Systems-Level Educational Innovation

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” -Nelson Mandela

It is safe to say that education is facing a sustainability crisis, what worked in the past is no longer going to work in the future. This crisis in education is no longer something imminent, it is now with us. The way we are teaching people now will be our economies in five-ten years and we know that something very different will be required of people in that world.

As we move out of the Industrial Age the world is changing and our mentality is changing creating a growing awareness to the limitations of the reductionist model, a feeling – even in the mainstream today – that something is wrong with our system of education. The current system of education was designed in the age of machines mainly to churn out factory workers and this Industrial Age mentality of mass production and mass control still runs deep in schools. Industrial age values prevail as we educate children by batches and govern their lives by ringing bells.

The system communicates the very opposite set of values to those that are needed today. It teaches for conformity over diversity, for adherence to respecified rules over autonomy and self-directed learning, for memorization over creative thinking, for individuality over collaboration, for passivity over self-motivation, for success over the importance of failure and resilience, for analytical cognitive skills over empathy and emotional intelligence.

The post-industrial world is requiring a new set of competencies from us as individuals and from our education system as a whole. This new paradigm hinges around holism and the decentralization of education. It is about advancing from routine cognitive skills to enabling students to manage complex ways of thinking, complex ways of work and that requires a very different caliber of education – increasingly recognizing that the world is not deterministic, that multiple viewpoints may have a value, the need for adaptive capacity, creativity, to be able to connect qualitative and quantitative reasoning, to integrate theory and its application. It is about a new set of more human competencies that are needed in the age of automation, a more broad-based education to ensure the person’s all-round, holistic development.

Though we see problems and a looming crisis and hope for different ways, we still continue with old ways, systems, paradigms and structures that we perpetuate on a daily basis without even thinking about it. What is needed is systems change, to recreate new structures within which learning, teaching, and education can take place. 

Closed – Open Systems

Our educational systems have evolved to become centralized in its design; education is what happens within the four walls of education centers, schools, universities, libraries etc. We bring everything into the center where we can batch process the delivery of education. This approach was successful in a former era of information scarcity but today learning can take place anywhere any time and we need a new model that is not closed but instead open so that it can enable learning wherever it may take place. We now have massive amounts of resources available for people to learn but by creating a closed system we are not able to leverage them effectively, we exclude these much-needed resources, when what we need to do is create open systems that enable students to access them in a structured, contextualized and personalized way.

The open systems approach to education results in an ecosystem that aims to be inclusive of all people but also all dimensions to learning. The move away from the reductionist model to an integrated model needs to shift not just the structure of the system from closed to open but also the content and learning experience. Here again, we can see how our existing system tends to become reduced to a subset of potential learning experiences; analytical STEM subjects become prioritized over the broad set of competencies that an individual needs to be successful in life. 

An open systems approach means moving from institutions that tend towards unidimensionality to ones that tend towards multidimensionality. The world is changing and it is no longer a unidimensional form of narrow intelligence that is really needed but a more holistic set of competencies; delivering this requires an educational system that is dealing with all relevant factors.

User Centric 

The centralized bureaucratic model to educational systems achieved the required scale through a form of batch processing that inevitably requires standardization. In order to be effective, it involves one to many communications and processes; where the students have to simply fit in and conform with the subject, teaching, processes and system at large. The model is not designed to deal with individual learners but instead is focus on the system and teaching.

The focus is on pushing out standardized content and students conforming to that through rote memorization, it creates a top-down approach where students simply have to fit into the system, dumbing down individuality and diversity to one single correct way, one single correct answer, one single ideal student etc – the assumption is that all are the same, or should be. The system is based upon standardization that enables cross testing, comparison and competition. 

Children have a vast appetite for learning but this seems to start to dissipate when we educate them, when we put them in buildings designed for the purpose, put them in ranks and start to force-feed them information in which they may or may not have an interest in. A key premise of this approach is that we know best what is to be learned, that is why we plan out our education system as we do. 

But learning will happen anyway and we need to design systems that harness that and channel it effectively, not push against it by focusing on prespecified standardized content and systems. If we start to put the individual and the personalized subjective learning experience that is naturally pulling them forward at the center we will start to see that much of what we think we need in terms of pre-planned objectives is redundant and different requirements come to the forefront.

Fundamentally this is a move from a top-down push model trying to impose a structure to achieve desired outcomes to a bottom-up approach, that is focused on the pull learning process of the individual. In a user-centered model, learning is driven by personal aspirations, goals and the things that the person cares about, instead of trying to dumb down diversity through various forms of control and anesthetic the primary focus is on trying to enliven and stimulate the individual’s subjective learning process.

Objective Subjective

Our existing system is implicitly objectivist in nature – being based upon the modern conception of the individual as a rational agent. It focuses on objective knowledge rather than subjective learning, which creates a heavy emphasis on the teaching and memorization of information and learning content rather than subjective learning and personal development. We need to build education systems that put the individual and their learning experience at the center and a key part of that is in switching the locus of the system from objective static content and the system for delivering it to the subjectivity of the learner and their unique learning experience. 

The reductionist paradigm is based upon the narrative of there being an objective and knowable world, that there is one correct answer, one correct way of seeing the world. The aim of education within such a paradigm would naturally be to simply transfer that knowledge to the student and for them to learn it without question.

Traditionally we try to do away with the subjective dimension to education, that is to say, learning, learning is an inherently subjective process, it is something that an individual does and that process is fundamentally contingent upon their specific nature. But instead, we take an objectivist view of education. On the level of the educational content, we can see this clearly as our schools teach us little about our subjective selves focusing on objective domains like math, hard sciences, and languages. 

By focusing on the objective dimension to teaching we end up removing the essence of education which is the individual’s process of learning, when this is the only thing that actually matters. Creating a system that enables people to learn is the only form of sustainable solution, one that ends up focused on teaching and external metrics fail to deliver the real learning outcomes required.

Self-Guided Learning

To start to talk about learning and self-guided learning, we need to ask ourselves: what is “self”? What is the impulse that is guiding? The student becomes a leader in her education in a general and flexible framework which adapts to her circumstances, the teacher starts to move to a background role and becomes a person who “empowers”. Curiosity-driven education works to foster methods that put learners in the “driver seat”, allowing one to take control over goals and processes of learning; allowing students to choose goals and attract learning resources as necessary.

A move away from an objectivist paradigm to education and towards user-centered learning also implies a move away from standardized testing. When we give up the idea that there is one right answer, one ideal student type, one best path, we start to see that it makes no sense to test everyone and rank everyone according to the same criteria. Standardized testing is about seeing how well people conform to the system when what we really want is almost the opposite, we do not want them to conform to a standard body of knowledge – because that is precisely what a computer can do ten times better – we want to assess them according to their own capabilities, their own process of learning.

We can not achieve a user-centric system without shifting the locus to the individual and building the system around them. The primary focus of education in the age of automation should be about enabling people to become more human and that means reconfiguring the system so that it is focused on the subjective experience of the individual rather than objective systems of education.

Informal Systems

Under the influence of our modern economic and social systems education has become an industry similar to any other and subject to the same forces of rationalization and standardization, in the process of developing this system much of the core of the learning experience has become organized in favor of objective metrics and processes rather than “soft skills”. This kind of centralized and rationalized system has become very much focus on the formal process of education, we tend to think of education as a linear model analogous to a kind of delivery system with a narrow optimization for formal metrics that will move the student along a line towards their destination in the workplace.

By focusing exclusively on the centralized formal institutions and processes the education system we have today may well exclude as much learning as it includes, the result is the marginalization of different ways of knowing through the imposition of a single measurable logic; the focus on formal, quantifiable forms of knowledge over informal tacit knowledge. There is a cold hard question to be asked about the existing systems, are they supporting learning or are they obstructing it? The answer is not obvious when taking all the forms of learning that go unaccounted for and thus marginalized. 

We spend most of our time focusing on formal education – when most of what people learn is within informal contexts – all the money gets spent on formal training when what is really needed are systems that push those resources outwards to the informal domain. The sea of educational content is growing daily, and we need a model that can harness all that content that has now been created by the media and users. 

The problem has been the measurement of informal learning but this previous obstacle is fast disappearing with new information technology that makes our capacity to track and measure learning ever more pervasive. As a consequence, it is no longer an impossibility to build an integrated formal and informal learning system but is now largely about dealing with the complexity of developing such a solution.

Context Learning

Informal learning is learning that often takes place in context rather than the abstract form of decontextualized learning that we are used to in the classroom. The reductionist approach to education has led to an overemphasis on a type of analytical knowledge. Analytical knowledge is rational knowledge that can be decontextualized and exist independent from context. Today education is based around an abstract body of knowledge that is to be communicated largely without any context to its meaning, relevance or application, the inevitable result of this lack of context is that people start to learn not through interest but just to gain the knowledge to pass exams.

To create a system that really engages people and inspires them to learn means learning in context. Context is what provides the meaning and motivation to learning, it is the context that provides the answer to the question why? All learning should be driven by an interest that comes from a real application or context or else it is dry and over time becomes meaningless. It is safe to say that much of what is taught is meaningless to students, it has no context so it means nothing to them except as a vehicle for getting through the system, and this is not an accident but an inevitable outcome of a closed systems design.

Metacognitive Skills

A move into a world of informal learning does not just break down the divide between the physical institutions of learning and the wider world but it also requires us to break down the barrier between more objective forms of learning and more subjective learning, between what is often called hard skills and soft skills, and increasingly there is recognition to the need for forms of education that support the development of these soft skills. Until very recently the base assumption that when into our education system was that of people being rational and thus education could be conducted without factoring in the human element. Today education is starting to open up the box of human emotions and psychology as we start to move away from the simple model of people as rational and start to try and deal with all relevant factors.

The kind of things that we find easy to teach and easy to test have become easy to automate, what we need now are more metacognitive capacities, not just to obtain lots of facts about science and history but the capacity to think like a scientist, think like a philosopher, think like a historian, the capacity of people to develop strong social and emotional skills, to work with people who are different from them, who think differently, triangulating different fields of knowledge.

Collaborative Learning

Today learning is seen as something that each individual does and the aim of the system is intelligent individuals rather than any form of collective intelligence, the system places the academically competent individual as the highest outcome over any other form of personal development or collective capacities.

Our traditional educational model is clearly based upon a reductionist conception of the individual as the locus of social groups, the emphasis is on teaching for individual academic greatness. Indeed we are so grounded in this conception of education as classrooms of students sitting separately at their individual desks all focused on the book in front of them or the teacher, with peer interaction deemed a disturbance, that we find it difficult to conceive of anything else.

The shock comes when one compares this to the realities of life and work, which is more and more about people working together within formal or informal networks towards common ends. Simple tasks can be completed by a single individual, but tasks of any degree of complexity are the product of collections of people working collaboratively sharing their knowledge and ideas towards a common end and the success of that end is as much dependent upon the individual capacities as it is upon how they work together, the synergies and communications within the group.

It is only when we move to a networked collaborative emergent model that is centered around group intelligence that we start to see the importance of a diversity of ways of seeing and thinking. What we need today are networks of people who are able to work synergistically to create groups whose intelligence is greater than the sum of its parts. 

Network learning is about individuals integrated into groups, continuous iteration between individuals and group interaction and learning about that core dynamic between the individual and the group that will be with them for their whole life. The emphasis is on synergistic collaboration, diversity of skills and knowledge and emergent outcomes. Allowing people to collectively explore, co-create and co-evolve within agendas that are interesting and engaging to all of them, and through that to experience “belonging to something bigger” and the inherent dynamics of collective actions.

Continuous Learning

The system is static in nature, learning is not seen as an integrated process but instead it is broken down into discreet subjects and designed as a linear set of steps that one goes through over a fixed period of time before reaching the end state and entering into the workforce, when one’s learning largely comes to an end. As the Global Education Futures Report describes it – “Presently, the process of education can metaphorically be framed as a “rocket” model: the educational system creates a “launch pad” for an individual throughout school and university years, and “shoots” an individual into professional life, after which individuals “land” into retirement a few decades later.”

To develop a proactive education system means moving from one that is static, looking backward to one that is dynamic and looking forwards. If a university or college develops a piece of content it is incentivized to ask how long can we keep that piece of content in play for. In a lot of instances, the faculty is incentivized to not update content and curriculum which is counterproductive given the rate of change in the real world. By moving to an open form of education we no longer need to depend upon historical content that we have created but can find ways to integrate current sources.

Education should really be about adaptive capacity, continuously adapting to what is presented to us through learning. This requires a move from valuing outcome to valuing the process; from assessing with a test that measures some finished state, to measuring continuous engagement; from an outcomes and achievement mindset to a growth mindset, creating environments for growth processes of learning and development, support throughout the human life cycle.

The existing model works to value success over failure when we know that in real life to be successful we have to embrace the moments of failure as the opportunities to learn. Traditional education seems at every level to teach us that failure is not a good thing, somebody else has the answers, you do not have to make an exploration yourself, they will give them to you in a textbook you will then do an exam and they will tell you whether you have got the answers right or wrong and if one gets them wrong then that is it we have failed. 

This is not a good model as it is teaching us almost the opposite of what happens in the real world. For people that want to pursue a meaningful career, for those that want to grow in life, failure is an inevitable stepping stone towards success, it is part of the game. Culturally education needs to change the paradigm toward failure and toward making mistakes and start to build learning processes and assessments that reflect that.


The question then turns to what does this next generation of educational system look like on a concrete level, how do we take this constellation of new ideas surrounding a more integrated form of education and build them into a platform that changes the system? As with virtually all other areas of our social institutions, systems change today involves harnessing the innate evolutionary forces and potential that are driving the system forward on the macro level – globalization and the rise of information technology – to go beyond the Industrial Age system that pivots around the closed institutions of the nation-state.

With the internet and widespread computer adoption, we now have a global information and education platform. We now have the possibility to turn a hugely fractured system with huge redundancy into an integrated global network that can work for all. Instead of recreating the wheel for each national system and each institution it is now possible to collaborate on generic customizable solutions that are available on-demand via the internet. With this technology infrastructure, it is now possible to move away from the centralized model towards an open model where the ‘whole is greater than the sum of the parts’. 

To create something that is at once open, global and accessible we need to evolve the closed systems of today into the open educational networks of tomorrow. What we need are education platforms that are open, meaning anyone can join, both for teaching and learning. The open platform model makes it possible to collaborate on creating once and then duplicating and customizing on the local level. This means the unbundling of educational institutions into modular components that can be brought onto the same shared open platform for accessing, comparing, for rating, for rebundeling, for integrating into processes around the end users needs – thus enabling synergies on a new scale.

These platform needs to integrate both the formal and informal worlds of learning so that learning can take place anywhere, any time so that one knows that any little module of content will ultimately contribute in some small way to one’s formal assessment and recognized educational progress. These learning platforms need to incorporate metrics for measuring learning delivered across all channels, medium, activities, and experiences. Accounting for all relevant factors, looking at the psychological and behavioral dimensions to the individual and their learning process. One that does not just account for the more tangible metrics but also factors in the many dimensions to learning. 

The system needs to be user-centered, understanding there specific subjective learning experience and pulling together the right material and experiences in the right way to help them on that journey – building in the right feedback loops along the lifecycle of learning to make learning adaptive and integrated with working life.


Systems Innovation

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