The DeHavilland Blog

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Cluetrain and education outreach

I've just finished reading The Cluetrain Manifesto by Locke, Levine, Searles, and Weinberger. It was a revolutionary conversation-starter when it was published in 2000, and its influence can be clearly felt in any number of areas as people grapple to understand the impact of the Internet on nearly every aspect of society.

If you're not familiar with it, the gist is that many components of our society are built on a command-and-control structure, and that the Internet subverts that structure by allowing individuals to go around the hierarchy to access information and talk with others outside of formal (ie, controlled) channels. The book's three-word synopsis is that "markets are conversations", an earth-shattering shift when you think through the implications. (If you haven't read the book, it's worth your while - you can even read it for free on line at the link above if you don't want to pay for it.)

I'm thinking about how the concepts in this book relate to education - both education in general and to society's role in it. A lot of the heavy lifting, it turns out, has been done for me by Scott Adams, who sparked some conversations of his own by doing a simple find/replace of Cluetrain's 95 theses to tailor it to education (click
here to review it). And Scott Moore does something similar here.

One of my core beliefs is that, for the education system to succeed, it needs to engage with its stakeholders - parents, communities, business, government, etc. - and that its tradition of operating as a black box has distanced and alienated stakeholders and allowed stakeholder support of all kinds - financial, volunteer, political, etc. - to atrophy. At the recent Business Education Network, Gene Hickok noted that most people today look at education as education's business and no longer see their role in the process, and this sort of disengagement makes it almost impossible for a system designed to prepare children for a productive role in society to succeed.

One of the exciting things about Cluetrain is the way it allows you to look at the corporation in a different light - that in the early early days of commerce, there were just buyers and sellers in a big bazaar, talking face to face, and that a byproduct of mass production was the development of a wall between buyers and sellers called "the corporation." And as an act of self-preservation, the corporation instituted official channels so that the people inside (employees) and the people outside (customers) could no longer talk without filters that were both restrictive (reducing the time that employees spent on 'unproductive' things like talking to customers) and incomplete (making sure that the message was 100% favorable to the company).

The education system seems to be like that - an artificial wall that filters communication with stakeholders, discouraging understanding and (as a corollary) active involvement. To be clear, I'm not talking about education discouraging involvement where it maintains an authoritarian role, like asking parents to volunteer on field trips, or make sure their kids do their homework. That sort of command-and-control request - "implement this thing without questioning why" is everpresent. I'm talking about real communication, where a parent or other community member has the knowledge base and equal footing to say "I understand that you're using whole language instruction to teach reading, but I know the research doesn't support it. Let's talk about instituting a phonics-based approach."

In a similar vein, if you brought a team of scientists in to a school to volunteer, what's more likely - that the school would channel them into helping students with existing lab work, despite the fact that a recent study (see
here) showed the existing lab model to be largely ineffective? Or would the school instead forego existing ways of operating and instead bring these scientists in as authorities and partners in the education process and give them the power to rebuild the lab model to make it relevant, real-world, and engaging?

The good news is that this is changing, partly by the way that the Internet enables people to easily access incredible amounts of information based on their interests, and partly by the societal shift that's taking place as a result of the Internet, empowering people to have direct, unfiltered interactions with any number of individuals and groups. Business (or other stakeholders) can now walk in with information in hand to say "there's a better way to do this - I can prove it, and I can help you fix it." That's the change we need, and it's the change I want to be a part of.

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