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New Understanding: The X-factor at work

How can it be possible that there is a flaw in the core theory of the “work” we see taking place in schools every day?

As veterans or victims of almost universal schooling experiences, how can we not understand what the work of learning and teaching is about? Or is that the problem? Have these experiences left us with flawed beliefs? Is this what Peter Drucker was describing when he said:

“when previously successful organizations are facing a ‘what to do’ dilemma… (and) find themselves ‘stagnating and frustrated, in trouble and, often, in a seemingly unmanageable crisis,’ the root cause of the apparent paradox is that the assumptions… that shape any organization’s behavior, dictate its decisions about what to do and what not to do, and define what the organization considers meaningful results … no longer fit reality.”

Peter Senge describes that reality.

“We are failing our children. …Many confronting the deeper nature of our problems cry out that the solution lies in “fixing education.” But you cannot “fix” a structure that was never designed for learning in the first place.”

How can that be true? Senge goes on to cite the consequences of this “design error” for children and the adults they become.

“The young child learns very quickly that school is not about learning. School is about avoiding mistakes. School is about gaining approval and avoiding disapproval. These are the same lessons the first time worker learns. Don’t screw up, do what you’re told, if something is screwed up make sure you don’t get blamed, at all costs look good.

This profound mismatch between our intrinsic drive to learn and our institutions’ drive to control thwarts the continual unfolding of our natural curiosity, capacity for invention, love of experimentation, sense of wonder, sense of connection.

At some level, the scars are equally severe for those who “succeed” in the “education” system as for those who fail. The “winners” have so much vested in what they know and in “being right” that they become, as Harvard’s Chris Argyris puts it, “smart people who cannot learn.”

They populate the highest ranks of our organizations and reinforce the predominant norms of looking good, being right, and staying in control. The “losers,” and evidence suggests that in their own minds these are really the vast majority of young people, simply become lifelong failures, labeled by society and themselves as not able.”

As suggested earlier in this paper, we are caught up in an Escher-like cycle of that locks us into endlessly believing what we see and then seeing what we believe in schools. The way-of-seeing offered by this lens if applied to the “seemingly unmanageable crises” Drucker cites and the “designs” we accept whose consequences Senge cites may help to question the assumptions at their roots. For example:

  • At the center of this worldview is a simple level of understanding of the brain managing a biological process of interactive exchanges that converts information from external experiences into useful internal nutrients the mind needs for growth.

Once one can accept that “simple” truth, then the “rest of the educational story” also is simple and has to do with how those essential interactions are supported.

  • With a child’s mind pre-wired to learn from interaction at its center, it becomes a little easier to see how the “system” influences those that manage the immediate environment with which that mind interacts and learns.

Once one accepts that first belief about this “given” nature of the territory that is the workplace of schooling, then its three “work processes” can be aligned to it.

Learning can be understood as a product of interaction.

Learning Interaction

Teaching – If each child’s learning is a product of his/her interactions, and the most significant interactors are those adults who care about them — teachers and parents – then…

Teaching is a process of providing the opportunities for those interactions, and access to the information that informs them.

The quality of learning can be understood as a function of the frequency and relevance of those interactions.  (While this is not new information to anyone close to teaching  — effective teaching has always been a process based upon managing interactions appropriate to the needs of each child — it points to the flaw in education’s current “Theory-of-the-Business” which doesn’t believe it is possible.)

Consider that, in any field of human endeavor, it is informed interaction between the “worker” and the object of the work that engages the human mind’s natural trial and error way of solving problems and achieving purposes.  At the “end” of that process, the “quality of results” — the match between intentions and outcomes, between needs and results — is directly dependent upon the frequency of that interaction and its appropriateness.  And “appropriateness” is shaped by the knowledge that informs it.

Industry calls that critical, quality-producing interaction the “moment-of-truth” — the choices made by the last person on the “line” that fulfill or diminish all those decisions from “above” that went before.  In medicine they call this type of informed interaction “sound diagnostic/prescriptive” health care.   In education, it’s known as the common sense essence of good “teaching.”  But it is not the common sense of common practice.

Schooling – The effectiveness of these caring adults depends to a large extent on the information and support that enables them to make decisions and take actions that are individually responsive to that child’s needs and requirements.

School system leadership and management creates and sustains the interactions that support and inform the work that supports the interactions each child’s individual learning process requires.

But wait…if it is really that simple, why haven’t knowledgeable advocates of brain-based learning been able to integrate new knowledge of the human mind’s inner workings into practice?

They already “know” that:

  • Knowledge is constructed from the inside, not just “inserted” by external sources.
  • Starting in the womb and continuing throughout the life span, our mind seeks meaning out of the challenges we confront.
  • It strives simultaneously to understand the world and ourselves from our interactions with the surrounding environment.
  • It takes in information and connect it to what is already known as we construct new knowledge and skills.
  • By testing these new capacities through continuing interaction, it increases the capacity to act intelligently and solve problems.

With that essential core of knowledge, why should it be so hard to find meaningful ways to integrate it into the instructional process at a scale that makes a difference?

What this lens reveals is the paradox created when one tries to apply this critical knowledge about human learning to children, …but not to the adults who interact with them.

Brain-based Learning” has been addressed as an “instructional” concern.  It’s been difficult to see it also as a condition of everyone’s “work.” But as the Harvard Business School’s Shoshana Zuboff notes, the nature of today’s work requires that workers be learners, and managers teachers in the sense that they must create settings in which the worker can learn from his/her work.


  • What does the system have to have in place in terms of roles —  and relationships among those roles —  to ensure that each child is plugged into that basic connecting infrastructure?  This is no more than what we expect when we enter a hospital to ensure that diagnosis and prescription responds to one’s individual needs and not those of others in your same age cohort or in the same “ward.”
  • Who are the people who right now can fill those roles and relationships in the school life and its related surroundings?


Through this lens its possible to understand how MCPS has aligned itself through processes that help them ask the right questions, and then support finding the appropriate answers to them at each level.

This is most evident in the ways they’ve used what is thought of as the “Baldrige” process to create a common language and culture for thinking about continually improving their work.  Among the stories that will be accessible about their approach, is one about how one elementary  principal merged the arts with quality tools as a way to develop students’ sense of efficacy as they co-managed and took responsibility for their own learning.

The assets/strengths they relied on by engaging in the arts merged with the co-managed learning-teaching model emerging from the Baldrige involvement.

If learning is product of interaction, here we could see how student’s can directly experience “making a difference” in something, and continually improving their capacity to do it.

And when observers began to think this was a model for “arts integration,” and the state called it a model for arts integration, the principal quickly pointed out that “This wasn’t about “arts integration”  — it was a “management model” for all instruction.

[See also — MAKING SENSE OF THE BALDRIGE — A View from 20,000 feet)


Comment from Andréa
Time July 6, 2012 at 4:38 pm

thanks for the nice blog. it was very useful for me. keep sharing such ideas in the future as well. this was actually what i was looking for, and i am glad to come here!

Comment from admin
Time July 7, 2012 at 9:50 am

Andréa -Thanks for the feedback. If this offers some “answers” you were looking for, it would help me to know more about the “questions” you’re asking… and for what field of work? I know the ideas are relevant to most organizational settings, but not sure how to engage those outside my range of experience.

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