Education: Embracing the Messiness of the Future

Education: Embracing the Messiness of the Future

This morning I read a post: A Teacher’s Take on Brill’s ‘Class Warfare’ which covers some the arguments for and against Brill’s analysis of education through the lens of educator, Patrick Welsch’s review of Brill’s book in The Washington Post (“Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools” by Steven Brill). As with much of what should be strategic political dialog in America, we tend to try and bifurcate the arguments around education and look to tactics rather than strategies—we tend to simplify and banner rather than embrace the underlying complexity of an issue. As Laraine Newman’s uncredited Film Executive says in the 1980 Woody Allen film, Stardust Memories, “too much reality is not what the people want.”

The issue of learning is not one that is solved by blaming teachers, or creating competitions or turning from government leadership to mega-foundations. The solutions cannot be encapsulated on bumper stickers, or resolved by rebooting the teaching profession by applying industrial age performance dogma, or by using social media. The over simplification of education’s issues is a failure on all sides of the debate. Strategic dialog is about building toward a future based on what you know and a clear acknowledgement of the uncertainties that will shape the future, for which you can have a vision, but for which you must also institute feedback loops that turn experience and experiment into learning, revision and action.

Welsch makes the point for messiness when he writes:

Teachers would love to have the power to lift children born to 16-year-old, semi-literate girls mired in intergenerational poverty to the same academic level as that of children born into stable homes of parents who prize education.

This statement reflects deep economic, social and political issues for which classroom tactics offer no solution. And education strategies will have no influence unless they tie to larger issues of poverty and values for education. As I have said in other posts, one of the biggest issues for education is that the recipients of education have little voice in politics, and education as a whole, including teacher’s unions when it isn’t an election year. Education does not have the same branding and cache as sports, for instance. We systematically, across multiple channels and through a myriad of spokespeople and venues, tout the value of sports. In education we complain, and study, observe and test, standardize and homogenize, but we don’t praise and encourage, invest and expect, the way we do with sports.

This is just one aspect of the messiness: the lack of branding and marketing for education as a concept. Education needs its equivalent of the NFL, which most don’t know, is a non-profit organization that makes sure football is understood, demanded and meets the needs of its audience. And the members of the NFL are the teams that rely on its guidance for their marketing success. Same for the NBA and for Major Leagues Baseball.

The political influence of education is joined by other uncertainties, like what skills will be important in the future? What shape the economy will take? To seemingly inane questions like: What physics will we teach?

Let me take those last two to make a point about messiness. First, the economy, beyond the issues of stock market fluctuations and bubbles, is being challenged internally by the creation of new markets born of the Internet, such as alternative currencies and open source . The first question is how does one teach basic economics in a time of change, and the second is, what impact could these new models have on education? In physics, the debate is running hot on the “standard model,” the one that is usually taught to students. I can think of nothing more messy than a physics teacher saying that he or she doesn’t know if what they are teaching is right or not, which then puts physics in the same realm as evolution in terms of its openness for attack as a theory. But this is the nature of science, which needs to be taught as a method of thinking, as much as a series of facts and models. More science thinking might lesson the propensity to oversimplify and abstract might, and encourage people to discover and tackle underlying causes of dysfunction with more vigor (this is why I posted a list of 21st Century Breadth Requirements, as my contention, my bias, is that we need to teach more about thinking and learning so that when change occurs, people know how to think about change and uncertainty, rather than trying, as many do, to move the world back to a place that aligns with the rote data points they have become comfortable with).

We live in a very messy world. Parties on all sides of the education debate would do well to open themselves up to other perspectives, understand the influences and the root causes of dysfunction and achievement, and not to presume that standard answers apply to all contexts. And as my diatribe above suggests, educators, and students, parents and concerns citizens need to band together into a coalition that speaks loudly for education, or continue to risk that the loudest of the cacophony, or the biggest issue du jour, will either dictate policy or push education down the political and economic stack. Education needs to realize that even if learning is right, and a right, that it still needs strong marketing because its audience isn’t focused on its success. And for the audience that is focused on education, it may have a description of success that isn’t aligned with those who deliver and receive education.

We have plenty to talk about, so instead of talking over each other, we need to talk to each other and we need to be willing to explore new models that may challenge the assumptions of all parties in the dialog.

Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

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