I’ve seen your future and…

A long time ago, while attending graduate school, I witnessed an exchange between the professor and one of my classmates. After a particularly heated exchange in which it seemed that all members of the class got it with the exception of the lone, belligerent student, the professor said, with both a remarkable lack of charity and equally remarkable insight, “Son, I’ve seen your future. It doesn’t work.” I was reminded of that statement when I read Bernard Chan’s article, For the digital economy, traditional education needs an update.

As some of you may know I was very fortunate to be able to spend a few years working with a exceptionally talented group of people at the Successful Practices Network on the development of the SPN Career Readiness Institute. The primary focus of that work was an attempt to achieve greater balance with initiatives aimed at improving college and career readiness. At the time we began our work, there was a significant body of research emphasizing the importance of the intentional development of what were called “soft skills”. While there were various lists of such skills, there was surprising agreement on many– i.e., strong work ethic, team oriented, tolerant, organized, flexible, effective communicator, etc. – and there was a growing consensus about the importance of such skills and dispositions, In spite of this awareness, however, the commitment of policy makers to test and punish approaches as the way to raise student academic achievement dominated the majority of school improvement initiatives.

Today, more and more parents, educators and a growing number of business leaders are coming to “see the future” and are recognizing that “it doesn’t work”.

Some time ago I recall reading (it may have been something by Stephen Covey) about the problems that occur when we pay more attention to our “to do” lists than to the interrogation of our direction. If I recall correctly, he described this as a conflict between the tyranny of the calendar and a focus on the compass. I see now that this was another way of getting at the distinction between time spent trying to do things right versus spending time trying to do the right thing.

As I continue to explore the relationship between change and leadership and the ways in which leadership can be more effective in moving the beyond the self-perpetuation of the disproportionate emphasis on schooling and the ways in which this, too frequently, is at the expense of the needed focus on learning, I encountered a post by Bernard Chan.

Chan is the founder of ALPHA Camp, a tech school startup with campuses in Singapore and Taipei. He is from Hong Kong and has degrees from both MIT and the University of Waterloo (Canada). What makes his perspective potentially instructive is that he speaks from the perspective of one of the world’s most successful countries as measured by the standards and assessments that we have elevated to “godlike” status here in the US.

He introduces his thinking as follows:

I remember when I moved from Hong Kong to Canada in the 1990s, school got easier for me. I was getting 100s in some of the math and sciences classes — something unimaginable before. Asian countries are known for tougher but “better” school systems. In a global education survey, Singapore even topped the ranking for proficiency across all the key fields of reading, science, and maths.

However, in my capacity as the founder of a technology school in Asia, I have concerns that education systems across the region are resting on their laurels when it comes to preparing students for the new economy. In fact, I would argue the current pedagogy and [sic] is incentivising the students to become exactly the opposite of what “talents of the future” need to be. (Italics mine)

Chan echoes the work of many involved in finding a balance between academic achievement and the development of skills and dispositions that are critical to the preparation of learners for a rapidly changing world.

He offers examples of the paradigm shift that is underway and notes that because business problems are “more complex and dynamic” we see increasing examples of new companies “empowered by technology and innovation” working in ways that demonstrate that “there is no one right answer to a given problem”.

While we tend to focus our assessments on the ability of students to choose the “right” answer, there is increasing evidence to support the reality that “questions are becoming more important than answers” and that cross-disciplinary solutions are increasingly becoming the norm.

In completing the shifts that we are experiencing, Chan concludes

Hard skills are becoming vulnerable. Technology and artificial intelligence now allow many of the more process-based jobs to be partly or fully automated, including in highly professional industries (e.g. accounting, finance, law). Hard skills are becoming less relevant; instead, success will go to those who can effectively break down a problem into parts and find the right people/tools for each.

A word to those who recoiled at my use of the term “godlike” status in reference to our affection for a standards and assessment base approach. This is NOT about promoting the absence of high standards. Sir Ken Robinson may have captured the essence of this false argument when he stated (my paraphrase), “Of course we want high standards. Who in the world would ever argue for low standards?” This is NOT about standards. It is about the kind of standardization that has developed in response to the desire for rigorous standards.

Chan captures the essence of the issue when he notes (again from a perspective of a country that leads the world in test-based measures of academic learning) that the current pedagogy is incentivising the students to become exactly the opposite of what “talents of the future” need to be.

Here is where Chan’s work in Asia and our work here in the US is dramatically similar. The dissonance between learning targets and real-life needs: The mismatch of growing learner needs and traditional focus and strategies.

He cites that having trained more than 2,000 people across Asia he has seen the ways in which schooling has shaped the way students process problems. His descriptions are eerily similar to the critiques we have been seeing with increasing regularity about the results of our own system of schooling.

Consistent with the increasing criticism of the results of focusing on preparing students for success on large-scale assessments – i.e., the over-emphasis on learning and/or finding the single correct answer – students both here and in Chan’s Asia demonstrate difficulty in dealing with problems having multiple solutions.

Not only does the ‘teach to the test’ consequence of high stakes testing continue to place disproportionate emphasis on the acquisition of hard knowledge and shortchange both time and intentionality devoted to the development of soft skills/dispositions, it seems directly correlated to the focus on the ‘single correct answer’ and the dominance of ‘one way’ learning. Chan notes that, in his schools, he has seen diminished patience for figuring things out, minimization of the importance of finding things out and for the process of problem solving.

I am tempted now to channel my inner Rachel Maddow and try to build to a dramatic conclusion. Blessedly for those of you still with me here I’ll just add one more piece. This comes from a post I read this morning by Jordan Greenhall on Medium entitled, And Fear No Darkness. He is talking about the various ways one might interpret the current state of our political process and the implications for our future. He probably didn’t realize (or care) that he was speaking to me about the issues facing our schools and our system of public education. He is building on the word “crisis” and the implications of understanding how it might/might not apply to our political climate and the state of the world. When you read this next quote think “schooling”.

A crisis is a process of transformation where the old system can no longer be maintained.

This is the deep point and understanding it brings clarity. A crisis is a threshold between an old system and a new system. From the point of view of the old system, the crisis is death. This is why the old system always struggles like hell to stave off the crisis. I don’t want to be uncharitable here. Systems are hard to get right — so leaving an old system into some new, untried and untested system is almost always a truly terrible idea. And even if there is some new system to get to, the transition itself will be unavoidably painful and often fatal. The instinct to preserve the old system at all costs is almost always an adaptive instinct.

One might argue that Greenhall’s portrayal is extreme. But taken together, Chan and Greenhall speak to me of a sense of urgency. Chan tells me that if you don’t pay careful attention to the compass, you may not wind up where you thought you would be. It’s one thing to “double down” on current strategies with the goal of reaching the mountain top. It’s quite another thing to have done that and find out that you’ve been climbing the wrong mountain.

Greenhall says to us as educators that it is normal (and predictable) for systems in crisis to fight to the death to stay alive. Our system is on the edge of crisis. We began a journey in good faith and with great intentions… all kids should become college and career ready. Is this the wrong goal? I’d be hard pressed to argue that it is. But what I can argue is that equating college and career readiness with one form of measurement (a large scale standardized assessment) and with a focus on hard skills, which are rapidly disappearing and diminishing in importance and which are delivered in discrete content chunks and in standardization format, needs our attention. It’s the wrong mountain.

Coming Next – How to Climb the Right Mountain

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