In previous posts, I’ve written about compliant employees and obedient children. This post continues the theme by discussing acquiescent students. Compliant employees, obedient children, and acquiescent students are all often considered “good”: good employees do as they’re told, good kids don’t talk back, and good students sit quietly in lectures and do well on tests.
Any and every education reform design is going to fail for two reasons. The first is that the problem is not one that is solvable by “design” in the traditional engineering sense — the education system, including all its human elements, is too complex for that. The second is that the system as currently built contains feedback loops that damp out change.
There is an ongoing shift from hierarchy to self-organization.
On a global level, this trend has earned the attention of some very high-powered thinkers. Two works that I find particularly provocative and delightful on the topic are The Self-Organizing School: Next Generation Comprehensive School Reforms and The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion – which title also provides the inspiration for this post’s title.
Alan Bain uses the metaphor of emergence to frame a theory-based approach to school reform in The Self-Organizing School. The challenge with most school reforms is that they don’t scale. In order to implement them, it takes tons of structure and supervision to enforce a very specific and new way of doing things. This requires a tremendous amount of top-down control of an unwieldy number of details, day in and day out. Bain suggests, and cites comprehensive examples from his own practice, that when the locus of control shifts from administrators to teachers and students as agents, innovation and constant organizational improvement become a side effect of their constant individual and collective work to get better. A shift in mind-set makes it possible to get breakthrough results by spending less energy controlling the process.
The Power of Pull is a collaboration among John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison. In this Harvard Business Review post, they describe the decade-and-a-half of research and insight that have brought them to this work. In 1996, they identified the “shift in market power from the makers of goods and services to the people that buy them, and to talented employees from the institutions that employ them”. As this shift has been realized, the authors have analyzed the specific mechanisms that underlie it, which they have named, in the aggregate, “Pull”. Again, the mechanisms are related to a mind-set shift from top-down hierarchy to collaborative agency, not just at the level of individuals but also at the level of private-sector companies and public institutions. They have also analyzed and written about what they term “The Big Shift“, a global change in the nature of competitive forces that requires this new mind-set in order to sustain competitiveness.
Both these works illuminate how it is the advent of digital technologies that enable the current shift to occur at scale. As I see it, technology not only enables new ways of working, living, and learning, but is accelerating societal evolution. Societies evolve in the same way that species do – natural selection and adaptation in a changing environment – but are unconstrained by the limits of a biological timescale.
Just as the sum total of human knowledge is doubling every few years, I am optimistic that the sum total of human wisdom (tacit knowledge) is also experiencing exponential growth. That the small shifts made by individuals and organizations in order to survive and thrive in a changing environment are tested by selection mechanisms biased in favor of collaboration, agency, relationships, and ownership.
Can we, individually and collectively, be mindful of consciously shifting towards new models and mind-sets that will characterize the successful species in this era? Can we accelerate our competitive advantage and accomplishment by focusing our attention on shaping these shifts systemically? What are your thoughts?
…to be continued