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A Tipping Point in Our Patterns of Thought

Most of us have heard variations on Einstein's quote but I bet few have seen what he actually said/wrote and that is this: "Without changing our current patterns of thought we will not be able to solve the problems created with our current patterns of thought." As Russell Ackoff points out in a May, 2004 address, "Everyone I talk to agrees with this statement although almost nobody understands what it means."

So what does it mean?

Most educated people feel like they can solve problems and they would largely be correct. As Jamshid Gharajedaghi once told me, "Americans are the greatest problem solvers the world has ever seen - they can solve anything they are tasked with. The problem is this: the are among the worst at formulating the right set of problems!"

As I've thought about this and observed people's behaviors over the past 7 or 8 years I believe both Jamshid and Russ are correct - most people don't really know what Einstein means and most people are pretty awful problem formulators. What I beleive Einstein was referring to was more a systems view than a problem/solution view. By this I mean we are confined into a specific pattern of thought as it relates to how we see and interpret the world - our systems view of the world, rather than our ability to alter a thought pattern on a discrete task or process. You see, the systems view we hold as a collective defines the nature of the "game" we play - the "rules," the "scoring," and the "winners and losers." If we continue to operate via the implicit set of assumptions and rules of a particular pattern of thought, any "new" ideas or solution is really a non-solution - further cementing a cycle of failed "reforms" and wasted efforts by smart and diligent people.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about. Our American system of education came of age in the early 1900's and was explicitly designed based upon the dominate systems view of the day - the mechanical system. The assumptions and practices of that mechanical system still live on today and color virtually every "new" idea and "solution" brought to bear on the system. "Change!" "Improve!" they yell. So we educators diligently go to work and wonder quietly, "haven't I seen this bandwagon pass before?" But no, we bury our heads in the work: improving the teaching of reading, doing curriculum reviews to ensure a solid scope and sequence, teaching educators how to conduct and use formative assessment tools and techniques, tweaking evaluation systems, messing with class times and lengths - ever watch a community fight it out about block scheduling? Rarely do any of these things fundamentally change either the behavior of a school and its staff or the outcomes it produces - at least over the long term. Why? The design of the existing educational system still contains its unwritten rules and assumptions about "the way it is"  and we dutifully and unknowingly must play by the old rules, scoring, and decision points about winners and losers.
  • A few rules we play by: kids are best grouped by chronological age; children are consumers of knowledge and teachers are the delivery vehicle; learning is defined by courses taken, hours spent in a class, and days spent per year; the way to improve a particular output is to improve its particular input. (e.g. Want better reading scores? [output] Teach teachers how to teach reading better. [input] )
  • How we score: any "game" you play in education, the score is number of credits, number of classes, and a letter grade (like a piece of meat at the butcher) assigned to a body of work done over a defined period of time over a set of content defined by someone else.
  • How we determine who wins: students who get through with good grades and do so by quietly and obediently following adult directives and who adhere to a defined set of "good" activities: sports, drama, band, etc. are the winners. Students who do not are the losers. Winners go to college and losers don't. The school system itself is never the problem - problems are inherent in the individual and school only helps us sort out the winners from the losers.
Until we collectively challenge the above assumptions and change our patterns of thought related to what we really believe about human potential, education, and opportunity we will continue to solve the wrong problems via the existing pattern of thought.

Standards based grading, project-based learning, competency-based education, passion-driven learning environments are current examples that, in their true form, are incompatible with the existing patterns of thought. Why such backlash when an Iowa school moves to standards-based determination of learning? Our current pattern of thought rejects it.

So what does all this mean for us educational leaders?
  • We must openly and constantly challenge the implicit set of rules and instructions about our education system.
  • We must engage our communities and show them in clear, explicit ways - what education can and would look like with a "new pattern of thought."
  • We must work on several fronts simultaneously rather than as a checklist. Getting technology in place, then improving teachers' ability to assess both formatively and summatively against standards, then changing the pay and evaluation system of educational professionals, then getting rid of Carnegie units, ad nausem is an old pattern of thought way of transforming.
Look around at the best and brightest - they are working on the system simultaneously moving forward on all of the above and more. THAT is the new pattern of thought- empowerment, cultures of innovation, finding and pursuing passion, designing systems made for humans rather than Model T's, etc. My hats off to those doing this work - you have my support and respect. Its what all great leaders must do in todays world. I hope you will join us!

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