The Nobility of Working Ourselves Out of a Job in Education

What happens to your business if diabetes is eventually cured? After I became CEO in 2000, I predicted we would cure diabetes in 15 years. We’re still 15 years away. But that is the big goal. I tell my employees, “If we wind up curing diabetes, and it destroys a big part of our business, we can be proud, and you can get a job anywhere. we’ll have worked on the greatest social service of any pharmaceutical company, and that would be a phenomenal thing. (From Interview with Lars Sorensen in November 2015 Harvard Business Review, p. 62)

There is a certain nobility to striving toward working ourselves out of a job in education. In the November 2015 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Lars Sorenson, CEO of Novo Nordisk, was named the world’s best performing CEO. The article about Lars is where I pulled the above quote and it resonated with me right away. This is exactly the attitude that I persistently write about in the education space. As I continue to argue, if you are working in the education space, like it or not, you are part of social innovation and entrepreneurship. As such, you are tackling education challenges, and a perspective like that of Lars Sorenson is perfectly suited for work in such an area.

This is not to deny that there is a business element to education. There is ample money to be made (by individuals and organizations). There is the equivalent of corporate ladders that people climb in education, certainly in education companies but also in more conventional learning organizations. People aspire to have greater revenue and greater influence. I have no issue with such things. In fact, I tend to think that some of the competition tends to have more benefits than downsides to it in education (although cooperation is incredibly valuable as well). However, education like medicine, is properly focused upon the good that it brings about: whether it is focused on increased access and opportunity, equipping people to embracing their callings in life, helping people overcome challenges, or something else.

This is the philosophy that inspired my past article, Good Teachers Become Less Important. It is why I argued that great teachers are fundamentally different from rock stars. Just like Lars Sorenson, we can and should be proud when we work ourselves out of our jobs by being so effective or coming up with promising innovations.

This is not the case today in much education. The moment someone talks about the possibility of blended learning allowing one to move from a 1:15 teacher-student ratio to a 1:50 teacher-student ratio; educators gasp at the sacrilege. In higher education, the moment people challenge the traditional notion of tenure or defend the growing role and use of adjunct faculty; there is too often an anti-intellectual backlash. There are valid perspectives and arguments against some of these movements, but my concern is when people are unwilling to even bracket their own biases and fully weigh the various factors. I see this with individuals, organizations, even regulatory and government agencies. Too often, they seem more concerned with preservation than learner-centered innovation that has the promise and possibility to address some of of our greatest challenges.

When online learning first emerged, it was an innovation that was often meeting needs not addressed by others. In the 1990s, I would talk about its affordances and limitations, and people would sometimes think that I was eccentric, but it didn’t bother them much because it didn’t seem like a threat to their preferred form of education. Then, in the last five to ten years that started to change. There are stronger critiques because it is now a growing part of mainstream education, representing one of the fastest growing segments of education in the last decade. Too few critiques actually take the time to review the research and see if their critiques have validity.

I sometimes wonder what would/will happen when there is an educational equivalent of a healthcare cure of some illness or condition.

  • Maybe it is neuroscience research that find a “cure” for illiteracy or innumeracy.
  • Maybe it is a computer program that unquestionably teaches people math in a way that the learners far outperform anything done by a math teacher in a traditional classroom.
  • Or, what if there is a system designed that has impressive results in equipping people to take responsibility for their own learning and achieve incredible learning gains independent of a traditional school or teacher?
  • What if a non-University learning experience exists or is created that nurtures curiosity, a love of learning, and an embodiment of the liberal arts more than anything that we see among graduates of traditional liberal arts schools?
  • What if we prove, without a shadow of a doubt, that an alternate training to an MBA, increases learner performance in the business world three times more than the graduate of the top MBA programs in the world at a tenth the cost?
  • What if there is some future version of Teach for America, but it is for various healthcare workers, and they are shown to meet or exceed the quality of healthcare service of those who go through a traditional degree program?

Will we have another Luddite rebellion, with displaced workers trying to smash these new machines and destroy these threatening advancements? Or, will we have people who celebrate these gains, realizing that our goal is not the preservation of a certain form or concept of schooling, but that it is education in its best and broadest sense?

Yes, there will always be room and an important role for counting the cost of various educational changes and innovations. There will always be affordances and limitations to weigh. There will always be important arguments about social and relational elements to education. At the same time, I just can’t imagine people rejecting a cure for diabetes because it is too technical and not as relational as the older treatments. There are other ways to go about filling important social, relation and interpersonal gaps while moving forward to the most promising innovations.

We need the equivalent of a Lars Sorensen attitude when it comes to educational innovation. Work in the system that we have an strive to do it to the best of our abilities. At the same time, be a champion for advancements and developments that promise to address some of our greatest educational challenges. I tend to believe that skilled, adaptive and committed people in education will always have something to contribute, even if their current role is no longer needed.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.

One Reply to “The Nobility of Working Ourselves Out of a Job in Education”

  1. John Couperthwaite

    Great article Bernard. I often felt the same as an educational technology manager responsible for introducing new technologies into a number of health-based academic programmes. Our responsibilities were moving rapidly from bespoke development and training to offering advice on learning design, as institutional and web-based tech was advancing. I was more than happy to embrace this and urged my staff to do the same because, at the same time, our positions were being reconsidered as senior managers thought there may be cost savings from having more intuitive web systems. This represents a continuing evolution in the workplace and highlights your point that ‘skilled, adapted and committed’ people will continue to have a role – whatever that may be…

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