Reforming Education Requires another Way of Thinking: What is it?

In this article I am going to argue that the kind of thinking that will be required to reform education has been part of our culture for decades, but it runs counter to ways that reformists have been “tinkering” with schools, K – college.  This “tinkering” is playing havoc on teachers, students, and parents, and there seems to be no end in sight.   We’ve tinkered with achievement test scores, achievement test score gaps, graduation and drop out rates, teacher VAM scores–you name it.

School can be reformed if we think differently. Learning is not about competition.  There is no need to have winners and losers as outcomes of the school experience.  Education is about learning, and in an environment that has as its core belief that learning is the fundamental goal of schooling.  Students are living in the present, and their school experience should be based on their lives now, and should not be based on furthering the economic prosperity of the nation.  Schooling should not be about job training, career readiness or college entry.  It should be about fostering the creative and innovative aspects of youth, and creating school as a learning environment designed to help students learn to collaborate, work with others to solve problems, and engage in content from the arts and the sciences that has personal meaning.

What kind of thinking is required?

Shortly after World War II ended, in May 1946, Albert Einstein wrote a fund-raising letter for the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists. He started out his letter by saying:

Our world faces a crisis as yet unperceived by those possessing the power to make great decisions for good or evil. The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe. (Holt, R. R., Can psychology meet Einstein’s challenge, Political Psychology, Vol. 5, No.2, 1984, p. 199.)

Later in the letter he stated, “We need $200, 000 at once for a nation-wide campaign to inform the American people that a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”

Although Einstein didn’t say it directly, we infer he meant a mode of thinking that embraced systems was needed if we were to survive. Russell L. Ackoff, whose work (Ackoff’s Best, 1999) described this new kind of thinking, remarked that it was Einstein who explained why we had to begin to think differently.  Einstein said,

You can’t solve the problems created by the current pattern of thought using the current pattern of thought.

Mechanistic Age Thinking

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 3.57.58 PMAckoff, in his writings, speeches, and courses, described the kind of transformation in our thinking that began to emerge after WWII.  Ackoff wrote that he believed that humankind was leaving the Machine Age, one that was dominated by analysis and reductionism.  In the Machine Age all of reality was broken down–reduced to indivisible elements.  In science we see this when we think about reducing matter into small particles or atoms.  In chemistry, the table of the elements.  In biology, the cell.  Even Freud, as Ackoff points out, broke the human psyche into elements–the id, ego, and superego.

But there was another concept that is important here.  Breaking things into elements meant it was necessary to put them together or assemble them to understand the whole.  Thus, we looked at relationships among the parts.   Ackoff reminds us that in this kind of world (the Machine Age), it was quite possible to explain the relationships between the parts in a simple relationship, cause-effect.

The following question arose: Is everything in the universe the effect of some cause? The answer to this question was dictated by the prevailing belief in the possibility of understanding the universe completely. For this to be possible, everything had to be taken as the effect of some cause, otherwise they could not be related or understood. This doctrine was called determinism. It precluded anything occurring by either chance or choice.  Russell L. Ackoff. Ackoff’s Best: His Classic Writings on Management (Kindle Locations 152-154). Kindle Edition.

Studying Ackoff’s writings when applied to education and the nature of schooling leads to astounding conclusions.  According to Ackoff, and others, Machine-Age thinking was environment-free.  He puts it this way:

Another important consequence of the commitment to causal thinking derives from the acceptance of a cause as sufficient for its effect. Because of this a cause was taken to explain its effect completely. Nothing else was required to explain it, not even the environment. Therefore, Machine-Age thinking was, to a large extent, environment-free; it tried to develop understanding of natural phenomena without using the concept of environment. For example, what does the word “freely” in the familiar “Law of Freely Falling Bodies” mean? It means a body falling in the absence of any environmental influences. The apparent universality of such laws (and there were many) does not derive from their applicability to every environment for, strictly speaking, they apply to none; it derives from the fact that they apply approximately to most environments that we experience. Russell L. Ackoff. Ackoff’s Best: His Classic Writings on Management (Kindle Locations 166-168). Kindle Edition.

To Ackoff, our schools are machine age inventions that have remained unchanged in fundamental ways. The machine age gave rise to factories which became the model used to organize schools, indeed to explain how students learn by cause-effect relationships. There have been attempts to challenge machine age schooling, including the philosophy of John Dewey, the Progressive Education Era, Open Schools, Humanistic Education, Critical Pedagogy.

But schooling has resisted innovation. The school, as a mechanistic age idea, turned learning into work (and not play) and thus students were taught to memorize, and not experience learning. Teaching became the focus of schools and not learning. The outcomes of school were caused by the teacher, or the curriculum. There was a clear belief that a cause-effect relationship could explain student learning. To find the effects of teachers, curriculum, all that was needed was to measure output by means of achievement tests.

Everything in school is broken in to parts–subjects and departments of math, science, music, art, social studies, English, language. Students are organized in the same fashion. They come school and are broken into age based groups. Their outputs are graded, they compete for the grades, and are constantly inspected.

Russell Ackoff, in his book Redesigning the Future opens a chapter on education with this statement:

Most schools appear to put a lid on children’s minds. Curiosity and creativity are suppressed. Learning is equated to memorization, thus converting it into work and differentiating it from play. Only a relatively few are ever able to reunite work, play, and learning in later life.  Russell L. Ackoff. Ackoff’s Best: His Classic Writings on Management (Kindle Locations 1760-1761). Kindle Edition.

Ackoff wrote this in 1974, forty years ago.

Mechanistic Age Schools

Which of the following statements would you say describe the nature of schooling in 2014?

  1. Today’s school is modeled after a factory. The incoming student is treated like raw material coming onto a production line that converts him into a finished product.
  2. We have reduced education to a large number of discrete and disconnected parts.
  3. We make little or no effort to relate the bits and pieces of information they dispense. Subjects matters are kept apart.
  4. More “advanced” Machine Age teaching is based on the Pavlovian concept of the student as an input-output organism. Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner modernized the language used to describe this concept.
  5. Cheating is more a consequence of the characteristics of examinations than it is of the characteristics of students. Otherwise why would teachers also cheat?
  6. Most learning takes place without teaching, but schools are founded on teaching, not learning.

Did you select all of the above?  All of these characterize schooling in 2014, yet they were written by Ackoff in 1974 (Russell L. Ackoff. Ackoff’s Best: His Classic Writings on Management Kindle Edition).

Yet, in the year 2014, we still have a factory model of schooling, we have reduced learning to discrete statements of performance that all American students should be forced to learn–The Common Core State Standards, and the Next Generation Science Standards.  We still use the Pavlovian conception of stimulus-response and cause-effect to define relationships between school variables. The school is like a 19th-Century laboratory with no need to recognize the variables and conditions outside of school that may have a greater effect on student learning than teachers or curriculum.

What kind of thinking Is Required to Get Beyond this Mire?

The short answer is that our world has changed and this change needs to be integral to schooling.  The change that has taken place in the world is that we are leaving the Machine Age, and have embraced a new way of thinking that emerged from dilemma’s that could not be solved by resorting to simple cause-effect relationships.  An ecological and interdisciplinary view of the world proliferated, and writers from many fields began describing this new way of thinking.  Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), which led to the environmental movement (and later, the EPA), is a powerful example of the ecological type of thinking that is required to understand a natural environment, including school and learning.

What began to emerge was that we needed to think about the whole, or systems.  In this form of thinking, a system can not be divided into parts to understand it.  As Russell Ackoff puts it,

A system, therefore, is a whole that cannot be divided into independent parts. From this, two of its most important properties derive: every part of a system has properties that it loses when separated from the system, and every system has some properties-its essential ones-that none of its parts do. Russell L. Ackoff. Ackoff’s Best: His Classic Writings on Management (Kindle Locations 233-235). Kindle Edition.

In the next several posts, I will go into more detail about systems thinking and how systems thinking is being used to transform school in spite of the 21st Century reformists who stuck in the Machine Age.

What do you think about this “analysis” of Machine Age thinking and how it has determined the nature of schooling?

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.