Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Megathinking for Higher Education

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Nov 07, 2005

Response to Roger Kaufman, Defining and Delivering Measurable Value: A Mega Thinking and Planning Primer. ITForum, November 7, 2005

A billion words have been written on the topic of educational planning, and I am loathe to add to that number. However, before leaping too enthusiastically on the megathinking bandwagon, it would be prudent to examine what has been said and not said in this document.

A good part of what is presented here in the dressing of new terminology is common-sense advice that has been with us, by means of business literature, for some time. For example, the focus on what you are selling, or what problem you are trying to solve, is an old staple. How many times have we heard the story about ice-box manufacturers failing to realize that they are not selling iceboxes, but rather, the capacity to keep things cool?

Hence, in a similar manner, megaplanning, in this paper, is about the focus on "results and their consequences for external clients and society." How many times have we read in business literature about "customer-centered design", "user-centered business processes", or in our field, "learner centered learning"? What we are reading here is the assertion that, in order for an organization to be successful, it needs to be sensitive to, and focused on, the value that it creates external to itself.

Of course the same is true not only for organizations, but for any entity that depends on an economic exchange of value in order to survive. An employee, that thought only of her own needs, would find herself unsuccessful in the workplace; in order to thrive she needs to address and attend to the value her work, and even her presence, adds to the employer.

There is in addition an element to Kaufman's presentation that attends to the definition of this added value. It is not explicitly stated, however I believe I read into what he has written an assertion that an organization should strive toward an over-arching social value, independent of any particular customer. I am reminded, for example, of Google's self-stated mission to "Do no evil," and more concretely, to "make all the world's knowledge available to everyone, everywhere." It is through its focus on this mission that Google has been able to be successful. Of course, this is because the outcome of this mission is something that people want, and that they would exchange value in order to obtain.

My own mission has personally allowed me to obtain some measure of success, "a society where knowledge and learning are public goods, freely created and shared, not hoarded or withheld in order to extract wealth or influence." In a similar manner, by aligning my own work and creativity around that objective, I have been able not only to centre my work, to weigh priorities, but to identify the value that it adds. It's almost as Shepherd says to Mal in Serenity: "believe in something. It doesn't matter what it is, but believe in something."

Well, maybe, but that isn't the whole story, and we don't get from here to there merely in the telling. For one thing, while I believe in something and work toward something, I also pay heed to my own well-being and survival, my own entertainment even, even though this may somethings delay and even conflict with the overall objective. What I do for myself and what I do for the rest of the world is a balancing act; it is, after all, an exchange of value, and a necessary one (otherwise I die) and not merely a gift to society. And for another thing, what I believe in and work toward may be in conflict with those around me, including those who pay my salary. An entity in society is not autonomous.

When we look at the good to be offered to external agents and to society as a whole by educational institutions, these tensions become clear. As Harold Jarche stated recently, educators serve three major social goods: the desire of society to realize well-adjusted and productive citizens; the desire of academia to seek out and maintain the truth; and the desire of the student to realize individual potential. These three objectives - and possibly others that could be adduced - are ever in conflict; in an industrial society, for example, personal self-fulfillment conflicts with industry's demands for willing and compliant cogs in the machine.

In addition to the normative question - what is the 'good' that educational institutions ought to pursue - is the epistemic question: how will we know when this good has been obtained. It is easy and comfortable to say that one must merely measure instances of the good produced, but how does one measure maintenance of the truth in a society, or the realization of potential on the part of its citizens? One might say of the former, that in observation of the behaviour of our leaders, we are failing society indeed, as correspondence with the truth in politics appears to be more accidental than deliberate. But this is hardly the fault of education; in social truth-telling, as with almost all aspects of society, the path from cause to effect is complex, and it is not clear that any given adjustment to the educational system would result in a greater degree of truth-telling in our leaders.

In fact, because we are not able to directly access the inpact of our work, we seek to measure results at intermediate steps. In evaluating learning, for example, we test a student's attainment in algebra, taking it more or less for granted that achievement in algebra will at some point lead to greater personal fulfillment in life (this assumption doubted annually by legions of grade 12 students). In some cases, the correlation is rather more clear. We can see fopr ourselves the impact illiteracy has on a person's well-being and happiness, and of the social ills that follow. But education is about rather more than mere literacy, and the vast bulk of our enterprises lead to no certain conclusion.

All these are considerations every educator faces every day, as decisions must be made point to point in the conduct of the educational enterprise. And while standards and rubrics are welcome aides to such decision-making, they are neither necessary nor sufficient. And certainly, no educator, I believe, is going to replace a well-considered balancing and consideration of the various factors that go into such decisions with a one-dimensional tally-sheet with an almost religious invocation to "commit to deliver organizational results that add value for all external clients and society." The postulation that such proposition could be attended with a yes-no endorsement is tantemount to irresponsibility; one wonders what sort of program is in fact being endorsed when the nuance necessary in the enterprise is obliterated, and dissent characterized as "either wrong or naive."

In fact, what appears to be happening in this paper is concerning at a more subtle level. In a nutshell, it is an invocation on the part of educators to subsume their personal objectives to organizational objectives. In addition to more overt statements that this is the case - "it focuses on an agreed-upon focus" - we can see this more covertly through the observation that the mechanisms and the rubric are designed, not for planning, but for attitude adjustment. There is the presumption throughout this paper that where you are now - the work you are doing, the values you hold, the objectives you strive toward - is wrong. That the problem with the organization is the attitude of its employees. Hence the advice to "move out of your comfort zone," for example. The declaration of faith that will "allow you to prove that you have added value. . . something that is becoming increasingly important." The program "represents a shift from the usual focus only on oneself, individual performance improvement, and one’s organization to making certain you also add value to external clients and society."

But the question is: if you are no longer the one making the decisions about what is good and what is right, who is? If you are subsuming your own beliefs and values under those stipulated by some unnamed entity, then who or what is that entity, and what are those values? If you and your organization is to be driven into a direction suggested by some external good, what is that direction? And we find, that through the mechanism posited here, that the direction is specifiedby whatever value the educator can prove he or she has produced, as adduced through some process of measurement, the metrics (unstated in this paper) presumably established by means of some external agency or process.

When you define value strictly as that determined by an agency, and when you commit solely to work toward that value, you surrender the capacity to define, work toward, and even believe in that which is of value to you, that which is good and that which is right.

Kaufman writes, "Mega thinking and planning is about defining a shared success, achieving it, and being able to prove it. Mega thinking and planning is a focus not on one’s organization alone but upon society now and in the future. It is about adding measurable value to all stakeholders." I consider this to be a dangerous and subversive proposition. It amounts to the surrender of autonomy in an organization, in the guise of expanding one's horizons, focusing on goals, and addressing needs or gaps.

Again, let me stress, it is not the content of this document that is the danger, it is the presentation. It is common sense wrapped up in a dogma.

It has exactly the following form:

Vendor: "You want your child to be able to read, don't you?"

You: "Well yes, but..."

Vendor: "Then you need to get with the program. Expand your outlook. Commit to helping Johnny read. "

You: "Well, OK, but..."

Vendor: "Now here's how we're going to prove that Johnny can read, with this language kit..."

And though the assertion of common sense, and through a process of undermining your own sense of committment and value, you place yourself in a position where the means and the mechanisms supporting Johnny's literacy program are managed by external agencies, to which you must conform if you are to "prove" to those same agencies that Johnny can, indeed, read.

The danger is that the proof will be proof of compliance, not of literacy.

In fact, an educational organization, any organization, ought not be structured along such parameters. While a focus on 'creating value' is indisputably necessary, as noted above, to the health of any entity in an exchange economy, it is unnecessary and indeed dangerous to let that be the sole - or even the over-riding - focus.

Consider the needs and values individual employees bring into their own workplace. While it may be true that the organization has a 'vision statement' and even a 'values statement', it is neither necessary nor desirable that all staff align under those statements. Each employee has his or her own needs, interests and values that they bring with them. It will be of paramount importance to you, for example, that your daughter get braces or that you see your son's hockey game. And that is why you are willing to teach the summer class but are not available on Thursday nights. The organization has no particular interest in your daughter's periodontics or your son's athleticism. You must maintain these values, even in cases where they conflict with external values - in this case, your employer's.

In a similar manner, educational institutions have all manner of external stakeholders, some (notably those that pay the bills) more important than others. These external stakeholders have their own interests and values - they may want to focus exclusive, for example, on the development of a productive and compliant workforce. But just as your family's integrity begins to deteriorate of you place the employer's needs above all else, so does the integrity of the institution deteriorate if you place external stakeholders' interests above all else. Any education must regard the value created for external stakeholders as only one element in a more complex exchange: a willingness to do some of what it - government, employer, parent - wants you to do, in exchange for the capacity to do some of what you believe is important.

There will never be a single over-riding statement of value, not in an educational organization, not in any organization, and it is a fundamental mistake, one that misreads the human condition, to think that there ever would be. For while the heart of human fulfillment may be to "believe in something," it it not the case that "just anything" will do. It is the onus of each of us to look into ourselves and to choose for ourselves what we believe in, what we will work toward, whether it be family, religion, values, or even economic production. And the values expressed by our organizations will not be, cannot be, mere washes of thos ebeliefs, expressed in a simple and simplistic vision statement to be consumed and "committed to" by the masses, but rather, a rich melange of a thousand different beliefs, beliefs that cross, intersect, find moments of mutual value, occasions of conflict and cross purpose, and which, in a common environment, dance in a complex interplay of negotiation and exchange.

The only thing an educator - or any other person - ought to be required to commit to is that which he or she truly believes is right and good; everything else then becomes a negotiation toward that end; and in society, we find what is good, what is of value, as John Stuart Mill says, by the fact that people actually find it good, by the fact that people actually value it.

Common sense. Without dogma.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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