Russ Ackoff is one of the most convincing and articulate critics of the major deficiencies of our education system. He’s considered the dean of systems thinking. At the National Summit on School Design he gave the keynote speech. He asked how many in the audience had taught a course. Then he asked, “Who learned the most in the class that you taught?” The audience murmured and Ackoff said,

You see, everybody recognizes immediately that teachers are the ones who learn the most. School is absolutely upside down. Students ought to be teaching. The faculty ought to be learning.

This points out two major deficiencies in our school system. The first is obvious: if teaching is how you learn the most, maybe we should be teaching kids to teach. The benefits of this alone would have a huge impact on the effectiveness of schools. Ackoff then goes on to describe how this used to take place in one-room schools as a necessity, and the success story of having 7 year old kids teach arithmetic to a computer in order to learn it themselves. It’s a great keynote and you can listen to it here.

The second deficiency is about the inability of schools to change. For whatever reason, possibly because of a government monopoly, our public schools have not fundamentally changed since they were introduced in the 1850s. Unless schools are able to learn, they will not be able to become more efficient at their purpose. Unless schools are able to adapt, they will not be able to remain effective in a changing environment, which is only going to happen faster.

I’m writing a manifesto for ChangeThis based on the educational work of Russ Ackoff, John Dewey, John Taylor Gatto, Peter Senge, and Ken Robinson. Hopefully it will elucidate the problems of education and inspire new approaches that will make a difference. Here is a excerpt on the topic of adaptability:

In the Industrial Age, the education planners could depend on just increasing how many children were educated, much like the assembly line increasing the production of goods. Henry Ford effectively dissolved the problem of “how many” with the assembly line and mass production. But he failed to appreciate the implications of this success by not addressing the problem of “what kind” that comes with abundance. Because of the statement, “They can have any color as long as it is black,” Ford gave GM the opportunity to eventually dominate the market.

With compulsory assembly line schools and college graduates at an all-time high, we’ve achieved abundance from a high-throughput education system. The problem has since been “what kind” of education, but with the alarming rate of new fields coming into existence, we’re starting to fall behind. It’s not just one target, it’s an increasing number of faster moving targets. We simply have no idea what’s going to be needed, and we must redesign the system to address this.

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