Chapter 1 

What Caused Great Boosts in Educational Achievement in the Past?

Key Understanding: We need to use systems thinking to understand why great movements & improvements happened in the past.

Our current prosperity and leadership in the world during the last several centuries owes much to a great educational revolution that occurred several centuries ago when the Western World  adopted the textbook as a key, new technology.  It all began with Johannes Gutenberg and his invention of movable type in the 15th century.  Gutenberg, in fact,  was recently chosen as the most influential person of the last one thousand years by a specially selected A & E Television Networks Biography panel. Gutenberg was chosen because his invention resulted in a tremendous leap in the ability to communicate and share information, which is a major enabling force to all learning and progress. But not all areas of the world put this technology to use in their educational systems.

The West moved into leadership throughout the world between 1500 and 1650 in large measure because it reorganized its schools around the new technology of the printed book. Conversely, the refusal of China and Islam to redesign their schools around the printed book was a major factor in their decline and their eventually succumbing to the West. Both used printing – the Chinese had done so for centuries, of course (albeit not with movable type). But both kept the printed book out of their schools; both rejected it as a learning and teaching tool. The Islamic clergy stuck to rote learning and recitation; they saw in the printed book a threat to their authority precisely because it enabled students to read on their own. In China, too, the Confucian scholars rejected the printed book in favor of calligraphy. The printed book was incompatible with a key tenet of Chinese culture: mastery of calligraphy qualifies for  rulership. (Peter F. Drucker, Post-Capitalist Society, p. 195)

It was luck and good fortune that the West benefited so much from the introduction of the printed book. To understand why the printed book generated such a tremendous leap of productivity in the West, we need to appreciate the power of systems. The culture in the West was stressing freedom and individual initiative. In the United States, we were also developing the motivating idea of a meritocracy, in which the dream was held that each person could determine his or her own prosperity and status in life by obtaining the skills and knowledge that would lead to it. The synergy of having (1) information readily available with the printed book multiplied by (2) the opportunity to succeed in society because of free enterprise, new available land, and expanded business opportunities multiplied by (3) the freedom of individual and group initiative was explosive, and our prosperity and world-leading status today is the result. We further added to this great educational revolution by providing free, public education so that the basics of reading, writing, and math could be obtained by all. These components worked together as a system that boosted our advancement at a speed never before witnessed in the history of the world. But it is important to understand as far as education was concerned, it was good fortune rather than a planned effort that created it. We cannot afford to wait for good fortune to occur again. We need to plan and create the future we desire, not just hope it will be to our liking.

The problem we face today is that our educational system appears to be faltering now that it is faced with the new challenges of the Information Age and global competition. The question and challenge we currently face is: Will we take full advantage of (1) today’s new technologies, (2) our new understandings of the dynamics and power of systems (3) our new capabilities in comprehensive, strategic management, and (4) our tremendous progress in knowing how to boost learning opportunities, or will it be our turn to fall behind the rest of the world and enter a period of national decline?

Keep in mind that during this last century, business, industry, medicine, agriculture, and almost all of the professions have not depended on luck and good fortune but have purposely utilized knowledge in powerful ways to soar to incredible new heights of productivity. Our educational system, on the other hand, has remained passively stuck in the past continuing to use mostly 19th century methods and lagging far behind its true potential. Our farmers during this time increased their productivity to such a staggering degree that now only 2% of our population is required to grow the food we need instead of the 97% that it took during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson.  Productivity in business and industry has skyrocketed more than fifty-fold, and yet our educational output is such that some critics feel we are doing even less well than before.


It isn’t that we haven’t tried! Over the last few decades we have quadrupled our spending on schools and have placed a substantial amount of technology in schools, such as computers, video-recorders, internet connections, and television sets, but so far this has made little difference in overall student achievement. Many educational fads have come and gone, often resulting in achievement actually going down instead of up. Such efforts, good intentioned as they may be, are unlikely to ever make much of a difference until we:

(1) Take a systemic look at how learning can best be supported, and then 

(2) Design and manage what it would really take to implement effective and comprehensive systems capable of translating what we know about learning into optimum opportunities and support for all of our students.

Our educational problems today are a result of our non-systematic, bits and pieces approaches to learning and education and an almost total reliance on an out-dated and primitive way of organizing our schools.. As has been the case for the last several centuries, individual teachers are given almost total responsibility for the success of their students, but are not provided the resources needed to give each and every student optimum learning opportunities. Every other modern institution organizes its work force in coordinated specialties, provides its professionals with effective support systems, and gives them the means to direct resources as needed to accomplish their job description goals. It is not possible to squeeze all the best potential resources through isolated, all-purpose, individual teachers who are limited by their span of attention, energy, knowledge, skills, and availability of tools. This results in having to treat students as if they were generic, all-purpose learning receivers and the teacher having to concentrate on presentation skills rather than activating learning principles to best fit the needs of each student. In today's classroom, you could replace all the students in a class with other students and the teacher by necessity would still give the same presentation and assignments.  

Most teachers do their best, and many teachers are superb, but they are far too limited with the burden of trying to function without an effective and cohesive system of support. This makes their work many times too labor intensive because virtually everything has to be done by the individual teacher teaching a heterogeneous group of twenty to forty students.  The better each teacher is, the better the student is going to learn, but virtually all teachers today are handicapped from achieving their full potential because they are not part of an effective, comprehensive learning/teaching system and cannot direct and control resources.  A doctor can almost instantly use the power of whatever has been researched and tested in medical science and can direct an entire, cohesive system of medical resources for the benefit of his or her patients. But because of the way the structure of our schools are organized today, even the most basic principles of learning that have been researched and tested and the resulting great variety of learning resources potentially available are by necessity disregarded in today's classrooms. Education for various reasons has simply not moved into the 21st Century.

Over the past hundred years almost every aspect of our national life – industry, transportation, communication, computation, entertainment – has changed almost beyond recognition. Our schools remain essentially the same. And now, in the space age, the reformers are offering the nation an educational horse and buggy. They would improve the buggy, keep the passengers in it longer, and pay the driver more. But it would still be a horse and buggy.  (George Leonard, “The Great School Reform Hoax: What’s Really Needed to Improve Public Education?” Esquire (April, 1984), p. 50)

We need to use the power of systems thinking and comprehensive management combined with what we already know about how people learn to re-look at the virtually unorganized, unmanaged, and unconnected educational pieces we have today and put together an empowering system that can satisfy our expanded educational needs, expectations, and dreams of the 21st Century.