February 19, 2019

This is the third in the series of transforming to a new operating system in education.

As discussed in previous posts, the old operating system creates despair for those working and living in it, and has as its foundation principle competition as a motivating factor. A result of despair and competition is apathy…the third foundational principle of the old operating system of education. Apathy seeps into the structure of the old OS as educators and learners feel less empowered. In the command and control style of education, rules and regulations are created from “the top” and expected to be implemented in exactitude by those at “the bottom”. The traditional definition of “fidelity” used on the old OS means that schools and teachers must implement programs exactly the way the programs were drawn up in some faraway place. How did we get to the point where the structure of the education system is so reliant on a command and control structure?

The Old Operating System:
Our current school system was created in the image of a factory. The modern school system was created during the height of industrialization across the world. Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie revolutionized the work in factories by instituting concepts that led to mass production. The most profound innovation was the use of the assembly line. Henry Ford in particular led the way in creating the assembly line which was efficient in turning raw material into a working product. Before the assembly line, workers would put together large sections of the vehicle in one work space. Material was brought to the vehicle being assembled for inclusion in the manufacturing process. This required that workers be proficient in many different aspects of the assembly process resulting in a limited number of vehicles that could be assembled in a day. After all, workers were required to move frequently away from the assembling point to gather parts for the next step in the assembly process, slowing the process of assembly. Ford considered the movement of the workers as wasted time and inefficient. Instead, he devised a system where the vehicles moved on an assembly line from one station to the next while the workers stayed in place and specialized in one discrete task in the assembly process. In this way, there was no wasted motion and inefficiencies were driven from the process. An empty chassis started on one end of the assembly line and a completed vehicle appeared at the other end of the line.

Henry Ford quickly discovered that workers did not like to do the same (boring) repetitive task thousands of times a day. Many of the workers, out of sheer boredom, would deviate from the prescribed routine. This drove Ford nuts. Any small deviation from routine would have a snowball effect on the rest of the assembly process and significantly slow down the entire production process. The question that Ford had to answer centered on management. Essentially, Ford created a management system to assure the workers do exactly what the required them to do on the assembly line exactly when he wanted them to do it. A system of command and control was created to make sure workers stayed on task at all times. Workers were told explicitly what to do and foremen and supervisors monitored them to make sure they did it. A command and control system goes hand in hand with an assembly line process…you can’t have one without the other. An entire organizational system is required to assure that all workers in the plant are compliant to the process.

School leaders at the turn of the 20th century, influenced by the assembly line method, created a school system that mimicked a factory. Just like a chassis move through the assembly line, batches of learners move through the assembly line with added parts (curriculum) added to them along the way. Teachers act like glorified assembly workers placing parts where they are supposed to fit on a Learner. The reformers that created the industrialized school system adopted the model of the assembly line system also installed (by default) the command and control systems required in an industrialized assembly line factory. Learners move from room to room to accommodate the teachers so they would not have to move. I know teachers who taught in the same room for 40 years! Bells are used to notify learners and teachers when the next stage of the assembly process is to take place. The industrialized schools dehumanize learners and de-professionalizes teachers.

The New Operating System:
The new definition of fidelity in the new OS of education is where local context and expertise is leveraged to create an ideal learning experience. The new operating system relies on empowerment to create dignity. As I have mentioned before, the answers to education issues lies within the people that work with learners every day. Teachers, aids, principals superintendents hold the key for education change. It seems sensible that the people engaging in the day to day activities of education should have the most say in the how change occurs within their system. A salesman for a fortune 500 company does not have to stop and call his supervisor to ask permission to veer from the sales script if they believe a sale will be made by ad-libbing. In the military, commands are created and passed in a very structured environment, but the platoon leader on patrol is not expected to have to call back to the command post every time a barrier or an unexpected problem arises. Yet, we do not empower our teachers and school leaders to incorporate local knowledge and expertise in their day to day operations (i.e. every teacher must be on the same page doing the same lesson at the same time…this still happens in schools!). The new OS moves away from apathy and the learned helplessness that results and empowers teachers and learners. School leaders must have the nerve to set a vision for their school and then the courage to listen to the people most affected by the vision…the learners and the teachers. Creating a vision and implementing the vision is a topic that we do not have enough space in this blog to cover, but it is important to note that any vision for education must meet the “reality on the ground”. Once that reality is understood, the vision can be implemented with the knowledge that local idiosyncrasies are being addressed.

To start the journey toward an operating system that dignifies the people in it, start by asking yourself these three questions. Convene a group of practitioners and ask:

  1. What would the school look like if it were uncompromisingly learner centered?
    o What are the command and control structures that impede us from being learner centered?
    o What are examples in your school of changing a structure to address learners needs?
  2. How do the old operating system structures impede true learning?
    o How does grading change?
    o How do grade levels change?
    o What role does curriculum play in the new operating system?
  3. How can the school formulate systems that empower people and create dignity?
    o Create a school from scratch…what would you add and what would you take out from our current system?

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About the author 

Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.

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