Friday, 18 November 2011

Some Reasons for Un-change

A quick glance at the search results for the term “School of Life” pulled out a couple of interesting queries including a 2005 made for TV movie starring Ryan Reynolds and an organization in London, England known as The School of Life, where,

The School has a passionate belief in making learning relevant – and so runs courses in the important questions of everyday life. Whereas most colleges and universities chop up learning into abstract categories (‘agrarian history’ ‘the 18th century English novel’), The School of Life titles its courses according to things we all tend to care about: careers, relationships, politics, travels, families.

Needless to say, this was enlightening news, not in the sense that the term “School of Life” isn’t in some respects verging on cliché, but more so a reinforcement that the notion of school and life being connected in truly authentic ways has moved both movie makers and alternative post secondary school founders into action that addresses a perceived deficit (there's others out there like me :).

So what then of this notion that what school is, what purpose it serves, and maybe most importantly, what school generates in terms of learning outcomes, might be ready for a disruptive change.  Two recent books that take a thorough look at school reform, 21st Century Skills by Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel and The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner set out to not only provide a rationale for systemic changes to education, but back their arguments up with instructional strategies and alternative educational delivery systems that empirically demonstrate results that are measurably better than the traditional learning models typically employed in most high schools.  So, despite the best efforts on the part of some school reformers, why is there a lag in mass adoption of new learning practices that work?

Let's begin to look at this question by drawing a parallel on a more global scale.  The same question could be raised around the topic of the development of ‘alternative energy’.  First and foremost, there is an established infrastructure that supports a world that runs on carbon chains just as in the educational world there is infrastructure that runs on semantic knowledge.  To develop both was a costly and time-consuming effort, and now there are many people within the general population who have a vested, economically dependent interest in our continued use of said energy and informational dissemination sources. 

In the energy realm, despite rising environmental resistance, infrastructure build out continues today.  Look no further than the current pipeline debate or the carbon sequestering technology debates for evidence that many people are in no hurry to let go of legacy systems.  There may be some who are looking for ways to reduce harmful environmental impacts, but it appears that not everyone is ready to abandon 'what has worked’ for the last century.

Ironically, the window of 100 years of protracted hydrocarbon use is about the same amount of time that the educational system as we know it today has had to establish an infrastructure.  Even with the recent introduction of alternatives like Charter Schools (which to me is like saying “let’s switch from oil dependency to natural gas”) the actual number of learning choices available is constrained by a political system that looks first to evolve the legacy infrastructure before entertaining the notion of adopting ‘disruptive’ methodologies. 

On the topic of the availability of new educational methods, another quick internet scan turns up a variety of interesting content ranging from history of school choice in the U.S. (see links below) to tables that argue for why choice in Ontario Public Schools is actually a myth.   Without broaching the inevitable politics that surrounds the positions taken by these authors, my question around ‘choice of learning methodology’ is based on a much larger event horizon.  To do this I need to once again return to the Energy analogy.

What I’m trying to establish here is a contrast between the ability to choose from 100’s of new car models (which would be the argument of 'choice availability' for those with the vested interests mentioned earlier) and the option of being able to drive something that doesn’t burn gas (or coal based electricity) when I go to work.  And what really upsets me, is that while many in the energy debate point fingers at one another about the hypocrisy of driving to an air quality protest in a gas powered vehicle, the tactic of clogging the dialogue with self-limitation arguments (“see…you aren’t any different than the rest of us”) would become baseless if real choices of equal utility and cost that were less harmful to the environment were available.  I want to make perfectly clear at this point that I’m NOT channeling Michael Moore, as this to me is less about the conspiratorial, and more about a general commitment to R&D.  In the meantime, the rhetoric flies, and little else is done to stem the current drift to complete climate degradation.

So the adoption issue begins at the macro level with two high barriers in place:

  • 1.     Resistance to change massive legacy systems for a variety of reasons, most of them economic based
  • 2.     Self-limiting, circular dialogue that obfuscates the issue of domain agency retention by those with vested interests in legacy systems

Change agents face both of these barriers across the professional spectrum, but Wagner (mentioned above) does a fine job of articulating a third barrier, which is nested within the culture of the education profession.

The culture of the education profession, in my view, is influenced by the laws of both nature and nurture: Nature: Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the sort of person who was attracted to teaching as a profession was a kind of craftsman-someone who enjoyed honing a skill and greatly preferred working alone.  This was also a person who valued security and continuity above challenge and change.  Nurture: The ways in which educators have been trained traditionally, and in which their work is organized in schools, reinforce all of these tendencies. [1]

This observation about the cultural tendencies of educators may not be unique when compared to other professions, but what really supports and encourages the somewhat static aspects of the education culture is the fact that government established education systems are not-for-profit.  That fact need not be an indictment.  I can say however that this leads to an inability to adopt many incentivization approaches commonly practiced by for-profit organizations.  At the very least, K-12 education lacks the tools of change available to for-profit organizations.  Government controlled means political first, instead of profit first, by nature.  Add to that, the fact that teaching somebody something is, for the most part, different than using that same person as a human resource to generate profit.  Each effort comes with its own idiosyncrasies, and those idiosyncrasies are quite different.

Even “independent” educators have little incentive to generate disruptive learning methodologies when society in general has come to recognize and accept education as a cost center as opposed to a profit center.  This draws me to a second irony when I think about the price of a liter of gas going up across the board at every service station in town…nobody likes it, but it is accepted as a cost of getting around.   Besides, the very idea of schools “competing” with businesses for profits in the marketplace would have just about everyone lined up to shoot the generator of the idea (thankfully child labor’s days have passed, at least in North America).

So to begin to try to answer the question “So why the lag in mass adoption?” we have to address the fact that there are many well established anchors that are both legitimate and illegitimate, and none are going away any time soon.  As a society we have grown familiar with our infrastructures, and to most, that is not necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, when faced with the specter of disruptiveness, threat levels become so elevated in some, that defending outdated methodologies becomes the hyper intensive effort of choice.  To this day I’m impressed with how many parents, teachers and other interested bystanders believe that the pedagogical approaches used 20-50 years ago make complete sense today.  It is tough to argue with them when we are still using safer, more fuel efficient cars to choke our atmosphere.

Just the same, I believe it is time to ask the question: If society were to adopt a new educational approach that at least recognizes best practice, or maybe even disruptive practice, what considerations in terms of the legacy systems already developed must we address?  In the coming posts I’ll attempt to start to answer that question.  Today’s message should provide some hints, especially the part about the potential for educational research and development.  Imagine if you will, what the educational landscape might look like if educational developments could be categorized as Scientific Research and Experimental Development creditable work?  Could a granting or cost reimbursement system be established around such a concept?  Stay tuned. In the meantime, here are those links on school choice that I promised earlier.

Works Cited

Wagner, T. (2008). The Gobal Achievement Gap. New York, NY: Basic Books.

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