Educational Policy, Chaos Theory, & Being a Humble Educational Radical

radical[rad-i-kuh l] – thoroughgoing or extreme, especially as regards change from accepted or traditional forms. –

Perhaps some of my ideas about education are radical, but I like to think that I strive toward at least being a humble sort of radical. By that, I mean that I hardly ever espouse one of my ideas becoming the standard by which all other ideas and proposals must be measured. I rarely argue that they should be national policy. I also don’t contend that my concepts should be universal. In fact, one of the few broad concepts that I consistently advocate for is a diversity of ideas, practices, models, and frameworks in education. In other words, if I had to advocate for a policy that would direct all of education, it would be variety and choice, recognizing that one model or framework is not best for all learners in all places and all times. This is also why I spend more of my time exploring education reform by design and not by policy (although I have a persistent and growing interest in policy as design).

Education policy is simply the phrase used to describe the many laws and rules that govern and direct education in different domains. Some extend this to include laws and policies that are not explicitly about education, but impact education systems. This might include economic policies, for example. Regardless, these rules are established from the local (even within a given school) to national level. People establish policies with the goal of shaping the education system, protecting certain stakeholders, amplifying certain values and goals, and embodying a given philosophy of education.

Quite often, the philosophies, values and motives behind new or longstanding policies are unclear. Sometimes that is by design. Sometimes it is just lost in the soundbites. Other times such foundations are forgotten or ignored for one reason or another. Regardless, I take policy seriously. Policymakers are establishing laws and rules that impact other people’s lives and education. They are restricting people from more freely embracing certain beliefs and convictions about education while empowering others.

As I see it, a policy is a technology. As such, it produces losers and winners. It is never neutral. It always elevates some people and not others, and when the advocates of a new policy champion it as the best for the community or a larger population, they are often espousing a personal philosophy as the best for all or most.

From an early age, my son really liked winning games. As such, he also discovered one of the more effective ways to win at a game is through policymaking. You just change the rules or lobby to change the rules so that the game favors your preferences and strengths, and it disregards your limitations. It is an obvious ploy by a 5-year-old boy, but what about when it is a 50-year-old policymaker? Or, what about when it is shaped by the voices and influence of dozens or hundreds of different stakeholders, each wanting to “win” or “gain” something. Some might have or frame their gain as a noble cause, best for society. Others might be open about how they want to lobby for the benefits of a very specific population.

As much as I don’t like to think of education as a game with rules, the metaphor holds up quite well when we look at the positioning of people and the lobbying for different regulations. The Department of Education, for example, seems to often comes back to protecting the financial aid investment of the government (at least when it comes to higher education), along with issues related to workforce development and gainful employment. Other agencies appear to have layers of priorities. Even as they argue that they are champions of innovation, their policies represent a fervent effort to slow innovation and protect traditional concepts of the teacher, professorate, the diploma, and the college degree. Yet, the closer you get to this world, the more convoluted  things get. There are unquestionably multiple layers of motive and people treating a single policy change as a chess move intended to set them up for success five or six moves down the road. What seems to be forgotten is that people’s lives are impacted by each policy change.

When we discover that this is the context in which we are living and working toward growth and improvement in education, it seems to me that humility and choice are more important than ever. We can’t afford a monopolized approach to educational policy with such competing interests. It doesn’t matter how honorable or trustworthy the leadership is at a given time and a given level. Leave the policy monopolies for the hyper-local level…at individual learning organizations. Beyond that, build a system that empowers choice, empowers innovation and creativity (with reasonable levels of accountability but not massive hindrances), rejects a one-size-fits-all approach, and most importantly recognizes the tentative nature of our knowledge about what does and does not work at different times, places, and contexts in education (not to mention having different goals and philosophies shaping the work).

Could it be that a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world might cause a tsunami on the other side of the world? That is a classic question in chaos theory, but it is also something that I think about with the often difficult to predict implications of making even the smallest policy changes. Could it be that an educational policy butterfly flapping its wings on the federal level could cause an educational tsunami in a local school? We might have good intentions, but there are so many complexities and factors that we are often unaware of the full impact. I’m not arguing that we refrain from any policy, but such a realization at least calls us to be sober and thoughtful before lobbying for our ideas to become the gold standard in education.

For those of us who might verge on radical in education. The same it true. Let us pursue our efforts with passion but humility. Let the impact of our work speak for itself and not by trying to force it on the largest possible population through rules and regulations.