Today was one of those days when a lot of related ideas just seemed 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 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.
The thing of it is, this is problem is not restricted to the educational system. It is another example of how the embeddedness of ideas makes it difficult for innovative new ideas to spread. I think that the extent to which this is a problem varies along a spectrum. It is an acute problem in education, and in the public sector. However, as I discussed in an earlier post, we see the same thing happen with the introduction of innovative new commercial ideas. Even products that are clearly superior along all dimensions, like the 56k modems versus the 28.8k modems they were designed to replace, innovation is difficult.
John and I were discussing this idea at lunch today, when I realised that another group of people have a similar problem. We are involved with teaching a class called Developing Business From Science. Many of the students in this class are in science-based jobs, and they have an invention or a new idea, and they want to figure out how to make some money with it. Their ideas don’t have any connections to other parts of the economy, and they usually have to displace something that is already economically embedded.
Here’s what I said when discussing the 56k modems:
To get your innovation embedded into the economy, you have to unconnect the members of your value network from whatever they’re currently using (28k modems, for example), and get them to reconnect to you. The unconnecting is a critical step that we often ignore – this is a mistake.
This problem is consistent across all organisations. It’s the problem that George is talking about in education. It’s the problem that innovators in the public service face. It’s the problem that people grapple with in commercial firms, whether their idea is for a new product, a new service, a new way of doing things or a new business model. The hardest part of innovation is getting our ideas to spread.
This idea was then brought home this afternoon, when I read an article by Seymour Papert that Phil Long forwarded to me. It’s called Why School Reform is Impossible, and it is looking at exactly the same issue – how can we revolutionise education when the system swallows every new idea and assimilates it into the existing structure. He concludes with this recommendation:
Complex systems are not made. They evolve. Where I part company from Tyack and Cuban is when they turn from the book’s historical theme of showing that reform will not work to give advice to reformers about how to do it better. My own view is that education activists can be effective in fostering radical change by rejecting the concept of a planned reform and concentrating on creating the obvious conditions for Darwinian evolution: Allow rich diversity to play itself out. Of course, neither of us can prove the other is wrong. That’s what I mean by diversity.
This is very similar to my view. When we’re trying to get new ideas established, we need to experiment, see what works, and do more of that. One of the areas in which we must experiment is that of our basic assumptions. Siemens’ prescription for education will for everyone, I think:
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.
So there it is from two really smart guys plus me: innovation is evolutionary. The way to enact big change is to treat it as an evolutionary process. All of our organisations are operating within complex systems, so this is the approach to use, no matter what industry we’re in. Let’s start experimenting!