Biodiversity helps evolution find new, better solutions faster. And evolution is especially good at finding solutions to multidimensional problems which haven’t proven susceptible to analysis. "Education" is one of these. Unfortunately, biodiversity is not a priority among reformers. Funding patterns and the hype cycle, among other influences, insure most focus on The Next Big Thing.
In evolution, reproduction is what matters. So what’s the analogue of ‘reproductive success’ for education? Answering that involves an essential discussion about the values and goals of education which I am going to sidestep entirely. Instead, I’m going to talk about something that—within our analogy—is more like ‘running fast.’ That is, I want to talk about an activity which we would all agree is adaptive and which we should all hope our educational systems are getting better at nurturing: knowledge work.
In 1957, Peter Drucker wrote (emphasis mine):
In the United States, where most of the young people in the metropolitan areas go at least to high school, the assembly line is already obsolete. The labor necessary to run it is becoming scarce. Young people with a high school education do not want to work as human machine tools. […] How new these expectations are is shown in the field of personnel management. Only forty years old-it began in World War I—the discipline is already outdated in its concepts and its assumptions. Its principles, its rules, its practices and procedures all represent a distillation of experience with unskilled or semiskilled machine workers, largely from the metalworking industries. Today the majority of the personnel employed even in manufacturing industries are no longer of this kind, are rather people doing knowledge work, however unskilled. How far our personnel management theories really applied even to yesterday’s machine workers is an open question. For managing tomorrow’s employees, the products of the educated society, they are likely to be quite inadequate.
"Knowledge work" is work whose main capital is not physical output or labor, but ‘knowledge’, broadly construed. "Knowledge workers" are people who think for a living, and they dominate our economy. Think technologists and engineers and designers and executives. At its best, school is—quite literally—filled with ‘knowledge work.’ So why do the org charts of tech companies and schools look so different?
More to the point, why do Google and high school feel so different? Well, Silicon Valley is not the Department of Education. It’s OK if the #1 tech company is five times more profitable than its nearest competitor. But our democratic conscience would not brook the same inequality in our educational system. And a white, tech guy in his thirties is not a poor, brown girl in her teens. Differences abound. Regardless—if we believe school supports knowledge work—we should be able to simultaneously acknowledge those differences and explain why school looks and feels the way it does.
There will always be constraints like equity. But saying our educational system will be “equitable” tells us no more about how it will look and feel than telling your girlfriend your new haircut’s “not too short.” If we are to design an educational system to support knowledge work, it might make sense to begin with the simple question, "What is knowledge work like?"
Knowledge work is rarely about process. Knowledge work is characterized by the absence of routine…by a need for changing ratios of creative, convergent, & divergent thinking…by a combination of working alone and together…by a resistance to quantitative metrics…by a focus on brainstorming and iteration and revision…above all, by open-ended questions and uncertainty and risk.
So how does the tech sector—an epitome of knowledge work—handle this?
The basic answer is that we are still figuring that out. While there are clearly some themes in how these tech companies support and manage their employees—an emphasis on intrinsic motivation, flexible work schedules, a focus on small teams and rapid iteration, and so on—there is still tremendous diversity and turnover in management thinking here. Plenty has been written about the variety and novelty of management structures and philosophies that the past thirty years of high tech industry have created. But I think there’s an even more important, easy-to-agree upon, meta-lesson here: that diversity is healthy.
Cornet’s orgchart cartoon is mostly tongue-in-cheek. But every technologist or employee at one of these companies will recognize the kernels of truth in the lampoon. And even simply among the six heavy-hitters you see enormous differences. And that is regarded as healthy—at no stockholders’ meeting would you hear the claim that there’s A Universal Org Chart. Minimally, the claim is that collectively, the biodiversity of management structures, product strategy, company culture and so on contribute to a healthy organic process evolving more effective companies.
So what about high schools? How do they accommodate knowledge work?
Well, despite being a much larger, older institution than multinational tech companies with much less control over the problems they’re tasked with solving—high schools have basically homogeneous org charts. Of course, these org charts don’t necessarily reflect reality. And many of them are legally mandated, in one form or another. I don’t know what the ‘right’ org chart is—if there even is such a thing. But I do know that it’s important for those of us interested in new models of learning to be able to tell a story about why the space of solutions we’ve explored looks the way it does so far. And more importantly, why do most schools look and feel the same?
Ultimately, if that story doesn’t tie back to claims about how people learn or what school is for, then perhaps there’s a new type of reform work to be done. Perhaps there are ways we can change the types of conversations we have instead of simply trumpeting a new message more loudly. This is no simple task. There are many boundary conditions that define the look and feel of school which implicitly define how we talk about school. I’m going to scratch the surface of just one: the schedule.
Knowledge work often requires large, contiguous blocks of time to grapple with open-ended issues and uncertainty. It is trite to complain about the schedule cuts up students’ and teachers’ days. It is trivial to point to burgeoning literature on optimal conditions for learning and productivity and decry the school bell. But why does the schedule look like it does? There are many explanations for this—e.g. it mimics the factory floor schedule, it is a necessary consequence of ‘covering the curriculum,’ and so on. I’d suggest that all of these reasons stem from exactly two needs: the need for [evidence of] controllability and the need for [evidence of] observability.
I’ve lifted these terms from the field of control theory (or simply ‘controls’): a branch of mathematics and engineering that helps us design dynamic systems we can control and regulate. It’s responsible for your cruise control, your thermostat, and making sure the robotic arms that assemble your car don’t overshoot when they’re placing the passenger door. "Controllability" and "observability" are two of the fundamental aspects of a system with which controls engineers concern themselves when looking at a new problem.
"Controllability" refers to our ability to move a system from one state into another (given certain constraints, like power density or efficiency). So if we were talking about your car’s cruise control, some can cars can get from zero to sixty miles per hour in six seconds, some in three. A Corvette’s cruise control looks different than a Beetle’s. "Observability" refers to our ability to look into a system and know what’s going on, to find out we’re going fifty so that the cruise control can decide what to do with our gas pedal. So in this cruise control analogy, what’s school’s ‘speed?’
Well, curriculum is Latin for race course.
Schools are tasked—minimally—with implementing a curriculum. A curriculum is made up of facts and skills. The school’s job (pedagogically speaking) is to inculcate these facts and skills into students. But remember, schools are governed and managed at scale. So we must acknowledge that school’s job often reduces to documenting the performance of the curriculum. There are exactly two ways to do this. We can point to the inputs to school and take schooling’s efficacy on faith. Or, we can point to the outputs of school and take your measurement’s accuracy on faith. Of course, schools do a combination of these, documenting seat time or credits (inputs) and test scores or GPA (outputs).
Even when we transcend questions of academic development, the boundary conditions of the conversation around what school looks and feels like is remarkably constant. Consider a recent (heartbreaking) pair of episodes of This American Life exploring Harper High School on the South Side of Chicago. In particular, the episodes explore the deeply destructive effects of gun violence and modern gang culture on youth, staff, and the community at large. Listening to it, it’s hard to understand why ‘school’ is even in the picture; what you hear sounds more like a refugee camp or shelter for battered folks than an educational institution. Yet, in discussing the importance of the turnaround funds the state had provided to Harper High School, the entirety of the focus is on the inputs to the system. What follows is an excerpt from the episode wherein the principal discusses the effect of the turnaround funds on their efforts. I’ve highlighted every effect mentioned.
One former district official involved in Harper’s turnaround told me that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who used to run Chicago’s schools, he said to his former colleagues, with these new turnaround initiatives, like the one at Harper, he wanted to, quote, “take the issue of money off the table,” in other words, give them whatever they need. So the plan was pretty much boost the school with a lot of federal, state, and city money, then as the changes took hold, slowly ramp down the money.
And then five years later, the funding would go back to normal. That’s next year. Next year is when the money goes away.
In the fall, I sat down with Principal Sanders and the school’s operations manager to talk about all this. They told me the money has done so much. There’s a new culinary learning room, new computer equipment, small stuff like a new ID machine.
Principal Sanders talks about the first year of turnaround like it was amazing. There were four assistant principals, reduced class sizes. There was the kind of support staf—social workers and counselors—in numbers that other schools only dream of.
This is the entirety of the discussion of the aggregate efficacy of the turnaround program. I do not mean to critique Harper High or even question the efficacy of the interventions Principal Sanders lauds. Not only do I have nothing against new computer equipment, but I even suspect it helped! I do, however, mean to highlight the rhetoric that dominates the conversation. For some set of folks—certainly for the elite, upper middle class folks that flow through Teach for America whose ilk will dominate policy and decisionmaking circles—This American Life is a reasonable place to look for the mainstream conversation. This focus on inputs would make sense under a constant theory of change. e.g. if the Red Cross talks about how useful bandages and bottled water and doctors are, we don’t balk because we have a deeply held (and widely corroborated) model of what ‘disaster relief’ looks like. As such, when we doubt institutions like the Red Cross, we doubt their stewardship, management, and efficiency—not their strategy.
Yet, just a few minutes earlier in the program, a social worker at Harper confesses that it doesn’t seem like anything has changed in the past twenty years:
This feeling of stasis makes the focus on inputs all the more striking.
Alex Kotlowitz Crystal’s been working towards a second master’s degree, and in one of her classes this year has been reading a book I wrote over 20 years ago called There Are No Children Here, where I follow two brothers living in the projects on Chicago’s West Side. For a couple of years, I followed the boys as they grappled with violence, poverty, and the gangs. And Crystal wonders if reading it isn’t adding to her stress.
Crystal Smith It was really interesting, though. To think that 20 years later, nothing has changed, that’s the scarier part.
Let’s set aside any doubts about either the efficacy of our methods or measurements and take a moment to notice how the system of grade levels, curricula, grades, class periods, and credits make it extraordinarily easy to document our inputs and outputs. If you had a pile of skills and facts that you had to disburse at a certain rate in a certain order and document that process, you can see how easily we might make an argument for the current schedule structure. This also gives us some insight into the enthusiasm with which ‘flipping the classroom’ and ‘data-driven education’ and ‘personalized learning’ have been taken up by education reformers. Each of these efforts—in their own way—renders the learning process legible while simultaneously making the management of schooling easier. There’s very little tying any of these structures—including the traditional class schedule—to the needs of learners. There is a great deal tying these structures to the needs of the school.
And so now we have plenty of reform wherein the party line—say, "Learning happens through curricula which are broadcast through classes"—is never articulated, but assumed. Then, vigorous debate and innovation and incubation are encouraged within those boundaries. And perhaps, more than Another Big Thing, we simply need a lot more space to grow some Small Things that needn’t satisfy those boundary conditions, a priori.
I will finish with David Foster Wallace,
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How’s the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"
This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. This story turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.
Thanks to Shaunalynn Duffy & Will Bosworth for reading drafts of this post. The good parts are their fault; the bad parts mine.