Monday, February 8, 2010

Education's Role in the Coming Crisis (it's not what you think)!

Chris Brogan's blog this morning pointed out the importance of focusing on goals and not on process.  It generated a lot of defensive comments from people who love their process and are really nervous about stepping outside the methodologies carved into their very souls by their years of public education.

Chris's point is well taken. I've come to believe the problem started when the United States adopted the German scheme of education at the close of the 19th century. I think it was a mistake. Americans, by and large, are not like Germans.  The German-inspired system teaches method almost exclusively. Of course, it was designed to.  The point of the graded, class level system was to produce Kruppwerks factory workers who could sit down, shut up, do repetitive work and produce what someone instructed them to produce in a manner virtually identical to the person next to them. We have taken a stab over the past three decades at retasking our education system, but, so far, all I can see that we have accomplished is an abortive attempt to take away the grades and the classes while still focusing on method with disastrous results.

Chris made a passing mention of an individual with ADD who struggled unsuccessfully in a series of "process" jobs, something for which he was constitutionally unsuited.  He's right that we're not suited for "method" work. Americans need clear goals or we pretty much diddle around doing nothing.  We have the highest percentage of ADD people of virtually any country in the world. That's because this country was settled and pioneered by ADD people who were kicked out of every "civilized" country in the world. We became great because, once in America all these ADD folks found a goal. That goal was to insure long-lasting freedom and to create something new and better than the regimented, liberty impaired societies from which they came. They carved out homes in the wilderness, built cities and tamed the wilderness. Sadly, the Old World eventually followed on their heels, landing in New York (once the ADD people had cleared the forests, built nice towns and made it safe for them to come here).  They began marching from the East to the West, like locusts, putting as much of America as they could into little tick off boxes as they went. They gave us the IRS, the department of motor vehicles and now health care reform.

And while they were at it, they created an education system that is almost hostile to ADD kids. Not surprising since the Germans do more intensive ADD research than almost any other country. They seemed obsessed with curing or eliminating this noxious condition in their own country. AND they have sympathizers in America's education system - ready with tubs of Ritalin, tens of thousands of tight-skirted school psychologists and "special" education programs designed to make them sit still, shut up and do repetitive work like everyone else.

Before you get all defensive of teachers, I know there are teachers who aren't like this at all.  They teach children to think, to discover and to excel.  The school system fires them in droves every year.

Yes, ADD kids have a tough time in school.  But I would argue that school has precious little to do with real life.  Having high energy levels and a restless spirit as ADD folks do, doesn't mean you cannot succeed in the real world. Many do so brilliantly.  It's about goals. When we set ourselves clear goals (defeat the Nazis, build an Interstate Highway System or go to the Moon), we Americans have proved we can accomplish anything. Why?  Because we are adept at using the methodological skills we have learned to get what we want.  In those cases where the goals are clear, we're very effective.  When the goals our leaders set for us become about administration and maintenance rather than about exploration and achievement, we inevitably stagnate. 

Our education system's fault lies not in that they have taught us to be socialists. It's that they were too lazy to teach us more than dry methodologies - enough so that it seems like socialism is the answer to all our problems. We missed out on learning how to choose a goal and marshal our resources to achieve that goal.  It's as though they taught us to identify all the crayons in the box, the technique for applying the colors to paper, but left out the part about how to decide why we would want to use crayons in the first place - as thought crayons were the end unto themselves.

Is it any wonder that so many of us run around trying to find uses for crayons instead of looking for crayons to put to good use in accomplishing worthwhile goals and striving toward grand visions?  We have raised a generation with wonderful tools, but without anything to build with them.  Instead we look for ways to number, catalog and store our tools so that we don't use or damage them. Inevitably, we begin to restrict access to those tools.

Too often we develop goals as a reason to use the methodologies we have perfected. We get so enamored with our ability to put everything into boxes with our computers, for instance, that we go looking for a task that lets us use our favorite software instead of looking for software to help us accomplish our task. We don't always ask whether the money and expense we put into developing those applications is well spent. It explains why so many government sponsored projects become dead ends. It's inevitably because some process-obsessed bunch of bureaucrats were looking for a task that gave them an excuse for some process they liked.

Case in point:  Every day, modern retail giants can tell you in detail how much they sold that day by the stroke of midnight after close. They can generate figures for how sales are going this week, this month and this quarter with projections of future sales. They can tell you how many widgets sold and which colors sold best. As a result management often becomes so focused on tweaking the "bottom line", the short term reward or the daily sales numbers that it seems unable to lift its head from the charts and graphs on the computer monitor and look really deep into the future. They become obsessed with the question, how much is my very expensive accounting and inventory control system telling me that I am making and what can I do to tweak those numbers to improve them. They should be thinking, what do I want my company to be in the future?  Is this where we want to go?

To steal a fire department metaphor, are we wandering all over putting out small fires to show off our skills at extinguishing fires instead of getting in front of the big one to cut fire breaks and soak down the trees with flame retardant.

Folks who are enslaved to method tend to focus more closely on immediate outcomes and not on long term goals. The banking industry took itself to collapse because legions of vice-presidents were given loan approval goals that encouraged the approval of high risk loans in order to satisfy a mandate under the Community Reinvestment Act to meet arbitrary target numbers of loans in specific communities and populations with no regard for the consequences of churning out that many risky loans. To keep the numbers high, so that the efficacy of the method might be validated, the loans were guaranteed to quell worries about long term risk.That's how you get Barney Franks and Maxine Waters extolling the virtues of the very programs that were to collapse the housing market within mere months. They were focused on the data they were collecting that showed the programs were accomplishing the Congress's objective, not on whether or not the program was sustainable or, in the long run, good for the country. They were more interested in numbers that would make specific voting blocks happy and that would support their own reelection campaigns.

Such tunnel vision makes it inevitable that such a system should collapse. It's like driving a car while looking out the side window or down at the instrument panel only. If you can't see where you are going, you're going to hit something hard that will bring you to a halt.  Of course, you'll never convince the people who focus on method rather than goal. They think we're all nuts and want to cure us with Ritalin and re-education.

Time to buckle up folks.  I do believe the folks in the drivers seat are more worried about the color of the upholstery and making sure we don't exceed optimal RPM's than they are about where we all are going.

As Dr. Jerry Harvey, author of the brilliant article, "Organizations as Phrog Farms" once described it something like this.  To many organizations spend all their energy in maintaining the swamp, forgetting that their original purpose was to drain it.

Just one man's opinion.

Tom King

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