Making Education Dangerous, Pt. 1

October 3, 2009

One approach to making education dangerous is to borrow from complexity principles, and begin with humility regarding the path towards a shared goal. Remember our task is to influence, attract, and therefore encourage desired patterns. Too often in education our policy begins with a “theory of change” that purports to shape a deterministic path towards a goal, and adds process metrics to gauge progress. This methodology encourages assumptions regarding linear causality, and is adopted across the philanthropic world as the de facto approach to investments in education.

This leads, in part, to a system that holds process constant while adjusting standards – our definitions for success. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan argues succinctly that we need to make the standards consistent and the process flexible.

Where to start? Here are some ideas, expressed as two major steps – aligning with Secretary Duncan’s observation:

1. Adopt a common high, internationally-benchmarked standard for achievement. Every child deserves to be held to a common high standard.
2. Dismantle the regime that enforces a single process for all learners, and replace this with a regime that allows a personalized learning experience – one that begins with, and is defined by, the individual child.

How are we doing? Against #1 above, so far, 46 U.S. states have signed on to the intent to adopt common standards. For #2, the forthcoming innovation fund grants will invest in those states and districts where a spirit of discovery and experimentation prevails. Innovation that leads to emergent solutions, tools, processes, and ideas. All to realize the needs of the learner, rather than the needs of the Industrial Age workforce.

The current system presumes we are growing interchangeable widget-people who will work nothing more complex than an assembly production line. The system is obviously broken. As we approach this, many suggest a different approach than historically marks efforts towards education ‘reform.’ Rather than the predictive logic of a theory of change to move education into the 21st century, consider Dave’s tools for complex management (distributed cognition, disintermediation, fine-grained data), and begin there to re-make the education system (of systems). Can we learn from this construct, and prepare market conditions for innovation that respect the complex nature of the problem?

Ideas? How would you go about this?

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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