The ideologies of an era are embedded in its systems. Eras change. Systems don’t – at least not until they are disrupted. As a result, existing systems are substantial in determining what will be adopted. Systems serve as boundary markers for innovation. The test of whether or not a new idea will be adopted is often determined how well it integrates with what exists.
Society itself is essentially a series of interlocking systems. Because we have an education system that takes care of young students for eight hours a day, both parents can work. Because we have some level of centralization of government in most countries, education systems are subject to governmental curricular and structural mandates. The book made the library. Society’s systems make the schools. More than any other element, this systemic inertia is responsible for limited innovation in education. All ideas are vetted by how they integrate with the system.
Different eras require different modes of thought and action. For example, in times of innovation in a sector – like computers in the 80’s or the web since 2000 – a blue sky mentality is needed. All things are possible. Limitations exist only in our capacity to visualize a new reality. Very few innovation push-backs are found in these periods. In a sense, these are the teenage years – our ignorance prevents us from listening to no-sayers. Other periods – such as the 50’s and 60’s in manufacturing – are periods of tweaking. The boundaries of a system are in place and systematization is the key focus.
In education we are today at the teenage years. We are at a point where we ought to be conceiving new models driven by the affordances generated by networks, technology, openness, and social software. Instead, many systems are at the equivalent stage of being pushed down the hall in a wheelchair at a senior care home.
I want to resist the mindset of measuring what is possible by the existing system.
Look at a few of the biggest technological “innovations” of the last decade: learning management systems, student information systems, interactive whiteboards, iclickers, and virtual classrooms. These tools integrate with existing systems, which is why they are successful. The systemic design of education, from curricular planning to delivery to evaluation, has not been recast in light of the web. Instead, the web has been recast in light of existing systems. In many instances, teaching and learning has been transferred to, instead of transformed by, the internet.
What is the impact of this mindset? When I present on alternative views of assessment and accreditation, or suggest non-course approaches to teaching, the inevitable push-back is “well that won’t work because of _____ aspect of the system”. Perhaps it is time that we turn our attention explicitly to working on, rather than in, the system.
Yes, working against a system is difficult. Sometimes even futile. I’m not suggesting that we “fight the man” and organize marches decrying the failure of the system. I’m suggesting something much more subtle: that we no longer allow systems-based arguments and criticism to dampen our creative exploration for what is possible in education. A period of “no boundaries” in our thinking. Forget even arguing against those who appeal to integration with existing structures. Just ignore those discussions completely. I’d like to focus instead on creating a compelling vision of what education could be given new technologies and almost global connectivity.
The timing is somewhat ideal. The growth of the internet, advancement in social media, frustration with quality of the current system (primary to university), reduced budgets, and greater awareness of the importance of creative and innovative thinkers, has created an almost perfect storm for reform. I doubt we’ll see, in our lifetime, similarly favorable conditions for change.
We are, after all, in the youth of educational reform. No point in spending it in a wheelchair or pushing around a walker.