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"Thursday Thinking"

©2019 by Weaving Futures. 

  • Carolyn Stuart

The Innovator's Dilemma is now Education's Dilemma

In New Zealand, this week marks the start of the new academic year for school-age students. What happens in any nation's schools really matters, not just for those who work in education, or parents with school-age children, but for everyone, because the health and future prosperity of nations rely on effective schooling systems.

In 1997 Harvard professor Clayton Christensen popularised the notion of the Innovator’s Dilemma in a book by the same name. Essentially the dilemma is the choice businesses make between continuing with what is currently working well or adopting new innovations and technologies that will answer their future needs.

And it is this dilemma that now sits front and centre of New Zealand’s education system - do we continue to deliver education reminiscent of what worked for most (but not all) of today’s adults, or should we be looking at new models of education that better equip today’s students with the skills and tools they will need to succeed in their future? And if we do decide to go with the more future-facing option how do we get from where we are now, to where we need to be, in order for our students to be future-ready?

I have recently read Simon Sinek’s latest book ‘The Infinite Game’ and it really helped me understand what has happened to New Zealand’s education system over the past decade.

The difference between a finite game and an infinite game is that a finite game has fixed rules and agreed-upon objectives which once reached ends the game. Whereby an infinite game’s primary objective is to keep the game going.

In 2007 New Zealand introduced a new curriculum with the vision of “Young people who will be confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learning”. This clearly positioned our education as an infinite game, with the aim of keeping the game, which in this case is lifelong learning, going. The introduction of National Standards and 80% pass rates for NCEA L2 turned education from an infinite game to a finite one.

The problem is that education is an infinite game and any system or organisation that tries to play an infinite game using finite rules will fail. How this played out for New Zealand was a significant narrowing of the curriculum for primary students, and some secondary schools engaged in ‘credit farming’ to ensure they reached the 80% pass rate - whilst more students achieved NCEA L2 (to the delight of the politicians) many were left unable to access further education because they did not have the right types of credits to gain access to their preferred vocations.

Thankfully New Zealand’s education system has now pivoted back to being an infinite game but we are still left with education’s version of the Innovator’s Dilemma.

Image Credit: Pete Linforth Pxabay

Should education continue to do what it is doing, with maybe some tweaks to increase the numbers of students achieving success, or should we be adopting new innovations and technologies to meet future needs? I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the middle but we need a plan to navigate between these two spaces and a strategy to support the courageous leaders and communities who will lead the way.

Simon Sinek believes that to successfully play the Infinite Game you need a Just Cause. A Just Cause is “a vision of the future that does not yet exist”. How might we create a national ‘Just Cause’ for New Zealand’s education system? What is our country’s “vision of the future that does not yet exist”?

Sinek also notes that without a Just Cause people are given what they want, not what they need. How much more appealing would the role of principal be if they operated under a powerful Just Cause that enabled them to put their energies into delivering what parents need, rather than spending their lives trying to deliver what parents want.

Business has successfully used methodologies such as design thinking to uncover people’s unmet needs and then designed their new way forward based on these insights. Maybe it is time for education to do the same thing.

Til next time


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