Society as a whole, at least in the west, is moving towards a decentralized, networked system rather than centralized. It is notably in our education system, both public and higher, that we are lagging behind.
The internet communications revolution is one of the key pieces behind this. As Jeremy Rifkens notes in The Empathic Civilization, the internet is in and of itself a decentralized system. Rather than being routed through a centralized phone system as with a telephone call, an internet user accesses information from a decentralized database of servers located all over the world. And with previous communications systems, information could only be passed along linearly- in a book, on a floppy disk, or along a telephone line. Whereas information uploaded to the internet can be accessed from anywhere in the world by any number of users. Information uploaded becomes part of a pool of shared value anyone with an internet connection can tap into. This is fundamentally democratizing, allowing unparalleled access to information as well as the chance for everyone to have a voice. We hear talks of the sharing economy as the model for the early 21st century, made possible thanks to the internet. It is a network model of society, where anyone can contribute value in an a-linear way and access the shared pool of value.
The decentralizing effects of the internet can be seen in all facets of modern life, to varying degrees. It is decentralizing the way we learn, collaborate, work, and manage our companies. I've talked sufficiently about the effects of modern technology on learning in other articles, and suffice it to say here that one can learn most anything they want at little to no cost through the internet. Even in cases where expertise, mentorship, or peer-based collaboration is required, the necessary connections can easily be found on the internet.
We've also seen how technology is decentralizing the way people work and companies organize themselves. The growing number of independent, freelance creative professionals is a perfect example of this. Unthinkable decades ago; now designers, creators, and consultants can independently promote and market themselves, and complete their contracts from their laptop and anywhere they have an internet connection.
I've already talked about the example of IBM that Cathy Davidson uses in Now You See It. Faced with becoming irrelevant by fast moving, younger, smaller companies; IBM completely reinvented itself as a decentralized company under a network model. They use technology to manage independent, crossfunctional, interdisciplinary teams whose members are often scattered across all parts of the globe. The members of the team do what they call Endeavor Based Work, where a single crossfunctional team develops a project from start to finish, each member adding value in their unique way but also responsible for the final product. This is in contrast to a centralized organization, where the project, and ownership of it, would be tossed around from department to department like a hot potato: engineering, testing, manufacturing, quality control, marketing, sales, customer service, etc.
It's no coincidence that most software companies, for example, use some form of the Agile. Agile is a decentralized, customer-centric management philosophy that focuses on creating value for customers through rapid prototyping and an empowered team structure. Rather than having a centralized hierarchy where orders are handed down from on high, in Agile, the thought goes that those working directly on a project with customers are the ones who have the most accurate, up-to-date information that affects the direction of a project. Hence the power being decentralized into the hands of the individual teams and its members. Managers and team leaders don't manage or lead in a traditional sense, but are there to facilitate the work of the team members as much as possible by removing obstacles and connecting the team to resources. It's no coincidence that an Agile team leader sounds a lot like the idea of a teacher-as-learning-facilitator I've discussed previously. The inversion of authority functions into facilitation functions is a key aspect of any decentralizing system.
Agile arose in the 90's as a way to solve the problems software companies of the day were having, namely, that they would often spend months or years developing a piece of software that didn't actually fit customer's needs and hence went unused, that the software they built was too interdependent and could not easily be updated, and that they spent an inordinate amount of time at the end debugging the code. As I write this, I can even see the parallels between this and the problems with our education institutions I've previously discussed, that our schools and universities are not customer-centric, deliver learning "products" that their customers don't want, have parts that are too interdependent and as a result prevent them from adapting and trying new things and experimenting.
Eventually, the pioneers of Agile created the following manifesto of 12 principles to describe their work and management philosophy:
Rather than developing a product for a year in an isolated silo, hoping it is what the customers need, then kicking it down the line to the sales and marketing department, Agile teams invert the approach. The team works hand in hand with the customer, who often forms a member of the team. At the very least, the teams typically include a "customer advocate" position whose job is to ask, "is this really what the customer wants? Will the customer actually use this?" They build a rough, dirty prototype to begin with that may look nothing like the final product but that can be shown to the customer in a week or two weeks rather than two years. This is key because it means crucial feedback can be collected than can influence the next prototype, which is slightly better than the previous one. Over the course of dozens of iterations and evolving prototypes, the constant customer feedback ensures that the product, slowly but surely, moves towards completion, often much more rapidly than a traditionally-managed project. And resources are saved because by the time the product is finished, no extra testing is needed. The customer testing was built into the development and the developers, as a result, know that the product delights its customers.
That is obviously best case circumstances, as it is hard for many companies to successfully implement agile, especially larger ones with more established corporate cultures. But the data support the idea of Agile and its efficacy: Agile-managed projects are successful 50% of the time, to within 50% of the original timeframe of the project planners. By comparison, traditionally (centrally) managed projects are successful just 14% of the time and are accurate to with 350% of the original timeframe alloted (source).
The teams are purposefully kept small to facilitate communication and collaboration, usually no larger than 5-6 people. Teams larger than that have been shown to actually output less on average than smaller teams, due to the complexity inherent in having more people who need to be constantly communicating, collaborating, and developing and maintaining a consensus and direction. It's much more effective to split larger teams up into smaller teams whose leader-facilitators then coordinate the combined actions of the two mini-teams. These teams typically set their own goals and tasks to achieve those goals then hold each other accountable in the execution. The team members, as with the IBM example, are often comprised of a spectrum of disciplines required to complete the project.
This form of customer-centric, decentralized management is not unique to software, however, but has cropped up and is cropping up in a variety of disparate fields. Toyota, for example, pioneered Lean Manufacturing. Later, the concepts of Lean were applied to managing new startups and the Lean Startup movement arose. Software Agile is slowly giving birth to a new movement of modular, rapid, decentralized manufacturing called Extreme Manufacturing (after Extreme Programming in software). There are the fields of design thinking and human-centered design which have emerged in recent years, as well. And ironically enough, much of the inspiration for Agile came from the pioneering work of the architect Christopher Alexander whose seminal works A Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language described architectural pattern languages as a tool for democratizing the development of livable homes, offices, and towns. Inspired by Alexander, early Agile practitioners began developing their own library of software patterns to accelerate their work and increase their ability to collaborate across teams. Even the military began experimenting with decentralized management as early as the late 70's and 80', and the post-9/11 fight against terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to have renewed the US military's commitment to decentralization.
The question is not if, but when decentralization will begin cropping up in new fields of human endeavors, and those who are capable of facilitating the transition to decentralized systems will almost certainly be heralded as pioneers as we become accustomed to living in a networked society.
in Centralized organizations are characterized by artificial divisions among work tasks or disciplines. In a corporation, that might look like Engineering, Human Relations, Sales, Marketing, Customer Service, etc. In an academic setting, it is the academic disciplines: biology, physics, psychology, and so on. It seems efficient on paper to have all the engineers talking with one another, all the biologists talking to each other, and all the psychologists talking together; and indeed it may be efficient for certain aims. For specialists doing isolated research in very specific subsets of their discipline, it makes sense in some ways to communicate and collaborate primarily with other specialists of that discipline. But the greater efficiency, relevancy, and customer-centricity of the organization suffers as a whole because the individual buckets of disciplines or functions isn't communicating across the various stovepipes of the organization. Meanwhile, the power structure of a centralized organization is very top-down. The CEO sets the overall policy that the high level managers pass on to mid level managers and on to the direct reports at the bottom of the hierarchy. Ultimately, this leads to less buy-in from people involved in the system. They don't feel ownership for the overall product or service that they're offering, as they only ever see a small piece of the final product, and they have no real say in how it looks or how it is delivered.
It's obvious that our education system is still very centralized. Christensen et al. and Davidson describe it very well in Disrupting Class and Now You See It. While they're talking specifically about public education, universities are in the same pot. A typical college student advances through an assembly line's worth of required courses, all taught in a very monolithic way independent of learning styles, typically through a lecture and occasionally through discussions and labs. The students are treated like buckets into which more knowledge is poured by the professors, divided up into discipline-specific departments, until the students are sufficiently "full" of knowledge- both discipline-specific and of the so called "general education"- that they've earned their very expensive set of credentials. And while in the past, the university at least had a somewhat decentralized power structure in that professors largely governed themselves, universities have as a whole been rapidly centralizing their power structure in a more familiar, almost corporate hierarchy as professors have willingly given up their powers of self governance and in doing so have lost a sense of ownership and buy-in into the service-based goals of a university (beyond it's function as a credentialing institution and means for personal economic advantage).
Zemsky et al. describe this phenomenon of a rapidly centralizing university power structure in their work Remaking the American University. For most of the history of the university, professors have organized themselves to elect department heads, handle admissions and counseling, and run the day to day operations of the university. But as the authors describe, a lattice of administrative workers arranged in a centralized, manager-centric model slowly emerged to make the university financially self-sufficient beginning in the 70's and 80's as state appropriations for universities declined. As time went on, the administrators expanded their lattice of powers and responsibilities until gradually a whole class of non-professors where governing the university instead of the professors. They note that in 10 years, from 1975 to 1985, the average amount of faculty increased by 6% while the administrative staff increased by 60% (23).
Yet professors were fine with this, as it freed up more of their time to do prestigious activities that would advance themselves professionally: research, publication, and professional service (25). Unfortunately, as Zemsky et al. note, this gradual disengagement of the professors had poor outcomes for the institution as a whole. It lost its sense of an organization providing a greater societal good and instead came to view itself as a purely consumer good offering students credentials in exchange for tuition money. Professors have, for the most part, been too busy pursuing their personal goals over the goals of the university as a whole, acting more like mercenaries rather than members of a community of scholars (26).
"In the early twenty-first century, all that social activism is now gone or disappearing. Today colleges and universities are seen principally as gateways to economic security and middle-class status. Except for the occasional bout with political correctness, almost no one worries about higher educaiton institutions leading young people astray. If anything, the lament is that they have, in their pursuit of market advantage, bceome dispensers of degrees and certificates rather than communities of educators who originate, debate, and promulgate important ideas" (4).
This is a direct result of the gradual centralization of the power structure of American universities combined with the new role of the university as a path to middle-class economic prosperity. But that middle-class opportunity as we knew it is disappearing fast, if it's not already completely disappeared. Liberal arts majors are hard pressed to find jobs worthy of a bachelor's or master's degree after they graduate. Professional degrees such as business and engineering still confer some employment opportunities. But it seems like a given that even technical jobs will soon be outsourced to the developing world, where the same jobs can be done more cheaply and effectively- at least, in a centralized model of education and work. In a centralized system, as long as the engineers can cheaply and effectively execute the specifications set by the business team. But as I've mentioned, the inability of the functional "stovepipes" to communicate between one another often means this system doesn't work as well in practice as in theory. That said, with modern communications technology, decentralized teams can easily be managed and coordinated even when the members are scattered across the globe. So outsourcing isn't necessarily a phenomenon of centralization.
Zemsky et al. try to answer the question, why care that the role of universities have changed and they've become the degree factories they are today? Besides the fact that the road they provide to prosperity isn't as clear as it may have been in the past due to globalization, they say:
"The answer lies in what is lost when universities are shaped almost exclusively by the wants of students seeking educational credentials and businesses and govermental agencies seeking research outcomes. When universities are wholly dominated by market interests, there is a notable abridgement of their roles as public agencies- and a diminution of their capacity to provide public enues for testing ideas and creeds as well as agendas of public action... Finally, what is being lost is the idea that knowledge has other than instrumental purposes, that ideas are important whether or not they confer personal advantage" (7).
Centralization has led universities to focus almost exclusively on the credentialing of our youth to the exclusion of its other potential functions. Another unfortunate side effect is that it provides a subpar educational experience. Christensen et al. describe one such effect this has on the educational experience in a university:
"Consider colleges and universities, by illustration. Their major lines of organizational structure are typically drawn by academic field: departments of mathematics, physics, French, economics, classics, and so on. The reason for structuring universities in academic departments is to facilitate the faculty's ability to interact with others who share common interests and expertise and to help them publish in specialized acdemic journals so that they can achieve tenure. As a result of these structures, college education for most students entalis repeated bouncing back and forth in a cumbersome way between departments and administration to get their education. And colleges incur extraordinary overhead expenses to deal with the fact that few of them are organized in ways tthat optimize the flow of students through the requisite experiences" (172).
And so students pay more for a subpar experience that doesn't quite prepare them to create value in a networked, 21st century America. If their goal is to mimic the outdated centralized, assembly-line style management and work practices that resulted in the outsourcing of a large part of our economy in the past decades, then they are succeeding. In the meantime, students who have never had an opportunity to experiment and explore their interests and identity are stuck in a system that discourages experimentation and exploration of disciplines, majors, and interdisciplinary collaboration, the latter being where the truly interesting and engaging work is usually done. They often spend two years taking "general education" classes before they get to any meaty class on what they're supposed to be excited about, which is their choice of major. These general education classes are usually the same things covered in High School, which discourages and depresses them and make them realize they are in for More of the Same. And almost without fail (there are notable exceptions, but they are exactly that, exceptions) these classes are easy and poorly taught in large auditoriums of 200+ students, as the professors realize the students are there because they have to be and not because they want to be.
So by the time they get to any interesting classes in their third year or if they're lucky by the end of their second year, many students feel it's too late to change majors even if they realized they studied the wrong thing. The sunk-cost bias sinks in, and after all, each class they already took means hundreds if not thousands of dollars down the drain if it doesn't count towards their new major. And even changing general-education requirements between majors and departments means that some of those classes may be wasted, as well.
Worse, because of the academic nature of the courses even in professional tracks like engineering and business and social science, someone can easily graduate from a university without knowing the least thing about how their profession actually operates. This is, once again, thanks to the centralized nature of the university. A centralized system requires standardized processes across the institution, and the easiest thing to do as the institution grows is to apply the existing processes to the new parts of the organization even if they aren't ideal. As professions typically taught in vocational schools or apprenticeships suddenly found themselves taught in universities, no effort was made to find effective ways to teach the practical skills associated with those professions. They were instead shoe-horned into the existing pedagogical methods perhaps suited to teaching philosophy and rhetoric but ill suited to what most students in a university study nowadays. And with the current system of economic incentives for universities, educational quality is typically ignored in favor of ever more robust and competitive recruitment processes (Zemsky et al. 44).
The Endeavor Based University is a decentralized education at its finest. The technology and infrastructure is already there such that anyone can learn practically anything from anywhere they have an internet connection. At a fraction of the cost of a university degree, they could even take advantage of non-virtual resources like libraries, fab labs, hacker spaces, apprenticeships, and mentorship.
Universities and other educational institutions have the opportunity to recast themselves as network nodes in this decentralized network of learning, that is, natural accumulations of peers, expertise, resources, and facilities that can vastly accelerate an individual student's learning as well as advance a certain agenda: civic and democratic engagement, cross-cultural collaboration, humanistic values, etc.
Think about the portrait of a typical college student's experience that Goodman drew earlier. Imagine what a university education could be, instead.
Imagine if the university were instead project based or endeavor based, and interdisciplinary instead of divided into disciplines. Each student would still have a major, but from the very beginning they would be working on real world projects in small teams instead of sitting in lectures for the first two years that had little to do with what they might actually be doing after they graduate. That way, they could decide from the beginning if that major was what they really wanted to be doing, instead of having to wait until their third or fourth year to find out.
These teams, rather than working on a contrived academic project, would be working on a real project with real value for someone. It could be working hand in hand with a professor on his research project, working with a real startup, or even a project a corporation or company had. Or, it could be a completely student driven initiative: a startup, a community improvement or activism project, or even a local political campaign.
The team would be interdisciplinary, as a real world team would be. For example, imagine if the project were to try and launch a new product. Engineers, industrial designers, graphic designers, etc. would be needed, of course. But also business students, entrepreneurship majors, an accounting major. A psychology or sociology student could be recruited, whose role would be customer discovery and to be the customer advocate on the team.
Or imagine a team that decided they wanted to run for a local political science office. That could include political science majors, sociology majors, a journalism student, even a systems or industrial engineer.
Or even if students wanted to work with a professor on a research project not based on disciplinary choice, either on a team or 1 on 1, that would be an option as well.
Lecture classes as we know them would be gone. Instead of learning abstract knowledge, memorizing it for the test, then promptly forgetting it after the course was over, there would be just in time learning, roughly analogous to just in time manufacturing in lean. In just in time manufacturing, rather than expensively storing hundreds of extra pieces in a warehouse until they're needed, costs are cut by using superior organization to deliver parts to the factory only when they're needed.
In just in time learning, students would learn only what they needed to know to complete what they were working on at that particular moment in their project. If they needed to learn differential equations to design a particular engine piece, their learning facilitator would direct them to the textbook or online tutorial series they needed to learn that, and to a professor on campus that could help them if they got stuck. So instead of learning a bunch of theory without application that has no real application or context or meaning for them, they would learn the material much more effectively because it meant something to them. It was something they learned, not something a professor taught them. Those differential equations would live on in their memory and experience as that engine piece they designed that was actually being used in a car somewhere.
And the students would be creating real value in the world, something most of us have never had the opportunity, never been trusted to do until after we graduate. This would create tighter bonds between the university, its students, and the community. The university would come to be seen as a community resource where the nation's youth could be employed to solve some of the world's, the nation's, or the community's most pressing problems, keeping it relevant in an age where someone can get just as quality an education (though not the credentials) online at a fraction of the cost.
Rather than learning only a particular set of technical skills, which are likely to be out of date as soon as they graduate or soon thereafter, the students would learn those in addition to the real gems: learning how to collaborate, work in teams, set and achieve their own objectives, be self-starters, problem solve an ambiguous real world problem, create real value for others, build consensus, think critically and creatively, and take action to achieve real, measurable change. In other words, the higher-level skills that are needed in a creative, networked society where outsourcing and automation are rapidly making those skills necessary to get a job or even better, create a job where one didn't exist previously.
Of course, this idea brings up many questions to answer, which I'll explore in future articles. For example, how does a liberal arts education fit into this idea? How do you measure the results of students' learning or the efficacy of the university in such a system? Among others. So stay tuned.
Dillon Dakota Carroll
I've joked with my friends before that all life is is a cycle of boredom and despair, and then we all die (a bit of a play on what a friend once told me was one of Schopenhauer's ideas, though I have no idea if that's true).
Today I thought about what the primary patterns of my life, of my personality would be. I came up with the following list:
I'm fine with the first two, but the third isn't so nice. It's not the prettiest part of my personality and one I don't usually talk about, but I've resolved to be more honest in 2016, so I might as well bring it up now.
What's interesting to me is that the first two parts of the cycle are essentially different reactions to the same idea: that life is short and we'll all die soon anyway, and a generation or two after that no one will even remember us, really.
When I thought about this post, it didn't seem as macabre as it does now that it's written down.
Anyway, I suppose what I'm curious about is how the first two patterns can be integrated to provide more psychic harmony. While skipping the depressiveness.
I suppose in a way it's normal to have cycles of action and relaxation, action and reflection in one's life. To what extent should we try and direct these opposing states, versus letting them direct us? It seems to me that the key is in somehow rising above this control/acceptance paradigm, and I'm not exactly sure what that would look like.
I can only think of Rilke's advice in Letters to a Young Poet:
"...Be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms, like books written in a foreign tongue. Do not now strive to uncover answers: they cannot be given to you because you have not been able to live them. And what matters is to live everything. Live the questions for now. Perhaps then you will gradually, without noticing it, live your way into the answer, one distant day in the future."
In the meantime, I'll keep acting and reflecting the best I can.
Happy New Year,
Dillon Dakota Carroll
Disrupting Class is a 2011 book, written by Christensen, Horn, and Johnson, that attempts to show how schools can take advantage of computer and internet based software to provide an intrinsically motivating learning environment for kids. As they point out, students need customizable learning suited to their pace, learning style, and personal interests. That learning should also give them the most opportunities for success.
The complication is that schools, organizationally, cannot do the very thing students need the most. Due to the interdependence of the modern school, customized leraning cannot be offered without prohibitive costs. Technology has only been bolted on as an afterthought and hasn't changed the core teaching methods.
Christensen, et al. see a future where teachers are learning coaches and facilitators and software-based, student-centric tutoring programs allow students to learn the material they want, at their pace, with the grading and assessment built into the software. This won't come all at once, due to the entrenched infrastructure of our education system. Instead, it will happen in the gaps where traditional teaching isn't reaching as their effectiveness is proved, and will eventually become the norm as costs fall and the role of teachers is changed.
In certain ways, Christensen et al.'s ideas are similar to that of Cathy Davidson in Now You See It: using technology to create a network model of learning. In fact, the authors of the respective books use the same metaphors, though in different words. While Davidson talks about an assembly line versus a network model, Christensen et al. talk about them in terms of business models. The current system we have, as they describe, is a value added process, or value chain, analogous to an assembly line. At each stage of the value chain, new inputs are added that create value for the end customer. The textbook manufacturers send textbooks to the schools, and the teachers in the schools use them to add value to the students in certain batches: 9th grade math, 7th grade science, etc. The model we need to have, on the other hand, is a value network. Instead of the producers creating value in a linear fashion that is consumed at the end point of the chain by the students, in a value network, each of the consumers adds their own value into a vast pool that can be shared by everyone who's bought into that network. Think about YouTube as the consumate example. Anyone can add value to the network in the form of a funny, useful, or entertaining video, and the benefits are available for all to use. In fact, YouTube is essentially the model Christensen et al. envision: an internet-based learning platform where teachers, students, and parents can develop learning apps that can be shared with one another at low, or no, cost (132).
Currently, schools are only able to provide monolithic, one-size-fits-all learning because, as the authors say, "Today's system was designed at a time when standardization was seen as a virtue" (38). And in many ways, despite our newfound understanding of learning styles, developmental psychology, and more, we still believe this. The fact that we still bother with the same, monolithic standards for every single child in the US, which are the same measures we use to compare ourselves internationally, proves this.
I won't go too far into the author's explanation, found in chapter one, but they do an excellent job of showing how the various pieces of a modern school are too interdependent. You can't change one piece without changing all of them. They are interdependent temporally (with the age-based grade system), laterally (across disciplines- as they note, you can't change the way Spanish is taught without changing the way English is taught), physically (the school buildings are designed to facilitate only one kind of learning), and hierarchically (schools have various stakeholders to make happy, often in conflicting ways) (33).
Because of the interdependence of the parts and the fact that, at its core, the system is designed to standardize, adding computers and software to the mix solves nothing. It apports marginal benefits, but nothing revolutionary because the fundamental teaching methods haven't changed. The software solutions designed are little better than digital textbooks. As a result, customizing learning to aid students is prohibitively expensive. The authors make the point that in Rhode Island, educating a regular student costs about $9,300 per year. But educating a Special Education student, who's learning is supplemented with special materials, individualized instruction, etc., costs just shy of $23,000 per year (34).
Ultimately, technology can't be the solution. It's a force multiplier that improves the efficacy of the solution you already have. If you have an ineffective solution that creates poor outcomes, technology can't save it. The analogy Ivan Illich uses in Deschooling Society is that expecting technology to solve our educational crisis is like the US military trying to bomb the Viet Cong into submission with bigger and more destructive bombs (77). It can never work because the fundamental approach is flawed. As John Boyd noted during his time in the Pentagon, “People should come first. Then ideas. And then hardware.” The fundamental way students, teachers, and people in general interact in our education system has to change before technology can be effective at multiplying the impact of learning. Ultimately, that's what Disrupting Class is about.
While Christensen et al. would probably disagree with much of Ivan Illich's philosophy of completely abolishing mandatory education, their ideas are very similar in important ways. In his book Deschooling Society, written before the internet, Ivan Illich provides an alternative vision to modern education to replace our current model of mandatory education. He describes four learning networks, free and open to all to use (91):
This sounds pretty close to the network model Disrupting Class promotes as an ideal, where students and teachers can trade personalized learning apps, expertise, and knowledge in a mutually beneficial way. The only real difference I see between Illich's and Christensen et al.'s idea is that the latter still buys into the idea of standardization: all kids need to be learning more or less the same thing and get ranked and graded on those same things. If we accept that, then we still need most of the current educational infrastructure we currently have: mandatory attendance and all the associated overhead and extra cost associated with keeping a quarter of our population under control for half the days of the year, not to mention the largesse of a national system of testing and standards.
To this point Christensen et al. describe two uses for testing. The first is for students to demonstrate mastery of the subject material, which is fine pedagogically when that aim is separated from our compulsive need to rank, sort, and compare students. Indeed, according to Cathy Davidson, the original letter grade system arose primarily as a shorthand among teachers to understand how well their own students were grasping the material. But alas, the second use Christensen et al. see is to compare students.
"College admission decisions are built around test scores. The evaluation of which schools and districts are doing satisfactory jobs educating their students depends upon standardized exams. Even the assembly of honor rolls- whose purpose is to compare students- is largely based upon performance on exams" (111).
As I already wrote in a previous article, it seems silly and wasteful to test kids on behalf of universities and employers, and sends the message that our schools are basically factories and feeders for these institutions. At what point did it become the responsibility of our school system to help those institutions choose who to accept? But as Christensen et al. point out, colleges do need a way to make admissions decisions. If they want to use test scores to do that, there are plenty of ways to accomplish that aim without making it the responsibility of the public school system. Universities could easily have their own entrance exam, and at any rate, plenty of standardized tests like the ACT and SAT exist, all supposedly designed to test college-readiness.
The second point, that of evaluating the performance of schools and districts, is an issue inherent in a standardized, mandatory system of schooling. If we truly accepted a plurality of interests, passions, and learning styles among ourselves, and as a result rejected a standardized, mandatory system, then the onus would be on the teachers to make their class interesting and relevant enough that kids would want to attend. Then it would be easy to see who the good instructors were: they would be the ones who could present the material in a way that was interesting and engaging to the students, and actually had attendance. In vying for kid's attention in an open marketplace of ideas, instruction, and learning-facilitation, it would spur a search for innovative and effective pedagogical methods such as the very ones described in Disrupting Class in creatively run institutions like Quest 2 Learn, The Met, and High Tech High. The entire city or town could be opened up to facilitate more natural, integrated, and holistic learning.
Christopher Alexander, ironically enough an architect, provides a visionary example of what our educational system could look like in his A Pattern Language. Envisioning a learning network remarkably similar to that of Ivan Illich, Alexander describes "another network, not physical like transportation, but conceptual and equally important, is the network of learning: the thousands of inter-connected situations that occur all over the city, and which in fact comprise the city's 'curriculum'". This city-as-curriculum is in fact a decentralized education "congruent with the urban structure itself", noting that "living and learning are the same."
He continues: "In a society which emphasizes teaching, children and students- and adults- become passive and unable to think or act for themselves. Creative, active individuals can only grow up in a society which emphasizes learning instead of teaching" (99).
I mention Alexander here because one of the many inspiring architectural "patterns" (or solutions) in his compendium is that of the University as Marketplace (231), more or less similar to what I described above when discussing the potential results of abolishing a mandatory, standardized curriculum.
"Concentrated, cloistered universities, with closed admission policies and rigid procedures which dictate who may teach a course, kill opportunities for learning. The original universities in the middle ages were simply collections of teachers who attracted students because they had something to offer. They were marketplaces of ideas, located all over the town, where people could shop around for the kinds of iedas and learning which made sense to them. By contrast, the isolated and over-administered university of today kills the variety and intensity of the different ideas at the university and also limits the student's opportunity to shop for ideas."
He notes that the key aspects here are that:
A university or school system run in this way could essentially be seen as nodes in Illich's learning networks: natural points where learners, mentors, researchers, masters, apprentices, instructors, and resources congregate.
Going back to the idea of testing, what do these standardized tests measure anyway? Their chief virtue is that the metrics they use are easy to measure and compare. But ease of use does not a good metric make. What higher-level, more important values are we leaving unmeasured as a result of our focus on our precious, multiple choice, standardized tests?
But, we say, how can our students be prepared for the real world if they don't learn certain basic skills? And implicit in that question, is how can we know if they've really learned those skills if we don't test and compare them?
One thing everyone agrees on is that, the more intrinsically motivated one is to learn, the better. Indeed, Christensen et al. state several times in Disrupting Class that fostering intrinsic motivation should be a chief aim of our education system. But that intrinsic motivation cannot develop in an environment of coercion. Because the learning has no real context or meaning for students, it doesn't stick, and kids pass their time slowly learning the same things over and over again to pass the next test.
Yet there's substantial evidence that when someone is truly motivated to learn and able to freely choose to do so, they can learn the same content on their own or with minimal instruction in a fraction of the time it would have taken in a coercive school setting. Think about all the hair-pulling and gnashing of teeth that teaching reading inspires in our schools today, for example.
Paulo Freire, an internationally renowned revolutionary pedagogue, became famous for his work as an itinerant teacher in rural Brazil. He would go from village to village teaching illiterate farmers how to read. These tenant farmers were forgotten by society and exploited by landowners, in large part because of their illiteracy. Because they never had access to resources to learn how to read, they grew up illiterate, and as a result couldn't do something as simple as sign their own name at a courthouse- something they had to be able to do if they wanted to take legal recourse to protect themselves against the endemic exploitation they faced.
He found that, without fail, a month was all it took to teach these "dumb" illiterate farmers enough of the basics of reading and writing that they became self-sufficient autodidacts, starting with the words and topics that were important to them as exploited, poor, rural farmers- their Key Vocabulary, as Sylvia Aston-Warner called it. From there, they could learn the rest on their own. Why? Because they had clear, strong motivations to do so. They needed, and knew they needed, to learn how to read to be free and to live well in their society. I believe it is a mistake to assume that, with the overabundance of the written word in nearly all parts of the United States today, our youth would not come to the same conclusion that these poor Brazilian farmers came to.
And again, it comes down to what we value. Do we want pacified citizenry that duly does as its told? Or do we want ingenious self-starters who identify a problem and take the initiative to correct it? The first is the system we currently have. The second requires that we trust ourselves in a way that, as we've become slowly more institutionalized, we've forgotten how to do. If the basic skills we aspire to teach in school are truly as important as we think, then we will by necessity learn them as a natural part of living.
As a simple example, imagine a youth that has lagged behind his peers in learning how to read, for whatever reason. All his friends are on Facebook, and he wants to be able to use Facebook to talk to his friends. So he begins teasing out the patterns on his own, and if resources were made available to him through a free and open learning network, he would probably take advantage of them.
John Holt provides an admittedly much more compelling example describing his experiences working as a teacher in a summer reading program designed to help at-risk, poor, mostly black kids with poor reading skills.
"Leon didn't speak. When he did, he didn't say much. But what he said I will never forget. He stood up, holding before him a paperback copy of Dr. Martin Luther King's book Why We Can't Wait, which he had read or mostly read, during that summer session. He turned from one to another of the adults, holding the book before each of us and shaking it for emphasis, and, in a voice trembling with anger, said several times at the top of his lungs, "Why didn't anyone ever tell me about this book? Why didn't anyone ever tell me about this book?" What he meant, of course, was that in all his years of schooling no one had ever asked him to read, or ever shown him or mentioned to him, even one book that he had any reason to feel might be worth reading. It's worth noting that Why We Can't Wait is full of long intricate sentences and big words. It would not have been easy reading for more than a handful of students in Leon's or any other high school. But Leon, whose standardized Reading Achievement Test scores "proved" that he had the reading skills of a second-grader, had struggled and fought his way through that book in perhaps a month or so. The moral of the story is twofold: that young people want, need, and like to read books that have meaning for them, and that when such books are put within easy reach they will sooner or later figure out, without being taught and with only minimal outside help, how to read them" (33).
Finally, Christensen et al.'s last explicit use for comparing students: honor rolls. I can think of no more vain or petty reason to test students than to sustain the practice of honor rolls or principal's lists in schools. They are an academic beauty pageant, and don't actually justify the need to test. It is one of the many carrots we offer students to gain their buy-in and cooperation: do well on these tests and you'll get a gold star, do poorly and you'll have to stay back and repeat the class.
All this is to say that if we take Christensen et al.'s fundamental theorem to its logical conclusion- that everyone is different, with their own learning interests, passions, pace, and learning style, then the idea of testing everyone on the same standard seems unnecessary and wasteful. If we accept that, then the whole apparatus of nationalized standards and testing, national curriculums, even mandatory attendance seems to totter. Why have the costly educational infrastructure at all, if these learning networks can be provided at a fraction of the cost?
Christensen et al. provide an example of a fictitious kid named Doug. A star soccer player, academically he is "falling through the cracks".
"She [the principal] has seen Doug in class a couple of times- he's perfected the art of appearing to take notes, but unlike most of his teachers, she knows he's not. He's doodling. Fantastic, elaborate doodles. That first glimpse of his notebook had horrified her- how long had he been getting away with this? But she had also instantly known he was talented. Maybe Doug belongs in a school with more unconventional programming- more art, more creative kinds of writing, more music. Too bad Randall Circle [the school] doesn't have the infrastructure or funding for that stuff" (208).
Too bad, indeed. It's clear that the school isn't serving kids like Doug adequately and may even be doing more harm than good, as by the school's standards, Doug is a failure. But by other standards- athletic, artistic- Doug might very well be considered a success, or at the least very promising. Christensen et al. note that every kid (and really, every person) has a need to feel successful and competent (176). But Doug will never be able to feel competent in that system; the one school activity he does excel at (soccer) is disdainfully labeled as "extracurricular".
Doctors learn that their first imperative is to, above all else, do no harm. Should we not hold our schools to the same standard? Would Doug not be better off if he were left to his own devices so that he could find the "unconventional programming" on his own?
Later on, a fantastic AP calculus teacher named Escalante is described. "Escalante was an exceptional teacher. Why not capture Escalante's instructional magic on film and make it available to schools anywhere?... But these sorts of films have had little impact because they were simply carmmed into classrooms as a tool on top of the traditional teaching methods. Not surprisingly, never has a calculus teacher announced to the class, 'Kids, today is a great day. We have these films of a teacher in Los Angeles, and you just need a technician to run the projector. You don't need me any more'" (83).
I almost feel like that quote needs no explanation. It is the equivalent of keeping our tax code convoluted to satisfy and employ an industry's worth of H&R Blocks, and it sounds like Christensen et al. are as frustrated by that as I am. Of course, change won't happen all at once. The interests- of teachers, unions, administrators, textbook suppliers, standardized testing companies- are too entrenched. A complete collapse of the system is unlikely, instead rapidly increasing costs and mediocre improvements seem to be on the horizon. In the meantime, the disruption will happen in the cracks of the current education system. In the meantime, I will echo one of the calls of Christensen et al.: we need more experiments, more pilot schools and pilot initiatives designed to push the boundaries of what we think we know about learning and teaching and show that other, more empowering ways of educating ourselves are possible.
Perhaps universities have an advantage in that, as more autonomous institutions, they can test new ideas and change with more speed and agility. That is, if any of them are willing to say "enough!" to the current collegiate arms race long enough to care about the quality of their educational instruction.
I'll end with a poignant observation that Ivan Illich made: "The social decision to allocate educational resources preferably to those citizens who have outgrown the extraordinary learning capacity of their first four years and have not arrived at the height of their self-motivated learning will, in retrospect, probably appear as bizarre" (34).
Dillon Dakota Carroll
...sees much and knows much