Lefty Parent

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Living & parenting without the rule book

A New framework for Working and Learning

June 15th, 2013 at 11:13

Circle of HandsFor many of us the rules of engagement at work are changing, from the traditional approach of being told what to do by “bosses”, to a new more egalitarian approach where a team of colleagues and peers collectively decide what to do. Those traditional “bosses” are being replaced by “managers” who are more facilitative than directive, conveying to us the basic business strategy from the company’s leadership team, making sure we have the time and resources to implement that strategy, and being available to assist when we need their assistance. From all my own experience plus hearsay from other “knowledge workers”, I understand that this has become standard practice in most of the work done in business operations today.

Yet given that new reality, our education system, which increasingly promotes itself as the means for developing our young people into new workers for our businesses, is still operating in the traditional model with teachers and principals as “bosses” and very little if any egalitarian process. This is a disconnect that in my opinion is leading to our young people being increasingly debilitated by their school experience rather than developing the skills to become contributing members of our contemporary business enterprises.

The Emerging Egalitarian Model in Business

Businesses are run today by developing and constantly updating business processes – whether for manufacturing products, providing services, or selling those products or services – to a large degree facilitated by computer information systems that themselves must be constantly developed and updated to support those changing business processes. All the different teams in the enterprise must participate fully in this effort, or the results are likely to be less than optimal, and the business will not be able to provide the high level of goods and service its customers expect.

I think it has become clear to most of us involved in this sort of work, plus the business gurus that champion “best practices” in this area, that the egalitarian model of a circle of equals leads to the best results. It’s all about the impacted departments within the organization having a representative on the project team. Each of those team members, representing their departments, are then engaged at a level of collective responsibility while being acknowledged for their inherent worth (to the enterprise) and dignity (as a fellow human being).

The Persistence of the Authoritarian Model in Education

Mark Tucker’s recent blog for Ed Week, “A framework for thinking and learning”, speaks to the growing awareness of the efficacy of this egalitarian approach to work, and therefore to education as well. He interviews Kai-ming Cheng, Professor and Chair of Education at the University of Hong Kong in China and a member of Chinese state committees on education. China has suffered from an education system that encourages the development of conformity rather than creativity, and Cheng is one of the key voices advocating for a change to that approach.

Cheng has studied successful businesses for over a decade and found that a key to that success is that they organize work around small semi-autonomous project teams given great freedom and flexibility to respond to quickly changing business conditions. Team members bring different skills to the group and are expected to constantly engage each others skills to get their work done. This approach says Cheng…

Is very different from the typical pyramidal structure in the traditional industrial company where you usually find a whole army of front line workers all of whom look upward in the pyramid, looking for close direction from their superiors. In that structure, the expertise is above each worker in the pyramid, each worker operates only in a narrow sphere and the autonomy of each worker is very limited.

I think we’d be hard-pressed to find many successful business these days that operate on that traditional hierarchical model. Yet substitute “conventional education institution” for “traditional industrial company” and the statement pretty much describes the vast majority of public schools in our country. The “front line workers” are teachers and principals who are required to “look upward in the pyramid” to state educational bureaucracies that in a regime of standardized education define what is learned, when it’s learned, where it’s learned, and how it’s learned. The autonomy of those teachers and principals, and also the young people required to attend their schools, is very limited.

Though schools are not businesses, both are human institutions that are profoundly affected by their governance model. If an egalitarian governance model is making businesses most successful why do we still think that our schools can be successful being run in an authoritarian manner?

Living and Learning Only “Inside the Box” in Schools

Cheng calls out the kind of skills workers need today. Skills presumably that young people would have the opportunity to learn in schools which claim they have designed their program to prepare those young people to join the workforce as more than just the most unskilled laborers. Says Cheng about the contemporary work environment…

Everybody has to share the same responsibilities such as brainstorming, thinking of what to do next, working with others on a team, being creative all the time regardless of where you are and you have to constantly face ethical challenges and moral dilemmas, and you have to think outside the box, you have to run risks, you have to face changing networks and changing markets, and no one is doing the same thing all the time, you have to adapt to change on a daily basis.

Think about conventional school with its classroom focus and standardized curriculum including assigned texts, assigned homework, assigned projects (still mostly done individually) and it’s increasingly high-stakes mostly multiple-choice testing. When do students have the opportunity to think of what to do next, to face ethical and moral dilemmas, adapt to change on a daily basis, or think outside the box (of a standardized curriculum). It is the rare teacher who can create an environment where any of this can happen given teacher’s lack of autonomy. And it’s a rare school that would let a group of students brainstorm a new way to learn the curriculum, or even let individual students set their own curriculum.

Sure students can read about and discuss ethical and moral dilemmas faced by others and already resolved, but when are they ever facing such dilemmas that they are responsible for resolving themselves? In the authoritarian governance model of schools, it is generally the teachers or perhaps just the principal who adjudicates any of the real conflicts that occur between students or between teachers and students during the school day. It is the rare school where students must routinely meet and sort out all the real-life conflicts in their midsts. Pretend conflicts perhaps.

The Nature of Contemporary Work has Changed

Cheng has a critical insight about the nature of the relationship between education and the contemporary work world. Work these days is not so much about applying a body of existing knowledge developed by others and transmitted to the worker through an instructional process. Work is about those workers coming to grips with new bodies of knowledge that need to be captured, rationalized and manipulated in new ways that no one has previously figured out. Being good at taking instruction, the forte of conventional instructional school, is not really what’s needed in an effective contemporary worker.

I can certainly vouch for this in my own work. We are developing new systems and business processes to sell health insurance within the new federal rules and regulations of Obamacare plus enabling state regulations which can be significantly different from state to state. Though their is some basic knowledge of insurance practice that I need to know and apply and can learn from a book or an expert, the bulk of what I do is collaborate with a range of other company employees who are all wrestling with various aspects of health care reform implementation. No one really is an expert, not even the federal government’s Health and Human Services staff we occasionally interact with. We are all like blind people experiencing various parts of the elephant and then collaborating to try to understand and engage with that entire live creature.

Real-World Experiences in School

When Cheng imagines education that will truly prepare young people for the contemporary work world, three thoughts stand out. The first is that real learning is about the construction, rather than the transmission, of knowledge. The second is that real life experience is the best learning. The third is that in the real world people learn mostly in groups. Says Cheng…

I use these as guidelines to understand the education system. It really matters whether we are giving students the kinds of learning experiences they deserve, whether the pedagogy is helping the student to be an active learner, and whether the assessments are helping students understand, experience and apply the knowledge, or whether we are simply testing how much students have stored in their brains. I use these guidelines to determine which reforms are moving in the right direction and which ones are not.

I see so many of my own kids’ young adult friends struggling with the transition from 17 to 20 plus years of formal education (K-12 plus college) into something beyond low-wage semi-skilled jobs in the real work world. Unpaid internships, some lasting as much as a year, seem to be more common now, with only a chance of a paying job at the end.

Is one of the reasons this is happening because our formal education programs are too far removed from real life and the kind of experiences one gains from being in the real world? Is school still about a controlled dissemination of approved knowledge, whereas the real world is becoming much more egalitarian, neither about control or approval?

Given that an existing school facility or campus is likely to be sequestered from the real world (its that sequestration, the “ivy covered halls”, that are mythologized in the country’s elite educational institutions), it seems to me that much more could be done to make the experiences young people have in those venues more like the kind of experiences they are likely to have as adults, in the work world or other aspects of their lives. Things like…

1. Students actively involved in collectively developing and implementing their own curriculum and then critiquing the effectiveness of it at the end

2. Students more often leading any given activity than adult staff (making the whole concept of adult “teachers” anachronistic)

3. Students involved in the real governance of their schools, including being involved in real issues of budget, staffing, operations, facilities, pedagogy and adjudicating conflicts between students and with adult staff

4. The elimination of the classroom as the main venue for schooling and the “seat time” spent in those classrooms, in favor of libraries, labs, workshops, meeting rooms, computer workstations, and as many outside school and outdoor venues as possible

5. Students collaborating with adult staff on projects or seeking them out as subject matter experts or facilitators as needed

At first glance, it does not compute why our public school system mostly resists these sorts of changes, and doubly so as to why the bulk of the education “reformers” from the business community (e.g. Bill Gates and others) are not actively advocating for these sort of changes. The kind of changes advocated by the likes of Peter Gray and Sir Ken Robinson, who alas, do not have the business or entrepreneurial credentials plus the millions of philanthropic dollars that would make the American education establishment take notice.

Privilege, Apparatchiks & Adultism

I hope I am not slipping over the edge to becoming one of those obsessive conspiracy theorists, but I suspect the problem may be wrapped up with a lingering “us and them” mentality surrounding the maintenance of both economic and general adult privilege.

Standardized instructional schooling as it is conventionally practiced in the United States in my opinion limits the aspirations of the most talented of our young people, by constraining their development within a box of approved knowledge and leading to conventional careers as the professional “clerks” (as radical educator John Taylor Gatto calls them) of our society. Perhaps more appropriate is the great Russian term, “apparatchik”, which is defined in Wikipedia as…

A Russian colloquial term for a full-time, professional functionary of the Communist Party or government, i.e. an agent of the governmental or party “apparat” (apparatus) that held any position of bureaucratic or political responsibility, with the exception of the higher ranks of management. James Billington describes one as “a man not of grand plans, but of a hundred carefully executed details.”… Members of the “apparat” were frequently transferred between different areas of responsibility, usually with little or no actual training for their new areas of responsibility. Thus, the term apparatchik, or “agent of the apparatus” was usually the best possible description of the person’s profession and occupation… Today apparatchik is also used in contexts other than that of the Soviet Union or communist countries. According to Collins English Dictionary the word can mean “an official or bureaucrat in any organization”.

Rather than creating a milieu for young people to fully develop their imagination and agency to become innovative thinkers, entrepreneurs or otherwise persons “of grand plans”, school focuses on training up functionaries to handle “a hundred carefully executed details”, for the innovative thinkers, entrepreneurs, etc. A dynamic economic elite maintaining their privilege, like Bill Gates promoting a conventional approach to education very different than the unschooling that led to his own innovative business success.

Perhaps my own twenty-plus year career as a knowledge worker in the corporate world, for me a “day job” that paid well and helped finance owning a home and raising a family, has been mostly about managing those carefully executed details.

The other factor of “us and them” thinking that I believe contributes to our failure to have an innovative education system, is the persisting “adultism” in our society growing out of vestigial Calvinist beliefs in the innate depravity of human beings. This leads to a persisting mythology that young humans are born lazy, incompetent and morally challenged and need to be whipped into shape and trained up before they can be adults capable of adding to, rather than detracting from, society. This I believe was the mythology that drove Horace Mann and others to launch the U.S. state-run public school system, and it perpetuates through the generations among parents, teachers and adults generally.

Given this persistent adultist mythology, the thought of transforming schools into venues where young people are empowered and enfranchised to be full “citizens”, playing a real role in governance of these institutions where they invest so much of their young lives, still makes many adults uncomfortable. Enough general discomfort that the path of least resistance is to continue business as usual, rather than listen to the arguments of innovative thinkers like Peter Gray and Sir Ken Robinson. Maintaining perhaps an adult privilege that persists in our society along with economic and other forms of “us and them” privilege.

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2 Responses to “A New framework for Working and Learning”

  1. Peter DeWitt Says:

    Cooper,
    As always you raise some really good points and stretch my thinking. As an elementary school principal I am always trying to find a way to take some of your unschooling philosophy and make it work in the box that has been created for me at the state level.

  2. Cooper Zale Says:

    Peter… I think these ideas of human empowerment and enfranchisement are particularly hard to implement in institutions like your elementary school, which are involved with the development of 5 to 10-year-olds. The younger the person, the more suspect we are that they can behave as an ethical and competent human being and exercise any good judgement on their own or even collectively with their peers.

    I want to acknowledge you as an elementary school principal trying to implement a more humanistic engagement with the young people in your school, given the controlling hierarchy that you operated under. As a parent, I have much more freedom to act on my egalitarian principles, and generally suffer only reproach from some of my peers, since there is no controlling authority overseeing my actions.

    More power to ya man! Wish I was somehow a peer that could collaborate with you on transforming school governance models!

    BTW… not sure if you’re ready for this (I understand if you’re not) but I have an acquaintance Jerry Mintz, who is the founder and executive director of the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) and among other things provides consultations with schools (including elementary schools) on student-participating democratic process.

    BTW… not sure if you’re ready for this (I understand if you’re not) but I have an acquaintance Jerry Mintz, who is the founder and executive director of the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) and among other things provides consultations with schools (including elementary schools) on student-participating democratic process. Here’s a TEDx talk he did posted on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lrHG8y_9C4“>http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lrHG8y_9C4

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