Making Education Dangerous, Pt. 2.

October 3, 2009

The U.S. education system is broken. The data are clear, and those with means continue to flee the system – further starving the least served of important resources. High school graduation rates rank the U.S. as 19th among top developing countries. In 2007, 16% of all people between the ages of 16 and 24 dropped out of high school. In that year alone, 6.2 million young adults in the U.S. chose to severely limit their life options. Some will seek degrees in non-traditional settings, but millions will enter the workforce without basic tools. For children of color and poverty; the dropout rates are heart-breaking, but are only part of the story for these most underserved. The system fails every child to some degree, and many communities entirely.

One unmistakeable truth: fixing the education system is about more than fixing schoolhouses, or district governance, or financing and procurement, or teachers.

It is about all of these. And more.

This becomes obvious when you consider first the child. One popular video contains a quote attributed to a high school student: “When I get to school, I have to ‘power down.’” Too often, we teach at our children. However noble that intention, it does not respect what we are learning regarding how humans learn. Today’s learners are not connecting with a useful learning experience. Given the system elements (or the value network if you prefer), it will take a redesign of the entire system to achieve personalized learning and increase the life options for all, particularly the current underserved.

Some ideas I’m privileged to be working on these days (parentheticals show alignment with Snowden’s complex system principles):

1. Information Services Platform – (fine-grained data). To achieve shared situational awareness, this will provide longitudinal student data (while protecting children’s privacy) and allow for ‘mashups’ and data applications focused on shared learning across practitioners, researchers, philanthropy, parents, policy-makers, etc. The use of the term “platform” is intentional, and is derived from the literature on innovation – to include the Government 2.0 movement underway in Washington, D.C. Tim O’Reilly likens this to seeing Government as a common platform upon which we build frameworks and services, rather than seeing Government as a vending machine (put in your dollar, pout and shake the machine if you don’t get your Twinkie).

2. Personalized Learning [link=PDF] – (disintermediation). The linked report introduces ‘adaptive dimensions for personalized learning,’ including the attributes of a specific learners: Prior knowledge/skills/understanding/abilities, experiences & circumstances, pace & style of learning, attitudes & values. There is a world embedded in this list of attributes, and this is where we lose the children most at risk. A system that featured personalized learning would recognize, respect, and accommodate the world of each child.

3. Knowledge Base – (distributed cognition). The term “base” is misleading here, if the reader associates it with database. As compared with the platform that enables us to build data-centric services, this is a intentional initiative to connect communities and insights as we redesign the education system. There are nascent initiatives, where teachers – for example – can share lesson plans and ideas; this knowledge base borrows from this idea and expands it across all concerned. An important element of this knowledge base: the stories. Narratives that capture the child’s experience in her own words – another stab at the disintermediation principle if you will – as devoid of presumptive analysis or filters as we can make it.

With these initiatives, we will 1. build in data transparency, 2. focus our efforts on a challenging goal – personalization for learning, and 3. establish an intention from the beginning on systemic learning for those involved in the effort.

Who will be involved?

Thanks to the temporarily-increased funding at the Department of Education, ‘innovation zones’ will be seeded across the nation – champions of system redesign will lead efforts to address long-standing shortfalls in the system while including labor unions, local school leaders, parents, state officials, teachers, industry, and all the players in the value network for education.

This will be different. Beginning with a commitment to system redesign – not tweaking the existing model or continuing to celebrate ‘beautiful exceptions’ – and adopting leadership and management behaviors with a daily awareness that the systems’ nature is utterly complex.

I want to thank Dave and his folks for offering me this space to have this conversation – for followup you can reach me at jb (at) jbordeaux (dot) com. I look forward to your ideas and feedback.

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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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