Walter McKenzie

Let the Waters Flow

One of the legacies of the Industrial Age is the ideal of standardization: creating products of consistent quality that can be mass-produced. Coming out of the Agricultural Age, this was a huge step forward; without standardization much of what was accomplished in the 20th century could not have been attained.

Along with standardization came specialization, as specific standards of quality had to be met by specific experts. On any assembly line, each worker knows expertly his or her one piece of the whole standardized assembly process. It serves its purpose well in manufacturing.

An intriguing concept in specialization is the notion of compartmentalizing: to separate into distinct, discrete parts of a whole product. By compartmentalizing, we are able to isolate specific processes and problems and focus on solutions without being distracted or overwhelmed by the bigger picture. There's a safety in compartments. When people compartmentalize, they can focus on what they want without allowing themselves to feel the impact of other parts of their lives. Likewise, building the hull of a ship by compartments makes it more seaworthy; if one set of compartments takes on water, the ship can remain afloat as long as the rest of the compartments remain intact. Barn silos. Office cubicles. Individual serving packets. Compartments are everywhere.

But compartmentalizing has its limits. When we compartmentalize, we never deal with the bigger issues. We seal in quality but also seal out any further chance for improvement. Whatever we place in a compartment becomes frozen in time, unless and until we break the compartment open again. In the case of a seaworthy ship, opening up compartments isn't desirable. For people, we all eventually have to break out of our compartments to become whole, happy, healthy, functioning people. For silos and cubicles and packets of instant oatmeal, we want to be able to break the seal and bring value out for our use.

Working and living in compartments—in isolation—prevents us from realizing our full potential. It can feel safe to seal off specific parts of ourselves, but in reality each of us is one whole, complete, self-contained system of wonderful potential that can make the world a better place. The same goes for organizations. Each department can have its own self-contained expertise that contributes to the whole, but to be successful in the quickly changing Information Age, each group of experts need to connect and communicate and collaborate across departmental boundaries. To continue working in isolation is to ensure organizational extinction.

This holds true for education. We have compartmentalized ourselves by subject matter expertise, grade levels, geographic boundaries, political boundaries, and local management. We identify ourselves by pedagogy, practice, textbook adoptions, proprietary technologies, budget priorities, and so much more. Education is the most splintered, compromised, compartmentalized public institution in existence. This is why, in my humble opinion, it is struggling to be successful in the Information Age.

At some point, standardization reached its optimal potential, and a new ideal began to come into focus: individualization. You can't meet the needs of individuals when your expertise and resources are locked up in compartments. Society is being opened up in the info-technical explosion we now know as the Information Age, and education is unable to keep up because of its compartmentalized structure. How do you capitalize on all the benefits of individualizing for students when you are set up for one-size-fits-all standardization?

If we can break down the walls and open up the free-flow of ideas and resources, education has the potential to become a game-changer in the Information Age. What would that look like? There are numerous models around us of children being educated individually to meet their needs and interests so that they are prepared for the wide-open society they are about to inherit. Technology can make that kind of unique individual education experience possible on a massive scale. Perhaps the first step is to stop trying to force technology to fit the model of standardized instruction; unleash its transformative potential and let innovative education practices show us the way. Change is not an easy thing for any public institution, but students are already using tech tools in every other aspect of their lives. And if schools do not transform to reflect how students learn, work, and interact today, they will become irrelevant in the not-too-distant future.

Standardization has had its day. Unfortunately, the process of becoming extinct is slow and often hard to discern ... especially when it's happening to you. In order for organizations to remain relevant in the Information Age, they must break out of their various compartments, open the flood gates, and let the resulting flow of energy and ideas wash over them and take their course.

Walter McKenzie is a lifelong learner, teacher, leader, and connector. A director of Constituent Services for ASCD, he served 25 years in public education as a classroom teacher, instructional technology coordinator, director of technology, and assistant superintendent for information services. He is internationally known for his work on multiple intelligences and technology and has published various books and articles on the subject. Connect with McKenzie on the ASCD EDge® social network, on his Actualization blog, or by e-mail at wmckenzie@ascd.org.

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