The DeHavilland Blog

Monday, February 13, 2006

The leap from legacy

I’ve been holding on to an editorial that Denis Doyle of SchoolNet wrote a couple of weeks ago. In “Human Capital: Schooling is Flat…”, Denis points out one of the differences between our education system and those of China and India:

Ironically perhaps, the third world is perfecting an elite model of education
designed to draw out the best, brightest and most ambitious students and their
families. In the West, public discussion about equity is the heart and soul of
education policy. In the developing world it is about expanding access to
quality schooling. With more than half the population – 900 million people –
rural poor, education is truly the only way out in China.

Setting aside the “excellence vs. equity” debate for the time being, what gave me a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach was a striking realization: these countries are creating new educational models that, unlike in the US, are generally unencumbered by past practices. Up until recently, these countries were relatively undeveloped, with education systems to match. Because their previous systems were not adequate, and because the demand for good education in these countries is so high, they are essentially able to start from scratch, working with new models and new approaches without having to accommodate an existing infrastructure or pedagogy.

Compare that to the US, where our education system has been traditionally strong, but is no longer producing graduates who are competitive with those of other countries. There’s a great deal of talk of reform, but with few notable exceptions it’s couched within the framework of our existing school models, more along the lines of “tweaks” than wholesale shifts in approach or operation. We talk about raising licensing requirements for teachers; we don’t talk about year-round schooling. We talk about better measuring students’ progress through tests; we don’t talk about eliminating bells and classroom walls and moving to a project-based learning model.

The reason that we don’t have great schools, to paraphrase Jim Collins, is because we have good schools. We don’t feel that our current system is so bad that it needs to be scrapped entirely, which means that we end up building on to what we already have.

But does this work? Does it allow you to cause significant change, or just incremental improvement? And can incremental improvements keep schools relevant and competitive in a time of quantum change?

Software companies face this issue when planning new versions of their software. Should the next version be an upgrade, built on their current platform? That’s usually a safer bet: all current versions of the software continue to be supported, and risk to the customer is low in terms of money and time. However, upgrades don’t produce breakthrough improvements. To create a new wave of productivity and features, companies often have to start fresh, keeping to the principles that made their product successful, but altering their approach to take advantage of new technology and programming languages, and forcing adoption of the new version by discontinuing sales and support for the older versions. This is riskier, but it’s also the only way to make real leaps forward.

I think also of “Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation” by James Utterback, who used the typewriter/computer and ice industries as featured examples in his excellent book. As I wrote here, the ice industry didn’t move forward through incremental change: no one was substantially better served if the ship carrying ice from Boston got to them in four days instead of five. It was the leap from legacy that drove progress: creating ice factories in each city (much to the chagrin of the ice harvesters in the North), and then creating machines that could create ice in the home (much to the chagrin of the ice factory owners).

One final example comes in the name of our company; read about it here.

It’s common sense that incremental changes cause incremental improvements. The question is, will incremental improvements get us to where we want and need to be? I think the answer is clear. So how can we shift the current discussion? How do we stop talking within the existing framework, wipe away our rules, traditions, and assumptions, and start talking about Education 2.0?

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