how the learning is to take place is the responsibility of the students; (d) progress is measured in terms of the questions the students need to be able to generate not just the answers that they are able to regurgitate; (e) students can measure their own progress—they aren’t dependent on the teacher’s tests.


The ELLI assessment tool is a promising approach to achieving these measurement goals.

  1. There is a shift from value to values; i.e. a shift from a single-minded preoccupation with economic value and maximizing efficiency to one of instilling the values that will create a passion for continuous learning over time.
  1. Communications shift from command to conversation: i.e. a shift from top-down communications (“the sage on the stage”) comprising predominantly hierarchical directives to horizontal conversations (“the guide on the side”) that helps the student discover new resources, solve problems and generate new insights.

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Individually, none of these shifts is new. However when one of these shifts is pursued on its own, without the others, it tends to be unsustainable because it conflicts with the goals, attitudes and practices of traditional management. The five shifts are interdependent and mutually reinforcing.

Implementing this agenda doesn’t involve reinventing the wheel. Thousands of Montessori schools are already on this track, with extraordinary results.

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