Lions, tigers and chickens, oh my

Aug 29, 2011 by

Kenneth J. Bernstein

This posting was written to a private education list by Michael Martin, Research Analyst for the Arizona School Board Association.  I have his written authority to crosspost it and to identify him as the author

I was reading an article in Computerworld magazine by Thornton A. May of Florida State College in Jacksonville. He is the author of the book “The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics” (which I haven’t read) and his article is titled “Getting Beyond Efficiency: IT’s New Value Challenge.” He doesn’t really address education, his article is addressed to computer network nerds, but there is a analogue to what he writes about IT in the current struggle between deformers and educators. His main lament is against Frederick Taylor and the cult of efficiency and how it conflicts with innovation. I think there is a great parallel between his efficiency forces and the education deformers, plus I would say that most educators see innovation and creativity as their guiding light. So when May writes:“The battle between the forces favoring efficiency and the factions advocating innovation forms the backdrop for modern value creation and destruction. Think of the efficiency camp as tigers and the innovation camp as chickens. These two species do not naturally coexist, and when they bump into each other without tightly calibrated supervision, the result is feathers, fat tigers and no chickens.”

I think that paragraph encapsulates the gist of the struggle between educators and deformers. Maybe it is just me, but he also quotes James March, “one of the most respected voices on modern decision-making,” and I see another parallel between March’s characterization of decision-making as “collections of choices looking for problems, issues and feelings looking for decision situations in which they may be aired, solutions looking for issues to which they might be an answer, and decision makers looking for work.”

That is somewhat how I view school children. They are  collections of choices, issues and feelings looking for decision situations … to which they might be an answer. Each child has a unique combination of innate abilities and interests that they are often barely aware of and the job of education is to help children discover their own abilities and interests and to provide them with the skills that match those innate combinations. “Authentic education” is the means of exposing children to the needs and ways of the real world so that they can understand how they as individuals are solutions to those needs and ways. But the crucial difference between deformers and educators is that educators recognize that the solutions for tomorrow’s world fall into the domain of innovation and not the efficiency of past experiences.

What we are experiencing today in education is the clash between the efficiency tigers and educator chickens and it is the role of local school district governing boards to provide the “tightly calibrated supervision” to ensure that the result is not “feathers, fat tigers and no chickens.” The future of America depends on educators winning this clash and preventing the corporate tigers of efficiency from completely destroying the cultivation of children’s unique abilities to change the world in their own innovative way. The deformers are after the money, they don’t care about the children. I would even argue that they don’t care about humans in general.

There is probably no coincidence that Bill Gates’ role in promoting the deformers is completely indifferent to children’s lives. On the website ExtremeTech on March 14, 2008, Jim Lynch wrote about User Interfaces (UI):

“Despite all of its billions, Microsoft cannot seem to hire competent UI designers. Why this is so, I’m just not sure. It may have to do with Microsoft’s corporate culture. Creative designer types may just be turned off at the borg-like atmosphere of Microsoft and probably don’t even consider looking for a job there when there are other companies that appreciate the virtue of great design ideas and expertise.”

Contrast that with the true lion of the computer industry, Steve Jobs who just stepped down from Apple where the legacy is just the opposite: creativity personified. I would suggest if you have not read Jobs commencement address at Stanford University (…) you cannot truly understand the modern world and what we should be teaching children. The Borg deformer types probably cannot even read this paradigm difference and comprehend it. He told the students “You’ve got to find what you love.” And that should be the goal of public education: teach children, not subjects. What is there gained in teaching algebra if you primarily teach children to hate it?

Steve Jobs was not flawless. The MacIntosh computer that revolutionized computing was developed by Jef Raskin in spite of Jobs. In a 1984 Byte interview Raskin said:

“And nobody, especially Steve Jobs, believed that we could do anything useful. Maybe a few clever ideas may come out of this group but certainly not a product. They were not going to get a product out of Raskin. Tribble and Howard… people who play music.” But again, I doubt it was a coincidence that creative people transformed the world rather than the technicians and engineers. Jobs learned to appreciate beauty and humanity in a fundamental way that seems completely missing from Gates and other deformers such as Rhee et al.

It seems to me that this issue between cold efficiency and warm human innovation is perhaps the continental divide of the twenty-first century that has arisen because of the role technology plays in modern human ecology. The anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote in the late 1960s (Culture and Commitment) that the rapid transformation of the world because of technological change would lead to a time when the children taught the adults. It would appear that education needs to consider education in that light. Read Jobs commencement speech.

The big news yesterday was that Steve Jobs quit as CEO of Apple. This email didn’t begin because of that, but in retrospect we should perhaps spend more time appreciating what he meant to the modern world and what it means to education. At one time, Apple dominated the education market. Ironic, perhaps.



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