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I’m an educator, not a businessperson, but these two professions have much in common.  In both education and business, an emphasis on short-term gains often inhibits long-term results. Businesses cater to impatient shareholders and schools cater to impatient politicians. Highly regimented, calcified organizations can stifle creativity and risk-taking in business and education. In both realms we need more chaos and less order.

The roots are common.  In the early 20th century, Henry Ford’s approach to automobile manufacturing inspired the orderly routines of “factory-style” education.  While assembly lines were clearly effective for building the Model T, children were never a sum of identical mechanical parts.

For more than 100 years schools have operated on the false assumption that children can be processed and finished for future use by some set of common expectations and practices.   We now pay a heavy price, as millions of children never reach the end of the conveyer belt.   Our regimented, orderly polices – first No Child Left Behind, then Race to the Top and Common Core, now the Every Student Succeeds Act – have left increasing numbers of kids to fall off the production line, hopes and dreams dashed on the factory floor.   It has been an utter debacle.

The rhetoric of education reform is deeply ironic.

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I’m an educator, not a businessperson, but these two professions have much in common.  In both education and business, an emphasis on short-term gains often inhibits long-term results. Businesses cater to impatient shareholders and schools cater to impatient politicians. Highly regimented, calcified organizations can stifle creativity and risk-taking in business and education. In both realms we need more chaos and less order.

The roots are common.  In the early 20th century, Henry Ford’s approach to automobile manufacturing inspired the orderly routines of “factory-style” education.  While assembly lines were clearly effective for building the Model T, children were never a sum of identical mechanical parts.

For more than 100 years, schools have operated on the false assumption that children can be processed and finished for future use by some set of common expectations and practices.   We now pay a heavy price, as millions of children never reach the end of the conveyer belt.   Our regimented, orderly polices – first No Child Left Behind, then Race to the Top and Common Core, now the Every Student Succeeds Act – have left increasing numbers of kids to fall off the production line, hopes and dreams dashed on the factory floor.   It has been an utter debacle.

The rhetoric of education reform is deeply ironic.

Policymakers and politicians cite the need for entrepreneurs and innovators yet drive sterile policies and practices that have children completing worksheets, complying with teachers’ directions, sitting silently, respecting their elders.   They say we need problem solvers, then adopt policies that train children to get the answers right on a test, punishing any risk taking or original thinking.   They say we need leaders and then design systems that reward kids only when they blindly follow.  They say we want visionaries, but don’t have time to hear children’s ideas.  They use trite phrases like “think outside the box,” then present children with boxes to check and scold them for coloring outside the lines.

Entrepreneurship, innovation, originality, vision and imagination emerge from lively chaos, not from rigid order.    Authority should be questioned.   Skepticism should be our educational religion.   While a pedantic excursion into chaos theory is neither my intent nor my expertise, it is reasonable to note that “order” is essentially the self-limiting nature of linear processes and “chaos” is the much richer recognition of the complex systems that best characterize human development and most contemporary enterprises.

In a recently completed book I cite several flawed assumptions that drive ineffective practices in schools.  Two of them are pertinent to finance and banking as well as other industries:

Traditional education is predicated on the assumption that extrinsic structures that reward and punish children, teachers and schools are the optimal motivational milieu.

Extrinsic structures (grades, gold stars, employee bonuses for prescribed behavior, punishment, shaming, etc.) inhibit motivation and drive conformity.   Extrinsic structures often create stress, which produces cortisol, which suppresses brain activity. High-stress environments reduce productivity and inhibit creativity, whether in the dorm suite or the executive suite.   Yet most schools and many employers make unreasonable demands, believing some archaic myth about “no pain, no gain.”  Intrinsic motivation drives greater productivity in both education and the workplace.

By contrast, dopamine in the brain facilitates the neural connections that lead to deep understanding in the classroom and novel solutions in the boardroom.   Dopamine is produced when people are happy and relatively stress free.  Dopamine is a byproduct of real, engaging relationships, not the debilitating competitive cultures seen in too many schools and places of employment.

Traditional education is based on the assumption that logical/mathematical and linguistic intelligence (IQ-style intelligence) are primary or sole qualities to be valued and developed in education.

Harvard’s Howard Gardner and others have identified a half dozen other forms of human intelligence.   Several are particularly important to enterprise as well as education:

  • Visual-spatial intelligence might be observed in one who perceives order out of what others see as random data or images. An architect is likely to have a high degree of this intelligence, as is one who easily interprets charts, graphs or other visual forms of data representation.
  • Interpersonal intelligence is the ability to relate well to other people, to function well in a group, to create positive relationships with others and to be skilled at resolving conflict.
  • Naturalistic intelligence is the ability to observe and understand patterns in the natural environment.
  • Existential intelligence involves an individual’s ability to intuitively understand social issues, systems of ethics and other complex matters that require a “big picture” view.

The value of these types of intelligence in business should be self-evident, yet they are largely neglected or suppressed in America’s schools.  Odd . . . and stupid.

The orderly systems that have characterized education and business for many decades are often described as “rigorous.”  It is not mere coincidence that “rigor” is frequently paired with “mortis.”   From an enlightened psychological and neurobiological point of view, schools and workplaces should be joyful, relatively stress-free, and aware of the many ways in which humans are intelligent.

Education and enterprise are inextricably connected.  Training workers is not the primary purpose of education, but we both want the same thing:  confident, skeptical, curious young adults who question standardization, reject mindless conformity and see novel solutions.

The fluid intelligence and intellectual agility required in contemporary times will not arise in highly ordered, traditionally structured schools.  Bring on the chaos!

 

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Steve Nelson has been Head of the Calhoun School on Manhattan’s Upper Westside since 1998.  Calhoun, founded in 1896 and proudly progressive since the 1970’s, serves 755 children, pre-K through 12th grade.    Prior to assuming his current position, Steve served as the president of a performing arts school in Detroit and as an administrator at Vermont Law School and Landmark College.