Posted by Jeff Lucas
There have been a lot of rounds fired in the curriculum versus instruction battles over the last week or so. First we had Tom Vander Ark calling for "an uncommon Curriculum" over at edReformer. He was reacting to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) support for a common curriculum to support the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the joint National Governor's Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center)/Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSO) project to define the knowledge and skills that students should have as part of the K-12 careers. Instead, he looks to "next generation learning platforms" that will harness the new and now ubiquitous technologies capable of effectively and efficiently customizing virtually every experience in our waking hours. These would be the eventual extensions of initiatives such as the School of One project that I posted on here.
Almost immediately, he was slammed by Robert Pondiscio on the Core Knowledge blog as carrying the banner for "Ed Reformers for Illiteracy" . Okay, so not surprising that the folks in E. D. Hirsch's shop are going to prefer focusing on a rich common body of knowledge to focusing on delivery systems, but I thought his "If you are opposed to teaching a common body of shared knowledge to all children, you are opposed to teaching children to read" was a bit harsh.
Next, Kathleen Porter-Magee from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute comments on the above exchange and adds her own thought that teachers have much more impact on the equation than curriculum. She reports that her experience with implementing multiple curricular changes showed that time and again the highly skilled teachers had more success, no matter what the content. She then concludes that "the most effective way states can help diagnose instructional problems is to ensure that there are rigorous statewide assessments that are tied to accountability at all levels."
All three of these folks are really smart people whose opinions I respect and follow in many areas of the education policy debate. I don't get near the time to devote to thinking about these issues that they do, but I am going to try out something that I hope might be at least a little helpful to the discussion. Maybe the "system," in school system, is in there for a reason. It seems to me that not understanding some of the characteristics of dynamic systems, especially those that are heavily involved with the interaction of human behaviors, makes it really hard not to get locked into making choices and pronouncements — making "either/or" choices rather than looking for "both/and" opportunities.
So can I use system dynamics to solve the ills (supposed or real) of the public education system in the remainder of this post? Nope, not a chance. But I thought it might make for an interesting lens through which to view some of the current issues percolating in the education policy world over the next few weeks.
But let me start with one of the most global of the systems dynamics principles: There is no one right answer. As Jay Forrester, founder of system dynamics at MIT, put it: "There are no right answers. Because system dynamics illustrates the interdependencies within the current system, there is never a single right answer to any question. Instead, the discipline reveals a variety of potential actions you may take… Each of these actions will produce some desired results and (almost certainly) some unintended consequences somewhere else in the system. The art of systems thinking includes learning to recognize the ramifications and trade-offs of the action you choose…" I am hoping in some future posts to take a look at things like how cause and effect are frequently separated by a lot more time and distance than you might think, how pushing harder for change can set up balancing loops that actually create more resistance, and how the obvious fix to a problem frequently makes things worse.
As usual, the Baldrige community contains plenty of folks that are more deeply versed in systems dynamics than I am, so what principle from the discipline do you think most cries out for application to public education?