Education Systems: The Source and Alleviation of Wicked Problems

This is my favorite paper I've written. It is my case for and theory of change, not just in education, but in life. [12 min read]

This article acts as the working introduction to a future manifesto on Education, Learning, and Well-being. It argues that education systems are the source of our problems and the key to their alleviation; it brings into the focus the limits of the current system and why it must transform; and it teases the fundamentals of a new learning model inspired by insights from science and best practice.

Education systems are the most dominant form of social conditioning and the key reason why many of our interconnected wicked problems exist. There is no other social system that is so ubiquitous and directly influential in shaping our veil of the world. This veil influences the way we feel which drives the way we act. Events, patterns, and structures like violence, inequity, or climate change are outward manifestations of a collective veil — the inner perspectives, values, and biases that people operate from. 

If we want to address our issues and cultivate wellbeing, we must transform the source from which our veils manifest. As MIT’s change framework, Theory U, notes, “Today, it’s not enough to create change at the level of symptoms and structures. We need to work even deeper, to change the underlying paradigms of thought, and to connect with our deeper sources of creativity and self.” In order to create transformational change, we need to know ourselves, to deconstruct and recreate the veils from which we operate, and we need to understand the deep interconnectedness of everyone and everything. We need to upgrade our internal operating system.

Our ignorance to the effect of this source leads to symptoms-based responses that fail time and again. This keeps us reenacting old patterns and “paradigms of thought.” As the fabled Einstein maxim warns, “We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” His Holiness the Dalai Lama expands on the nature of change,

“Many discerning people around the world are aware of [our] problems and are working sincerely to redress them within their own areas of expertise. Politicians, civil servants, lawyers, educators, environmentalists, activists, and so on … This is very good so far as it goes, but the fact is, we will never solve our problems simply by instituting new laws and regulations. Ultimately, the source of our problems lies at the level of the individual. If people lack moral values or integrity, no system of laws and regulations will be adequate.”[1]

Education operates at the level of the individual and directly influences our veil, awareness, paradigms of thought, values, consciousness, perspectives, mental models, or whatever else you want to call it. It is the frequently hidden subjective lens through which we view the world that shapes how we feel, think, and act and whose collection creates our reality. Education touches the source of our problems and holds the key to their alleviation.

At the structural level, education systems across the world are nearly identical. Twelve or so years of compulsory education with age based cohorts. School buildings with separated classrooms. Rows of desks facing the knowledge bearer. Information divided into reductionist subjects. All facilitated in a one-size-fits-all manner.

The emphasis is perplexingly on retention of information in a digitized world where this commodity is ubiquitous. This information is then regurgitated back in a test-based environment. Retention and testing are powerful tools and skills, but their frequent misuse results in functional failures. Unit tests are often measurements of short term memory, while standardized, high-stakes tests are often measurements of test-taking abilities that undermine meaningful learning. “While tests are useful in assessing rigidity, they fail in being able to assess [and cultivate] creativity, critical thinking, or any form of non-linear thought — thus they are a tool for cognitive oppression, encouraging the mind to form pathways around single solutions to complex phenomena in the world.”[2]

The culture and stakes attached to these narrow and misguided barometers of success has contributed to a chronic stress epidemic and alarming rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide — none of which we are taught to manage. These negative states of mind not only stem from tests implications on opportunity, but also from their effect on students’ sense of self. Failing a test is often interpreted as failing in life because we’ve created a system where mistakes are the worst thing one can do. Testing has become so misconstrued at every level that it is now the primary outcome that education reforms seek to boost. Rather than developing critical life skills and wisdom, which are assumed to be learned naturally in life outside of school, we are cultivating testing itself. This is erroneous as nothing should be used or learned for its own sake, only for its usefulness in life.

Combining this test-ridden environment with reductionist academic subjects and standardized learning forces us to think about our inner and outer worlds in restricted, linear, and siloed ways. This limiting structure is especially debilitating to anyone who is different or marginalized, which leads “many highly-talented, brilliant, creative people [to] think they’re not — because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized.”[3]

This is how I felt and it is paradoxically the reason I’m in education. My creativity was stifled by the time I got to high school and I became highly discouraged. I worked diligently, but after transitioning to an elite independent environment from a public upbringing, my experience left me utterly demoralized. I felt dumb, became apathetic, and eventually transferred schools. I blamed myself. This largely lasted until my sophomore year of college when my life purpose fell out of the sky. While pondering why I was lost, it hit me like a hurricane: nothing was wrong with me. This was a failure of the education system and I was put on this earth to radically transform it. Finding purpose changed everything for me, but school did little to nothing to ignite this flame.

Ancient Greek aphorisms like “know thyself” and “education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel” beautifully articulate the ultimate cores of profound learning, yet we tend to leave their development up to chance. We put them in our motto and value statements, but do not practice their intentional development. Why do we leave the most important skills and ways of being up to happenstance? Purpose needs to be deliberately imbued in every element of an education system largely devoid of meaning and relevance.

We spend most of our formative waking hours in this increasingly stressful and restrictive environment during a sponge-like developmental period. Our brains are consciously and subconsciously absorbing every experience at its highest levels in our lifespan. This mandatory experience during our formative years is why education is the most dominant form of social conditioning. As a result, education is both the source and solution to our problems, but not if we continue to reform it using the same thinking that was used to create it. So what was that thinking and why is education the way that it is?

We need to understand that “education institutions deliver the outcomes they are designed to produce … [The global model of mainstream education] is based on a specific set of values, beliefs, economic needs, and cultural forces of the 20th century Progressive Era. The reformers [during this time] carefully designed a system that would produce a skilled workforce for the industrial age, preparing the majority of students for factory jobs and a minority to become managers and elites.”[4] These roles were characterized by routinization, standardization, hierarchy, control, and stability.

One particularly influential belief stemming from well before the Progressive Era was reductionism. This is the idea that the world can be broken down into manageable bitesize pieces to help us make sense of it. This ideology permeates throughout education — think about the subjects of language, history, science, and math — which has resulted in “reductionist business models, government policies, and in general, a linear, reductive view of the world.”[5] This paradigm of thought and its resulting structures are outdated and harmful because our globalized and digitalized world is not simple and independent; it is complex and interconnected.

To understand the manifestations of reductionism, let’s use the industrial manufacturing system as an example. This system extracts materials, turns them into usable goods, which are then packaged, transported, and used, before they are disposed. It is a system with waste externalities designed into it. If you think recycling or landfills are aiding sustainability, it pains me to tell you that you’re wrong. This has resulted in the threatening of our natural systems which support every part of life on earth. If, however, we were taught systems thinking through multidisciplinary experiential explorations of phenomena, we might have designed a circular and regenerative economic and industrial system. Nearly every problem we face can be linked to these limiting ways through which we are taught to perceive.

This approach to schooling has worked well enough for some students, but not well at all for many others, especially those facing systemic racial and socioeconomic inequities. It prescribes a one-size-fits-all model and if a student doesn’t fit in, “tough luck,” as Geoffrey Canada describes in his compelling TED Talk: “Our Failing Schools.” Why haven’t we allowed innovation to happen? When schools are failing year after year, why do we continue to do the same thing that we did in the year prior? What kind of “business plan” is this?

We are living in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world ridden by stress and marked by digitalization and globalization, but mainstream education still reflects the careful design of an industrial age system that is crippling the potential and well-being of our students.

There is no reason for it to be this way. We know more than we ever have about the science of learning, development, and well-being, the trends of our changing context, and what students need to navigate and lead through increasing VUCA conditions. Moreover, diverse stakeholders in education and society are consciously or intuitively aware of the issues with schooling and the need for change. Put another way, change is needed, people realize it is needed and what needs to change, and research exists to inform what change should entail. Yet little to no change is happening at scale. Why?

The primary reason is that there is a disconnect between what we want for students and how education is designed. We say that the purpose of education is college and career readiness, fulfilling one’s potential, or producing ethical and creative change-makers, but the system is not designed to achieve those functions in today’s world. It is a system structured for standardization. Schools leaders, board members, and other policymakers may bring well-intentioned and important ideas to the table, but too often they are simply layers added to a broken design. Without removing or transforming existing constraints, desired results will not manifest. 

If we want to cultivate the outcomes that we desire for students, we need to collaboratively create fundamentally new learning environments and systems. Tweaks around the edges will no longer cut it. As Sir Ken Robinson points out in his poignant follow-up to the most watched TED Talk of all time:

“Every education system in the world is being reformed at the moment and it’s not enough. Reform is no use anymore, because that’s simply improving a broken model. What we need … is not an evolution, but a revolution in education. This has to be transformed into something else.”

While later sections will detail the nature of this transformation, we must be clear that our rapidly changing and uncertain context calls for drastically different skills, knowledge, and mindsets — few of which can be deeply cultivated in education’s current design. Students will need more holistic, creative, and agile competencies as technology erodes the information and “knowledge capital” that differentiated people in the 20th century. As Google’s Chief Education Evangelist describes, we need to prepare “students for jobs that don’t exist and to use technologies, sciences, and methods that we haven’t discovered yet to solve problems that we haven’t identified.”[6]

If we expect students not just to survive, but to meet and lead through the challenges that will accompany their world, we need to foster a generation of change-makers — those who will redefine problems, inspire new ideas, take informed risks, and never stop learning. They will need to be curious and courageous, purpose-driven and visionary, and ethically and emotionally intelligent. They will need to learn how to learn, think critically and systemically, and collaboratively create solutions to complex problems. They will need to repeatedly let go of what they know best, feel at home with the unknown, and when times get tough and doubt arises, as they surely will, they need to remember the following:

“Life can be much [grander] once you discover one simple fact … Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use … you can poke life and actually something will … pop out the other side. It’s to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you’re just gonna live in it, versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it … Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”[7]

These words from Steve Jobs remind us that we are constantly interacting with the output of someone else’s design. Everything in the social world is made up. It can be changed and we can be the ones to do so. 

Cultivating this sort of visionary, creative, and optimistic mindset is unlikely to happen however in a highly theoretical, conformist, and standardized environment. We can’t just preach kids wisdom; they need experience to embody powerful truths. We all intuitively know this. The most important things we learn in life come from the act of living and learning environments need to be designed to harness this reality. An environment of this nature would be characterized by what Theory U founder, Otto Scharmer, calls “institutional inversion”:

“Inversion means turning the inside out and the outside in. “Inside out” in this case means that learners leave the classroom and engage with the major hotspots of societal innovation in their own cities, regions, and ecosystems. In short: the city, the region, and the global ecosystem is the classroom. “Outside in” means that the problems, the challenges of the world, are brought back onto the campus where they can be at the center of study and scientific inquiry. In short: the challenges of the world, and of societal transformation, are the curriculum.”[8]

If education systems made the world its classroom, its problems the curriculum, and offered the support, autonomy, and responsibility to collaboratively respond, learning would harness the power of purposeful experience. The outcome would be informed, creative, and motivated change-makers that are not disconnected from reality, but rather seamlessly integrated through a ‘living organ’ of a larger social ecosystem.

While transforming our rigid and complex education systems to reflect this potential may seem like a distant reality, it is a surmountable challenge. Stakeholders across the world understand the need for change, science shows how students learn and develop best, and select environments are modeling this evidence in practice. However, in order to utilize this knowledge and make meaningful strides, we need to stop thinking in siloed, incremental, and reductionist ways.

We need to open our eyes to the clear science and inspiring practices that we are irresponsibly ignoring. We need to use the data and we need to stop worrying about the consequences of trying something new. We cannot stifle innovation in a realm in dire need of transformation. This paradox of ignorance and understanding has me “fueled by a deep dissatisfaction with the status of even our best schools, but also an extraordinary optimism that together we can and will change them.”[9]

Over a 15 month period, this optimism was strengthened as I engaged with diverse stakeholders in education and visited innovative learning environments across the world. The impetus for the journey was not to affirm what is problematic in education, but rather to learn from what is going well. To seek inspiration from thought-leaders, practitioners, and best practices to inform the transformation of education systems and cultivation of accessible, equitable, and exceptional lifelong learning opportunities.

This manifesto synthesizes these exemplary practices with relevant resources and science to offer actionable knowledge and alternative visions for what education could be. While it gives insight into how we might redesign the learning experience, it does not provide a one-size-fits-all answer for how to get there. For true transformation to occur, local actors need to be at the forefront of deciding how such a vision might manifest itself in their own context.

If you enjoyed, disliked, or have comments/questions on this piece, please let me know! It is always nice to get feedback when sending extended ideas out into the internet abyss.

In the coming weeks and months, I will continue to send parts of my manifesto on Education, Learning, and Well-being. Stay tuned!

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