Fighting the System

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!

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

16 thoughts on “Fighting the System

  1. But the problem then becomes, what do we do with a school system that acts like the 19 Century Catholic Church? Galileo is controversial, and Darwin is a man Hell-bent on ruining religion?

    What I’m saying is that there are basically two camps in education that are stifling evolution.

    1) Oh, this is another fad that we should be wary of; it’ll blow over.

    2) It’s worked well enough for years the way we’ve been doing it, why change now?

    To the people in camp 1, innovation becomes the self-fulfilling prophecy. Camp 1 doesn’t support it, complains about it long enough and eventually the school gives up.

    To the people in camp 2, they’re not bad people, they don’t refuse to see the evidence because they are evil. They are just so freaked out at how bad things are that they ignore the problem. It might be due to district political problems or financial problems, but the fear is there, and they’re shut down.

    So how do we get an institution that does not like change in any way shape or form, to evolve? I think if you can write that book, you will be a billionaire!

  2. I think you’re right Jonathan – that does end up being the key point. I don’t have any great answer to that yet, but it’s something I’m thinking a lot about and will definitely keep discussing here. It’s the central issue that has to be attacked in a lot of organisations, not just schools.

  3. This reminds of something I read in Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky, “The obvious problem is that no one knows for certain what will succeed and what will fail” and an organization’s job is to maximize the wins and minimize the failures. Given this, “you will be pushed to make safe choices, thus systematically undermining the rationale for trying to be more innovative in the first place.”

    So, yes, innovation is evolutionary and the speed of evolution is determine by the cost of failure. If failure is inexpensive (safe), then many things will be tried out more quickly. Where failure is costly, innovation will slow to a crawl or stop altogether.

    In education, even in Universities, innovation is a costly affair and not just because of the education system. For example, industry still values the degree, particularly if it comes with a brand name pedigree (e.g., “Harvard MBA”). Alternative approaches to education have been around but they are not very popular because they don’t lead directly to a traditional, industry acceptable degree. And that’s just one impediment.

  4. That’s a really good point Matt. That last point is one of the ones that George is talking about in his post – he talks about questioning the fundamental assumptions of education in order to instigate change.

    Your idea about the cost of failure determining the pace of innovation sounds right to me. The other side of that equation is the cost of not innovating – which is higher for businesses than it is for most educational institutions.

  5. Schools haven’t traditionally operated in markets where new competitors and forms can easily flourish or where competition drives existing firms to change. Most of these markets highly regulated and what schools can do is often further constrained by existing stakeholders (e.g. teacher’s unions; business expectations; P&C Committee etc). However, isn’t the whole charter school movement* (at least in theory) an example of a new niche being carved out that provides the space for new types organizational forms to evolve? Maybe this is the landscape on where this evolutionary diversity will flourish.

    More generally, new entrants are an important source of change because existing organizations struggle to adapt. The structures and history they inherit makes this process difficult. There’s a wide range of studies that document this inertia. Mary Tripsas* has done some great work on inertia and adaptation (e.g. Poloroid’s failure in digital imaging) and I spent a bit of time at last year’s Sunbelt conference talking to Spiro Maroulis* about the work he’s done applying some of this thinking to reform in US school system. All definitely worth a look for anyone interested in organizational adaptation and evolution.

    *Good 3min talk on charter schools

    *Tripsas’s work can be downloaded for free at her Harvard page:

    * Spiro’s work

  6. Charter schools are ‘supposed’ to provide an alternative less bounded by the grammar of school that binds the disparate elements of educational organisations together in a tight grip. I would like to be more optimistic about them, but Tyak and Cuban’s dissection of what happened to the innovation of computers during their initial introduction by motivated teachers in their classrooms raises deep concerns.

    “The first microcomputers in schools were in the classrooms of visionary teachers who used them (often with LOGO) in very personal ways to cut across deeply rooted features of School (what Tyack and Cuban neatly call “the grammar of school”) such as a bureaucratically imposed linear curriculum, separation of subjects, and depersonalization of work. School responded to this foreign body by an “immune reaction” that blocked these subversive features: The control of computers was shifted from the classrooms of subversive teachers into “computer labs” isolated from the mainstream of learning, a computer curriculum was developed… in short, before the computer could change School, School changed the computer.”
    from Papert, S.,

    Matt P. has zeroed in on a major problem.

    “Where failure is costly, innovation will slow to a crawl or stop altogether.” (Matt Perez in response to T. Kastelle’s blog post ‘Fighting the System’ (

    Failure in schools is not just costly, it’s unacceptable! How many school systems consider failure an acceptable option? Of course, some systems (NYC public schools, Chicago public schools, etc.) are systematically looking at low performing schools and closing them down, redistributing the children into newly constituted schools in the charter movement, or just redirecting the students to adequately performing existing schools. But therein lies the dilemma. Some social structures are difficult to reform – Papert’s `article after all was entitled, “Why School Reform is Impossible.”

    We’re left with the alternative that the evolutionary process must include colonising new biomes, much like island speciation (which, is a good analogy to Christenen’s argument that innovation happens best where there is no prior existing product or market to stifle the new idea). Given the importance of certification of schools by some authority this is indeed a huge challenge. Private for-profit institutions and newer open universities are perhaps the closest examples of experiments of this type.

    I direct a Centre for Educational Innovation and Technology but I realise that we may well represent the invading antibody that the university antigens are trying to surround to protect themselves from the ramifications of the change we represent. In Papert’s words,

    “School responded to this foreign body by an “immune reaction” that blocked these subversive features: The control of computers [any innovation] was shifted from the classrooms of subversive teachers into “computer labs’ [protected spaces, like R&D centres] isolated from the mainstream of learning, a computer curriculum was developed… in short, before the computer [new innovation] could change School, School changed the computer [contained and sequestered the new innovation].

    Tim has pointed out vividly this process in business by reminding us that Xerox Parc was one of the most innovative and creative hotbeds of new ideas and technologies influencing laterally dozens of companies and millions of people. Yet Xerox the company remained immune to these innovations and failed capitalise successfully on a single one.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment Phil – I’m never quite sure what to do when the comments are better than the posts! I hope that CEIT is able to successfully invade the host – I’ll do what I can to help!

  7. Hi Phil. I like the use of “grammar” to explain the institutional structures constraining schools. Your computer example provides a good example of how powerful this grammar can be. However, isn’t the goal behind the Charter School experiment actually setting up a niche where large parts of this grammar are open to fundamental change? How the grammar changes is ultimately a function of how much flexibility is allowed and how entrepreneurs decide to use this space. I am not sure if, in practice, entrepreneurs have gained enough space to change this grammar. But I guess time will tell.

  8. Sam: You’re right in the goal of the charter school movement. It’s much like isolating innovation groups in larger companies from the quarterly performance bottom line measures so they can experiment with less pressure and greater freedom. My skepticism is in commitment of the districts in which they find themselves and the willingness to allow systemic or ‘whole school’ experimentation. Let’s hope some really have this opportunity.

Comments are closed.