Technocratic Tinkering in Schools

Many of us share the same vision for our schools. Namely, to create learning experiences that are centered around learners needs. It is safe to say that undertaking the implementation of the vision results in the total destruction of the current operating system of schooling and education. The thought of upending a system that has been in place for over one hundred years (and did serve a legitimate purpose for a large part of that time) is daunting. Okay, it’s downright frightening. In the spirit of self-disclosure, the thought of the change to the school systems required to implement a learner-centered structure leads me into a mini existential crisis. After all, what is our purpose as educators if the system of education/schooling that we are operating in now is not working? It is much easier to think about ways to tinker with the system by implementing a new curriculum here, adopt a new textbook there, or institute a new program somewhere else. By doing this we get a feeling that we are doing something to improve the system when in reality we are simply tinkering around the edges! Technological tinkering is a problem within the structure of education in America and prevents significant transformation from occurring.

School Technocrats

According to Merriam-Webster, a technocrat is a: “technical expert; especially one exercising managerial authority”.  Let’s spend some time deconstructing this definition. 

The definition starts by saying a technocrat is a technical expert.  The current system of education/school is so overwhelming to those working in it limits the creation of different possibilities.  When the horizon of possibilities within the system becomes dim, people working within the structure start looking for ways to improve the systems within the confines of the system itself.  We become experts at the system.  Our aspirations no longer pine for the best possibilities or outcomes for the reason the system was created (in our case Learners and their learning). Rather, we limit ourselves to becoming experts at the system.  In effect, we become technical experts of the system. 

The definition ends with, “…especially someone exercising managerial authority.”.  A manager is the person working for Henry Ford to make sure the workers are doing the right tasks at the right time using the correct tools.  A manager’s role to assure the sustainability of the system!  A manager makes sure the assembly line works smoothly and the buses run on time.  There are times and places where a good manager is essential…that fact is indisputable.  For our purposes, managerial competence is not a goal.  Courageous leadership is.

Curricular Tinkering

Tinkering is defined as: “to work in the manner of a tinker to repair, adjust, or experiment with”. Our education/schooling system has been one of the most tinkered with systems within our society over the past fifty years. 

The tinkering centers on things within the system that are deemed important.  The one area that has received the most attention is the curriculum.  Curricular tinkering occurs for two reasons.  First, pressure from outside groups influences local school decisions about curricular options and programs.   Curriculum programs started to become “teacher-proof” as there was a sense from outside groups that teachers could not be trusted with implementing programs the way in which they were designed. The teacher proof concept culminates with the standards reform efforts in the late 20th and early 21st centuries where politicians and special interest groups dictate exactly what, when (and in some cases how) content will be taught to learners.

The second reason that schools tinker with the curriculum is an insidious consequence of the industrial-age system of education/schooling.  The structure of the system determines the function of the jobs in the system.  A teacher’s role is to deliver approved content.  A building administrator is to assure the teachers are doing their job.  Superintendents and central office staff have become masters of compliance to directives from the State and Federal governments.  Structurally speaking, we are getting out of education exactly what the structure and system demand.  To gaze at the horizon and dream of more possibilities simply does not work in our current structure.

Technocratic Tinkering

Technocratic tinkering is the false belief that someone is making significant changes in a system/organization by implementing a program when in reality they are only perpetuating the worst aspects of the organization/system.  Technocratic tinkering is a nationwide problem for the education sector. 

People in schools may feel that they are changing the system when in fact they are only managing a slight deviance away from the normal function of the system.  Oftentimes, the solutions that are adopted by technocratic tinkerers are programs developed and marketed from large curricular or educational companies.  The programs are often well-meaning and may make education better for a small subset of Learners.  The key point to remember is that most educational programs and reforms (and I mean everything from textbook adoption to Charter School options) are not meant to change the structure of the school system.  Rather, they are meant to change a small subset of the overall structure of what we call school.   

1-1 Initiatives as an Example of Technocratic Tinkering

“Technology” initiatives in school are a good example.  Let’s look at the bag of goods that educators have been sold around technology and 1-1 initiatives over the last 10 years. 

1-1 initiatives were sold to the education/school system as THE solution to all problems around instruction in the classroom.  Once a teacher had a classroom where every Learner had a device (the thinking went) then, voila, engagement by the Learners, delight by the parents, and unicorns and rainbows will descend on your school! 

Okay, I apologize for the snarkiness, however, the value of 1-1 initiatives was (and is) extremely overvalued.  The reason 1-1 initiatives were overvalued gets to the heart of technocratic tinkering.  It was an idea that managers could institute that made them feel as if they were making true progress toward greater Learner-centeredness. The reality was different.  The 1-1 initiatives just perpetuated (albeit with greater speed and efficiency) the existing industrial age system.    Maybe under the right circumstances, 1-1 initiatives can be used to change the system, but when implemented within the system by technocratic tinkering, no system change occurs.

Courageous Leadership

We can avoid technocratic tinkering in our school system. Teachers, principals, and other educational leaders hold the keys to a better way in education/schooling. Do not force a program onto a school. Rather, allow educators to “mix” their knowledge, expertise, and ideas with information and knowledge from outside the system. The result of the mix will the combination of educator knowledge and outside perspectives. The dynamic needs to change from teacher ideas being viewed with skepticism to one where their ideas are at the forefront. 

School leaders who value the empowerment of their staff carve time for them to work together to solve problems of education. When educators consciously avoid tinkering and solve problems systemically, technocratic tinkering will no longer occur.

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 “Technocratic Tinkering in Schools

  1. Right on! We (educators) have been tinkering with the educational system our entire career. Until leaders begin to tackle the sacred icons (grades, grade levels, schedules, time, and place) we will be regulated to an out-dated industrial-age system of education.

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