Change, Software and the Sea

Perspective
By: 
LeiLani Cauthen, Publisher

There are plenty of lofty goals to achieve greatness with Ed-Tech in classrooms and schools.  There are plenty of good products to contribute to the overall goals.  What’s most missing is someone sitting down and writing a program of execution.  Oh, you say, but we do that.  It comes out in a “really thick three-ring binder and all the pages have small-font type.”  Or it is something given in a one-hour lecture at 7 A.M. “which we scarcely remember because it felt like every other drive-by leadership lecture.”   Okay, so neither one of those qualify.  They’re not a Program.  Strategy statement, maybe.  A single Tactic, maybe.  Projects, maybe.

Yes, there are distinctions in these heretofore esoteric planning terms.  (You can find out  more when you become an EduJedi.)  

A Program is a series of steps to carry out a plan, written down. It looks like a strategic plan with sub-sections only the sub-sections themselves are projects that also have broken-down steps within them.  It has a branching structure and gets down to the actual physical motions people are to make with “if this situation, then that action.”  In the software field, it is what programmers do, also known as developers.  It’s done in one or another machine language to tell the machine lines of code put into a sequence, so the machine knows what to do.  There are millions of people doing this sort of program writing every day.

Yet, in education, the existence of exactly written programs for the humans to follow, that get everyone into agreement with a strategic plan so that it can move along with gusto, is many times a thing of rarity. Instead there is a whole lot of misprogramming, meaning one of the following:

  • A vision so lofty and generic as to be little more than a marketing statement, or
  • A doesn’t-exist-thing, meaning no sort of written order amidst habits of rapid-fire first-day introductions to what you’re supposed to be doing, a lot of “go ask Alice how it works,” and word-of-mouth on “how it’s always been done,” or
  • A master curriculum plan that leaves all the detail up to individual lesson plans, or
  • Thinking once-in-awhile institution-wide training is the program effort even though it ties back to nothing in writing, or
  • An actual written down set of what can only be properly characterized as a mere trifling check-list of raw ideas, or
  • A program that is a layered complexity nearly impossible to navigate in human terms, found in random files, obscure websites, binders and “a poster in Michael's old office on the left wall.”  This last is highly favored everywhere. 

Things like “Challenge-based learning,” “U-turn teaching,” “Problem-based learning,” and other three-bullet-point idealizations of what teachers really should be doing, are niceties.  They don’t really tell anyone anything of significance in a connected way.   Typically, none of them are a real Program.  Endless frameworks and matrices are interesting to read, but rarely do they lay out discrete actions either.  In fact, much of what is done in the way of strategies or goals use flowery language and trendy ways to gain interest and financial support, but they are not actual Programs. 

A real Program considers the entirety, all existing policies and procedures, the time it takes to do them, the potential rearrangements and repercussions on every level.  A real Program doesn’t carelessly promote another onerous duty when individuals are already overloaded and finances thin.   It concerns itself with what “is,” the structure and daily routines, and builds a bridge from that reality to a new one, step by step.  It thinks in terms of future always and does not wait until the first level of a strategic plan and each of its programs, step-by-step, has been attained but sets about building the next level ideologically and in writing even before the last is done.  In this way, refinement and improvement are always around the corner and the group is driven forward, experiencing the morale boost of quantity and quality production. That’s real leadership. 

A real Program doesn’t carelessly promote another onerous duty when individuals are already overloaded and finances thin.   It concerns itself with what “is,” the structure and daily routines, and builds a bridge from that reality to a new one, step by step.

Again, at its most basic, it is putting things in writing and fine detail to get there.  It operates with an awareness of context. 

Perhaps it is the province of managing human groups versus inanimate objects that makes what passes as many human leadership programs more on the side of fleeting and noisy campaigns than actual precise executions.   It’s often excused because, well, we’re busy and at the losing end of greater forces.  Plus, and we hate to say it, other humans are fallible and prone to malfunction.  They don’t do it right.  We also know that other people are thinking beings, so we want to make them decision points, rather than execution points.   

It is this struggle between whether a teacher is a decision point or execution point that is the central question of the digital transition.  The difference is a logistics one. Will the courseware the school bought deliver the learning with minor teacher interjection?  How automated can we make the learning journey and the teacher lesson planning?  Or do we have teachers do everything.  How exactly do they do this for every student if we’re trying to individualize different paths for every student?  Of course, Teachers are important, but how are we leveraging what is important in their interactions with students precisely?

We now balance on a “maybe” in this issue because we are stuck between this question of the delivery mechanism of knowledge being human or the machine.  If not lecture, but video or courseware, how does the teaching role shift?  In addition, we consider we can’t just tell them what to do or what they are doing so wrongly without a tidal wave of back-talk.  These are human teachers, so we conceive we must convince them first to do anything at all, and while doing so give overly exhaustive and important reasons that are irrefutably logical.  These include having teachers read great tomes of literature on nebulous ideas like “student engagement” and listen to lectures on why using projects is super cool, and so on.  Administrations tend to use overwhelming intellectualism to cause action, when it is quite possible the opposite is needed.  Simple programs, simple here-is-what-you-do instructions.   With machines, we don’t have to do any of this.  With machines we just tell, we don’t ask. 

People are very, very hard to transition.  Probably the hardest part of all in running any organization.  Let’s just say that this is the real reason writing a Program of execution is so hard in Education’s tech transition.

Here is a big idea – why not write a Program that acknowledges what is most admired in the act of teaching, while moving the distribution of the knowledge, the lesson planning and analytics to personalize for every student more solidly into tech?  It’s all the planning and daily figure-it-all-out that is the hardest on teachers.  It stresses them out and soaks up the time they need to directly observe, facilitate and unravel student problems.  Why don’t we do most of that as an institution like a travel planner who orchestrates every part of the journey? This is what a “blended institution” would look like – not just a blending in the classroom by millions of individual teachers, but an institutional view of blending the teacher, the human touch so needed, into a masterfully executed Program?  Imagine that for a minute.  This is the real blending, the real flipping of learning. 

Just like education mutated from the simple construct of a single classroom to a manufacturing-like model when that was the dominant industry, it is now mutating to match the model of other industries, most of which are run by software and organized in a like fashion to the construction of software. 

Politics has already generated a focus on testing and academic standards to mirror the mature digital views of the other industries who have gone before in digital transition.  In the software field, testing is at the end of a program, the “Q/A” or quality assurance of coding. It’s concerned with working outputs. This is part of the vernacular of almost every industry now, even though educators consider “testing” to be their own special word, it is not any longer.  Academic Standards are an attempt at a simplicity like the single lines of code written to instruct a machine.  Do you see how these two things, standards and testing, are pushing Education to mutate into a software construct? Most industries now run largely by advanced software to do all the managing and insert the customer service agents as-needed.  They reduce human decision points as much as possible to reduce cost and increase reliable outcomes.   If you understand software, you understand how this can achieve learning and leverage human facilitation to heights never seen before for full individualizations and better results.  This could increase the need for teachers but decrease the laborious aspects of data entry and searching.

It’s important to note that most of the Standards are anything but simple and cannot even be grasped in their individual enumerated state by the average layman.  Masses of teachers see them like a curse because they hang out there like some arcane ancient sentence-long blurbs with no clear written book on implementation. That was purposeful, of course, to give teachers freedom, which is about equivalent to leaving someone on deserted island with a few tools and some firewood while requiring them to build a cruise ship.  What hasn’t been said yet is that the burden of testing and the Standards are part and parcel of the digital world, born of the same structure that rules the digital age -- software.  It’s inferred that everyone in education is supposed to now be building the code sequence and sections of a software-like program to light pathways of learning for any Standard, to the action of testing students who never fail.  Yet right now in schools, between the Standards and the final test, there are thousands of wild variables, pet pedagogies, and a largely disconnected sea of unpredictability.

Let’s say one coast is the Standards, the other coast the testing.  A bridge across, a real program needs to be written, one that is considering all facets.  It’s this that defines the work of this generation of administrators. Merely leaving it up to the troops will not do.  What is sacrificed is the actual personalization for each student, to favor the “tweaking” that is done within the class group for the same lesson. This is sort of personalization, but not on the same level as could really be done within software.

Teachers need simple programs they can execute, not to build their own cruise ship. In fact, so do parents and students, who are abandoning public education at an alarming rate and asking more questions than ever now that they are conditioned to expect action immediately from tapping icons on their touch screens.  The giant mystery of what is taught and how is repulsive to the current culture, who find answers instantly to every life question by browser search.

This is the crunch time for education to cross the sea, to make real sense out of the correct way to structure and implement high value courseware and technologies, while totally individualizing learning.  To perhaps change the function and add help for teachers. 

It’s time to finish writing the Program. 

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