Mental Models are Holding Higher Ed Hostage
How student voice and challenging age-old mindsets in education can fuel the systemic change today’s students want and need.
What truly holds large educational systems back from change? So many of us recognize the need for change in all social systems including healthcare, education and business to adapt to the changing face of society, yet we just keep on keepin’ on, creating work-arounds or “bolting on” new systems and processes to correct long outdated or overstressed older ones.
Take communication systems in education as an example. If students today could choose a primary medium of communication, email would be second to last on their list, just ahead of the phone call. Yet, it is the medium of choice for most administrators, staffers, and faculty on college campuses. And email is just one of the communication challenges that annoy and confuse today’s students. In a recent learning session conducted online with Florida transfer students, we at Kinetic Seeds discovered that students and advisors were deeply impacted by the ineffectiveness of communication protocols related to information flow, tracking systems and problem resolution.
In the end, after working together to break assumptions about the communication structures in higher ed, all agreed that the system has simply not kept pace with technological advancements — advancements that today’s students have long since integrated into their day-to-day lives. There is a structural disconnect, and it’s costly. Costly for staff who have unmanageable caseloads, and especially for students, many of whom struggle to find financial support, fill in applications, hold down jobs, and even battle food insecurity and other basic needs that often go unnoticed.
That is not to say that it’s easy to see the disconnect — to uncover flaws in the system. As humans we naturally resist change, especially when it touches on something so deeply engrained in us. We are wired to evolve, to subconsciously adapt to subtle shifts in our environment over time. It simply does not come naturally to disrupt daily practices and examine the mental models that shape our behaviors and operational structures.
And as proud, experienced leaders or managers of large social systems, it’s easy to assume we have all the answers and dismiss the notion that perhaps we haven’t asked the right questions. Further, structural issues are hard to see. It is much easier to solve the obvious, day-to-day challenges — the revenue shortfall, the staff shortage, the strategic plan.
By deconstructing our mental models — identifying, clarifying, and challenging one’s values, beliefs, and related assumptions — we can find new ways to look at old problems — Peter Senge
But we have to do this hard work, and it can actually be quite liberating. Sort of like cleaning out the basement of a 100-year-old home. Peter Senge, in his book, The Fifth Discipline, The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, talks extensively about the importance of overcoming shortcomings in the way we see the world. He explains that by deconstructing our mental models — identifying, clarifying, and challenging one’s values, beliefs, and related assumptions — we can find new ways to look at old problems.
An example: Frederic Laloux, in his book Reinventing Organizations, introduces a new organizational model of self-managed teams. In 2006, years after the Dutch government had begun to standardize what once was a highly personalized neighborhood nursing program, Dutch entrepreneur Jos de Blok had enough. He saw that patients weren’t happy, nurses were feeling marginalized, and that the government’s “efficiency” model was not sustainable. So de Blok established Buurtzorg, a pioneering organization with a nurse-led model of holistic care that revolutionized community healthcare. It was a nod back to the original model of neighborhood nurses but instead of placing them in a top-down, hierarchical structure, he trusted them to organize themselves. A new model of care emerged: self-led teams of 10–12 nurses, with no manager and no team leader, each tackling different management tasks to ensure all the bases are covered.
The result? Buurtzorg is now over 10,000 nurses strong, in towns and villages all over Holland, and is also active in many other countries. Patients are healthier and happier because their care is more personalized. Nurses are empowered to do the work they were trained to do, saving the Dutch social security system hundreds of millions of Euros every year. And de Blok did it by listening to patients and the nurses who serve them, challenging our mental models of care, and how business should be structured.
The irony is that when we are talking about educational institutions — organizations filled with academics — we are talking about leaders who make it their business to learn and to teach others. But it’s this very system that needs to learn. We must challenge our mental models of the systems and structures that define how educational institutions look, feel, and operate. As the demographic profile of today’s student continues to evolve, the value of postsecondary education continues to be questioned, and stress levels of all stakeholders continue to rise, we must examine how we communicate, how we organize, and how we support our students.
The first step? We need to relinquish the power imbued by age-old institutional knowledge and become participant-observers. We must solicit student voices — and truly hear them — so we can fully understand students’ current, lived experiences — good and bad. Only then can we confront our broken assumptions, deconstruct the structures we are clinging to, and co-create a better experience for today’s learners.
Are we ready for this kind of work throughout higher education? Perhaps. Berklee School of Music did it and the result was a codified process called the Thrive Method. A framework any institution could use to engage student voice, challenge our assumptions, and reimagine our roles and processes at the system level.
But ready or not, it’s time to liberate the deeply embedded, often outmoded structures that hold us back.
Leigh Anne Cappello is Chief Experience Officer at Kinetic Seeds — a design thinking firm specializing in education — and also taught Organizational Theory at Providence College. She is a systems thinker who is committed to helping people, institutions and organizations see and realize the value of advancing equity and inclusion in education.
Senge, P. (1990, 2006). The Fifth Discipline, The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.
Laloux, F. (2016). Reinventing Organizations, An illustrated Invitation to Join the Conversation on Next-Stage Organizations. (42–52).