The Agile For Agilists Podcast

Our Outdated Education System Has Created A Cult Of Mediocrity


A Society Indoctrinated With Anti-Patterns

Indoctrinating anti-agility into our children from an early age is a pervasive issue that silently hinders corporate America today, placing leaders and organizations at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to constructing impactful products and fostering high-performing teams. The source of this predicament is such a staple to modern society that people don’t even realize it – it’s our education system. The erroneous lessons ingrained in the average person are so deeply rooted that Agile Coaches are dedicating a substantial amount of time to “unschool” modern workers.

Tailoring To The Average

In one of my favorite TED Talks, Shawn Achor brings up an illuminating detail:

“If I asked a question like, “How fast can a child learn how to read in a classroom?” scientists change the answer to “How fast does the average child learn how to read in that classroom?” and then we tailor the class right towards the average. Now if you fall below the average on this curve, then psychologists get thrilled, because that means you’re either depressed or you have a disorder, or hopefully both. We’re hoping for both because our business model is, if you come into a therapy session with one problem, we want to make sure you leave knowing you have 10, so you keep coming back over and over again. We’ll go back into your childhood if necessary, but eventually what we want to do is make you normal again. But normal is merely average.

And what I posit and what positive psychology posits is that if we study what is merely average, we will remain merely average.”

Shawn, a positive psychologist at Harvard, dedicates his career to understanding what elevates individuals to true excellence, rather than simply curing ailments. This perspective unveils multiple fundamental shortcomings within our current educational system.

Shawn highlights that most schools focus on creating a system that molds the average student into just that – average. Which is undesirable within itself, yet, his emphasis lies in the notion that happiness is the driving force behind success. He explains how the education system (as well as parents, society, and work environments) wrongly teaches that happiness comes after achievement, setting up our carrot and stick system prevalent in organizations today. Contrary to this belief, research has shown that happiness actually precedes success – a phenomenon he’s coined as “The Happiness Advantage.”

Education At A Standstill

This marks only the initial flaw in our education that continues to hinder us as a society. Remarkably, our educational approach has remained largely stagnant for over a century, despite advancements in understanding how individuals learn and the changing world we inhabit. While the curriculum has evolved, the advent of the internet and the expanding realm of AI has lessened the need for memorization. Instead, there is more of a need for individuals to possess capabilities related to finding information and problem-solving.

Our schools implant the notion that every problem has one correct solution. Although the system partially imparts problem-solving skills, its primary yardstick of success remains test performance. However, today’s businesses demand critical thinkers – individuals capable of tackling issues devoid of preset solutions, working with limited clues, and employing innovative approaches. This test-centric approach also falsely conveys that learning has a finite endpoint. In reality, learning is an ongoing process throughout life. This deficiency becomes evident in the tech industry when developers fail to keep pace with evolving technology, a challenge often faced by COBOL programmers who lack proficiency in modern programming languages.

At Odds With Testing And Repetition

Moreover, this education model is inherently flawed. Research by Richards and Frankland demonstrates that our minds naturally discard information no longer required, much like what happens after an exam. Bacon and Stewart‘s findings further confirm that repetition and testing lack long-term correlation with knowledge retention. Their studies reveal that students often forget the majority of learned material within a mere two years.

Innovation thrives on doing things differently. Yet, schools advocate a singular approach, a single correct answer, and a solitary method for validation. This framework is built on an autocratic structure that prioritizes obedience, punctuality, and a tolerance for tedium over creative thought. While this structure may suit certain industries, it presents a challenge when cultivating cultures of psychological safety, self-organization, and open communication in today’s business world.

A Biological Disadvantage

This autocratic system poses particular difficulties for our children, given that their prefrontal cortex – responsible for emotional control, rational decisions, and more – doesn’t fully mature until around age 25 (Arain et al). Children lack the biological maturity to thrive in such a rigid environment. Not to mention adolescents are biologically wired to stay up later and need more sleep, resulting in sleep deprivation due to the early start times of most schools. This reality also overlooks the fact that this system is essentially robbing children of their youth, all in the name of furthering the capitalist agenda.

Result Of A Bygone Era

Historically, schools were designed to create workers of their era – individuals valued for their physical contributions rather than their intellectual prowess. John D. Rockefeller, the founder of the General Education Board, once declared, “I don’t want a nation of thinkers; I want a nation of workers.” Echoing this sentiment, Henry Ford remarked, “Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, a brain comes attached?” This outlook is exhibited in the current structure and curriculum. While there are still jobs that require this sort of mindless execution, the rise of robotics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence will all too soon render this need obsolete.

Funding At Large

The final challenge within our existing model pertains to school funding and measurement. Unfortunately, a standardized financial system for funding schools across states is lacking. Moreover, most funding is derived from local taxes, often resulting in funding disparities based on the affluence of a municipality’s residents. In simple terms, schools in wealthier neighborhoods receive more substantial funding. Due to the expansion of the wealth gap, local school funding overall has plummeted by 50% over the past century, with State taxes attempting to bridge the gap.

However, the crux of the problem lies in the metric used for school funding – student headcount. This should be no surprise, as it is the number one challenge of organizations across industries today (see “The Velocity Trap”). Schools receive payment for each day a student attends class, which is essentially a “butts-in-seats” metric. While ineffective as a productivity measurement, a metric based on general presence is even more inadequate as an outcome or value metric. It is really a remnant of the sentiment that people are only valuable for their physical capacity.

At the Federal level, which has consistently provided less than 10% of the average school’s funding, schools are obligated to administer annual achievement tests to secure funding. This further promotes compliance with predefined improvement thresholds and perpetuates the testing norm. Consequently, struggling schools, often due to inadequate funding, risk receiving even less support due to unsatisfactory test results.

Outdated And Misguided

The reality is that the academic sector is antiquated, rooted neither in the scientific method nor in the ever-evolving needs of contemporary organizations. Most educators have solely experienced school and possess limited insight into other industries, rendering them unaware of modern work standards, expectations, and business needs. Moreover, the current approach contradicts human nature. Children possess an innate curiosity and remarkable learning prowess. Reflect on how much a baby learns during their initial years of life – it’s truly astonishing. Learning, at its core, is enjoyable. Regrettably, schools often miss the mark, mutating learning into a tedious endeavor.

That’s A Wrap

The persistent influence of agile anti-patterns in education demands a transformation. The practice of cultivating average individuals, stifling innovative thinking, and clinging to outdated views is limiting our potential. To flourish in a world demanding adaptability, creativity, and critical thinking, the education system must evolve. Shifting from conformity to fostering curiosity and innovation is a necessary step towards nurturing agile minds poised to tackle the challenges of the future.

If you’d like to hear more on this topic, checkout our episode From The Classroom To The Boardroom: Teaching A Growth Mindset In Organizations With Patty Aluskewicz.


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