Let’s Unbundle Education

Industries are being disrupted by people and organizations that are utilizing technology to reframe the traditional business role. Disrupters study an industry in an effort to determine its most essential components. By doing this, disrupters do not approach the problem with a technology in mind. Rather, they concentrate their time on doing the heavy mental lifting required to analyze the functions and outputs of an industry. I recently watched a 60 Minutes episode that discussed how the banking industry is in the process of being totally disrupted. Just think about how bank branches are becoming obsolete and you can get a picture of the disruption occurring in this sector. In the piece, they talked about how the banking industry has become “unbundled”. New companies are creating services that target these specific pieces of the old banking industry; oftentimes with more access and efficiency for consumers. I think it was a fascinating piece. Of course the question that came to my mind after watching the show was this: How can we unbundle schooling and is that even a good idea? In many cases the disruption that occurs because of unbundling is already occurring. Educators better pay close attention to this trend!

Schooling encompasses what must people think about when they think of K-12 education. People think of school busses transporting kids to a building where learning happens. Schooling is a broader term than education or learning and reflects the industry that dominates the K-12 sphere. So, if schooling is unbundled, what would it look like? I will offer you my opinion on unbundling schooling. This is a work in progress and there are many ideas that need to be examined more closely.

I believe “schooling” can be broken into three distinct categories. These categories can also be broken into their component parts. The three categories that make up schooling are: education, social, and cultural transfer.

EDUCATION: Education is the intellectual growth that (hopefully) occurs in our schools. Education is the stated purpose of schooling; it is also the area in which the government and most reformers concentrate their efforts. I believe there are four component parts of education: Learners, learning, instruction, mandates (and its cousin…assessment). For all of the curriculum directors out there, you will notice that I did not name curriculum as one of the component parts. I did this for two reasons. First, the curriculum space has been significantly disrupted already. The choices for schools to chose curricular options have increased significantly over the past ten years. This has created (in my opinion) a marketplace where an aware education leader can purchase almost any curricular option they can envision. Their job is simply to assure the curricular option serves the purpose for their school and learners. Second, in today’s environment, curriculum is just not as important as its sibling, instruction. Great instruction is paramount as we move into the future of unbundled school options. Instruction is changing constantly as we grapple with how increase student engagement in a face to face, blended and virtual learning environment. Instruction is the area where education leaders need to concentrate their efforts in a fluid learning environment. Finally, learning is the basis of education. If a learner does not learn, then there is no education. Creating meaningful learning environments for learners that reflect our current century is the number one challenge in education. One final note, we assume that everything we do is geared toward the learner…but does that really happen in “schooling”? It seems to me that schooling is an adult oriented institution. In order to significantly change schooling (and education) we must become radically learner centered. This will place the priority on the learner and their learning.

Social: Over the course of my career I have heard so many people say, “The school Board can pass a multi million-dollar budget with no questions, but change the football coach and you will fill your auditorium with concerned citizens!” My answer to that is, “Good”. While I was superintendent, the most festive time for our community revolved around Friday night football games. This was an opportunity for the community to come together and celebrate the youngsters of their community (those in the band and cheerleaders included). Why is this a bad thing? “Social” can be broken into at least five component parts: sports, clubs, band, chorus, cafeteria. Maybe education leaders and schools should spend more of their time worrying about the social aspect of their students. Why is this important? Think about how most people in communities connect for opportunities, whether the opportunities are for jobs or social climbing. Most jobs do not require a high school transcript; people receive opportunities through word of mouth and people that they know. When I was a superintendent in Ridgway I asked a successful businessman what academic skills are essential for his new hires. I thought that algebra might be his answer. His answer was that he likes to hire farmers and ex-military because when a machine breaks down at two in the morning those two people will not wait for a boss to show up later in the morning, they will try to figure out a solution now. No mention of academic credentials. Just previous work experience and word of mouth. I believe this happens more than education reformers would like to admit. I believe the reality is that the social aspect of schooling needs to be embraced and developed.

Cultural Transfer: Cultural transfer consists of the hidden (and not so hidden) cultural norms that get passed from one generation to the next. Schools serve as a transfer agent for these norms. The component parts of this category are (but not limited to): Structure of society, obedience, conformity, patriotism, individualism, entrepreneurship… I can name more (and you can too!) but those serve as a good start. With the eroding of community structures in many places, the schools have filled an important role in inculcating students in how to act in society. This is an almost completely ignored aspect of schooling and needs to have more attention paid to it.

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About 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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1 thought on “Let’s Unbundle Education

  1. Just never thought about those as components of school but do see how they have had a huge impact… Thanks for this, Tom.

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