Killer Questions

Image: Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

I’ve been reflecting on the interview I did with Susan Patrick at the end of my keynote at the recent iNACOL symposium in Palm Springs – about one question in particular. During the interview Susan referred to the work of Phil McKinney who talks about using “killer questions” to inspire innovation. Susan’s question for me was, “What killer questions do you think should be used to help innovate the U.S. Education System?

Not being that familiar with the US Education system, nor even wanting to pretend I have expertise in that area, I tried to make my response as broad as possible, and focused mostly on the need for us to examine and be explicit about the ‘why’ behind what we’re doing – at every level; classroom, school, district and state/national. While I think my response provided a useful springboard into further discussion, I have been pondering how I may have answered differently, and have settled on two questions that I think may have been more in line with the sort of thinking that McKinney talks about – and certainly likely to stimulate a more rigorous debate when used to more deeply engage in thinking about what we can or might do to truly transform practice in our education system. My two questions are:

  1. What is the business we’re in?
    The model of Education used in today’s schools can be traced back to Victorian models used to build and maintain the industrial revolution and the British Empire. At that time it was crucial to educate students in this way so that the students could develop essential ‘life-skills’ to a certain ‘standard’ in order to participate, and contribute, to their society. That was the business they were in!
    As a consequence, much of how we operate as schools and as a system reflects the way factories were set up at that time. Conformity and compliance were expected – not much room for innovation or thinking outside the square as that would upset the systematic flow of the mass production lines. As Sir Ken Robinson observes; “Public schools were not only created in the interests of industrialism—they were created in the image of industrialism.
    So we need to ask – what is the business we’re in now? How have things changed since those early days? And considering this change, what are the implications for so many of the practices that remain in our schools today – classrooms, age-based cohorts, timetables, bells, summative assessments to prove quality, division of all human knowledge into ‘subjects’ etc.?
    And in this vein we need to consider who is our customer – and how are we addressing their needs – indeed, are we addressing their needs at all? Is it still OK to think of them as a member in a ‘class’ (generally age-based at that)? How do we deal with the growing emphasis that exists in almost every other dimension of our ‘marketplace’ for a more ‘personalised’ approach to things? (Consider the process of a group of friends ordering food at a takeaway store – it was once very easy. A small menu of choices from which to select. Nowadays it’s a matter of choosing every last detail down to the type of dressing and how much pepper or salt – not to mention the type of bun etc.)
    Further – are we (schools) still the only ‘show in town’ with regards to this work? Back when access to human knowledge was constrained and available only in libraries and the expository lessons of teachers we understood what our business was. But can we still claim that is the case when human knowledge has (and is) expanding exponentially, when the ‘holders’ of the knowledge (experts) can be found in a range of places and accessed in a multitude of ways? Our response to this impacts our thinking about the role of teachers as well – are they transmitters of knowledge and conveyors of ‘truth’, or are they facilitators, coaches, guides etc.? And if none of these, then what exactly?
    So there is our first question – “What is the business we are in?:”
  2. What are our measures of success?
    Having established the exact nature of our business (as schools, educators, systems etc.) we need to consider the measures by which we (and others) will know that we are successful. Since the post-industrial times we have assessed whether or not the student had an ‘education’ through standardised testing systems. These standardized tests were administered at set points and enabled student scores to be compared with each other before being sent out onto the ‘market’. This was a relatively straight-forward task when the primary goal was to ensure a transfer of the essential knowledge, and the tests set to ensure the learner was now able to recall that for themselves.
    In our modern world these assumptions need to be tested – not simply by asking whether we can find different ways of assessing the things we currently do, but by peeling back even further and asking whether the very things we see as important, as outcomes for our learners, remain so?
    The fundamental question here is ‘are we focused on the right things? The things that matter – at least, will matter in the lives of the young people in our classrooms today?’
    If capabilities including critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration, and problem solving skills are now regarded as being crucial in preparing young people for a future that is less certain, more complex and always changing, then we must be considering how we create environments and approaches to ‘measure’ this development.

So there are my questions – I didn’t intend to begin an exhaustive consideration of what the answers might be – rather, to offer them as ‘killer questions’ that may be valuable to be used in the policy settings we find ourselves in – whether that be at a school, district or state/national level. The time has well and truly come to deeply reflect on and consider the value of continuing some of the practices that, while serving us well in the past, simply don’t stack up as we prepare our young for the future.

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