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THE PROBLEM OF INSTITUTIONS

The history of schooling in America is the story of the transformation of the one-room schoolhouse into the comprehensive high school. The steady march towards more efficiency and greater capacity has gradually eroded the discussion of the goals of schooling from “what is an educated person” to the institutional functions of certification, preparation, and custodial care. The pedagogy of schools dominated by the” mechanics of school organization and administration” (Dewey, 1906/1966) reduces classroom teaching to an “assign and assess” (Tharp, 1993) delivery model of instruction — the premise of which is that knowledge is acquired through some of form of correspondence between facts in textbooks with what is in (Plato) or not in a child’s mind (Locke). The “machinery of school-work” (Dewey, 1906/1969) places teachers in schools where the goals of schooling —jobs, high test scores, and admission to college —and the means of schooling — large class sizes, standardized curriculum, and large amounts of testing —are antithetical to a practice that requires creativity, flexibility, and sensitivity to uniqueness. Children find themselves in classrooms where the goals of schooling—promotion, good grades, and following rules—and the routines of schooling—sitting quietly, listening, waiting to be called on, completing worksheets—are hostile to the social need to be known, the emotional need to be interested, and the intellectual need to make sense out of their experiences.

 Dewey largely blamed the failure of schools to educate on the bureaucratic organization of schools more concerned with rules, procedures, and documentation than with creating environments where children could explore individual interests in socially constructive ways. Studies which have documented the sameness of classroom teaching (Goodlad, 1984; Lortie, 1975; Jackson, 1990) confirm Dewey’s belief that institutional requirements of efficiency and conformity to rules induce school administrators to pay more attention to daily diversions of schooling rather than what is happening in classrooms and teachers paying more attention to routines and techniques than the interest and curiosity of the children seated in front of them.

The table below summarizes the characteristics of Bureaucratic Organizations and Knowledge Organizations. Contemporary organizational theorists (e.g. Deming, Senge,) and business leaders (e.g. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett) look for employees who are better at breaking the rules than following rules. Flexibility, creativity, and innovativeness are essential attributes of organizations that will prosper in a “flat world” (Friedman) of no borders, no rules, and no life-long careers. The call-in school mission statements for “life-long learners,” “critical-thinkers,” and “knowledge workers for the 21st century” become mockeries in schools designed for taking orders and recalling information. Strong Instructional Leaders recognize that the schools they lead are preparing students for the 19th century, not the 21st century. A strong component of their philosophy of education would be devoted to developing curricular offerings, pedagogical practices, and organizational configurations promoting the goals and methods of knowledge organizations.

TABLE:     Bureaucratic Organizations versus Knowledge Organizations

BUREAUCRATIC ORGANIZATIONSKNOWLEDGE ORGANIZATIONS
  GOAL: Efficiency, Certainty, & Conformity  

CULTURE
Hierarchy: Top-Down Decision-Making  
  GOAL: Creativity, Innovation, Flexibility  

CULTURE
Flat Structure & Egalitarian Culture
OCCUPATIONAL ROLES
Based on placement in the hierarchy and prescribed responsibilities for specific functions (Job Descriptions)  
OCCUPATIONAL ROLES
Based on expertise and particular requirements to complete a task (Task Specifications)  
ORGANIZATIONAL ENVIRONMENT Impersonal environment based on role, status, communication up and down the chain of command    ORGANIZATIONAL ENVIRONMENT
Interpersonal environment based on professionalism, autonomy, and discourse communities focused on projects.
PERSONNEL EVALUATION

Performance on prescribed criteria listed in job descriptions
PERSONNEL EVALUATION
Performance based on completion of tasks and contribution to furthering knowledge in particular sector of an industry  
DOCUMENTATION
Codification of rules, procedures, and institutional decision making      
DOCUMENTATION
Should not get in the way of innovation: “ We should probably write-down what we invented.”  
ACCOUNTABILITY
Data Analysis; Sanctions for Non-Compliance, Benchmarks; Alignment with Rules & Procedures, Achievement on Standardized Measure of Achievement)  
ACCOUNTABILITY
Observations of intentional states (Beliefs, Desires, Goals, Satisfactions, Feelings, Judgment, Thoughts) and performance on real world tasks

     

Adrift at sea

The most significant question which can be asked, accordingly, about any situation or experience proposed to induce learning is what quality of problem it involves.

           — John Dewey, Democracy and Education, 154)

Each person—the butcher, the parent, the child—occupies a different position in the world, which leads to a unique set of experiences, assumptions, and expectations about the situations and objects she or he encounters. From integrated sets of assumptions, expectations, and experience, individuals construct a worldview, or frame of reference, that shapes their interpretations of objects and experiences. Everything is perceived, chosen, or reject on the basis of this framework.

—Diane Vaughan, The Challenger Launch Decision; Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA.

      One theme that has been pursued in my blog postings is, what I have termed. the dilemma of institutional schooling: the divergence between the institutional goals of order and conformity and the educational goals of individuality and autonomy. School administrators escape this dilemma by occupying themselves with resolving the daily managerial diversions listed in their daily calendars.

      While the diversions of school administration keep the occupants of main offices busy and will garner accolades from the community, the schools they lead are adrift morally and intellectually. Without an instructional anchor a sea of legislative mandates, board initiatives, model programs, and the demands of special interest groups batter their schools. Doing diversions well will keep a school afloat, but it will fail to navigate the school in any particular direction.

      School administrators, who sense that their school is adrift at sea, could look for those educational values and goals in their school’s mission statement or in their academic coursework. What they will find in both sources are text awash in waves of educational platitudes and rafts of techniques. After being tossed around in the hurricane of visions and recipes, the occupants of main offices,return each day to the school helm, where at least they can keep the school afloat. As they right the school vessel, however, they know they have not disturbed the calm at the bottom of the sea—the beliefs, the goals, the values, and the organization of institutional schooling. 

      Missing from their quest for instructional anchors is a philosophy of education restoring value to what teachers do in classrooms and methods of inquiry that examine the consequences of school practices fundamentally opposed to the valued outcomes of schooling. John Dewey, among a number of other philosophers of education, proposed a philosophy of education focusing on methods of inquiry that required children and their teachers to step-out of the confines of their culture and personal-self-interest to resolve the real social, economic, and political problems confronting their communities. Dewey’s philosophy went on to describe in great detail the kind of pedagogy and curricular that grows a child from the purposeful resolution of personal needs and desires to the purposeful resolution of public needs and desires— the movement from being stuck in custom and circumstance to “the kind of life we ought to live and what sort of world we should call into existence” (Garrison, 1997).

      Philosophies of education, whether it be Dewey or some other philosopher educator, offer schools administrators a blueprint for WHY of schooling—the “ends in view” that will interpenetrate the practices of schooling. School administrators and teachers who work in school cultures woven together with a common philosophy of education not only know what values they are teaching each day, but also know when the fabric of their school is unraveling.

      Even with a well thought out philosophy of education, however, school administrators and teachers still work in a “machinery of schooling” which prizes conformity over creativity; passivity over engagement; credentialing over understanding A philosophy of education strong enough to resolve the separation of school from society and the child from curriculum must first find pathways between the theories and ideas that inform teaching, learning, and organizational behavior and the practical world of classroom teaching. Secondly, that philosophy must be comprehensive enough to understand and address in purposeful way the five problems of schooling that cut instructional anchors from schools and sink most reform initiatives.

      The six blogs that follow will describe the six problems of schooling and the educational stance a school administrator should assume to author a strong instructional worldview.

“Nothing but the Facts”

 “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon the Facts: nothing ever will be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to the Facts, sir!”

(Thomas Grandgrid,From Hard Times by Charles Dickens)

     The entire infrastructure of schooling is the belief that knowledge is stable. The design of school organizations, the certification of teachers, the materials used in classrooms, the organization of the curriculum, the assessment of student progress, the awarding of credits are all based on the assumption that knowledge—facts, concepts, procedures—can be defined, categorized, and quantified. Bloom’s taxonomy best exemplifies this belief in action with lesson plans filled with lesson objectives asking students to “define,” to “identify,” to “label,” to “name.” Although actual lessons in schools rarely advance beyond knowledge and comprehension verbs, Bloom does include behavioral terms requiring students to demonstrate their ability to apply all the facts, concepts, and procedures they have memorized to higher level cognitive functions— to analyze, to synthesize, to evaluate.

     Even in instances when lesson plans include a higher-level cognitive function, that function, in the words of John Dewey, amounts to a contrived school problem that follows a taught formulaic response. The five-paragraph essay best illustrates how a valued educational goal is reduced to a routine procedure that can be evaluated within the parameters of an institutional metric.

     The fundamental flaw with institutional conceptions of knowledge, is not recognizing that all knowledge is relational. All real-world experiences, whether they be intellectual or social or sensorial or personal, are holistic encounters with our natural or social world. In other words, our encounters with the world outside of school are composed of all eight parts of speech, just not a verb and not just a noun. Life gets interesting and often perplexing when you mix in adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, and conjunctions.

     Most teachers reading this would agree on the relational nature of knowledge, but, being a prisoner of an institutional mindset, would assert that before students can perform any of the higher cognitive functions listed by Bloom, they first must learn, actually memorize, a whole host of definitions, facts, procedures, formulas. The institutional narrative continues with students being told that at some point in the future—the future always remaining vague, they will be asked to put all this information to use.

     The last part of the institutional narrative is claiming that without knowing the meaning or function of a piece of information, you will face a dismal personal and occupation future. What most of us find out in the occupations we end up in is employers care little about our factual knowledge; they care a whole lot about our ability to apply that knowledge to problems or assigned tasks. There is no set menu of facts, concepts, or procedures that apply to real world problems, dilemmas, or encounters. Rather we are all thrown into occupations, into relationships, into situations where we encounter a buffet of facts, concepts, and procedures laid out on a real world serving table with the directive to select out a mix of these facts, concepts, and procedures that have the best possibility of solving a problem or completing a task.

     As you become more experienced, you turn your attention away from how you are filling up your problem-solving plate, and instead, study what is on other plates around you. Those that excel in their occupational fields acquire the ability to pick the right plate or combination of plates to solve an organizational problem or spark an innovative turn. The point being, the best preparation for being successful in a twenty-first century global economy, is the habit of thinking relationally—how do fact, concepts, procedures fit together. Thinking discretely will serve you well on institutional assessments—filling in bubbles—but prepares you poorly for what bubbles matter most and how to arrange those bubbles in ways that solve real world problems or complete real world tasks.

“It is so boring”

The blog below is a response to a NYT article titled:

“How will America recover from a broken school year

As an educator for over forty years–a teacher, a principal, a professor—I will act as the 800 pound gorilla in the closet. Yes, no doubt students suffered social, emotional, and intellectual loss from a year of uneven schooling. But, let us be candid that the form of schooling many are lamenting was a century old model of teaching and learning that aimed at achieving institutional goals—custodial care and credentialing–but were far from the engaged learning environments school officials and parents like to believe were happening on a daily basis in our schools. I had hoped, actually still hope, that this year long break from our factory style model of schooling would motivate school administrators to rethink and redesign a model of schooling that lived up to educational goals and values written into their school mission statements. I understand the urgency of parents wanting to get their children back to structured educational experience. At the same time, however, we as educators, need to redesign our turn of the century schooling platforms that place an emphasis on experiences that are truly educational, rather than a grammar of schooling that in my grandson’s words is so boring.

Preparation

“Preparation is a treacherous idea”

(John Dewey)

Companies need to prepare their people for a future where new and evolving skills and ways of working are a given and where an embrace of continuous learning is the key to relevancy in the workplace.

(McKinsey Quarterly)

Prepared for Tomorrow

  The fundamental educational goal listed in all school mission statements is preparing their student bodies for “tomorrow.” Tomorrow in these mission statements is defined as being “well prepared for career pathways in a modern and globalized world.” What follows in these same mission statements is a list of skills that parents assume will prepare their sons and daughters for careers in the twenty-first century. Although these skills on their face would appear as a valued competence in the occupational world of the twenty-first century, an examination of these skills from an employer’s perspective finds a wide discrepancy between schooled skills and real-world skills.

Schooled and Real-World Skills

  Critical thinking is an excellent example of the wide gap between how schools and employers define the concept. From a school perspective, educators would turn to Bloom’s taxonomy and cite the ability to analyze, to evaluate, to interpret, and to synthesize information. Within the context of a school classroom these abilities are applied to academic subjects where students are asked to interpret passages from literature; to evaluate the significance of an historical event; to write a term paper on an academic topic or question. While all of these assignments are legitimate applications of critical thought, none of these assignments are transferrable to what employers mean by critical thinking.

  While school definitions of critical thinking are information based, employer definitions of critical thinking are problem based. Employers value employees who are able to recognize problems, prioritize problems, gather evidence to solve problems, recognize many solutions to problems, and most importantly, to anticipate problems. School officials would respond to this charge by pointing to numerous examples in their curriculum where students are asked to solve problems. Employers would point out that school problems are contrived by teachers to align with content material and testing configurations and ignore the all-important contextual, logistical, and monetary variables that real world problem solving must factor into their decision making.

The World of Soft-Skills

  Putting aside the definitional problems with educational goals listed in school mission statements, the foundational problem with teaching future occupational skills is institutional schooling commitment to teaching hard academic skills as opposed to occupational soft skills. The chart below, shows the results of a survey of 18,000 people in 15 countries identifying the foundational skills that will help citizens thrive in the future of work. None of these soft skills are taught, much less appear, in our nation’s classrooms. The goals, vocabularies, and strategies of institutional schooling value and promote hard academic knowledge and skills. Any mention of “storytelling,” or “creativity and imagination,” or “resolving conflicts,” or “breaking orthodoxies,” would be greeted with confused stares and curt “thank you for your input.”

FOUNDATIONAL SKILLS THAT WILL HELP CITIZENS THRIVE IN THE FUTURE OF WORK

COGNITIVEINTERPERSONAL
Problem Solving
Logical Reasoning
Understanding Biases
Determining Relevant Information
Translating knowledge into different context
Adopting a different perspective
Work-Plan Development
Time Management
Achievement orientation
Integrity
Resolving conflicts
COMMUNICATIONDIGITAL FLUENCY
Storytelling
Asking the Right Questions
Synthesizing Messages
Active Listening
Computational & algorithmic thinking
Data literacy
Digital collaboration
Cyber security
Tech translation and enablement
Smart Systems
SOURCE:  Dondi, M., Klier, J., Panier, F., Schubert, J. Defining the skills citizens will need in the future world of work. McKinsey & Company
 

The World of Hard Skills

  Why do hard academic skills continue to dominate school curricula when employer surveys are asking for entirely different set of real-world soft skills?

  Hard academic skills are easy to measure & report

  The organizational structure and pedagogy governing the transmission of academic knowledge and skills lends itself to the multiple-choice test on Friday and letter grade report cards. The soft skills listed in the chart above require an assessment system that evaluate the quality, not quantity, of a student’s behavior. The assessment of a soft skill employs rubrics describing gradations of a performance that only experts or employers in a particular field would understand and appreciate. Parents look for an A or B or the dreaded F on a report card. They would be utterly confused receiving the following assessment of a public speaking assignment:” Eagerly initiates speech, utilizing appropriate attention getting devices. Easily asks questions and speaks spontaneously.”

  Hard academic skills are easy to teach

  Teaching hard academic skills lends itself to a transmission pedagogy composed of a teacher telling or showing definitions, facts, and procedures. The teaching of soft skills requires students to construct knowledge from problems that do not have clear goals, solutions paths, or expected solutions. Lesson plans for the teaching of hard academic skills follow a series of steps that begin with an objective and ending with independent practice. Lessons plans for teaching soft skills begin with a problem, a scenario, a story, and ends with some form of performance.

  Hard academic skills document institutional outcomes

  The primary goal of institutional schooling is to document for other institutions of learning the completion of prescribed sequences of knowledge and skills. Institutions accomplish this goal by reducing disciplinary knowledge into subjects—algebra, biology, U.S. History. Each subject, is then, assigned a unit or credit based on specified amount of time “seated” in a classroom (i.e. In the united states a “Carnegie Unit” equals a total of 120 hours in one subject). There are no subjects, or specified amounts of “seat time,” or letter grades, or credits.” There are knowledge and skills. All of these knowledge and skills, however, are contingent upon a problem or process that draws upon multiple disciplines to develop a tangible solution or performance. All the markings of institutional schooling—classrooms, periods, semesters, credits—become irrelevant in the soft skill world of problem solving, of active listening, of time management, of teamwork, of coaching, of collaboration, of determining relevant information, of implementing workable solutions to ill-defined societal problems.

Preparation is a treacherous idea

  The governing narrative of all school mission statements is preparing children and adolescence for successful careers in the occupational world. In order to achieve this goal, schools, lay out a sequence of courses in the K -12 schooling system that administrators and teachers believe will best achieve this goal.

  Putting aside the lack of emphasis on the other goals of schooling—civic, humanistic, personal development—the sequence of courses ostensibly designed to prepare student bodies for success in a twenty-first global economy, are in reality designed to prepare students for the next level of schooling. Yes, hard academic courses fit well into a school report card and transcript, but, would find little attention on a job resume.

  What employers are looking for in the candidates seated in front of them are soft real-world skills that will add value to their company. Among all of those soft real-world skills listed in the chart above, the one behavior that is the foundation for all of these real-world skills is the commitment to continuous learning.

  The generation in school now and all of those that follow will work in a world where occupations will be in constant flux. In this new world of work, there will be to no permanent careers, or training regimes, or diplomas, or established school curricula. They must be places, or rather, venues, where young people are acculturated into continuous learning environments—where their individual interests, talents, and abilities are honored and fostered.