Students should be teaching. Schools should be learning.

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.


What do teachers make?

Today our education focuses more on teaching than learning. While that may not be ideal, it makes it clear that the most important asset of today’s system are the teachers. A good teacher could make a difficult subject easier, a boring class interesting, and sometimes even make you forget you’re in school. The best teachers would teach you things you remember for life that for some reason didn’t have anything to do with what class they taught.

I think the significance of teachers is mostly forgotten or ignored. I have a theory that in the back of their minds, most people already know that most of school is a shallow institution of proving how smart you are as opposed to a resource for learning. And this is why we don’t value teachers as much as we should.

Still, we entrust our kids to teachers for the majority of their most pliable and influential years. Having a great teacher can have a profound effect on who you become as an adult. Nobody I know has said this better than Taylor Mali…

We have Industrial Age schools

Since 1991, Peter Senge has been writing books around his packaged version of systems thinking principles called the Fifth Discipline. It turns out Peter Senge was a student of Jay Forrester, the father of System Dynamics and those cool little stock and flow diagrams for modeling dynamic systems. Anyway, fairly recently Senge put out a Fifth Discipline book called Schools That Learn that applies systems thinking principles to education systems, from classroom to community.

The book covers a lot, including a brief history of modern schools systems, which originated at the dawn of the Industrial Age. It was then when European states started building educational infrastructure to help compete in this new era of science and technology. As the book describes,

The result was an industrial-age school system fashioned in the image of the assembly line, the icon of the booming industrial age. In fact, schools may be the starkest example in modern society of an entire institution modeled after the assembly line. Like any assembly line, the system was organized into discrete stages. Called grades, they segregated children by age. Everyone was supposed to move from stage to stage together. Each stage had local supervisors–the teachers responsible for it. Classes of twenty to forty students met for specified periods in a scheduled day to drill for tests. The whole school was designed to run at a uniform speed, complete with bells and rigid daily time schedules.

This very mechanistic model of the school, as well as the assembly line, was the result of the Machine Age worldview, which was responsible for the Industrial Revolution itself. Since World War II, this way of thinking has started to have limited application because it fails to address new issues that we’ve since discovered because of the efforts of industrialism.

As it turns out, schools are the only remaining institution entirely based on this worldview. In hindsight, we can see the disadvantages of this model that we should probably not tolerate any longer.

Those who did not learn at the speed of the assembly line either fell off or were forced to struggle continually to keep pace. It established uniformity of product and process as norms, thereby naively assuming that all children learn in the same way. It made educators into controllers and inspectors, thereby transforming the traditional mentor-mentee relationship and establishing teacher-centered rather than learner-centered learning. Motivation became the teacher’s responsibility rather than the learner’s. Discipline became adherence to rules set by the teacher rather than self-discipline. Assessment centered on gaining the teacher’s approval rather than objectively gauging one’s own capabilities.

Shift Happens

This is a great visualization of various numbers and statistics that shows how important the role of education is becoming. It explains how we have no idea what’s to come and that we need to learn how to adapt as much as how to cope. This is a newly updated version of the video that’s been around since 2006.

Institutionalism and Illich

One theme I’ve noticed when illustrating problems with schooling is that the audience gets the impression that I am against education. It is true that I am against education in its traditional institutional role, but not in the personal sense. There is nothing wrong with educating children in a formal and reproducible environment, but everything is wrong with interfering with their faculties of curiosity and determination.

In Deschooling Society (available free online), Ivan Illich describes a spectrum of education systems ranging from the current monolithic public schools to decentralized learning webs. Written in 1971, his model for decentralized education is suggestive of the network power inherent in the Internet. It described a network of interested parties collaborating in resources and intelligence, some of which is only just recently materializing in the mainstream web.

However, regardless of the particulars of Illich’s arguments or those of any other iconoclast, there is an evident need for a more humane educational system. One which respects students enough to put power into their hands, and not to chain them to desks, arhythmic schedules, and the whims of a curricula based on the conceit that there is an ideal person.

Written by Adrian Perez

Will Wright, the Modern Montessori

Today I realized they released Will Wright’s TED talk from earlier this year, and as a huge Will Wright fan I had to watch it. Like most of his presentations recently, it’s centered around a demo of his new game Spore, which I’ve seen plenty of already. But here it’s presented in a way that shows his educational intentions with it more clearly than before.

He really points out the true significance of the game and how he wishes it to make a difference in the world, which is strongly influenced and almost in homage to the Montessori school he attended for 6 years as a child.

As a sidenote, Will Wright is also a student of systems theory and applies those principles directly in his work. He’s the one who first exposed me to the ideas of general systems theory in his talks at the Game Developers Conference.

The rat race is mistaken for productive work

The other day I clicked on a cute looking video being promoted on the YouTube homepage. Not just because of the cute cartoon cat (who turns out to be named Pinky) that looked like it was giving a newscast, but because it was titled Thomas Edison hates cats. How can you not be curious about something like that?

Cute with a pinch of humor combined to make a fairly serious sort of public service announcement. It turns out they’ve made a number of them, including one on schools. Based around excerpts from Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, this one is about a recurring nightmare Pinky has about schools. I haven’t read Deschooling Society yet, but after watching this I’m going to order it tonight. It’s concerned with much the same issues that inspired us to organize EduCamp.

The pupil is thereby schooled to confuse teaching with learning,
schooled to confuse grade advancement with education,
schooled to confuse a diploma with competence.