Many years ago when I used to teach engineering at university I had a passing interest in the field of shape optimization. It was a fascinating field because the idea of optimization in my particular area of expertise revolved around designing software that could optimize the placement of material so that, for given forces and stresses, the software would design the best and lightest shape of an object to withstand the given input.

It was interesting to watch how the material thickness flowed during the optimization process until the final shape was reached. The optimized shape would then represent the strongest yet lightest shape that would account for all the input conditions. Different input data would result in different shapes and the more accurate and representative the input data was the better and more practical the optimized shape became.

I bring this up because I was pondering recently what our education system, schools, and teaching is optimized for?

Let’s do a bit of a thought experiment to explore our thinking for a moment.  Imagine that we had the opportunity to begin from nothing and design an education system from the ground up.

Firstly, we must decide upon the input conditions. What will the education system be for? Will it be to prepare students for an every changing world where we don’t know what jobs they will be doing? Will it be to get them into university or college? Will it be to prepare them to be good citizens? Will it prepare them to be spiritual or respectful? Will it prepare them to follow rules and laws? Will it prepare them to be factory workers? Will it prepare them to do a trade? Will it prepare them to think in particular ways? Will the education system be a place that keeps them out of the way until they become adults?

You can probably add much more to that list and feel free to. However, you may notice that many are not mutually exclusive and all represent some of what we want the education system to do. And, much like optimization in my engineering example, differing input conditions will result in a different education system. I think that whatever we decide upon as the purpose for an education system it should cater for the current societal needs but also represent the most complete far-seeing future that would set up each individual for a positive and productively just world.

Once we have chosen the purpose we could then begin to optimize the structure of that education system to be able to most effectively deliver the purpose we have designed.

To accomplish the purpose of education over the time an individual is in the system would it require funding, schools, teachers, technology? How would we design funding for it? Who would have a say about its design, etc.? What evidence would we look at to support decisions that are made? What would ‘schools’ look like? Would we even have these things called schools? Would we have timetables? Classes? What would learning look like? Would it look differently at different developmental stages of the individuals? How would we cater for the spectrum of learners? How would it cater for different availability of resources? How could we cater for people of different cultural backgrounds?

The optimization would begin with the overall goal / purpose in mind and then each sub-section below it can be optimized for local conditions but still fulfilling the overall purpose. As localized input conditions change so will the structure. This naturally points to the system needing to be self-reflective and adaptable but consciously and intentionally aligned to fulfill a purpose.

So what is the point of this thought experiment?

Well, it is rare for any country to sit down with a blank sheet and do this work. I can count on one hand how many countries have deliberately done this. If you do a little digging you will find those that have done something similar to this thought experiment are the ones at the top of the PISA rankings. Most countries try to patch something on to old way of doing things and have competing purposes and structures. There is no reinvention or transformation – just Band-Aids and wastage. I am also aware that those that have the say in designing the education systems of a country quite often are not driven by a clear vision but by competing demands that have nothing to do with creating a clear vision. Setting out with a clear goal does make a profound difference.

I find that it is also rare for schools to do this work. Again you will find that schools that have created a clear purpose then have aligned their school structures to fulfill their chosen purpose will be palpably great learning cultures where staff, students and the community are in alignment. They will also perform effectively against all measures and will adapt well to changing conditions.

Many schools and their internal structures occur as a hodge-podge of ideas and structures with little integrity or alignment to deliver a particular purpose. There are staff holding out and hiding out – doing their own thing. There are inefficient professional development structures – ideas and leadership are not enhanced and grown. There may even be pockets of distrust between staff and leadership. Regardless of what the Education SYSTEM does a school can be internally focused and aligned. This makes a profound difference in and of itself.

I also suggest that it is rare for teachers to do this work for themselves. In other words, identifying what is their purpose then how are they going to align their structures and the creation of learning for their students given the external forces they face so they can accomplish their purpose. Masterful teachers are constantly adapting and developing themselve.... Again, regardless of the eduction system and a school and teacher can be internally focused and aligned.

I invite you to consider that in many education systems, schools and the way that teaching staff relate to their environment there isn’t enough alignment. Research shows that greater effectiveness can arise when there is greater alignment. You may not be able to change the education system or the way the school can operate at the moment, but how can you align yourself and your structures to more effectively accomplish your purpose for being a teacher or a school?

Unless you are consistently reflecting and aligning yourself and your structures to deliver your purpose as conditions change then bit by bit you are devolving your capacity to perform. At best you will become mediocre. At worst, counterproductive.

If you are a good school and interested in being a great school – the key is to create a coherent purpose and then alignment of structures throughout the school to achieve that purpose. If you are a good teacher and interested in being a great teacher then reflect and begin aligning yourself to your vision and what you are really out to create for your students and education as a whole. What you will find is that life and work will become much more purposeful and clear for you.

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