Now that we have selected the curtain colour, let’s build a new house

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.

21 Responses to “Now that we have selected the curtain colour, let’s build a new house”

  1. Tim Kastelle says:

    Very good post George. The inertia of systems is a problem across all domains. I’m preparing a Public Sector Innovation course for later this year, and most of the people that will be in that will have parallel experiences. It’s true in business too.

    I think it’s all due to embeddedness within networks – every innovation has to get people to unconnect from whatever system they’re already in…

  2. gsiemens says:

    Thanks Tim. Are you offering your course on innovation in an open format? If so, let me know – I’d love to follow along :) .


    • Tim Kastelle says:

      That’s an excellent question. This first version we won’t be able to, as it has been solicited by the QLD Government. However, we’re aiming to roll it out more widely once we’ve done it once, and it would be good to be able to do future iterations in an open format.

  3. Mark Bullen says:

    Good points George, but if we are in the youth of educational reform in 2010, what stage were we at in the 1960s and 70s when people like Ivan Illich and Paolo Friere were calling for radical reform?…. or even earlier in the 1916 when John Dewey suggested that education is not something that only happens in institutions: “Schools are, indeed, one important method of the transmission which forms the disposition of the immature; but it is only one means, and, compared with other agencies, a relatively superficial one.” Linking the need for educational reform to technological innovation is limiting and overlooks a rich history of radical educational thought.

  4. [...] point overlaps in part part with the point being made by George Siemens in this post More than any other element, this systemic inertia is responsible for limited innovation in [...]

  5. Seth says:

    You can pay it now by addressing systems-based arguments, or pay it later when you have to actually have to build the new system.

    Systems-based arguments are relevant to what you are trying to for two reasons:

    1) Although you try to cast systems as simply different styles, like fashion, educational systems are in part built on what has been found to work or not work. Most of the current educational systems avoid corporal punishment, because they have found more effective ways of addressing student behavior. Without systems-based arguments, there is nothing to prevent “no boundaries” thinking from making the same mistakes that the current system makes.

    2) By failing to listen to those who disagree with you, it can only create an echo chamber.

    I’m amazed that when David Wiley says we shouldn’t drag down institutions for half-openness, because it is at least a start, people muster righteous indignation for their right to critique. But when George wants to think about possibilities, how dare anyone offer systems-based critiques.

    I believe “no boundaries” type thinking can very useful, so I’m not arguing against the attempt. But that type of thinking works best when it is contrasted with thinking within at least some boundaries.

    Maybe this comment is in vain. It is, after all, a somewhat pro-system argument.

    • gsiemens says:

      Hi Seth,

      I don’t think we’ll ever get away from systems. We’ve reduced most aspects of society down to technique. I’m arguing that in the context of change today, systems themselves need to be re-thought. In other periods, we spend time sustaining or tweaking the system that has already been created. Even revolutionaries conserve once their revolution has succeeded :) .

      I’m not sure I fully understand your second point. David Wiley has done wonderful work in the field. Important work. It would be silly to disparage his record and contributions. I don’t agree with him on all points, but I don’t feel I’ve treated him with “righteous indignation”. In terms of critiques of what I’ve stated – I would gladly have people offer systems-based critiques. My point is not that we don’t need systems. My point is that we have systems mismatched to the needs of learners and society (Frank and Gabler address this in their text Reconstructing the University, arguing that universities map the reality of the society in which they exist). I would like boundary-less thinking as we create a vision of what schools and universities could be. Once we have this vision, then, yes, it becomes systematized. Only to be, in Schumpeter’s vision, obliterated and created anew in the future as society and context change again.

      btw – no comments are in vain – it’s the internet. it’s all important :) .

      • Seth says:

        To clarify, you had never accused David Wiley of this, but others did in the whole defining openness argument. Sorry I wasn’t more clear about that.

  6. gsiemens says:

    Hi Mark – those are very good questions. I thought about Illich and Freire (not so much Dewey) when I writing the post. I opted to side step both of those and focus instead on the current cauldron of change: openness, technological innovation, global connectivity, etc. Illich’s vision of learning webs was simply not possible in his era. Today, it is. I understand your point about the limitations of linking reform to technology and education. It seems a bit soul-less to ignore the humanistic philosophy that drove Dewey/Piaget (though, I must say, I enjoyed Kieran Egan’s Getting it Wrong from the Beginning – didn’t agree with everything, but still a good critique of Dewey and his philosophical roots) and focus mainly on technology.

    The positive aspect of a technology focus is that we are conditioned to expect disruption and change through technology. In a Postman sense, we approach it expecting deliverance. Ellul expresses this grinding, inundating, obliterating aspect of technique and technology as well. While it feels wrong to say it, technology is a lever that raises expectations of, and receptivity to, change. Which is why I focused on it as a driving factor in “blue skying” education.

    What are your thoughts? What can we draw from the rich history of radical reform? Why have those movements fallen so flat? Every grad student in education has read the texts. But why have philosophical reform appeals failed to translate into the classroom and into the system? (To be fair, Dewey’s thinking is stamped on American education. Illich far less so).

  7. [...] to keep popping up. It started when I read today’s post by George Siemens which discusses the difficulties of changing the educational system. I recommend reading the whole post, but here is part of his argument: I want to resist the mindset [...]

  8. Mark Bullen says:


    I’m not sure all the past reform movements have fallen flat. They certainly haven’t resulted in radical transformation but I think they have had an impact, probably more on K-12 education than higher education. Learner-centered education, collaborative learning and other methods and approaches that are informed by constructivism are almost the norm. Even in higher education, despite what we hear, there is much less old-school lecturing and transmission teaching than in the past. But I agree, the structures and systems are largely unchanged and we do tend to fit innovations into existing ways of doing things, but isn’t that the nature of most social change? We are so constrained by existing practices, policies, collective agreements, expectations and organizational cultures that there can, almost by definition, be no radical change. It is frustrating and I sometimes think we need to close the whole system down and start from a blank slate.

    But my point about the rich history is really that we need to pay more attention to it. Clearly you are aware of it, but I get the sense in a lot of the discussions about the brave new digital world that there is not a sufficient appreciation of this intellectual history and people spend a lot of time reinventing the wheel. As an example, much of the discussion around the new “open education” totally ignores the long history of distance education and how it was informed by notions of openness and access.

    Thanks for sparking an interesting discussion.

    • gsiemens says:

      Hi Mark – good point about the history of openness in the distance education movement. A quick skim of the charter documents of Open University in UK and other open/distance universities reveals the philosophical roots of what today is called “open education”. I’m glad you brought up that connection.

      I fully agree that HE has changed. When I hear silly statements about how we could transport teachers from 100 years ago into today’s classrooms and he/she would feel at home, I get a bit indignant. Pedagogically and technologically, HE has changed significantly (my first year at U of M, I remember filling out a paper form for course registration and then receiving a set time to call in and register for my class through a cutting edge telephone system – even something as basic as registering students has changed dramatically). But, as you note “I sometimes think we need to close the whole system down and start from a blank slate”. That’s what I was trying to get at with the original post – i.e. stop innovating within the system, and start innovating on the system.

  9. David says:

    Thanks for the “juicy” thoughts. Lots of valid points. My own is kind of out there but I’ve come to my conclusions much like Postman.

    I’ve read and thought/discussed this issue ad nauseum and have the same frustrations.

    The conclusion I’ve come to (to be very direct) is that nothing is going to change until the “credential” barrier is breached. Education as a system is still tied to the nipple of diplomas / credentials / graduation / F to A+ etc…

    Until governments and society as a whole start to endorse learning above passing — start to endores a concept of knowledge and knowing beyond “quantity” and “commodity” – technology will be something “used” and not transformative. It’s about power and control and the people holding the reins are still demanding a dog and pony show.


  10. Tim Kastelle says:

    Here’s another example of ideology preventing needed change – newspapers!

  11. [...] me, this sounds a whole lot like the problem that George Siemens is describing in education – they were trapped by their underlying beliefs and ideology. Their fundamental belief was [...]

  12. [...] Connectivism networked and social learning « Now that we have selected the curtain colour, let’s build a new house [...]

  13. cindyu says:

    I have so many intense feelings about this, I almost can’t form a coherent thought… but I’ll try. I’m not so sure the system (our institutions) are the root of the problem – seems to me their current dysfunctions are just the manifestations of the bigger issue – the knotting up (over time) of learning, education and credentials and the values that we place on competition and advancement over development and process. I think David is right on in his comments except one thing: the people holding the reins are (in effect) us – all of us.

    If we really valued learning as a process of development that occurs over time and requires experimentation (often failure), reflection, encouragement, meaningful interaction and dialogue to develop the capacity for critical thought – we’d have a very different structure for educating ourselves than the dysfunctional system we have now. Education is the system that we have employed to (we hoped) support learning (or rather advancement) – and do so in an efficient way. And, if it hasn’t succeeded (for the most part) in supporting learning – at least it has been efficient at supplying the stream of students we need to feed the HE system. After all, that’s what our kids must aspire to – right? Efficiency is (apparently) high on our lists of values – after all – it helps us to get things done, without wasting time, so that we can compete with our neighbors and acquire all that we feel we are due.

    The trouble is that kids don’t like to be efficient, so parents have started “efficiency training” before birth – rolling right into expensive preschools, gymnastics classes (before they can walk) and tutoring before they can read. Any university administrator will tell you that coddled kids and helicopter parents are a reality. And how does HE respond to this reality? By treating those parents and their children as consumers of “education”, creating programs for them, ensuring they are informed about every aspect of university life and they have a hotline to call when they get a whiff that junior may be facing a little challenge. Credentials are linked to degrees, degrees are the commodity of the day, almost every post secondary institution is offering them and they are competing for the degree seeker in an increasingly competitive market – so they’ll cater to whatever misguided societal trend they need to – in order to retain their market share.

    Getting off this crazy train won’t be easy – but (I think) like any thing else it starts with paying attention to that little voice inside when it says – this is wrong. Changing values is a much slower process than changing systems and it depends as much on individual choice making as collective action.

  14. How do you think about the view of Clayton Christensen cs about disruptive innovation in education, related to this discourse? They seem to be convinced that traditional e-learning technology can lead to disruptive innovation in schools. You seem to advocate for system changes in the first place.

  15. Nicola says:

    I agree with Cindy’s comments, what an incredible soul-touching post, its very difficult trying to find words. We know what we don’t like or don’t want but we find it very difficult to express what we would like as an alternative. Completely agree about the system inertia – sometimes the nerve ends are so badly damaged that even heroic tinkering, tweaking, replacing, integrating technology into specific areas to encourage regrowth; and other interventions cannot bring movement back as a whole.

    So when we see things are not working, some of us and I would include myself in this, are considerably less energised to find another way.

    Systems are not too big to fail, any more than banks. I agree that it is a good time to become more active – such as the discussion both here and elsewhere but there needs to be more continuous activity alongside the discussion. We all have so much going on in our lives that we struggle to find the time and space to commit to it. Maybe we have not managed to connect to the right people with scientific, technological understanding at the right times to provide a momentum of concerted effort and experimentation.

    Something like (formulating a half-idea on the go) ‘design 7 day retreats/learning spas’ rather than completely bar-camp style, an area where anyone can dip in and out where their lives permit them – to not just think and discuss, but to do too – I’ve experienced some of this in a small way from the last few crisis camp w/ends. Haiti being an example of where technology such as devices for learning and school building are both being analysed at the same time but in completely different projects and maybe needing more time to try and connect them.

    But it needs more than that, due to this ‘inertia’ it is difficult to be creative, so using a retreat type concept (finding appropriate people to help) to try and develop and embed different patterns of design thinking and experimentation.

    I don’t find that social networks such as Ning are quite doing this adequately, there are not enough voices from both within the communities and those who can’t access the web, but need to innovate because they have no choice.


  16. Nicola says:

    Hi, at the risk of being over-communicative and doing two comments on top of each other, I read Yves Smith commentary today on Goldman, financial crisis and systemic failure and found a lot of parallels with the discussion here, e.g.

    “Let’s rerun the tape on the crisis. Two investment banks, Bear and Merrill, were kept from failing subsidized mergers into banks. The conventional wisdom is that allowing Lehman to fail was a really bad idea, although a significant minority school of though holds that if there was a better organized way for Lehman to have failed, maybe that would not have been so terrible. Morgan Stanley and Goldman got cheap money, TARP equity, access to lotsa special facilities to keep them from falling over. They were given banking licenses simply to make it legally (and therefore operationally) easier for the Fed to give them access to emergency cash.

    So what is the lesson? If you are a big enough player in the financial markets, you will not be permitted to fail, particularly after the blowback of the Lehman collapse. And the Fed has gotten over the intellectual and procedural hurdle of letting an investment bank become a bank holding company a when it looks desirable. And they’ll probably be faster about it, since they just have to restart mechanisms they set up in the crisis.”

    Overcoming failure is amazing by humans but in this context – the major systemic failure, highlighted by Lehman in September 2008, despite our best efforts, we are more connected than we have ever been online, more technologies at our disposal, multiple conferences, seminars, multiple books, articles – the best solution we have to addressing complex systems – over 18 months later – is this from the US Economic Recovery Advisory Board – reflecting our finest creative thinking ?!

    There’s some regulatory changes here, some neuro-financial engineering there….if it shows anything, it comes back to inertia.

    Yves summarises some of it being due to connectedness and being unable to calculate & evaluate counterparty risk. This is reflected in a financial networks paper from Andrew Haldane last year too.

    So we are no further at addressing this for complex financial systems and everything else alongside, but because some things are changing, that must be a good thing – eventually we’ll get there (wherever there is).

    There seem to be many similarities between counterparty risk in financial and educational systems for decision makers at any level.

  17. Dear all:

    I have spent some time trying to figure out how I can use the ideas of connectivism in my foreign language classroom. I can clearly see the way teachers can use the Internet to give students virtual experienes of knowledge they are exposed to by the teacher and the books at school. However, this learning process is different from the process I want to use when students have got their own computers and they are free to learn by networking. They have all got the urge to read and write, but quite a few spend their time surfing and not learning because they are not interested in the subject. They are only social.
    My question is: How do I set aims and objectives, like in the traditional classroom or what? Do I simple accept that some students get lost in space?

    These are problems related to high school, but they are very real.