Federal Opinion

Interview: Steve Denning offers Radical Ideas for Reframing Education Reform

By Anthony Cody — September 05, 2011 12 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A couple of days ago I was surprised to find an insightful post in Forbes Magazine, offering us “The Single Best Idea for Reforming Education,” by columnist and management expert Steve Denning. I wrote a post describing his idea, and also sent him some questions, because I think he offers some useful ways to reframe our concerns around the current direction of our schools. Here are his answers.

Interview with Steve Denning:

What would you say is the biggest problem with our educational system today?

The biggest problem that the education system faces today is a preoccupation with, and the application of, the factory model of management to education, where everything is arranged for the scalability and efficiency of “the system”, to which the students, the teachers, the parents and the administrators have to adjust. “The system” grinds forward, at ever increasing cost and declining efficiency, dispiriting students, teachers and parents alike.

Given that the factory model of management doesn’t work very well, even in the few factories that still remain in this country, or anywhere else in the workplace for that matter, we should hardly be surprised that it doesn’t work well in education either.

But given that the education system is seen to be in trouble, there is a tendency to think we need “stronger management” or “tougher management”, where “management” is assumed to be the factory model of management. It is assumed to mean more top-down management and tighter controls, and more carrots and sticks. It is assumed to mean hammering the teachers who don’t perform and ruthlessly weeding out “the dead wood”. The thinking is embedded in Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind.

These methods are known to be failing in the private sector, because they dispirit the employees and limit their ability to contribute their imagination and creativity; they frustrate customers, and they are killing the very organizations that rely on them. So why should we expect anything different in the education sector?

When the problems have been caused in the first place by introducing the practices of “management”, then a more rigorous pursuit of this type of “management” only makes things worse. It is like medieval doctors trying to cure patients by bloodletting, using leeches, which only made the patients worse.

The inapplicablity of these methods is aggravated by the changes in the economy. Not so long ago, we could predict what jobs and careers might be available for children in their adult life. The education system could tell little Freddie or Janet what to study and if he or she mastered that, he or she was set for life. Not any more. We simply don’t know what jobs will be there in twenty years time. Today, apart from a few core skills like reading, writing, math, thinking, imagining and creating, we cannot know what knowledge or skills will be needed when Freddie or Janet grows up.

How would you go about changing this?

Given this context, I believe that the single most important idea for reform in K-12 education concerns a change in goal. The goal needs to shift from one of making a system that teaches children a curriculum more efficiently to one of making the system more effective by inspiring lifelong learning in students, so that they are able to have full and productive lives in a rapidly shifting economy.

This is a shift from running the system for the sake of the system (“You study what we tell you to study, when we tell you, and how we tell you, and at a pace that we determine”) to a focus on the ultimate goal of learning (“Our goal is to inspire our students to become life-long learners with a love of education, so that they will be able to learn whatever they have to.”) All parties--teachers, administrators, unions, parents and students--need to embrace the new goal.

Once we embrace this goal, we can see that that many things will have to change to accomplish it. We can also grasp that most of the thinking underlying current “reforms” of the system can be seen in their true light as schemes and devices that are actually making things worse.

Some of the implications include:
1. The role of the teachers and parents: Education has to shift from imparting a static package of knowledge to a dynamic goal of enabling students to create knowledge and deploy skills to new situations, whatever they turn out to be. In this world, teaching by transfer of information doesn’t work well. Instead the role of teachers (and parents) becomes one of enabling and inspiring the students to learn, so as to spark their energies and talents.

2. The role of administrators: Administrators have to realize that managing the teachers through the control of a traditional hierarchy using carrots and sticks isn’t going to work any better than it does in industry. Unless teachers are themselves inspired, they are unlikely to inspire their students. The role of the administrator has to shift from being a controller to an enabler, so as to liberate the energies and talents of the teachers and remove impediments that are getting in the way of their work.

3. The role of tests: Instead of the teacher or the administrator being the judge of progress, there are explicit criteria where both the students and the teachers can understand themselves how they are doing (in real time) and thus learn how to improve.

4. Respecting Goodhart’s law: The current focus on testing has tended to make test results the goal of the system, rather than a measure. The change in goal means recognizing that a test is only measure. Using tests as the goal infringes Goodhart’s Law: when measure becomes the goal, it ceases to be an effective measure.

5. The mode of accountability: Instead of measuring progress through top-down tests and bureaucracy, the education system must be linked dynamically to self-driven learning of the students themselves. Education must abandon accountability through the use of detailed plans, rules, processes and reports, which specify both the goal and the means of achieving that goal. Instead, what is needed is “dynamic linking”, which means that (a) the work is done in short cycles; (b) the teacher sets the goals of learning for the cycle. (c) decisions about how the learning is to take place is the responsibility of the students; (d) progress is measured in terms of the questions the students are able to generate, not merely answers that they are able to regurgitate; (e) students must be able to measure their own progress--they aren’t dependent on the teacher’s tests. (The ELLI assessment tool is a promising approach to achieving these measurement goals.)

6. Communications shift from command to conversation: i.e. a shift from top-down communications (“the sage on the stage”) comprising predominantly hierarchical directives to horizontal conversations (“the guide on the side”) that helps the student discover new resources, solve problems and generate new insights.

7. An implementable agenda: Unlike many other ideas now being pursued in education, the shift in goal doesn’t require years of research or armies of consultants or vast funding. It doesn’t involve reinventing the wheel. Thousands of Montessori schools have been on this track for many years, with extraordinary results.

8. From outputs to outcomes: Implicit in the shift in goal is of course also an implicit shift from delivering outputs (numbers of students who pass a standardized test) to outcomes in terms of what students are able to do as a result of their education. At its heart, it’s a shift from a focus on things to a focus on people, and the true goal of education.

What do you think about the drive under way to make our schools more competitive globally through raising standards and rewarding success?

I am all for making schools competitive globally, raising standards and rewarding success. Those are all good things in principle.

But everything depends on how they are implemented.

If by “making schools competitive globally, raising standards and rewarding success”, one means making the system teach children a curriculum more efficiently in a top-down bureaucratic manner, by adopting scores on standardized test as the goal of education, and by hammering teachers unless scores improve, then obviously this is a travesty of true education and utterly counterproductive, for the reasons I have described above.

What’s more, it focuses the education system on the needs of the 20th Century economy, namely, generating docile workers who did what they were told, had specific knowledge and could answer questions based on that knowledge.

The needs of the 21st Century economy are different. As the economy goes through increasingly rapid change, the economy needs people who can learn new skills quickly and who are as good at deciding what are the right questions as they are at finding the right answers. By and large, today’s curriculum tends to discourage learning and creativity and today’s standardized tests don’t do a good job of measuring those dimensions. As a result, the preoccupation with international standardized test scores is leading to efforts to push the system to produce students who would be good for the 20th Century, but not the 21st Century.

If on the other hand, by “making schools competitive globally, steadily raising standards and rewarding success”, we mean inspiring lifelong learning in students, so that they are able to have full and productive lives in a rapidly shifting global economy, with the standards and measurements that truly reflect that goal, then I am all for those things.

In this regard, it’s important to remember what’s wrong with bean counting. It’s not that counting is wrong. Counting is good. We desperately need to know what’s working and what isn’t. The problem with the bean counting is what’s being counted. It’s a focus on solely counting outputs and things, rather than outcomes and the dimensions of life related to people. It’s perfectly possible to measure educational dimensions like learning capability and creativity, but today’s standardized tests don’t do that. They measure dimensions that are easy to test, and ignore the dimensions that matter most.

What experiences or research has led you to these ideas?

Education is a type of knowledge work. Over the last couple of decades, the battle over how to manage knowledge work has been fought out most notably in the field of software development. The issue had to be resolved in this sector, because if a software program doesn’t work, you are looking at a blue screen. When a firm has spent a hundred million dollars developing the project, this is more than mildly upsetting. In other fields, like sales, finance, health or even education, people can argue about what is success or failure. In software, there is no argument. The difference is horrifyingly obvious. It either works or it doesn’t.

At first, when managers encountered these problems in software development, they did what is now happening in education. They disciplined people. They tried tighter management. They asked for more detailed reports. They sent the developers on death marches. They fired them. But the replacements did no better. The amounts of money involved were so large that a solution had to be found.

And the solution was found, largely by organizing the work in self-organizing teams in short cycles, drawing on the talents of the team, and getting direct feedback from users at the end of each cycle. This way of working (dynamic linking) turned out to be immensely productive for the organization, much more satisfying for competent people doing the work and much better for the people for whom the work was being done. So there is now a huge global movement to manage software in this way, under names like Agile or Scrum. And the approach is spreading to all forms of knowledge work, under the name Radical Management. When the whole organization successfully adopts this way of working, the organization tends to become astonishingly profitable.

So we shouldn’t have to go through another multi-decade battle in the education sector to discover what we already know: bureaucratic management doesn’t work in knowledge work. Leaders in education can learn from what’s happened in other fields, and stop wasting people’s time, money and lives.

Many of our schools in areas of high poverty are struggling. How would your approach change the way students there experience education?

Income inequality is obviously a major determinant of educational performance. I will not pretend that the changes in educational approach that I describe above can by themselves overcome the handicap of poverty.

Nevertheless an education system that focuses on learning, and encourages students to learn by exploring issues that are of interest to them, has a greater chance of overcoming some of the constraints of poverty than a top-down system that proceeds from a prescriptive approach such as “You study what we tell you to study, when we tell you, and how we tell you, and at a pace that we determine”

You are also an expert in leadership. As educators, we often feel as if our voices are not heard, because the Department of Education and White House seem to listen much more to business leaders than to teachers. How would you suggest we make our voices heard?

It’s important how the issue is framed. If the issue is framed as an education issue, “how do we improve education?” there is a risk that anachronistic management ideas will be implicitly assumed as self-evident and imposed on the sector.

Knowing where these ideas come from and how they are faring in the factories and workplaces from which they emerged is crucial to being more effective in these discussions.

By framing the issue as a management issue, “what does the world know about running knowledge organizations?” then the whole array of evidence can be brought to bear on the discussion.

This in turn implies that if leaders in the education sector are to win these arguments, they need to be aware of what is happening in management beyond education and become versed in what is known about running knowledge organizations, from fields such as Agile, Scrum and Radical Management.

What do you think of the framework Steve Denning has offered? Can this help us make our case against the status quo of high stakes testing?

Steve Denning is the author of six business books and consultant to organizations around the world on radical management, leadership, innovation, and storytelling. His most recent book is the Leader’s Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st Century (Jossey-Bass, 2010). Other books include The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling (2nd ed, 2011) and The Secret Language of Leadership (2007). He worked for many years at the World Bank: as the director of knowledge management (1996-2000) he spearheaded the introduction of knowledge management as an organizational strategy.

You can follow him on Twitter at @stevedenning.
His daily column on Forbes is at //blogs.forbes.com/stevedenning/
His website is at www.stevedenning.com.
Image of Steve Denning used by permission.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.