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8 Steps to Revolutionize Education (Opinion)

Nobody has to be convinced that the education system is broken. In the words of Leonard Cohen “Everybody Knows.” A recent Pew Research article states that half of Americans feel that education is going in the wrong direction. What to do about it is the key question.

Certainly, we have seen solutions come and go over the decades. Why might it be different as we approach 2025? We know it feels like the worst of times, but my argument is that there is reason to believe that there could be forces at work that could cause “new systemness breakthroughs.”

System change is when a new combination of factors occurs that becomes a wedge powerful and attractive enough to begin the transformation of the current system. Systemness itself is the interaction of a small number of powerful factors and the effect of those actions.

What are those actions? Around 1925, management theorist Mary Parker Follett proposed certain management techniques that were against the grain—the goal of management she said was “unity not uniformity”; to have greater integration via “power with,” not “power over”; and the role of leaders is “to produce other leaders.” Additionally, she said, we need “joint determination and problem-solving” in relation to complex problems.

Over the years, Parker Follett’s name faded, but many of her ideas are confirmed by more detailed research and practice. We have a chance now to transform our systems to become places where students belong, thrive, and engage in deeper learning. The reasons for that are as follows:

  1. We are getting desperate for improvement in our systems;
  2. We do in fact have decades of further research and practice that has proved Parker Follett right (and above all has given us greater specificity about what the key concepts look like in practice);
  3. More people are using these ideas;
  4. Those lower in the power structure (such as the young—indeed the very young) are becoming active change agents; and
  5. Some of those in power are becoming increasingly worried (either because they know they are increasingly in danger and/or they are finally wanting to do the right thing for humanity).

What is the right thing, either by research, by humanity, or other evidence? The following figure sets us on the new required path.

As you can see, there is a new innovation on the list—artificial intelligence. It’s still too early to decide how impactful AI can be because the research and practice focusing on it is mixed. I predict that AI’s greatest contribution will turn out to be that it is causing humans to think more deeply. The best districts we know are in fact big users and innovators, using AI in the service of the other seven factors. Time will tell.

Research and practice related to factors 1-7 have proved that these seven in concert can cause system transformation. Part and parcel of this development are new purposes linked to new metrics of progress including belongingness, the six Global Competencies (character/compassion, citizenship, collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking), and pedagogy that prepares students for society.

The positive interaction of purpose, belonging, time, autonomy, good leaders, teachers and students together, and community linkage creates system change. There is research evidence that each of the seven key factors independently increases wellness. There are other equally curious hunches we have: It may be comparatively easier to increase well-being than to boost deep learning.

Well-being without learning is impossible to sustain; and learning without well-being depletes the spirit. I don’t mean that getting better wellness is easy, but that we know more about restorative practices, and that such practices are intuitively appealing to humans. On the other hand, deep pedagogy and learning are harder to grasp—and establish.

Systemness, based on well-being and learning, continuously produces people who are good in society and for society! Such development would establish a teaching profession that could have been but never fully evolved over the past two centuries: a partnership between students and teachers integrated in society as an in-built generative force that survives and thrives. Let’s be clear, I am talking about establishing a new teaching profession in partnership with students—something that has eluded us for two centuries and is now feasible and essential to our survival!

We know some of this because we work closely with some districts that are implementing these ideas, such as the Ottawa Catholic School Board with 87 schools and 45,000 students. We know it’s a big success because of its use of the eight factors.

However, we wanted a second opinion, so we commissioned Sarah Fine and Jal Mehta, authors of In Search of Deeper Learning, to do a case study. They were skeptical that a big district could be comprehensively as good as we claimed. They came, they saw, they were convinced and wrote a report: “A Big Tent” Strategy for System-wide Transformation (Fine & Mehta 2024). They called the phenomenon “emergent systemness” (which is what happens when a district uses the eight factors interactively.

Another district equally impressive that we work with is the Anaheim Union High School District with 20 schools and 26,000 students in a high-poverty district that again testifies to the critical importance of the eight factors in dynamic interaction.

My point is not to “literally follow these districts.” It’s a bigger call: Join a movement to experience systemness change in these times. It is a power move for equity and equality. It is “power with” to quote Parker Follett. It is “belonging and targeted universalism and coming together across the divides” a la John Powell. It is the syndrome of the eight factors working together that makes the difference. It is weird because we have never done it before. Let’s start now!

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