Trads will eat themselves

Everything that can be measured will be automated

In the western world for the past 200 years, give or take, we have lived with education systems and schools dominated by the belief that mastery of subject knowledge is schools grand purpose. As a result we’ve applied the processes and theories of industrialisation, rooted in the thinking of US management wonks such as Frederick Taylor, Juran and Deming to our industrial scale education systems.

In essence these industrial practices, some of which emerged from the days of plantation slavery, were intended to transform craft production to mass production to ensure the cost efficient, standardised output of manufacturing. By measuring everything and installing processes that could be easily replicated, scaled or even automated we discovered that we could output better quality products from cars to spoons with far less variance than when we relied on crafts people.

Measurement data would be passed to management who could steer the production line accordingly. Large and successful manufacturing management consultancies such as McKinsey and Booz Allen emerged in the 20th century who, for a handsome fee, could increase the wealth of the industrial capitalist and their shareholders by deploying incremental changes to processes that maintained linear improvements and business growth.

It was only a matter of time before these consultancies targeted public services such as education and healthcare with their unambiguous measuring sticks pointing at their measurements to demonstrate their impact.

The canard about schools being training grounds to kill creativity and output compliant factory or office workers has been well rehearsed but that’s not where I’m going with this story. Ok then, I’ll give you this interview clip that I made with Seth Godin if it keeps you happy:

credit: Graham Brown-Martin

Out of this industrialisation of schools has emerged a $ multi-billion industry that is big business — the industrial education complex if you will that’s going to be difficult to ween ourselves off. Here’s an interview I did with Sir Ken Robinson on the “education economy” and another I did with Noam Chomsky on the purpose of education.

Core knowledge, foundational knowledge or cultural literacy as it’s now euphemistically titled by the likes of another US management wonk, ED Hirsch, is at the heart of the belief in content as king which underpins much of our schooling systems. And the convenient thing about education as content knowledge is that once we’ve stuffed it in your head we can quickly test if it’s still in there and so now we even think testing 2 year olds is a “good thing”.

Check out this interview with the founders of the Rocket Ship Charter School in the US funded by corporate philanthropy:

So let’s step back a moment shall we?

They are many methodologies, frameworks and ways of problem-solving. Two of the most popular approaches that I use are “scientific thinking” and “design thinking”. The former focuses on the problem, the later on the solution. Scientific thinking proposed by Taylor is evidence-based and focuses on the problem. Design thinking is intuition-based and focuses on the solution. This isn’t simply semantics but different methods of thinking. The difficulty with focussing on the problem is that it assumes that you either already believe that you know what the problem is or you’ll data the heck out of the problem so that only one solution can exist. The flip side is that you focus on solutions, fail fast, amplify what works and drive at a far better understanding of the problem but that’s not what we teach in schools.

Of course “scientific thinking” sounds good right? Who would ask for less evidence?

A UK pundit, come child catcher tsar, famous in his own mind and a group of playground Twitter bullies, once said about my intuition was that if:

“I believed something without evidence that I would believe anything”.

and who can trust intuition eh?

credit: Safia Aidid

But the problem is that evidence is almost always misleading because it is culled to support a specific belief or intuition. It turns out that the pundit had never actually invented anything original whereas he’s messaging me with technology that started off in my head when I had an intuition about video compression technologies way back in the 90’s and then figured it out.

By the same token is there anyone asking for less creativity, less innovation, less intuition because it is intuition that drives new ideas and innovation. Not the confirmation bias of evidence-based jesuits.

Our entire species exists because of intuition-based problem-solving. You don’t even have to be a card carrying member of the God squad to know this.

So it is my proposition that:

“scientific thinking, has dominated our thinking about how we solve challenges in education and we have embedded this restrictive thinking methodology amongst children even as young as primary school age. Not only are we killing their creativity, worse we are killing their curiosity and wonder — their natural urge to explore, discover and try out new ideas.”

Because as we know, or at least we should, school isn’t a conveyor belt to university or McJob but it is about self-realisation and how dare you limit my child’s imagination with your impoverished version of what school can and should be.

So back to the theme of this story.

If you all you think is that school and the role of teacher is fill our children’s head full of stuff that you can test and then slap yourself on the back for all those A’s but don’t think you have for a second done your job. Your job as a teacher is to ignite curiosity and wonder and to design programmes that allow our children to use that wonder and intuition to learn how to navigate the world and to question authority and invent new solution as collaborative teams.

Let’s, as my first mentor Seymour Papert once told me, use digital technology to do away with the curriculum and segregation by age, let’s get away from uniformity of all schools and the way we learn and return the learner to the centre and as teachers help them discover their world and their place in it.

The trads vs progs debate isn’t over and it hasn’t been since Dewey wrote the Child & the Curriculum in 1902. The sitting on the fence of academics such as Gert Biesta who rightly believes schools serves many purposes is great for opening this dialogue but ultimately if it’s just about measurement and we reach a point where the child has to set a test on their own without collaborating with their peers then we have failed them and future generations.

We are already seeing the movements by mighty corporations like Pearson, desperately trying to get out of the content business by opening schools but imagine a future where #BigPharma owned the hospitals and employed all the doctors, nurses and surgeons — would we ever accept this monopoly? Yet we are quite happy to roll over when it is suggested that these huge edubusinesses roll out their business plans across the developing world as long as it’s not in our back yard.

The trad and prog divide does exist and I describe thus:

Trads are evidence-based, problem solvers who focus on the problem with the belief that subject knowledge is the foundation from which all then flows.

Progs are intuition-based, problem solvers who focus on the solution with a belief that learners construct their own foundation from which all then flows.

The data-driven approach of Trads is most suited to automation, i.e. an app. If education is just content assimilation by students who can vomit it out in an examination then we don’t need teachers anymore, Silicon Valley has it covered.

I know which one I favour. Do you?

credit: grahambrownmartin.com

#OpenEDU #TRADapp


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An entertaining & thought provoking slayer of sacred cows, Graham Brown-Martin works globally with senior leadership teams to help organisations adapt in the face of rapid change & innovation. By challenging entrenched thinking he liberates teams to think in new ways to solve complex challenges. His book Learning {Re}imagined is published by Bloomsbury and he is represented for speaking engagements via Wendy Morris at the London Speakers Bureau.