By Steve Denning Contributor, Forbes | http://onforb.es/oBBl7w
The Single Best Idea for Reforming K-12 Education
9/01/2011 @ 5:25PM | I have been asked for my “single best idea for reforming K-12 education”. When you only have one shot, you want to make it count. So I thought I would share my idea here, in case anyone has a brighter insight.
Root cause: factory model of management
To decide what is the single best idea for reforming K-12 education, one needs to figure out what is the biggest problem that the system currently faces. To my mind, the biggest problem is a preoccupation with, and 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, the parents and the administrators have to adjust. “The system” grinds forward, at ever increasing cost and declining efficiency, dispiriting students, teachers and parents alike.
Given that the factory model of management doesn’t work very well, even in the few factories that still remain in this country, or anywhere else in the workplace for that matter, we should hardly be surprised that it doesn’t work well in education either.
But given that the education system is seen to be in trouble, there is a tendency to think we need “better management” or “stronger management” or “tougher management”, where “management” is assumed to be the factory model of management. It is assumed to mean more top-down management and tighter controls, and more carrots and sticks. It is assumed to mean hammering the teachers who don’t perform and ruthlessly weeding out “the dead wood”. The thinking is embedded in Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind.
These methods are known to be failing in the private sector, because they dispirit the employees and limit their ability to contribute their imagination and creativity; they frustrate customers, and they are killing the very organizations that rely on them. So why should we expect anything different in the education sector?
When the problems have been caused in the first place by introducing the practices of “management”, then a more rigorous pursuit of this type of “management” only makes things worse. It is like medieval doctors trying to cure patients by bloodletting, using leeches, which only made the patients worse.
The inapplicablity of these methods is aggravated by the changes in the economy. Not so long ago, we could predict what jobs and careers might be available for children in their adult life. The education system could tell little Freddie or Janet what to study and if he or she mastered that, he or she was set for life. Not any more. We simply don’t know what jobs will be there in twenty years time. 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 Freddie or Janet grows up.
The best single idea for reforming education
Given this context, I believe that the single most important idea for reform in K-12 education concerns a change in goal. The goal needs to shift from one of making a system that teaches children a curriculum more efficiently to one of making the system more effective by inspiring lifelong learning in students, so that they are able to have full and productive lives in a rapidly shifting economy.
Implications of accepting the shift in goal
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, so that they will be able to learn whatever they have to.”) All parties—teachers, administrators, unions, parents and students—need to embrace the new goal.
Once we embrace this goal, we can see that that many things will have to change to accomplish it. We can also grasp that most of the thinking underlying current “reforms” of the system can be seen in their true light as schemes and devices that are actually making things worse.
Some of the implications include:
- The role of the teachers and parents: Education has to shift from imparting a static package of knowledge to a dynamic goal of enabling students 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 their energies and talents.
- The role of administrators: Administrators have to realize that managing the teachers through the control of a traditional hierarchy using carrots and sticks isn’t going to work any better than it does in industry. Unless teachers are themselves inspired, they are unlikely to inspire their students. 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.
- The role of tests: 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.
- Respecting Goodhart’s law: The current focus on testing has tended to make test results the goal of the system, rather than a measure. The change in goal means recognizing that a test is only measure. Using tests as the goal infringes Goodhart’s Law: when measure becomes the goal, it ceases to be an effective measure.
- The mode of accountability: Instead of measuring progress through top-down tests and bureaucracy, the education system must be linked dynamically to self-driven learning of the students themselves. Education must abandon accountability through the use of detailed plans, rules, processes and reports, which specify both the goal and the means of achieving that goal. Instead, what is needed is “dynamic linking”, which 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 are able to generate, not merely answers that they are able to regurgitate; (e) students must be able to 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.)
- 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.
- An implementable agenda: Unlike many other ideas now being pursued in education, the shift in goal doesn’t require years of research or armies of consultants or vast funding. It doesn’t involve reinventing the wheel. Thousands of Montessori schools have been on this track for many years, with extraordinary results.
- From outputs to outcomes: Implicit in the shift in goal is of course also an implicit shift from delivering outputs (numbers of students who pass a standardized test) to outcomes in terms of what students are able to do as a result of their education. At its heart, it’s a shift from a focus on things to a focus on people, and the true goal of education.
Got a better idea? I would love to hear from you!
My most recent book is the Leader's Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st Century (Jossey-Bass, 2010). Other books include The Leader's Guide to Storytelling (2nd ed, 2011) and The Secret Language of Leadership (2007) . I worked for many years at the World Bank: as the director of knowledge management (1996-2000) I spearheaded the introduction of knowledge management as an organizational strategy. You can follow me on Twitter at @stevedenning. My website is at www.stevedenning.com.
The author is a Forbes contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.
The Single Best idea For Reforming K-12 Education: Part 2 HIGHLIGHTS OF THE DISCUSSION
By Steve Denning Contributor, Forbes | http://http://onforb.es/oq4PUo
Sep. 5, 2011 - 8:23 am - Thanks to all those who have read, tweeted or responded to my article, The Single Best Idea for Reforming K-12 Education. With over 10,000 pageviews and a vast response on Twitter and many long passionate comments on the Forbes site, the article evidently resonated with many. I am particularly grateful to Randal Hendee and Diane Ravitch for having flagged the article to the education community. Here are just a few of the highlights from the discussion that has ensued.
Today’s key problem nailed
There was wide agreement from those who responded that the article accurately described the central problem now faced by K-12 education. Among the most moving responses was the following:
As an elementary school teacher, one of the most frustrating aspects of the last ten years of educational policy for me has been riding through the negative consequences of the factory model of education: the switch of focus from people to scores (with accompanying specious rhetoric that ‘it’s all about the children’), the narrowed and over-standardized curriculum which claims to make instructional decisions for me but does it badly, and extensive, time-consuming documentation of my implementation of others’ ideas of what’s best for my students. (Not to mention time-consuming, mandatory “data analysis” of standardized test scores and standardized practice-test scores, district-mandated spreadsheets which tell me more or less the same thing that seeing and listening to the students’ daily work tells me!)
But the most frustrating aspect of the last ten years of education policy has been reading and listening to business leaders and economists who have succeeded in leading the American public to redefine “achievement” as “test scores” and who have convinced our superintendents and administrators that the way to said “achievement” is through scripted, test-targeted curriculum and learning materials. They say this bald-faced, ignoring or not hearing the many teachers who protest that chasing test scores is not the same as building and nurturing a culture of learning, and that generating test scores is only one kind of achievement. The desire to quantify our work has led our leaders straight to the effect you mention in your article, where the quantifier becomes all and distortion of the actual work is the result. [spschoolmarm]
Where do these ideas come from?
The idea of education as learning is as old as the word itself. Among the ancient Greeks, Plato wrote movingly along these lines. So the core idea is very, very old. So in one sense, I agree with some who said, “Nothing new here!” Or “ Been there! Done that!”
Yet the discovery of how to manage knowledge work on a large scale is quite recent. I summarized where these new ideas come from here:
Education is a kind of knowledge work. The battle over how to manage knowledge work has been fought out most notably in the field of software development over the last couple of decades. The issue had to be resolved there, because if a software program doesn’t work, you are looking at a blue screen. When a firm has spent a hundred million dollars developing the project, this is more than mildly upsetting. In other fields, like sales, finance, health or even education, you can argue about what is success or failure. In software, there is no argument. The difference is brutally obvious. It either works or it doesn’t.
At first, when managers encountered these problems in software development, they did what is now happening in education. They disciplined people. They tried tighter management. They asked for more detailed reports. They sent the developers on death marches. They fired them. But the replacements did no better. So much money was involved that a solution had to be found.
And the solution was found, largely by doing the work in self-organizing teams in short cycles, drawing on the talents of the team, and getting direct feedback from users at the end of each cycle. This way of working (dynamic linking) turned out to be hugely productive for the organization, much more satisfying for competent people doing the work and much better for the people for whom the work was being done. So there is now a huge global movement to manage software in this way, under names like Agile or Scrum. And it is spreading into all forms of knowledge work, under the name, Radical Management. When the whole organization adopts this as a way of working, the organization tends to become astonishingly profitable.
So we shouldn’t have to go through another multi-decade battle in education to discover what we already know: that bureaucratic management doesn’t work in knowledge work. We can all learn from what’s happened in other fields, and stop wasting people’s time, money and lives.
Does this stuff work?
Frankly, writing on Forbes, I expected more pushback than I received. Here is how one of the very few skeptics responded to the article:
I don’t think so.
You make the presumption that children, currently tied to their x-boxes, game-boys, and smart-phones are going to abandon these distractions in-order to “learn” how to read, write and count.
If we look at what we call the successful education systems in this world we won’t find much of this kind of education.
I believe we need to engage all adults involved in a child’s education to ensure that there is a focus on learning.
When adults, parents in particular, are held responsible for their children we can see an improvement in education.
“Education is hard work!” (Robertson Davies)
My response to this “learning is all hard grind” school of education is as follows:
1. “Kids won’t abandon their xboxes, gameboys and smartphones to learn how to read, write and count.” I don’t think that we should start with a presumption against modern technology. For instance, the conversation prompted by my article, in which over ten thousand people have participated so far, and from which I have learned a lot, could not be happening without this technology. The new generation is growing up with this amazing technology. The question is not how to protect them from it but rather how to harness its power for the cause of learning. I have discussed how to do this with Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown in my article here.
2. “Successful education systems don’t follow this kind of education.” I believe that Montessori schools have broadly followed this approach for many years and I believe they are very successful, particularly in a real-world sense. You might even see them as the origin of modern successes like Google and Amazon. Other comments on this article also point to various successful exemplars.
3. “Parents should be held responsible for kids learning.” Agreed, but that is a whole societal change, including remedying poverty and income inequality, that goes way beyond reforming the education system.
4. “Education is hard work.” Agreed. There is however a difference between hard work that is a grind and dispiriting and hard work that is exhilarating and uplifting. The current system specializes in the former. I believe that it will do better if it shifts to the latter.
Remove all constraints?
At the other extreme of the political spectrum, one reader suggested I was being too restrictive:
My only push back is in where you have teacher setting the goal. I think any prescription will compromise the brilliance we would see if the learner is truly set free. even that of a raised eyebrow. Krishnamurti states: partial freedom is no freedom. I think that is why most of our project based learning is compromised. Problem-based learning is way better than we’re used to. So we’re loving it. But we’re not getting at that true trust base, that true power of pull, the authentic curiosity/curriculum within each learner. [monikahardy]
And another reader wrote:
Have you ever looked into democratic free education (see: http://www.sudval.org/)? By removing coercion and allowing the natural desire to learn to flourish in the students, children become the sort of independent, life-long learners that you envision. [heliumiami]
Being a rebellious person by nature, I sympathize with the ideas like “Partial freedom is no freedom,” and democratic free education.
And yet as the author of a Sonnets 2000, I can also see that a world without constraints may not necessarily be very creative.
Even my article itself was generated in part by a structured challenge from the editors of Forbes: “Give me your single best idea for reforming K-12 education!” My first reaction was, “That’s absurd!” But then on reflection, I realized that having the discipline to set priorities among all the challenges facing education was actually helpful in bringing the whole scene into focus.
Structure enables creativity. We see examples of this everywhere. In nature, we see the fantastic diversity generated by a few basic structural elements: no more than a hundred varieties of atoms and a couple of primary colors lead to a universe of infinite beauty and diversity. In the great human creations, in the twelve notes of the musical scale, in the twenty six letters of the alphabet, these fantastic structural inventions have unlocked the enormous creativity of literature and music. Without structure, there is nothing for creativity to get leverage upon.
So I am uneasy about the idea that the teacher should just let the kids do whatever they want and sit back passively. I see a key role for the teacher in terms of posing challenges and asking questions that lead to more questions. In between “the sage on the stage” and “total anarchy”, there is a role for “the guide on the side”.
Monikahardy subsequently clarified:
I’m not suggesting a passive mentor, but a mentor alongside, which is quite the opposite of passive. I’m suggesting the mentor be modeling learning, be readily available, and most of all be able to listen with no agenda. we’ve been experimenting with this the last two years. There’s a huge difference when kids finally believe that you have no agenda other than permission for them to be, and then you go about facilitating that.
I agree with this formulation. Manipulation is not a good thing. Pseudo-freedom may be worse than no freedom at all.
Global competitive standards in education
One reader asked what I thought about the drive under way to make our schools more competitive globally through raising standards and rewarding success. I replied:
I am all for making schools competitive globally, steadily raising standards and rewarding success. Those are all good things in principle.
But everything depends on how they are implemented. If by “making schools competitive globally, steadily raising standards and rewarding success”, one means making the system teach children a curriculum more efficiently in a top-down bureaucratic manner, adopting scores on standardized tests as the goal of education, and hammering teachers for poor scores, then obviously this is a travesty of true education and utterly counterproductive for the reasons I have described above.
What’s more, it focuses the education system on the needs of the 20th Century economy, namely, docile workers who did what they were told, had specific knowledge and could answer questions based on that knowledge. The needs of the 21st Century economy are very different. As the economy goes through increasingly rapid change, the workers who are needed are people who can learn new skills quickly and who are as good at deciding what are the right questions as they are at finding the right answers. By and large, today’s curriculum tends to discourage learning and creativity and today’s standardized tests don’t do a good job of measuring those dimensions. As a result, the preoccupation with international test scores is leading to students who are good for the 20th Century, but not the 21st Century.
If on the other hand, by “making schools competitive globally, steadily raising standards and rewarding success”, we mean inspiring lifelong learning in students, so that they are able to have full and productive lives in a rapidly shifting economy, with the standards and measurements that truly reflect that goal, then I am all for those things.
What about poverty?
Diane Ravitch has argued powerfully that the principal problem of many struggling schools is poverty. Anthony Cody asked: How would your approach change the way students there experience education? My reply:
Income inequality is obviously a major determinant of educational performance. I will not pretend that the changes in educational approach that I suggest can overcome the handicap of poverty.
Nevertheless an education system that focuses on learning, and encourages students to learn by exploring issues that are of interest to them, has greater chances of overcoming some of the constraints of poverty a top-down system that proceeds from thee approach of “You study what we tell you to study, when we tell you, and how we tell you, and at a pace that we determine”
How can educators be more persuasive?
I was also asked what educators could do to make their voices heard. Some feel that the Department of Education and White House listen more to business leaders than to teachers. My reply:
It’s important how the issue is framed. If the issue is framed as an education issue, “how do we improve education?” there is a risk that anachronistic management ideas will be implicitly assumed as self-evident and imposed on the sector. If on the other hand the issue is framed as a management issue, “what does the world know about running knowledge organizations?” then the whole array of evidence can be brought to bear on the discussion.
This in turn implies that if leaders in the education sector are to win these arguments, they need to be aware of what is happening beyond education and become versed in what is known about running knowledge organizations, from Agile, Scrum and Radical Management.