Innovate: Organic Education

I recently subscribed (or joined, I don’t rightly recall) to Innovate, which looks a cool site. Innovate is a publication of Nova Southeastern University.
Yesterday I got an email from the Innovate team which included this tidbit:

We open the December 2005/January 2006 issue of Innovate with a startling hypothesis by Hugh Osborn: the right educators and other leaders could start the evolution of an innovative, 21st century educational model for about the cost of developing a couple of textbooks. Sound intriguing but implausible? Then read the interview.

You can read more here

I haven’t had time to do more than skim the first part of this article, which is about something called “organic education”, but here’s my take on what I read:

However, it became clear relatively early on that lasting innovation was not a part of the public schools’ agenda… The reasons for this are complex, but the root cause is an incompatibility between the way our educational system is organized and innovation itself. ..The Soviet Union’s planned economy was mechanistic: top-down, command-and-control, and fatally non-innovative. Our school system is highly mechanistic, with top-down decisions (like textbook content), no merit pay, rote learning, unions instead of professional guilds, and other artifacts of the Factory Age.

One might ask how it comes about that the “leader of the free world” developed a Soviet-style education system, as presumably this didn’t happen overnight, nor was it imposed on the population by imperialistic rulers from out of town. But let’s read on.

Innovative organizations and systems share a different, organic structure, like an organism made up of collaborative (and competitive) parts. Comparatively, we can describe their organization as bottom-up and more horizontal, or “flat” in the terms Thomas Friedman (2005) uses in his latest book. America is history’s great organic experiment—our capitalist economy is organic as is democracy. Organic systems are empower-and-connect systems in that if you empower people with responsibility and tools and connect them in collaborative structures, the result can be an extraordinary release of imagination and initiative.

OK so far, tho nothing here that hasn’t been said already by such as Tom Peters. Let’s read on, shall we?

We define the three organization levels of our education system: (1) the student-teacher interface in the classroom, (2) the district level where local budget and policy decisions are made, and (3) the state/national level where politicians define diktats that lead to red tape. Organic education is a bottom-up scenario in which organic forces replace existing mechanistic approaches at all three levels. Because of the power of organic systems, doing this does not require an act of God or Congress, but just solving the one big problem…Organic education places virtually all the major problems and issues in our schools in a completely new light, one that will be of real use to those policymakers and educators who take the time to understand it. But most importantly, it acts as an instrument to force transformation of the American education system and is not simply another monograph that advocates change. The scenario uses an extremely powerful organic device to make the status quo become a non-option. Thus it is not just another pie-in-the-sky look at a rosy, technology-enhanced future. We will see this as we build a forcing function that can make the transformation nearly inevitable.

(My emphasis) Intrigued? I certainly am. The most potent argument about education I’ve read recently is that of John Gatto, who argues that the educational system is totally screwed because it’s a system; it cannot be improved by tinkering. Gatto suggests home-schooling, or even charter schools, at least anything that is not dictated from above but organized and agreed on by the local principal people involved. This sounds similar to what Osborne is saying.

I’m still sceptical, but intrigued enough that I’ll be coming back to read some more later.

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