Tag Archives: business

A New framework for Working and Learning

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.

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Rethinking the US Education System

I was intrigued by the title of this blog piece, “It’s Time to Re-Think the U.S. Education System”, by Tammy Erickson for the Harvard Business Review. When it comes to our education system, I translate any use of the “reform” word as “business as usual”, which is ever flogging more “accountability” and “rigorous academic standards” around ever expanding high-stakes testing. All done supposedly to improve the education available to our young people, but in my thinking, really about increasing the business market for standardized educational materials and services.

But when I see “rethink” or “transform”, that’s when I at least take notice and give a look at what’s being proposed. When an institution is profoundly out of sync with the society it is supposed to support, “reform”, particularly the perpetual inside the box reform of the past three decades, just doesn’t cut it!

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The American Three-Tiered Education System

Three School TiersAccording to former public school teacher turned radical unschooler John Taylor Gatto, we have developed a de facto three-tiered education system in the United States as follows…

Tier One – The elite private schools for the kids of our economic elite (the so called “One Percent”), where they have the opportunity to develop skills of leadership, entrepreneurship, and creative outside-the-box thinking and develop the necessary connections to people in power to become the next generation of corporate and political leaders.

Tier Two – The “good” public schools (and comparable religious and secular private schools) that train the kids of middle-class families to become part of the what Gatto calls the “professional proletariat” – the doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, and other “knowledge workers” – that staff the corporate enterprises financed, launched and led by the kids from the tier one schools.

Tier Three – The “bad” or “failed” public schools for the economically disadvantage communities, which according to Gatto and other radical education activists are designed to “fail” and maintain an underclass of “them” to anchor the hierarchical pyramid of a country that continues to be comfortable with being economically stratified. These schools basically warehouse the kids of the poorest among us who, if they can find jobs at all, are hopefully grateful to take the service and other menial jobs along with filling the ranks of our large volunteer military.

To be perfectly and uncomfortably honest, my own continuing analysis of American society is moving me towards agreeing with Gatto on the above. This is not a matter of just failing to apply the needed money and effort to “fix” the “bad” schools, but more of an underlying problem, endemic when any elite conceives of a new societal institution as a tool for normalizing their privilege and control. I am concerned that our public school system, as originally envisioned by Horace Mann and other reformers suffers from this endemic problem and may be unredeemable unless completely transformed. Transformed to the extent that the states are no longer controlling the public education process, and schools are created and run by teachers, parents get to decide whether to send their kids to school, and young people are in charge of directing their own education.

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Thoughts on Maria Montessori

I have been aware of Maria Montessori and her educational “movement” (as its often referred to) as part of the spectrum of educational alternatives available mostly to more well-to-do families who can afford the tuition to send their kids to a private Montessori school. There are over 3000 such schools in the United States today and more than 20,000 around the world. I have read about her early work researching child development, opening her first school in her native Italy and how she became a star of the progressive education world in Europe and the U.S. in the early years of the 20th century.

I am both intrigued and troubled by the fact that her ideas about creating a developmentally appropriate environment for children seem to have had so little impact on our public education system in what are conventionally the preschool and elementary school years. In digging a little deeper into the history, it seems her innovative ideas suffered a similar fate as the ideas of other “holistic” educators like John Dewey, succumbing to the “business efficiency” movement in education in the second and third decades of the 20th century.

Montessori was born in Italy in 1870. Overcoming barriers to women, she managed to gain a degree in the natural sciences from the University of Rome and, despite opposition from students and faculty, fight her way into medical school at the University, finally graduating in 1896 as a doctor of medicine. Her early career involved working with mentally disabled young people and researching ways to help them overcome their developmental challenges. As part of that research she read everything that had been published in the previous 200 years regarding education theory, and applied this wisdom to improving her efforts on behalf of this specially challenged group.

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Keeping My Feet Under Me and Staying Off My Ass

My “day job” (that pays the bills) is working as a “business process consultant” for Kaiser Permanente. Honestly, I have a lot of issues with the U.S. health care industry, particularly the for-profit part of it, because it seems to be more about profiting from illness by selling more pills and procedures than promoting health. KP on the other hand, is a non-profit company and is all about being a “health maintenance organization”. It is successful financially by doing what it can to keep its members healthy. My partner Sally and I appreciate the KP model, we have been members for the 28 years we’ve been married, and KP has helped us through raising two kids plus our occasional health crises.

So like my current employer (and since my personal cataclysm of a bad bicycle accident two years ago followed ten weeks later by removal of a three-centimeter blood clot from my skull) I am all about my own health maintenance. For me, that maintenance includes eating a plant-based, whole-food, low-fat diet; leading as balanced a life as I possibly can; and maximizing the joy while minimizing the stress in my life.

Where I find a great deal of that joy these days is when (literally and metaphorically) I have my feet under me and I am moving forward, rather than sitting on my ass! Though I have what is conventionally a very sedentary job (spending the bulk of ones day sitting in front of ones computer or in a meeting) I don’t accept that conventional framing. I am up, on my feet and moving about as much as I can wrangle at my job site during my work day.

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You May Have Missed the Corporate Takeover of Education…

Because it may well have happened a long time ago before you and I were born! From my reading of history it began in the early decades of the 20th century and was solidified by the development of the “education industrial complex” in the 1960s. Now in the early 21st century we see this corporate public education system finally showing signs of collapsing due to the weight of its bureaucracy, corruption, regimentation, and entrenched interests. And as a result we see all the business foundations desperately trying to revive and sustain it, and the many billion dollar business market it represents.

What happened in the early 20th century I lay out in my previous piece, “Education and the Cult of Efficiency”, based on a book by the same name written by Raymond Callahan and published in 1962. In his book Callahan documents how an educational “crisis” was fabricated at the turn of the 20th century for a range of reasons, starting with selling newspapers and magazines. Says Callahan…

The material achievements of industrial capitalism in the late nineteenth century were responsible for two developments which were to have a great affect on American society and education after 1900. One of these was the rise of business and industry to a position of prestige and influence, and America’s subsequent saturation with business-industrial values and practices. The other was the reform movement identified historically with Theodore Roosevelt and spearheaded by the muckraking journalists. (pg 1)

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Moving Towards a World with No Bosses

I keep attempting to bear witness to and advocate for our society’s continuing transformation from “hierarchies of control to circles of equals”, but I got feedback from my partner Sally on our morning walk today that that is too academic of a framing… Damn! So how can I call this out in a more clear, un-geeky, and compelling way? What captures the essence of (along with the argument for) this transformation? I thought about it, feeling some frustration that I was not yet effective in really communicating what I’m trying to say.

So I suggested a new framing that my comrade thought might be more compelling. In the simplest and broadest sense of it, isn’t it about moving towards a “world without bosses”?

The word “boss” is such a loaded one in our culture, evoking (at least in my mind) an old-school sense of a person who gives you orders, monitors your conduct, and does a high-stakes evaluation of your performance in your work. Someone who is higher than you on the org chart that you may strive to replace or just to mollify. Someone who “bosses you around”, which from my sense of that usage, is never intended to mean something positive. As a parent, I still have in my mind one kid challenging another kid’s bullying by saying, “You’re not the boss of me!”

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Tales of a Retribalized Corporate Knowledge Worker in the Egalitarian Information Age

Quite the long title, I know! But that is essentially who I am these days when I put on my “day job” hat as a “Business Process Consultant” for a major health insurance company. The work world that I plunge myself into is totally transformed from just a generation ago by the ubiquitous electronic media which (to use media philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s analogy), is the “water we swim in”.

In his extensive 1969 interview in Playboy Magazine, McLuhan said…

The electronically induced technological extensions of our central nervous systems… are immersing us in a world-pool of information movement and are thus enabling man to incorporate within himself the whole of mankind. The aloof and dissociated role of the literate man of the Western world is succumbing to the new, intense depth participation engendered by the electronic media and bringing us back in touch with ourselves as well as with one another. But the instant nature of electric-information movement is decentralizing — rather than enlarging — the family of man into a new state of multitudinous tribal existences.

McLuhan called this transformation “retribalization”.

In my mom and dad’s generation the norm of professional “knowledge work” in the U.S. was to have a hierarchy of “bosses” who actively directed your activities within “siloed” groups and departments. Your coworker peers were typically white males of northern European ancestry, with women supporting professional work as secretaries. Most collaboration with those coworkers was done face to face and most written communication was done (by secretaries) using a typewriter to produce written memos & other documents that flowed from person to person in a time frame of days or even weeks. Diagrams, charts and other visual documents were painstakingly built by graphic specialists well in advance of presentations.

But the work world I plunge myself into these days is nothing like that.

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