What education looks like in America

what higher education will look like in 2020

chronicle ad

According to an advertisement that ran earlier this year on the Chronicle of Higher Education, this is what academia will look like in less than a decade: She will be white, female, showing a bit of cleavage, and unable to perform simple arithmetic.

What an elementary school principal looks like, according to this advertisement that ran on Education Week last week, is white, male, and wearing the silken noose favored by the business world.

what elementary school principals look like

education week ad

And what does education look like according to the Gates Foundation, who recently hired IDEO to redesign education? As to be expected from this global design firm, they listened very closely to their client, performed in-depth design research, and provided a design solution to the problem, a beautifully designed website and 94-page brochure introducing a popular business buzzphrase, design thinking, to the field of education.

Because the problem with education, according to technology whiz kid, college dropout, and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, is bad teachers, or good teachers who have bad days, or ambivalent teachers who simply lack enough technology in their classrooms, IDEO’s solution inspires teachers to have confidence in themselves.

“If teachers really believed in themselves,” their model teacher offers empathetically, “I think a much better system is possible.” She looks not unlike the model chronicled by academe, though her black and white wardrobe covers her breasts while providing a strong composition within the black and white setting of her school’s cafeteria.

Instead of swooping in like a superhero to a ghetto school and demonstrating for us how public education might be revitalized with design thinking, IDEO selects for a model school Riverdale Country School, an elite private institution in New York City whose alumni include the Kennedys and which has contemporary connections to the Clintons and Obama administration. Yet, despite its pedigree, even this chichi academy for children of the rich and powerful has an ongoing history of problems, with a search for a homicide victim occurring near the school’s grounds earlier this year. In his biography, Ted Kennedy remembered a sexually abusive dorm master. And in a lawsuit that alleges lead paint poisoning of his infant son, a former faculty member describes racist admission policies from a prep school that charges over $40,000 tuition per student per year, a counterpoint to the multicultural embrace of a retiring principal in this video published by school supporters.

In ninety-four pages of beautifully designed form, IDEO provides very little content for educators. Their design process, divided into five categories of discovery, interpretation, ideation, experimentation, and evolution, differs not all that much from the way professional educators have described learning since 1956, with a taxonomy that follows five steps of remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. Design thinking for educators might be summed up by saying design process is what good teachers are already doing. Teaching is design – designing the next generation.

In this image from IDEO’s brochure, all white children crowd to the front and center of their model classroom, where they are taught the Cinderella myth, a tale of a young girl who passively waits to be rescued from her abusive stepmother and siblings by a fairy godmother and a knight in shining armor.

what education looks like after design thinking

ideo brochure image

Following these traditionally gendered and heterosexist models, girls can look forward to wearing fluttering ball gowns while clinging to the arms of their boys, who had better be rich, powerful, emotionless heroes. Which works out great for the cosmetics and violent video gaming industries and various and sundry other corporations. Not so good for the end of rape and war culture.

May I have a dollop of whipped cream with that horseless carriage? After you first carve it, cut it, and mix it with milk, sugar, and cinnamon and bake it into a pie, of course.

What surprises me most about IDEO’s solution for the problems in education is that, in their design research, this global design firm did not listen to their client’s client: the schoolchildren of the American poor, working, and rapidly vanishing middle classes.

I have listened.

I have heard elementary school teachers describe students coming from desperate or unstable homes, such as the teacher who would like the policy wonks to comfort her young student who clings to her and asks her to be his mom. I have listened to parents describe their children’s peer abuse accelerating from name-calling of racist or sexist slurs to beatings, gang rape, and arson. As for technology in the classroom, I have listened to an elementary school student describe his teacher as “evil,” scary to approach with questions on administratively sanctioned workbooks, but who uses technology in the classroom alright, by talking on the phone and Skyping with her friends instead of teaching. At the college level, I have taught students who somehow passed through admissions testing without so much as what I would describe as a kindergarten level of spelling and grammar skills. As a graduate teaching assistant, I sat in the backs of darkened auditoriums taking notes and observing undergraduate students who were too busy Facebooking or websurfing for pornography to pay attention to the lecture, and whose first – and often only – question at the end of class might be uttered with a bored yawn, “Is this gunna be on the test?”

My expectations are higher for a design firm of IDEO’s caliber.

According to a design pundit at Fast Company, design thinking has already lost its charm in the corporate world, soon to be replaced with Creative Intelligence, or what he calls CQ, measurable data easily assessed by college admissions officers. One commenter using the moniker Darwin responds,

“As I understand it, design thinking is stressing what [the business world] considered ‘innovation’ as the principle for business practice. The problem with that is precisely with business practice itself. Business focuses on making as much profit as possible and it views the product/services just as commodities to make money – that’s it. How would innovation be possible, when addressing human conditions is secondary to making profit?”

And the business model of “innovation” is precisely what shaped No Child Left Behind legislation and its attendant problems, with global corporate competition further accelerated by proponents of Race to the Top reforms.

Shouldn’t a government of the people, by the people, be governance for the people, rather than for the corporations or their tax-sheltered philanthropic foundations?

Education isn’t lacking another business buzzword.

Education needs to evolve, as Darwin suggests, placing humanity primary to making profit.

Education needs another superhero.

Something is lost. Something is missing. And it’s not Superman we’re waiting for. What education needs now is a Robin Hood to come along and steal back from the rich what the rich have stolen from the poor. Or better yet, a Maid Marian who, in my opinion, kicks butt over simpering, eager-to-please Lois Lane.

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