We need to come up with a more compelling why

Thank you to @gcouros, @shannoninottawa and @stephen_hurley for sharing this fantastic TED talk with us on Twitter. It is definitely worth the watch.

So how does this talk apply to education? 

There is a growing group of educators who believe that there is a problem with the US education system. There is also a growing group of people who are not educators who believe there is a problem. The US public, caught in the middle, has to make a choice between these two groups since the message they are sending out is quite different.

One group believes that students deserve good schools with good teachers, and that the best way to accomplish this is by making teachers more accountable for what they do, and applying free market philosophies to both schools as a whole, and specifically to teachers. The invisible hand of Adam Smith’s economic model will force schools into innovation and improvement, provided we remove the barriers of unionization and past "bad" contracts from schools. Merit pay will allow teachers to work harder to achieve better goals for students, and Race to the Top will make states compete for money, which will force them into a marketplace of a kind.

The other group believes that schools are becoming overly regimented and that there are too many rules on how they are supposed to be run, and too many accountability measures. They believe that these accountability measures, generally standardized tests, are slowly forcing schools to teach to the test in order to keep their funding. They believe that there is a wider experience that schools can offer than what can be measured on a standardized test. They also believe that the issue of failing schools comes to inequality in funding of schools, and more importantly the desperate inequality that exists in the US economic model. While the US is considerably richer than the rest of the world, the vast majority of that wealth is held within just a few people’s hands.

The problem is, if you belong to the second group anyway, is that the first message is gaining in strength. I believe that this is because the non-educator reformers have answered the why question with the parents of the US. They can point to a perceived failure in the system and then explain from the why, their how, and their what. They have a message which is compelling to many people but I believe that their solutions won’t work. The second group of people has suggestions for what, and for how, but their why is for some reason less compelling.

The solution the second group is offering is not going to work. They want to turn education system into a free market, but the market isn’t free if it is regulated, which is what the accountability measures they introduced with NCLB do. Maybe the premise that you can apply economic principles effectively to schools is flawed? 

Suppose we did apply a true free market approach to schools. We’d remove all regulations which would hamper schools and then fund schools based on market principles. Good quality schools would cost more, poor quality schools would cost less. Families would sue schools which were too unsafe, and schools would naturally tend toward offering choices that encouraged kids to attend. Some schools would look for corporate sponsorship to help them. McSchools anyone? Each family would have to decide for themselves what constituted a quality school and make decisions about where they would send their children.

The problem is that we would see legions of schools do things which look good, and are easy for parents to measure, but which are pedagogically unsound. Deciding on how effective a school is a difficult task, one most parents would find daunting if not impossible. They would have to rely on visiting schools and taking a look around to see what the school is doing. In any case, I think it would fail, and lots of kids would be harmed in the process.

The real question is, how can that first group of people change our approach and sell our (I think you know by now which group I support) vision of what schools can be? How can we find a reason why schools need to change which will resonate with parents? I think too often we focus on how we would like schools to change, and what steps we would take to make those changes, and that the important reason why those changes need to happen is lost. We are being beaten badly in the US court of public opinion, and we need to step up our game.

For those of you who wonder why I, as a Canadian educator, am so passionate about the education debate in the US, you just need to remember how often our politicians have looked south of our border for solutions. I’m not interested in any of the current US style of reforms taking root here in Canada.



  • I gotta admit I’m really confused here. I’ve watched that TED talk 3 times, and have taken notes, so I’m pretty sure I’ve got the golden circle concept of why, how, and what down. On the other hand, I’m not following the groups and the connections with the messages which you making in your post. In part this could be due to the fact I’m an outlier in your groupings demographic qualifiers. I’m a engineer, who happens to teach bass guitar as well as how to fly airplanes. I don’t have kids, nor do I have any current involvement with public education. As a taxpayer, I am very concerned with government spending. As a member of society, I likewise am very concerned with todays students and their futures.

    The first message is the one that gets all the airplay, and I’m 100% on board with the following bit. “One group believes that students deserve good schools with good teachers” Like you, I’m not convinced that the how and the what are correct… by the same token, unlike your view I’m neither convinced that all of the proposed how and whats are completely in error.

    The second message is garbled, and seemingly lacks credibility and appears biased to the status quo of preNCLB, that is, until one starts really digging, and then light bulbs come on. The thing is, very very few folks are going to go on a digging expedition, and amongst those that do, even fewer will drill down to the raw data. And then for those of us who are starting to see the problems… we not only dont have a why, but the how and what appear mostly just an inversion of the first message.

    I’ve gone so far as to track down teacher friends on facebook looking for greater depth. I’ve searched out folks on twitter. In a lot of ways, it does seem I and likely many others are looking for the why sector..

  • David,

    Coincidentally, my blog on the CEA site (http://thurly.net/10jq) and the subsequent comments are concerned with just this question. I think there is just as urgent a need for disruptive change here in Canada, albeit for different reasons – both to keep up with the pace of change in our environment on behalf of our students, and to address the increasingly intense and complex challenges faced by teachers. Being clear about Why is important in order to focus our attention, sustain our energy and avoid distracting conflict that can arise when there is confusion on this point.

  • Jack Hill wrote:

    The root of “Why” is a hard wired aspect of being human (heuristic question of human understanding – philosophy – Epistomology). Why?- because we ask “Who am I? Why do I do it? Because I’m trying to figure out “Who am I?”Do I believe in me! Biology – yes! Yet – part of understanding knowledge is to know that I don’t know all there is to know about everything even though I want to know everything there is to know about everything (K.Wilber). The twitter of technology.

  • Hi David,

    I started to respond, but I’m going to do some additional thinking about this today and respond later. Know, however, that I believe that this is an essential train of thought to follow, and I look forward to doing some thinking alongside you on this.


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