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The Single Best Idea to Come Out of Business in Years

Usually when business magazines like Forbes offer advice on education reform, I prepare to cringe. But this week we got a surprise. Management guru Steve Denning offers us "The Single Best Idea for Reforming Education," and it actually makes a great deal of sense.

Denning starts with a critique of the status quo.

...the biggest problem is a preoccupation with, and the application of, the factory model of management to education, where everything is arranged for the scalability and efficiency of "the system", to which the students, the teachers, the parents and the administrators have to adjust. "The system" grinds forward, at ever increasing cost and declining efficiency, dispiriting students, teachers and parents alike.

Unlike many education "reformers," he follows through on this critique, and indicts the "efficiency" minded managers, who seek to improve schools through better management and incentive systems. He writes:

It is assumed to mean more top-down management and tighter controls, and more carrots and sticks. It is assumed to mean hammering the teachers who don't perform and ruthlessly weeding out "the dead wood". The thinking is embedded in Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind.

Denning echoes the critique voiced by Yong Zhao, seeing that in an ever-changing social and economic context, the faith often put into "world-class standards" is misplaced.

Denning's key conclusion is this:

...the single most important idea for reform in K-12 education concerns a change in goal. The goal needs to shift from one of making a system that teaches children a curriculum more efficiently to one of making the system more effective by inspiring lifelong learning in students, so that they are able to have full and productive lives in a rapidly shifting economy.

As he notes, the implications of this paradigm shift are profound. This affects how we use tests, the role and form of accountability, the ways we communicate, and the way decisions are made in our systems. As a former teacher, I am especially interested in how he frames accountability. He writes:

Instead of measuring progress through top-down tests and bureaucracy, the education system must be linked dynamically to self-driven learning of the students themselves. Education must abandon accountability through the use of detailed plans, rules, processes and reports, which specify both the goal and the means of achieving that goal. Instead, what is needed is "dynamic linking", which means that (a) the work is done in short cycles; (b) the teacher sets the goals of learning for the cycle. (c) decisions about how the learning is to take place is the responsibility of the students; (d) progress is measured in terms of the questions the students are able to generate, not merely answers that they are able to regurgitate; (e) students must be able to measure their own progress--they aren't dependent on the teacher's tests.

These recommendations connect well with the critique many educators have offered for the past decade and more, as the test-driven mechanisms for accountability have become all-powerful in our schools. It echoes the approach of Paolo Freire, and progressive educators in this country as well. In particular, I appreciate the idea that we measure not what our students are able to memorize, but rather their capacity to come up with questions, to have original thoughts and apply them. I was guided by this idea when I developed my approach to teaching scientific inquiry a while back. I wrote at the time:

As science educators... we wish our students to develop an understanding of a number of specific science concepts, such as density, or states of matter. Beyond these content goals, we also wish them to be capable investigators of the natural world. My central objective this year has been to equip my students with this ability.
As an urban educator, I have found that my students will not engage in active study of science if they do not feel ownership of the subject matter. Furthermore, I define active engagement in science as not merely the ability to follow directions in a science "cookbook," but the ability to actually define questions for oneself, and answer them through investigation and experimentation.

It is a good sign that these ideas are percolating into the pages of business journals. Perhaps when this wisdom originates beyond the realm of educators, it might have a chance of being heard in the places where policy decisions are made.

What do you think of Steve Denning's ideas for education reform?

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