10 September 2011

What education should have learned from the "9/11 decade"

Being "socially reproductive" in nature, education is often the very last set of institutions to comprehend and embrace changes in society. And this fact is not just a problem for society, which finds itself forever preparing students for the best jobs of thirty years ago, but for students on a daily basis - as they sit through hour after hour of irrelevant curriculum surrounded by irrelevant structure.

When the attacks of September 11, 2001 took place, it should have, as the 9/11 Commission said, taught many lessons, yet, as when anything is "taught," these lessons were not always learned.

That commission started their report by noting that, "[t]he 9/11 attacks were a shock, but they should not have come as a surprise." The US had, of course, been attacked before by these terrorists, in fact the World Trade Center had been attacked just eight years earlier. We clearly knew the destructive power of "ordinary things" turned into weapons. And no one in the US could have been surprised by the ease with which terror organizations move money and capabilities around.

Yet, like US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan with the flood of cheating scandals tied to his high stakes testing, US society was stunned and surprised because it was not paying attention to the world, or even its own experiences.

The 9/11 Commission also pointed out four essential areas of failure which led to the attacks being successful: Imagination, Policy, Capabilities, and Management. And today, ten years later, those failures haunt every level of American education, from the uncomprehending Mr. Duncan down to so many neighborhood primary schools.

Arne and Rahm (the white guys center and right) talk about how great they
made all of Chicago's schools.
Our education system fails to see - even the very obvious. Just last week Arne Duncan's flaks were happily tweeting about their Potemkin Village tour of US schools... A "see no problems, hear no problems, speak no problems" event designed to fluff up the Department of Education's image amidst a fast growing realization of its complete failure.

Our leadership refuses to see the destructiveness of high stakes testing, or the corrosive viciousness of funding disparities, or the inherent racism of much of the "Charter School Movement," KIPP, or TFA. They refuse to even see that the decisions they (see Arne, Barack, Rahm) make for their own children contradicts all of their policies.
At the school Barack Obama's kids attend faculty-
student ratio really matters. It just doesn't for your

Of course we still fail to see the world as changing around us. Work and workplaces have changed radically in the last decade. Space and time have become amazingly flexible. Collaboration has become the way all things are done. The technologies of our time have enabled new and vastly superior ways to work, communicate, and combine our talents. Not just in "high tech" industries, but everywhere.

I remember being in General Motors assembly plants around Lansing, Michigan in the 1970s. Back then, if the worker in front of you on the line failed to do something, nobody down the line cared. We were "individuals" back then, and if I was the tail-light installer it wasn't my problem if the bumper fell off. That kind of work ethic is inconceivable today - which is a good thing. Except it is fully conceivable in US national education policy where Messers Duncan and Obama want teachers and students competing, not collaborating.

The result is, like the World Trade Center, education for most American children continues to collapse. And we continue to be "stunned."

Yet, the failure of imagination is even worse. We consistently fail to imagine what we cannot already see. And we ridicule those who have this ability.

We even refuse to see it when it is directly in front of us. For example, we know how well constructivist open schools worked in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s. But we deny this because it goes against our faith in the belief that children (well, Other People's Children) are dangerous and must be tightly controlled. We even spend huge amounts of time bashing the educational ideas of those decades despite that era having produced perhaps the most creative, inventive generations in American history. It was the students of the much maligned "new math" who created the Internet, built the Hubble Space Telescope, developed the personal computer. It was the equally maligned "whole language" students who led global revolutions in communications.

We refuse to imagine even when the imagination is "across the hall." If I show this brief collection of images to 100 school administrators...
...what percent will declare that these kinds of environments "won't work" without even investigating?

I often bring up our closest human "cousins" when I discuss imagination. The Bonobos are fabulous creatures who live an Edenic existence in the forests of Congo (Brazzaville). What separates humans from these guys is, sure, violence and competition, abuse of natural resources and destruction of other species... but to give it our positive spin, our imagination. The ancients who wrote the Bible called this split from the Edenic jungle past, "The Fall." Humans were not quite satisfied with the rules and "perfection" of their existence, and they imagined possibilities. They climbed down from the trees and walked beyond the horizon. They wondered what was "over there," then, "over there" again. They ended up wandering to tough places to live, from deserts to the frozen north, and imagined and invented tools to make each move possible.

Meanwhile, the Bonobos stayed in their Eden. And while it has worked for them for millions of years, they are different animals because of those choices. And if their Eden changes, they have no response.

The list goes on. Our policies are constantly rooted in response to the last problem. We have principals and even states who ban mobile phones or facebook because of problems they've encountered or heard about. As one teacher twittered me after we built a "reasonable" mobile phone policy for his class, "rolled out your cell phone policy this week. Teachers think I'm nuts insisting on phones out. Kids think I'm normal."

We often insist, despite all evidence, on secondary students beginning school before primary students. We insist on age-based grades while debating "social promotion." We refuse to shift resources to the students who need them most. We test things we know are irrelevant because we say it is "too hard" to evaluate what matters. We insist on "well-qualified" teachers, blocking the kind of cross-curricular instruction we know works best. From the nation down to the classroom we install rules which stand in the way of children learning, and of children developing necessary life skills.

These policies, and lack of imagine, freeze our capabilities in an antiquated state.

We have steadfastly refused to take advantage of the tools of our world. Even when we adopt a tool, we adopt it exactly as we adopted tools in the past, we buy iPads for everyone and every task as if they key to this century has not been the incredible range of technology choices for the incredible range of humanity. Even among our self-styled "visionaries" we hear about "textbooks on tablets" rather than moving far beyond textbooks, and one can hardly visit Twitter or Google+ without seeing someone proclaim the iPad, or the IWB, or this or that tool as "the future," when quite obviously, these tools are, at best, the present.

The future of the moving picture
This trap of celebrating the last invention as "the future" has snared better minds than ours over the years - including Edison and both DC current and the Kinetoscope. And, well, even the 19th Century's rail barons - those whose management systems we still copy, knew that every railroading task required a different tool.

But that's the "visionaries." Way too many schools are trapped much further back than that. Few fully accept what William Alcott noted in 1842, that insisting that kids write on paper - rather than easier to fix, re-do, etc slate - made life harder for students and slowed learning. Few even understand Alcott's 1832 insistent that student comfort matters a great deal, and that no student should ever be expected to stay in a classroom for more than 20 minutes at a time.

We still build our school buildings like industrial assembly lines, as Henry Barnard suggested in the 1850s as he prepped children to work in his friend's New England mills. We still time our school days as if learning can only happen in discrete cells of time. "Sorry kid, I know you're excited about this physics concept, but its time to stop your learning now so you can discuss the narrative choices in Ethan Frome."

In other words, we are failing to provide the capabilities our students need, and will need.

All of these failures are tied together by a fundamental failure to reimagine management. We persist in our Scientific Management beliefs, persist in our faith in numbers and statistics above all, persist in our need to measure via linear scales. These are not beliefs based in logic or any kind of truth. Rather, they are a faith-based system built of equal parts Protestantism, Industrialism, and Capitalism.

George W. Bush believed he could code threats in color. The Pentagon in five "DefCon" numbers. And our educational system is structured around the belief that we can create an average individual by adding up random people and dividing. And the system evaluates itself by pretending that checklists are somehow neutral things. The key book on how destructive this all is was written in 1962 by Raymond Callahan, but the issue remains off the radar for most.

Invictus- Leadership is not about counting, it is about seeing beyond what exists.

Scientific Management doesn't just limit what we see - if its not on the form it can't exist - it locks us into past practice by insisting that we constantly compare ourselves to the unexamined "always been."

"Natural" Leadership vs. Scientific Management

Management has to be human in order to work effectively with humans. Management has to be based in real human multi-tasking, deep mapping, "ADHD" type observation. Scientific managers would never have let Lincoln become a lawyer, much less a President. They would have dumped Teddy Roosevelt and George VIinto "Resource Rooms." A little known Michael Collins would have been declared too young and inexperienced to lead an Irish army. Dr. Seuss would have no track record indicating that he could sell books.

Just as the United States military fired "risky" gay Arabic speakers, and blocked Arab-Americans from sensitive positions ("past experiences predict problems"), and Rudy Giuliani's and Bill Bratton's stat-based "One City" policing strategy so alienated New York City's minority communities that essential intelligence dried up.

Just as Arne Duncan and friends want to fire teachers and principals they know absolutely nothing about. Just as Republican governors across the US insist that "class size doesn't matter."

September 11, 2001 was a tragic day built on multiple failures. The decade since, globally, has compounded many of those failures.  The decade since, in education - certainly in the United States and England - has been a nightmare of lessons unlearned. Of changes not made.

As I have been finishing this post, a few of us have been talking on Twitter about fear and anxiety among American students. Is the visible increase a result of the events of that day ten years ago? Or is it a result of a society which has refused to change, to adapt, to reimagine, to breach barriers, to be different than the nation which slumbered into that day with the brilliantly blue sky?

There are many lessons on this sad anniversary, but the biggest one is truly that we must learn to see, to manage, to function in ways different from the way we saw, managed, and functioned before.

Peace on this day - Ira Socol

1 comment:

Roger Yang said...

Hi Ira,

Wow what a great read! I have to say every point you make is as good as gold. The education system has been needing an overhaul every since we moved out of the industrial age.

Your discussion on the adverseness to change and the failure of imagination was simply brilliant. It is amazing to me that pretty much everything has changed in the past 20 years but education has not moved at all.

I believe a key reason for this is due to the globalization of education and the system becoming increasingly uniform. I recently discussed this in a short blog article.

Once again, just like to say that this has been one of the most insightful blog posts on education I've read in awhile.