Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Thinking About Power, Schools, Teaching, Technologies, and God

 I. Channeling God

A few weeks ago, Pam Moran (@pammoran) sent me the transcripts of extended talks that Drs. Ackoff and Deming had back in the early 1990s.  It was most fascinating. This one extended comment by Ackoff really caught my ear.

"And when we started to talk about an enterprise, we looked at it exactly the way that Newton looked at the world. The enterprise was a machine created by its god, the owner, to do his work, and the worker was a replaceable machine part. Okay? The owner was a visible power that had virtually no constraints imposed on him by government or anybody else. He could hire who he wanted to, when he wanted to, pay them what he wanted to, and so on. That concept went through a transformation after World War I for a very important reason.
The American economy grew so rapidly that even if all the profit the corporations were making were reinvested in them, they would not be able to grow as rapidly as was possible. Therefore, the fundamental problem that confronted American management in the 1920's was: Do we constrain growth and retain control, or do we encourage growth and sacrifice control in order to get the financing necessary to get the growth. In other words, do we stay private or go public? And the 1920's was the major period in which corporations converted from private ownership to public ownership.
What happened? God disappeared --a very fundamental change. God was no longer present and powerful. He became an abstract spirit - two hundred and fifty thousand shareholders out there. Now, there's a difficulty in communication between the ordinary worker and that abstract spirit. Peter Drucker recognized that was a problem we had confronted almost 2,000 years ago when God disappeared in the Western World, and he said industry did exactly what the Western World did. It created an institution whose function it was to communicate between man and God, and he called that institution management. And management knew the will of god, the owners, the shareholders, exactly the way that the clergy knows the will of God, by revelation, because they sure don't know it any other way. 
 - Dr. Ackoff (Transcript: Conversations between Ackoff and Deming, 1992)

Wondering what you make of this...what, if any, parallels you see with the shift from private to public in the 1920s and the  increasing interest to make public schools private now. What should we make of that? Are the motivations connected?

II. Thinking About Learning

Today I watched this excellent screencast (Embracing Uncertainty) by Dave Cormier (@davecormier) who boldly states that we need to embrace uncertainty and that cannot measure learning.

Take a look:

Now take a look at this quote by Deming.

Is the push for making public schools private, a response in part to the indeterminacy one might feel when God has been replaced by an abstraction?  Take a look at Will Richardson's (@willrich45) recent column in District Administrator, "Coming to Terms with Five New Realities." Specifically, I connect Will's first assertion with the idea of an uncertain future. Will writes:
It’s becoming clearer by the minute that, as Web technologies open more and more doors for learners, they also pose more and more challenges to traditional thinking about schools. At the center is figuring how best to prepare students for the vast learning opportunities they have outside of the traditional education system.
How do we respond to such challenges? How do institutions respond?

I see these ideas as being connected.  How do we respond to uncertainty? How do we leverage uncertainty and how might it connect to economic methods?

Some things I am thinking about and wonder what you think:
  1. Do private institutions create a public need for certainty by establishing its role as interpreter of God--thus reasserting God, not as an abstraction, but as the Deity? (Great Chain of Being, revisited?) Is this related to the increased pressure to move from public schooling to private forms of schooling?
  2. What do we do when faced with uncertainty?  Is embracing uncertainty a learned behavior?
  3. What does it mean that we need to learn to live in a world of mistakes? How do we do that and how do we avoid that?
  4. What role(s) might web technologies play in leveraging/attending to/obfuscating/intensifying these tensions? Is the current backlash against and imposed restrictions of web technologies connected to how well we attend and/or fail to attend to uncertainty?


  1. Okay...yes. There's a connection between the evangelical curriculum—always waiting and preparing for the next (perfect) condition (heaven) to occur—and what you are positioning as a god-state here in the movement from public to private. But while the restrictions on social media and other web tech are in part rooted in uncertainties which arise from the existence of those social media, they are also rooted in the certainty that these media have already forced change and will continue to do so to a greater or lesser degree over time. Thus resistance is also just that, an unwillingness to embrace next states while concurrently denying a recent past that was equally unstable when it was understood as present. Once reified as "past" it stabilizes into some kind of knowable whole (epic), not unfinished possibility (novel): it may not be the private institution per se that creates a public need for certainty, rather that the private preys on a desire for a nonexistent and artificially comforting stability and amplifies that need through attention economies.

    1. Appreciate your insights regarding certainties. I had not considered that and see how important both are. Memory does smooth away the bumpiness of the the fading present.

  2. Chunkin' and Learnin' and Embracin' ChangeMarch 29, 2012 at 5:59 PM

    I "bristle" when I hear comments like Wong's "When you finally come to grips you can't solve today's problems..." etc. I fully agree, however I am still a proponent of much "classic" fundamental learning, such as learning proper grammar and sentence construction, reading the classics, alongside mathematical stalwarts such as algebra and geometry. Perhaps I misunderstand their line of reasoning and you can set me straight.

    I am a teacher of mathematics. As I pose problems to my students, I challenge them to treat them as they would any life problem. Use knowledge and methods that they know and trust (I liken this to a toolbox or tool-belt) and use ingenuity to work towards chunking the problem and thus gaining new insight (knowledge), as well as confidence in themselves that they can work towards the unknown using a combination of prior knowledge and persistence.

    I do not try to mislead them that they will need to solve quadratic equations or prove geometric theorems unless they pursue highly technical careers. When I hear the inevitable "When are we ever going to use this?" (the smoke-screen code-phrase for "I am frustrated that I don't get this"), I make my best effort to motivate students to work through the frustration as a way of proving to themselves that they can approach the unknown, attack it one step at a time, and "defeat" problems by chipping away to a solution. The victory is in the journey to the solution, and I believe the the basics of algebra and geometry present an appropriate challenge. I find little difficulty making analogies to attorneys, doctors, and businesspeople attacking the unknown using the very same methods we use in mathematics classes. I feel that I am honoring the legacy of the great teachers who valued the teaching and learning of mathematics as a basis for independent and philosophical thought. All the while, I incorporate new technologies into my teaching practice... I find no conflict here.

    In sum, I feel that I embrace uncertainty by valuing the classics. I resent that others sometimes toss around catch phrases implying that much of "classic" education should be de-valued, all the while having difficulty offering alternatives of substance.

    1. Thanks for adding to the conversation. I would expect a mathematician to embrace uncertainty as mathematical theory has helped us to understand aspects of uncertainty. I am particularly interested when you write: "and use ingenuity to work towards chunking the problem and thus gaining new insight (knowledge), as well as confidence in themselves that they can work towards the unknown using a combination of prior knowledge and persistence." I wonder what ingenuity might mean and if ever the logic of your methods is infused by that which you many not be able to name.

      I think of Godel and the need for a meta language. What can't we explain from within the system we mostly work in?

      Thanks for nudging my thinking.