With Mrs. Betsy DeVos’ taking office, Reformers are pleased and excited with the thought that at last they may have the person in place to deliver quickly what they have long wanted. -- A New Market via their version of Innovation and Transformation. Until now no one has been able to deliver that in a way that the public would completely accept.
But, that is what Mrs. DeVos has promised in her first speech, “And I will promise you this: Together, we will find new ways in which we can positively transform education.”
It sounds wonderful, right? It’s going to be important in coming days and months to remember that when Mrs. DeVos uses these terms, she is not using them in the way we might think.
Just listening, we might think she was speaking of transformation as the process of becoming something new and better, like the way children grow and become. And by saying she will deliver innovation, we might think she means she has new knowledge about how children learn and how we might help them. Afterall, that’s what lots of us think of when we speak of transformation.
The unspoken problem though, is that when Reformers talk about Transformation, they are talking about transforming a commercial market, not learning that changes lives; and when they talk about Innovation, they are talking about Innovative Disruption, not a great new idea for lesson activities, or new in school programs for learning kids, or even a great new way to organize our schools or districts for better learning chances for all kids.
Mrs. DeVos is talking about markets, not children.
The concepts she is using are from Business and Public Policy theories. Like Mrs. DeVos, Education Reformers are most often MBA rather than M.Ed. holders, and they know what she means. It is just the rank and file parents and teachers who misunderstand.
Most of us who work in schools or are around children a lot do not look into the earnest eyes of our students and think of them as either products to be sold on the job market, or as raw materials from which to profit. Nor do we think of our daily tasks as a product delivery system to be governed by business productivity models. We see our students as people, children on their way to becoming their future selves.
When these business words and ideas get transferred into the Ed field by consultants, would-be thought leaders, and edupreneurs, it is often with some adaptation of meaning, frequently with some confusion of the original concept, and almost always with little understanding about the psychology and neurology of learning, the nature of Human Development, the diverse conditions in communities, and the realities in classrooms across the country.
So what do MBAs and Mrs. DeVos in particular mean when they speak of Innovative Disruption and Transformational Theory?
Transformation in simple lay language is a dramatic change in appearance or form. It is a word used in a variety of fields with different meanings in each. In business these are some of the terms.
- Transformational Learning is a set of ideas about lifelong learning, usually an Adult and Continuing Education term.
- Transformational Leadership is a style of management in which the compelling personality and high moral character of a leader creates remarkable outcomes. Think Nelson Mandela or Winston Churchill
- Transformation Theory started as a systems model from George Land in his 1973 book Grow or Die that maintains there are moments when the rules of survival change. It is a three phase model of invention, improvement, and innovation.
- Market Transformation is the process businesses use for leveraging a product to become mainstream or dominant in a market.
School Privatization advocates often use the last three concepts in an intertwined way, maintaining their changes will produce the next phase - either improvement or innovation, that they are leveraging that innovation through the market to improve the overall product of Education, and that leveraging is powered, at least in part, by their personal transformative leadership.
This is what Mrs. DeVos’ means when she promises transformational innovation- that she will bring change that will open Education as a new business market through the power of her leadership.
Of particular concern for both business and education is that Market Transformation and Transformation Theory are both somewhat dependent on constant growth as a requirement, and constant growth is quickly becoming less possible in today’s age of diminishing resources and rising populations. Many futurists think we truly may be at one of those moments when the rules of survival change, not just for Schools, but for Business, and possibly for most societal endeavors. In that case, the reforms pushed by market creators is even more misguided, leading us in the wrong direction using the wrong concept map.
Innovation is usually seen as a positive change; a new idea, product or process that has positive impact. Disruption in its ordinary definition is Not a positive term. Synonyms include shock, disturbance, confusion, disorder, and mess; but in economic terms Disruptive Innovation is a change, product, or service that creates a new market and value network, eventually disrupting the existing market.
Disruption has been a popular term among business and financial executives since 1997 when it was laid out by popular Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen in his book Innovators Dilemma. Christensen even jumped fields to promote innovative disruption as a means to reform schools in his 2008 book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way We Learn which he just reissued in October of 2016. His Disrupting Class book was even inspired by a group of Charter school promoters who approached him and asked him to write it. In it he maintains that the future of schools will be modular software facilitated by teachers who are coaches on the side.
One has to wonder how much screen time his grandchildren are given, whether he knows they need to develop muscular coordination and grow neurons through physical contact and interaction with their world, and if he knows that there are vast swaths of the country that still don’t have fully adequate internet service, but then Harvard probably has great internet. Sorry, he's clearly a very smart man and probably a very nice one. He's just teaching in a field where he's missing chunks of important information.
Economists and those in the Financial field have a long affection for the idea of Disruption. Think fire, guns, railroads, the car, the washing machine, TV, desktop computers, iphones and other world altering products, and it’s true that innovative ideas have propelled us into unexpected positive and negative change over the course of civilization. Contrary to the way we've been portrayed public school proponents are not about discouraging great ideas or the distribution of them.
The problem though, is not just with Financiers and Business opportunists who want to create a new education market and educational products. The larger problem is with a distortion of the idea of Disruptive Innovation and the model of Market Transformation. In classic Innovative Disruption, an idea for change or a new product holds so much promise that even with initial glitches or failures it provides a compelling new future. Education Innovative Disruption has never had that. Even technology, which has only recently moved to the center of Reform ideas, has at best, provided new sometimes better tools for old tasks. Sorry, but so far they are just nice tools to have if we are given time to learn and use them.
There is an additional problem in that a distorted form of Market Transformation (leveraging the product) is by far the dominant driver of Reform we have seen.
Education Reform in all its iterations of the last 20 years has tried experimental reform after reform in search of one that could qualify as an innovation powerful enough to open the Education Market. Yet one by one, testing, accountability, school closures, charter/private schools, temporary teacher pools, standardization of curriculum and teaching methods, accountability/data collection have failed to fulfill their promise.
Education’s Disruptive Innovators have not had an idea that actually improves on the existing system. What change they have achieved has come from a determined push to create a new market, not from an idea that could either create a system wide transformation, or transform the educational process itself. Many of the ideas promoted as change agents have been old ideas either abandoned for lack of efficacy, or rejected because they could not provide adequate resources for all students. Some have just been personal goals, such as Mrs. DeVos’ desire to use schools to promote her personal religious views. Even billions of dollars spent on PR campaigns to demonize public schools and lionize Reform have not been able to redeem the failed experiments of Reform.
As Teachers and In-School managers many of us have become used to Business terms as downloads from above. Through Nation-At-Risk, No Child Left Behind, and Race to the Top, teachers and children have been through disruption after disruption, each claiming to be innovative, but with more sound and fury than light and innovation. As a result Education’s Disruptive Innovators have created Disruption in the old fashioned and lay sense of the word for 20 years now ---A Mess, with little or no positive change in the systems or the quality of student learning. During this time teachers and localities have responded to real change in truly innovative ways as Reformers demanded acquiescence to the artificial change.
There will be change. There always has been, and it is accelerating naturally, but those who are integral to the lives of children know that change for and with children is something to be closely managed and positively introduced with awareness of all the things Education’s Disruptive Innovators have ignored-- The developmental stages of children’s physical and mental growth, the need for a sense of stable surrounding environments and communities, the facilitated means to connections, friendships, and developing a healthy relationship to both authority and personal autonomy.
Einstein once said the central question for humans is whether the universe is friendly. Education’s Disruptive Innovators in their pursuit of a new market to dominate have tried to turn schools into a universe that is not friendly to learning children or friendly for the adults around them. Their goals have amounted to no more than a damaging failed hostile takeover attempt.
According to Christensen, early iterations of market transformation often fail, but once a base is established the new market takes hold. Reformers are counting on Mrs. DeVos to deliver that base, no matter what it does to the children in the nation's 14,000 different school systems.
Those of us in the systems would like to experience these words in the non-business-theory way. We would like to accept that children do transform, and transform beautifully when nurtured and encouraged in their development. And we would like to move into the future using truly positive creative design to meet the changes that are coming in ways that help our children and communities to engage change in healthy and integrated ways. We can use various methods from polarities management to creative design cycle and complex adaptive systems tools.
To Mrs. DeVos, and her Education Transformers,
We do not need artificial disruption to create an unneeded new market, or you to levy new artificially created “innovations.” We could use you working alongside us as parents and teachers to support all our children as they meet the real and organic changes in their lives and the world.
To all the Reformers who thought you were doing the right thing-- Please consider changing course. Your children and ours do not need to be dealing with predatory business practices in elementary and high school. Let them grow up and learn to problem solve, to use critical thinking and creative design cycle first. Then they will be ready to take on Disruptive Innovators.