Why Even the World's Highest-Scoring Schools Need to Change


Betsy DeVos, the new U.S. Secretary of Education, has a theory. She agrees with Jeb Bush and other education amateurs now shaping American education that “the system” is basically sound, but teachers lack skills and kids lack grit. Fortunately, there’s an easy fix. Competition in the form of market forces—choice, vouchers, merit pay, charters, privatization, and so on—will shape them up.   

DeVos is wrong. Dozens of variables—most of them beyond educator control—affect kids’ ability to learn. Believing that market forces can erase the effects of those variables is magical thinking.

Albert Einstein, Buckminster Fuller, David Bohm, Alfred North Whitehead, Ernest Boyer, Harlan Cleveland, Arthur Koestler, Thomas Merton, Peter Senge, and many other internationally known and respected thinkers have a different theory about poor learner and school performance. They say the core curriculum—the curriculum America’s reformers have standardized with the Common Core State Standards—is poor. They say it’s fragmented, incoherent, artificial, disconnected from the reality it’s supposed to explain to learners and help them explore.

If they’re right, until educators acknowledge the inadequacy of the core and satisfactorily address its problems, even the world’s highest-scoring schools won’t serve learners well. 

Here’s Why:

1. For efficient, productive thought, information must be organized in a logical, intellectually manageable way. The core subjects organize information, but they don’t explain how all those organizers “fit together” and reinforce each other to improve sense-making.

2. Businesses, industries, the military, and other information-dependent entities don’t use academic disciplines or school subjects to organize information. To (a) a more accurately model reality’s systemically integrated, holistic nature; (b) cope with reality’s inherent complexity; and (c) solve real-world problems, they use systems theory and systems thinking.

The Situation

Tradition, institutional inertia, multi-layered bureaucracies, fear of change, textbook publishers, testing companies, uninformed politicians, and upside-down organization charts that put amateurs in charge of experts, block educator acceptance of systems thinking as the primary organizer of school curricula. No plan is in place to address these institutional obstacles to curricular innovation.

A Way Forward

Lasting curricular change is bottom up and voluntary, propelled by the enthusiasm of kids and teachers. The optimum place and time to introduce systems thinking is at the middle school level, using multidisciplinary teacher teams working with small groups, and offering social science, language arts, and humanities credits. Introduce systems thinking at that level, and its merit will eventually lead to adoption at other levels.

Responsibility for evaluating learner performance must be returned to teachers. Commercially produced, standardized, machine scored tests can’t measure complex or original thought, and can’t judge the quality of a major source of learning—group dialogue and cooperation. 

This ebook makes the case for systems thinking as the major organizer of schooling, and four illustrative courses of study written for adolescents and older learners. In the spirit of open source, all are free to educators who wish to use them—no money, no sign-up, no strings, no obligation. User suggestions for improving the activities can keep them current and continuously adapt them to inevitable social change.

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