Watching the annual legislative session and the political posturing by the groups and people in power I'm constantly struck by something my doc chair said to me almost a decade ago now. "Trace, we are in an ideological war that's just as contentious as the one that birthed Newtonian science and the mechanical age. Make no mistake, the current Newtonian view of the world will not go down without a fight." He couldn't have been more right.
A constant struggle for me is finding ways to assist people in bridging the gap between the old way of organizing and changing the world and the new. I find almost everyone I meet cognitively recognizes that things are different. They can use the words correctly but many struggle to recognize the implicit and cultural patterns they continue to apply to the problems we face. The beauty in all of this is that almost all are incredibly passionate and bright. It took me a decade after I was first exposed to this way of thinking about systems before I made the first major shift and its taken the last 12 years to develop a better understanding of it and actually be able to apply it. I'm hopeful that over the next decade I can get much better at explaining and practicing it.
So, here's another attempt at it. I call this "The Two Faces of Change" and it is an attempt to help clarify the critical differences in how we see and construct our world. I'm firmly convinced that the only way out of our mess - education, economy, healthcare, etc. - is by moving boldly into a more Einsteinian view of the world.
I'm going to use an analogy that strikes me as a vivid way of visualizing the differences between these two ways of thinking. Like all analogies, this one falls apart if taken too far or if every single point is applied to it. Nonetheless, I think it valuable enough to play with.
The two faces of change can be reflected in the following images:
The first, a photo of Kenny Rogers, represents the idea of "reform" - the notion that you can continuously improve into something new. Think of this as the "facelift" approach. (If you're too young to know what Kenny used to look like, Google him to see why I chose this photo.)
The second, a photo of a baby, represents the idea of "transform" - the notion that the best way to secure a bright future is to create something new and more adaptable to the world we face. Think of this as the "create" approach. So let's explore the differences. I use red text to represent the old, or "facelift" view and blue text to represent the new and emerging, or "create" view:
The Underlying (and often implicit) Assumptions
The mechanical, Newtonian view of the world vs. the socio-cultural, Einsteinian view of the world.
REFORM - to improve upon what you already have. The basic belief is that the foundational elements of the system are either correct and appropriate or are "givens" and therefore remains the viable way to get us where we want to go. Goal is then to tweak, adjust, patch, and add features to the system in order to improve it.
TRANSFORM - to create that which you truly want. The basic belief is that the existing system, while effective in its time, in no longer capable of creating the future we want. The system is not a "given" and can be redesigned. The goal is to create the future by designing a system fully capable of producing that which you want.
The basic building block belief: the whole is the sum of the parts - improve each of the parts separately and the whole system will improve. Goal is maximization of each part.
The basic building block belief: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts - it is the interaction of the parts that define a system's performance, not the performance of the parts taken separately. You can maximize all the parts and reduce the system's performance.
Assumes the problems the system faces are "tame" and that problems are quickly identifiable and solutions hard but straightforward. Cause/effect is assumed to be relatively direct as it is also assumed that parts of the system are largely independent.
Assumes the problems the system faces are "wicked" and not easily dissolved through the application of a known or discreet solution. Cause/effect is not assumed to be direct since the parts of the system are highly interactive and interdependent meaning cause/effect displays circular feedback loops and non-linear patterns. Its hard to know what caused what effect and, in fact, effects can be causes of something else somewhere else in the system.
Given the belief that the system is either a "given" or assumed relevant and able to meet the challenges it faces, problems and malfunctions default to people. People and processes are assumed to be the "problem." This requires formal leadership to fix these problems by fixing people - no matter how benevolent it may seem.
The system is assumed to be the major contributor to system performance. This belief holds that systems produce exactly what they were designed to produce (whether or not that design was purposeful or accidental). Therefore, working to improve people represents the above belief that by maximizing the parts, you improve the system. Designers seek to dissolve wicked problems by redesigning the system and appreciating the interactions that produce the results. In this context, people are seen as integral to the solution rather than as part of the problem.
Since at its core this belief sees systems as analogous to machines, it relies heavily on accountability. Accountability is external to the system and imposes its will on it. Accountability is seen as the key to get people (who are implicitly or explicitly believed to be the problem) to perform better and do what they are supposed to and thus the system will improve.
Responsibility - an internal commitment to the goals and future trying to be brought into existence drives the system. Since the system is not seen as some mindless machine, it recognizes that it is those inside the system who have the greatest stake in the outcome. Responsibility drives the system, not artificial accountability from the outside. As Pasi Sahlberg, the great designer of the revered Finnish school system says, "Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted."
System improvement is largely seen as incremental. How can we get 3% or 8% more out of it this year? Since the operating principles at the core of the system are left unchallenged and unchanged, this becomes the best one can hope for- incremental improvement on what you already have.
Improvement is focused on "order-of-magnitude" (10X) change in performance. By challenging the core operating principles and beliefs of the system, designers can unlock the ability to redesign the system for massive improvement. (e.g. by denying the assumption that airplanes must use internal combustion engines, designers can create 10X improvement across multiple dimensions by designing the jet aircraft.)
Improvement can be implemented and accelerated by studying other "high performers" to learn what they do and then emulating what they do to make your own system better.
Performance is believed to be design-driven and focuses on what the designers want to create and bring into the world. Benchmarking can be informative but rarely instructional because designers understand that the function of the system is based upon the interactions of the parts, not the parts taken separately. Since interactions are emergent - that is, they are created in real time via the interactions of the parts - they cannot simply be implanted from elsewhere. (to test this, lets get the top 100 automotive engineers in the world and have them benchmark all the best cars and identify the best parts among them. Engine from Rolls Royce, transmission from a Lexus LS450, seats from a Mustang GT, etc. Now, assemble all the best automotive parts together into a vehicle. Oops, you wont' even get a vehicle. Why? Because the parts don't fit.)
To drive out confusion and get people focused, set 1 or 2 measurable outcomes for the system and use this not only as indicators of the system's performance, but as the system's goals. If you can't measure it, it doesn't count. Focus intently on the things that directly affect these measures. (Remember, cause/effect are close in time and problems are considered to be "tame.")
Designers of socio-cultural systems understand that effective system functioning is dependent upon the interaction of the five system dimensions (knowledge, power, values, wealth, and beauty). System measures remain indicators rather than becoming goals and are multiple, nuanced, and contain both qualitative and quantitative indicators. Designers recognize the interaction of the indicators and that hyper-focus on only a few comes at the expense of the others.
Improvement efforts are focused on what is good and seems to work and then doing more of it. This is based upon the belief that "if some 'X' is good, more 'X' is better."
Development, not growth, are the benchmarks of the system. While growth (more) may be a part of development, it is not analogous to it. A system can grow without developing and develop without growing.
So what does all this mean? For me, it makes it easier to evaluate the proposals and initiatives being peddled by the various groups and factions. By looking at what they are proposing and evaluating it against the above list, it becomes easier to see what world-view is driving their thinking. Unfortunately, most of what I see still contains within it far too many Newtonian assumptions.
Take education for example. Are we mostly involved in trying to improve the system we have without exploring the deeper elements of the system - those elements that help the system produce exactly what it is producing today? Unfortunately, this is what I see. I see some pretty wonderful ideas trotted out with Newtonian assumptions and sold as transformational. They are certainly improvements, but towards reforming the system we have. While I certainly understand that some of this may be necessary since we simply can't turn off the old education system and turn on a new one, it simply isn't enough and is often too expensive.
So what is at the core of the educational system? What are those system elements that hold it in place and produce the consistent results we've seen for decades now? In short, time and an inappropriately narrow definition of success. Everything about our system is based upon the notion of WHEN things are to happen rather than THAT they happen. Time is tied to the narrow definition of success as well. Schools are determined and even graded (ugh, another invalid way to document but that's for another day) based upon how kids score on standardized tests - given at the same time to kids roughly the same age and in the same grade. Worse yet, time drives how we label our kids because if the time comes for them to be at a certain point and they are not, they are deficient, unprepared, or not "on grade level."Our credits are based on seat time and hours of instruction. We have decided that 90 minutes of direct reading instruction is best for all kids. We disassemble learning into subjects and then teach them inside a consistent time frame everyday (45 minutes, 52 minutes, 80 minutes, whatever). We assign teachers and give them times to be in class, times they have for "prep" and times for their professional learning cadres. Kids have 180 days to learn some stuff before they are shuffled off to the next round.
We only measure "achievement" on tests rather than learning (which is much more nuanced and honestly beyond our abilities to measure effectively) and assume that it is accurate. As my friend Scott Mcleod says, "This presents a false impression of precision." Our system doesn't measure and appreciate student efficacy and engagement or the ability to contextually apply learning in nuanced and "real" ways.
Until we work to redesign a system that strikes directly at changing the above issues, our best efforts and intentions are going to fall short. Of all the cool things people are trying to get done across the state, I can only imagine how much more powerful they would be as part of an integrated design that once-and-for-all took on the faulty beliefs of time and single scores that reproduces the same results year in and year out. (And a lot of them are cool ideas - ideas that would be awesome and unleash amazing innovation in a system that was truly about learning.) This remains at the core of the debates and arguments I see happening among the best and brightest focused on this today.
Just how many more lifts and tucks can we do before we can't smile or blink anymore? Just wonderin...