Educational Policy, Chaos Theory, & Being a Humble Educational Radical

radical[rad-i-kuh l] – thoroughgoing or extreme, especially as regards change from accepted or traditional forms. –

Perhaps some of my ideas about education are radical, but I like to think that I strive toward at least being a humble sort of radical. By that, I mean that I hardly ever espouse one of my ideas becoming the standard by which all other ideas and proposals must be measured. I rarely argue that they should be national policy. I also don’t contend that my concepts should be universal. In fact, one of the few broad concepts that I consistently advocate for is a diversity of ideas, practices, models, and frameworks in education. In other words, if I had to advocate for a policy that would direct all of education, it would be variety and choice, recognizing that one model or framework is not best for all learners in all places and all times. This is also why I spend more of my time exploring education reform by design and not by policy (although I have a persistent and growing interest in policy as design).

Education policy is simply the phrase used to describe the many laws and rules that govern and direct education in different domains. Some extend this to include laws and policies that are not explicitly about education, but impact education systems. This might include economic policies, for example. Regardless, these rules are established from the local (even within a given school) to national level. People establish policies with the goal of shaping the education system, protecting certain stakeholders, amplifying certain values and goals, and embodying a given philosophy of education.

Quite often, the philosophies, values and motives behind new or longstanding policies are unclear. Sometimes that is by design. Sometimes it is just lost in the soundbites. Other times such foundations are forgotten or ignored for one reason or another. Regardless, I take policy seriously. Policymakers are establishing laws and rules that impact other people’s lives and education. They are restricting people from more freely embracing certain beliefs and convictions about education while empowering others.

As I see it, a policy is a technology. As such, it produces losers and winners. It is never neutral. It always elevates some people and not others, and when the advocates of a new policy champion it as the best for the community or a larger population, they are often espousing a personal philosophy as the best for all or most.

From an early age, my son really liked winning games. As such, he also discovered one of the more effective ways to win at a game is through policymaking. You just change the rules or lobby to change the rules so that the game favors your preferences and strengths, and it disregards your limitations. It is an obvious ploy by a 5-year-old boy, but what about when it is a 50-year-old policymaker? Or, what about when it is shaped by the voices and influence of dozens or hundreds of different stakeholders, each wanting to “win” or “gain” something. Some might have or frame their gain as a noble cause, best for society. Others might be open about how they want to lobby for the benefits of a very specific population.

As much as I don’t like to think of education as a game with rules, the metaphor holds up quite well when we look at the positioning of people and the lobbying for different regulations. The Department of Education, for example, seems to often comes back to protecting the financial aid investment of the government (at least when it comes to higher education), along with issues related to workforce development and gainful employment. Other agencies appear to have layers of priorities. Even as they argue that they are champions of innovation, their policies represent a fervent effort to slow innovation and protect traditional concepts of the teacher, professorate, the diploma, and the college degree. Yet, the closer you get to this world, the more convoluted  things get. There are unquestionably multiple layers of motive and people treating a single policy change as a chess move intended to set them up for success five or six moves down the road. What seems to be forgotten is that people’s lives are impacted by each policy change.

When we discover that this is the context in which we are living and working toward growth and improvement in education, it seems to me that humility and choice are more important than ever. We can’t afford a monopolized approach to educational policy with such competing interests. It doesn’t matter how honorable or trustworthy the leadership is at a given time and a given level. Leave the policy monopolies for the hyper-local level…at individual learning organizations. Beyond that, build a system that empowers choice, empowers innovation and creativity (with reasonable levels of accountability but not massive hindrances), rejects a one-size-fits-all approach, and most importantly recognizes the tentative nature of our knowledge about what does and does not work at different times, places, and contexts in education (not to mention having different goals and philosophies shaping the work).

Could it be that a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world might cause a tsunami on the other side of the world? That is a classic question in chaos theory, but it is also something that I think about with the often difficult to predict implications of making even the smallest policy changes. Could it be that an educational policy butterfly flapping its wings on the federal level could cause an educational tsunami in a local school? We might have good intentions, but there are so many complexities and factors that we are often unaware of the full impact. I’m not arguing that we refrain from any policy, but such a realization at least calls us to be sober and thoughtful before lobbying for our ideas to become the gold standard in education.

For those of us who might verge on radical in education. The same it true. Let us pursue our efforts with passion but humility. Let the impact of our work speak for itself and not by trying to force it on the largest possible population through rules and regulations.

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From Power Struggles to Open Discourse About the Future of Education

What is your greatest concern about the future of education? I’ve been asked this by more than a few people over the past year. My answer, it seems, is not provocative enough. My greatest concern is not the funding of higher education, the charter/choice debates, how to achieve access and opportunity, 21st century skills, reimagining the school, testing, the Common Core debates, re-inventing schools, protective core values of the Academy, the role of teachers, the role of technology in education or any specific issue. Some of these are personal passions that drive much of my work and thinking, but there is still something more fundamental. It has to do with how we discuss and consider the future of educationMy greatest concern relates to our capacity (or what sometimes seems like a diminished capacity) to have deep, rigorous, candid, persistent, extended but open-minded public discourse about current and future policies, issues and innovations.

I have as firm of convictions about education as anyone else, but for me, one of the most important places to start when considering the future of education is to get deeply informed about the possibilities. This requires an openness to looking, listening, learning, and candidly sharing our own comments and questions. People will get emotional. After all, we have deep-seated convictions about education. We will slip into ad hominem arguments. The need to make timely decisions will force us to compete for our cause to win out long enough for a policy to pass, a decision to be made, or a bill to pass (or not pass). These are realities. Yet, somehow, amid all such realities, how can we still make progress toward discourse worthy of a our most fundamental democratic values? I don’t know the answers, but I have a few tentative thoughts on the matter. These thoughts may well be as contentious as any specific debate in education, but I offer them for consideration nonetheless. For the sake of this post, I’ll limit my comments to 9 suggested starting points.

1. Recognize that any educational decision will have both affordances and limitations, and invite canid discourse about both.

If I am going to arguing strongly for something, it is important for me to know that it has limitations as well. That is true for virtually every educational practice or policy. There are winners and losers, benefits and limitations, unexpected blessings and curses. Such a perspective is a huge part of Neil Postman’s legacy and contribution to the discussion about education. His examination of affordances and limitations led him to be deeply skeptical about claims of technological progress, but the means of analyzing trends provided equally powerful tools for critiquing some of his own ideas and proposals. This is good. Having the humility to publicly recognize the good, bad, and ugly of our proposals may not be in the recipe of PR perfection or political prowess, but it is a key ingredient for candid public discourse about education.

2. Resist the urge the demonize the “other” side as if the person’s policies and decisions represent a grand conspiracy to take over the world.

Again, many of us have strong opinions and convictions about various aspects of modern education. There are people deeply passionate about tenure for professors and strong teacher unions. There are others who believe strongly in giving educational administration and leaders with more power and influence among professors and educators. Yes, I have a few convictions about these topics, but it is really important for me not to over-generalize and turn the person with the other perspective into a member of some vicious army desiring to undermine the entire system. There are likely people with such sinister goals, but our public conversation would be better off if we saved going there as an absolute last option. I’ve done this, mostly in my mind, sometimes out loud; so this is a challenge for me as much as anyone else.

3. Take our public discourse into the details and nuances.

“MOOCs are going to shut down the University as we know it.” “Higher education is oblivious to the real world beyond the ivory tower.” “The Common Core is an attack on children.” “Charter schools are a detriment to public education.” These may or may not have proverbial truth, but to have a rich discussion, we need to get into the details. Which higher education institutions, because not all institutions are alike? How do the offerings and function of MOOCs coincide or deviate from the that of Universities? What aspects of the Common Core are of greatest concern or worthy of the greatest praise? What about charter schools is a perceived detriment? What needs are they meeting that where otherwise unmet? We need to ask the questions that allow us to get back to the details, understanding that there are not always yes or no, black or white answers. There might just be room for a compromise. Charter schools are wildly different from one state to another, even one school to another, for example. By being quick to generalize, we might all miss out on a wonderful win-win option.

4. Recognize that there are multiple paths to a given conclusion and people arrive and certain words and phrases in different ways.

As a largely interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and a-disciplinary scholar, I run into this all the time. I might be discussing an issue with a person who has a PhD in psychology, sociology, history, or American literature. I use a term or phrase and it immediately conjures up thoughts of a lengthy discourse within their field of study, leading them to label me a certain way. Yes, it is important for me to take the time to learn about the different discourses around a given term or phrase, but words and phrases have multiple working definitions, and people get to their conclusions and vocabularies in different ways. As it stands, if you use the “wrong” word, you might find yourself quickly labeled with any number of groups: socialist, radical capitalist, racist, classist, trans-humanist, Luddite, or pretty much any educational term with anti- or pro- in front of it.

How do we address this? We ask people to tell us more about their position, how they arrived at it, and how they think it does or does not align with how a given group might use the term. We get really curious about other people and their perspective. We realize that there is a story behind the terms and phrases that we and others use, and we explore those stories.

5. Acknowledge that there is more than one way to go about education.

There is no such thing as a perfect educational system. As I mentioned before, they all have affordances and limitations. Similarly, there are usually many possibilities that will work. I realize each of us have strong convictions and preferences for certain systems and policies over others. I even respect the “slippery slope” concern that leads people to take a position on a given bill or policy. Yet, there are endless possibilities, many of which might offer benefits that we’ve never experienced before.

6. Valuing the role of data and research, but also recognizing that much of it needs context, and we want to be cautious when arguing for an absolute and widely applied policy or practice.

“We need this policy because all the research shows that it will lead to the best outcomes.” Well, that might be true if we keep the system “as is”, but most educational research is contextual. We suggest policies and practices for helping students with ADHD find success in “school”, but those policies and practices partly (sometimes largely) depend upon “school” having certain attributes. What if we put them in a Montessori school, self-directed learning academy, scripted directed instruction classroom, a classical school, a hands-on learning school, a school built on game-based learning, or sometime else? Do the same policies and practices stand? My point is that we want to value and learn from both data and research, but finding one or a dozen studies to “support” your policy doesn’t mean that the debate is over. There are still other options and possibilities.

7. Respect the right for a minority opinion or smaller group with a set of beliefs, values and convictions about education.

One of the strengths of democracy in the United States is that we have deeply held national convictions about individual rights and rights of minority perspectives. Yet, our debates in education do not always seem to tap into these values. Wherever we end up with an educational policy or practice, how does it honor and prospect the minority perspective and the rights of individuals?

8. Recognize the role of educational philosophy.

People have fundamentally different educational philosophies that often lead to their position on policy and practice. People sometimes change their philosophies, but this fact means that we are not going to have universal consensus. What we have to decide is whether we want to be a system or nation that honors a diversity of philosophies in education or whether we deem it better to force our philosophy on the rest of the community, state, nation, or world. By how I framed that statement, I suppose you know where I stand on the issue.

9. Be candid and leave time for discourse.

I’m thinking specifically of bills on the state and national level, along with other broader initiatives. It means that we don’t try to push things through unnoticed. It means we have to be willing and seeking to engage the broader public in conversations about where we will go. I know I’m being a bit idealistic with this one, but if even a few more people took this to heart, we would all be better off.

These are some of the perspectives that I think can help us have a more open-minded, rich, candid and substantive discourse about the future of education. What about you? Consider sharing some of your thoughts in the comment area or bring the conversation over to Twitter, LinkedIn or our favorite social outlet.

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