Monday, April 22, 2019

Pro-Innovation Bias in Education: Any Old Innovation Will Do and Adventures in Educational Fadsurfing

As wave after wave of educational reform has hit our educational shores, one thing becomes very clear: the field of educational leadership and education has what is often called an “pro-innovation bias.” While innovation can obviously be advantageous when it addresses specific problems, having this “pro-innovation bias” often only means there is a great deal of promoting of new programs or new technologies and little serious examination and critique of the possible side effects or unintended consequences of these. If you are the critic who starts asking difficult questions about these potential problems, you are most often accused by those promoting the innovation as anti-progress or pro-status quo. Critical examination of all these new-fangled innovations is stifled immediately by those who simply want their brand of innovation accepted—consequences and side-effects be damned.

In his book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, critic Evgeny Morozov writes:
“Innovation might be one of the defining buzzwords of our times, but it has not received the critical attention it deserves, and we usually take its goodness for granted, oblivious of how obsession with innovation twists our accounts of the past.” (2013, p. 167)

Innovation is the educational buzzword of this decade. Everyone is talking of its inevitability and necessity, and have been crowing loudly since the advent of the great technological wonders of the personal computer and hand-held devices.

There were those Technological-Promo videos plastered all over YouTube warning educators to get on the “Tech-Express” or be left wallowing in irrelevance. There were the “tech-evangelists” pushing salvation through technological innovation. Everyone then and now talk of “innovation” as if any Old innovation will do, just do it. But there lies the problem: as history has pointed out to us, when educators adopt innovation uncritically, the unintended consequences usually take quite some time to overcome.

Morozov (2013) points to the difficult of innovation's problems by pointing out that most innovations and inventions don’t have consequences, but those that do require significant repairs, maintenance, and resources to keep working. For example, take the use of value-added measures, or VAMs, in education. To maintain VAMs as a viable educational tool, countless hours and resources must be spent on test development and testing. Administrators have to spend hours engaging in rituals of preparation required to make the value-added system function properly. Then there’s the money spent on VAMs themselves and for the use of a company’s algorithms. One of the consequences and side-effects of VAMs is a culture where a child’s test score matters the most. Other innovations like 1:1 schools also require a great deal of maintenance and resources to try to make them work. Budgets are busted in purchasing computers and in the creation of plans of technology-sustainability, as well as technical support systems. VAMs and One-to-One computer initiatives are only two current “innovations” being done to school systems, and both require an immense amount of resources that have grown scarcer since the Great Recession of 2008.

Even if one of willing to set aside the issues of the resource-intensive nature of innovations and their side-effects, as school systems jump from innovation to innovation, they are engaging in a type of “fadsurfing in the schoolhouse” that was described so aptly by Eileen Shapiro in her book Fadsurfing in the Boardroom: Managing in the Age of Instant Answers. In her book, Shapiro (1995) writes: “Fad surfing is the practice of riding the crest of one the latest management panacea and then paddling out again just in time to ride the next one; always absorbing for managers and lucrative for consultants; frequently disastrous for organizations” (p. xiii). Educational leaders engage in this practice of “riding the crest of the latest educational panacea.”

In my career, I’ve seen too many to count. Early in my career there was block-scheduling, multiple intelligences, CRISS, reading for learning, writing for learning, school-based decision making, tech-prep, Deming’s Total Quality Management, thinking maps, critical thinking, age of accountability and testing, NCLB, ESSA, Ruby Payne, Emotional Intelligence, SEL, Grit, Growth Mindset, Brain-based teaching and learning, inquiry-based teaching, thematic teaching, multiculturalism…and the list is endless just for my 29 years as an educator. Will the current buzzwords such as “coding” and “personalized learning” be added to this heap of innovations?

My problem isn’t with any of these, for many of them may have merits in a given school or classroom. My problem with this list is what it represents: a search for a panacea that will once and for all resolve our education problems. Shapiro’s (1995) advice to business is apropos here to educators seeking the golden fleece of educational innovation. She reminds leaders,
“The hard truth is that there are no panaceas. What is new is the sheer number of techniques, some new and some newly repackaged versions of older methods, that are now positioned as panaceas” (p. xvii).

There are no panaceas for all that ails us in education either, no matter how many salespeople knock on our doors trying to sell us their product or their program. Many of the new-fangled products and programs are just repackaged older "innovations." It's time to recognize that "Education is just damn hard work! That’s it." There are no easy paths. What works at one school does not necessarily mean it will work at all at another. There are no programs that will work accross all schools not matter what that consultant says. Our schools exists as complex entities in complex systems within a complex world. To think that if I apply this product, program or method to my school or school district and B will happen is simplistic thinking.

There are factors that affect education that are outside our control, because schools exist in a world system, a very complex world system. Before the pro-innovation crowd start accusing me of “excuse-making” which is where this conversation usually goes, let me make something clear: Recognizing reality is not excuse making. Recognizing that our schools in this country operate in a very unfair and unequal society where many get the advantages is not making an excuse; it is recognizing a fundamental social problem that impacts what we do no matter what program or innovation we implement. Our schools suffer from inadequate funding in a society that distributes advantage to those who often already have the means to be successful. There is no panacea or bootstrap mentality that is going to fix that problem.

To conclude, I would add that many educational leaders and educators suffer not only from an “pro-innovation bias,” but they also suffer from simplistic thinking and from wearing self-imposed blinders that prevent them from seeing the reality of an increasingly unequal and inequitable society.

Morozov, E. (2013). To save everything click here: The folly of technological solutionism. Public Affairs: New York, NY.

Shapiro, E. (1995). Fadsurfing in the boardroom: Managing in the age of instant answers. Perseus: Cambridge, MA.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Why Educators Need to Recognize Social Media's Structural Flaws and Algorithmic Radicalization Potential

Social media has become a problem. I was once an avid user of it, and now, after all the political events of the past two to three years, it has become apparent to me that Facebook and Twitter, among other social media products, have done more to divide and foster our uncivil society than anything else. It has effectively led to a polarized American society where it is perfectly acceptable to pass on false information and innuendo as the truth. In a word, Facebook and Twitter, are nothing more than online supermarket tabloids, and without veering into censorship, I am not entirely convinced that the media can be redeemed. 
In his book, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, James Bridle writes:
“If you’re searching for support for your views online, you will find it. And moreover, you will be fed a constant stream of validation: more and more information, of a more and more extreme and polarizing nature. This is how men’s rights activists graduate to white nationalism, and how disaffected Muslim youths fall towards violent jihadism. This is algorithmic radicalization, and it works in the service of extremists themselves, who know that polarization of society ultimately serves their aims.” (p. 212)
As Bridle makes clear, social media is designed to provide users with “a constant stream of validation,” and it does this by the algorithms that serve up what the platforms think users might be interested in. Social media isn’t designed to keep users informed: it is designed to gorge users on the same kinds of content those users usually consume, and it is there we need to acknowledge that this media is not harmless. Any Facebook user, for example, will notice that the social media tosses items into your timeline based on what you have liked and shared in the past. This means that the typical user trains the algorithm to serve up items that align with that user’s interests.
Our society has a social media problem. Set aside the addictive behaviors, dangerous threats and bullying for just moment; they are serious enough. Our real problem is that this media pretends to be a way to share news and information. It claims to provide a means for individuals and organizations to promote themselves. The truth is, I’ve come to a certain realization: I can no longer trust much that I read on Facebook of Twitter. I certainly should not give too much credence to it these days.
I say all this to point out that education leaders need to recognize that social media isn’t the hyped-up communications savior we once thought it was. It has serious flaws, one of which is its lack of a baloney-detection system. It also is an impossible place to carry on any kind of civil discussion or do anything except promote a divisitory narcissism that only makes us more divided.
As a school leader we need to educate our students and staffs about this side of social media. We need to be more retrospect and cautious about our own use and see it for what it is: an electronic tabloid that serves up individualized content to users. Social media is now a problem. It is always going to be a problem as it is currently structured. I certainly do not trust the likes of Mark Zuckerberg to fix these problems, after all, his goal is get more and more using the technology. To do that, Facebook structurally can only provide its customers what they want: self-validating content. As social media currently exists, it is an “algorithmic radicalization” technology that is incapble in its current form to be otherwise.

Friday, April 19, 2019

For Ed Leader Success, Perhaps Our Answers Aren't Found in John Maxwell or Jim Collins

In reading Fenwick English and Lisa Ehrich's book Leading Beautifully: Educational Leadership as Connoiseurship, I was reminded of a current problem with educational leadership. Our current educational leadership discourse is mostly a leadership discourse that gains its truth from business discourses of leadership. It still does that regularly by borrowing from pop leadership books such as those of John Maxwell, Simon Sinek, and Jim Collins. This results in the creation of a school leader who is a technician who goes simply applies the latest “scientific gimmicks” to the school organization. Has anyone stopped to question whether these leadership technologies are really “good” for schools? Is not being a leader of school different from being a leader of an organization whose primary responsibility is to seek short-term profit and success?

The result of this infatuation with business leadership discourse is a school organization enamored with short terms gains and a total dismissal of schools as long-term institutions whose goals are long-term, well-beyond the present. While there might be some disagreement, business leaders are mostly focused on short-term profits, which is what businesses do. They have no choice, because they exist to make money for their owners and/or stockholders.

With this intense fascination with the business leadership literature, we now have school leaders in search of technologies that will bring about quick test score improvements and quick improvement of other educational measures. These are only short term measures and are not proven indicators of the long-term successful lives of our students. Our schools have become places where the short-term matters more than the long term. This leads to a school and school system left ravaged by ambitious “business-minded” school leaders who are sometimes only interested in promoting their careers and who could care less about the longer sustainability of the institution of public education. Once these business-minded leaders have successfully promoted their careers, they move on to the greener pastures to which their ambitions take them.

I think it past time to take a more conoisseur-like focus on educational leadership. Business-thinking works fine for those seeking short-term gains. If one takes what English & Ehrich (2016) call Leadership as a Connoisseurship, then the work of leadership begins with a work that focuses on shaping and molding creatively an organization into a societal instution who is focused not on short-term gains, but on schools whose purpose is to shape individuals. Our schools are often now focused on shaping individuals for the short-term needs of industry and business. This is a mistake. These business and industries have proven time and again when they get a better deal somewhere else, they will move on leaving a hord of unemployed workers behind again searching for work. Instead, a leader as connoisseur focuses on shaping the institution into one that in turn shapes lives for long-term existance on Earth. It’s time to listen less to business discourses of short-term economics and engage in a long-term task of creating human beings that can live in whatever kind of environment they have to exist within.

English, F. & Ehrich, L. (2016). Leading beautifully: Educational leadership as connoiseurship. Routledge: New York, NY.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Achieving High Performance by Recipe-Following: Truth or Fairy Tale?

Educators, and I would add business leaders love fads and leadership gurus. While I don’t know personally the data regarding how much money is made by consultants and gurus in the educational industry, I would bet it’s often more than whole educational budgets in states and districts. There is money to be made, and the entrepreneurial sects know it; that’s why our inboxes of our email accounts and our message boxes of our LinkedIn accounts get stuffed daily with promises of high performance nirvana and paths to leadership greatness. 

But what if it’s all an entrepreneurial fairy tale based on an educational (or business) leadership model that believe there exists “magic principles” that can guide the leader and her or his Educationalites to the “Promised Land” of high performance and pedagogical greatness? What if the only ones reaching any levels of high performance and success are those pilfering the meager coffers of educational systems with their “educational tonics and powders” that promise success if only you follow our program?

As Phil Rosenzweig writes in The Halo Effect…and Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers, we, like business leaders, have fallen for the idea that:
“...high performance can be achieved with enough care and attention to a precise set of elements—the four factors or those six steps or these eight principles” (2007, p. 143). If we “do these things,” then “success is just around the corner.”

Now I ask, if success is that easy, then why is there not more of it? We should have schools everywhere with achievement levels off the charts. (And I would add many, many more business successes.) The gurus and consultants would say, “Well, it’s because those trying our 7 principles, or four factors, or six steps, are not following our program faithfully.” That’s always their easy answer. But what if that’s just part of the marketing pitch for the pile of baloney they are selling? Just maybe, the world on which their 7 principles, or four factors, or six steps are based only exists in a Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tale. In other words, perhaps the real world of education systems and business systems are much too complex for the simplistic thinking of gurus and the fads they bear with them.

In the end, it just might be that educational consultants, and business consultants, are only diverting us from the real truth. That truth is educational performance and business performance is uncertain and complex and not amenable to an application and engineering that brings about predictable outcomes” (Rosenzweig, 2007, p. 143). In other words, doing A and B leads to an infinite number of possibilities and outcomes, not C as the guru and consultant industry would lead you to believe.

There are certainly ideas that can be learned from gurus and consultants. I am not implying that it’s all baloney. However, being a critically-minded educational, and business leader, means realizing that our worlds are much too complex for easy answers and solutions. We should always question those claiming truth. We owe it to ourselves and to our stakeholders.

Rosenzweig, P. (2007). The halo effect...and eight other business delusions that deceive managers. New York, NY: Free Press.