The Education System

The current topic for ASQ Influential Voices to address is the importance of the education system and the impact on the capability of employees.

The education system is important and not very good in my opinion. As a kid I found it boring and constraining and a system designed more to extinguish my quest for knowledge than increase my desire to learn. As a kid I was told by adults that adults knew better and I shouldn’t complain.

I was told “don’t you realize you are in one of the best school systems in the USA?” With a bit of data I was convinced that seemed likely. To me this seemed like an even more ominous sign. If the best was this bad what was everything else like?

The argument that made the most sense to me (for why I should be happy with, or at least accept, the lousy system I was stuck in) was that as a kid I probably just didn’t understand why this environment that seemed to bore not just me, but most all the kids around me and this system that crushed our desire to learn must somehow be working otherwise the adults would certainly fix it.

As an adult what I find is my thoughts as a kid were essentially completely correct (except that last one that adults wouldn’t stick with some pitiful system without good reason) and plenty of education experts had been saying the same things. Adults seem perfectly fine not adopting proven better education practices just as they are fine not adopting proven better management practices.

When Dr. Deming was asked what to do instead of performance appraisal, when he railed against performance appraisal, he said do “whatever Peter Scholtes says.” To the question of what we should we do about the education system I say do whatever David Langford and Alife Kohn say.

I know more about the specifics of what educational systems following David Langford’s idea are like, and all I can say is they are wonderful. If I had kids I would definitely consider moving somewhere that had such a system (like Leander, Texas where they have been moving down that path for 20 years). They focus on helping student learn in a way that is so much more sensible than the one I had to sit through and most everyone reading this had to sit through.

The percentage of students that graduate with a desire to keep learning from an educational system like Leander is much greater than the traditional path. My high school had more National merit scholars than any public high school in the USA the year I graduated (some prep schools beat us, but only a few – partially because we were so large and they are often small). We had many students that were smart, dedicated and capable of succeeding at prestigious universities. Of course with tons of University of Wisconsin faculty as parents this is not a very surprising result.


I think the school system did more to crush our love of learning than it did to inspire a love of learning. Some of us were able to retain it, but more in spite of the school system than as a result of the system. And the system turned off many based upon what school said learning was like. And I still believe it was much much better than your average school system.

We need to inspire life long learners for the rapidly changing and knowledge intensive future (and really we already in that future today). Teachers and school systems applying David Langford’s ideas are doing this. Not just talking about it, but creating systems that have as an outcome students that seek to learn.

As with any huge system there are enormous challenges. Societal problems that should not be the school systems problems to cope with are dumped on schools in the USA due to the poor performance of other aspects of our public sector. That makes the challenges greater. That provides more seeming excuses for why we fail. But it doesn’t change the solution. Do whatever David Langford and Alfie Kohn say.

This insight from Dr. Deming who was a University professor for decades in addition to providing tremendously valuable advice on management of our organizations (see: Support Learning with an Understanding of Psychology and Systems Thinking). From From The Essential Deming, What Ought a School of Business Teach? by W. Edwards Deming:

I read the papers that my students turn in. A whole stack of them. That’s 435 students at Columbia University last semester and 150 at NYU. A lot of papers to read. But I read them. Not to grade them. No, I read them to see how I am doing. Where am I failing? What don’t they understand? Why do they give wrong answers? Why do they have some point of view that I don’t think is right? Where am I failing? Where do I need to build up. And I’m looking for somebody, anybody, who is special, in need of special help. I’ll try to see that he gets it. And who, if anybody is extra-well prepared. Would relish some extra work. There was one such woman in my class. Extra well prepared. I gave her extra work to do.

“I read them. Not to grade them. No, I read them to see how I am doing. Where am I failing?”

I wish every teacher read this before every test they graded. I wish every administrator read this before they went to the gemba to discover how their school was doing at helping student learn. I wish every manager did this in reviewing how their departments were doing at adopting new ideas. In what ways are the learning systems (in educational organization or any other) working? Where they are failing what can we do to improve. Not how can we downgrade those who are being failed by our system (either with low grades for students or low evaluations for staff).

I have discusses numerous related issues connected to our education system and economic prospects that flow from that (mainly focused on science and engineering) and well as other education related topics: The Importance of Science EducationFuture Engineers and ScientistsNaturally Curious ChildrenDr. Deming’s Ideas Applied in High School EducationImproving Engineering Education (2006)Improving Undergraduate Science EducationEducating Engineers for 2020 and Beyond (2007)Engineering Education and Innovation (2005)Science, Engineering and the Future of the American Economy

Excerpts from: The Deming Library Volume 21 with Dr. W. Edwards Deming, Dr. Russell Ackoff and David Langford – how educators can begin a quality transformation by developing an understanding of the properties and powers of systems-oriented thinking. See: A Theory of a System for Educators and Managers.

In the ASQ post by Julie McIntosh, she asks: Does your culture celebrate success or is any attempt considered “good enough”? And raises the question of whether over praising is an issue.

First, I do think it is ridiculous to what extend we praise things things that don’t seem worthy of praise to me (another view I have had since I was a kid).

Second, my guess is David Langford and Alfie Kohn don’t see overpraising as an issue (though if you have to know what to do, you should find out). Therefore, even though I think overpraising is lame, for a policy decision I would do what they believe is right.

Third, one important aspect of my view on the topic has changed. There has been research that seems to show that praising kids for effort leads to good results – much better results than praising kids for outcomes (getting an A etc.). This rings true to me. I know as a kid one thing I felt, and saw in others (especially boys) was an illogical desire to achieve without effort. Getting an A wasn’t what mattered, what mattered was not trying. This is a stupid attitude, which I realized even as a kid but I still saw it in myself and others. I also found grades lame, and didn’t care about them. Which I agree with today. Learning is useful in making yourself more capable. Grades are not very correlated to important learning (though they are a bit I think).

I think kids (and there did seem to be a big gender bias with boys doing this much more than girls) picked up clues that achievement was a sign of being good. Effort was a sign of not being good enough to do well without lots of effort. It wasn’t that this was said ever but it seemed to be a result and I could see how praise for results could lead to this.

It also leads to a desire to not put forth effort because you have a built in excuse for failure. It isn’t that I am not super, it is that I didn’t try – so my not achieving was not evidence that I am not super I just didn’t try hard. And effort isn’t really about me, just something I could do if I felt like it in which case I would certainly be awesome (or I guess if the kid had low self esteem, well if I tried maybe we would know how good I am, which would be somewhat lame but who knows exactly how lame). When in reality the evidence seems to show what is most important is that you put in effort, that trait is correlated to long term success.

So I believe praise for effort seems wise (though I would track down the research and see if my cursory efforts captured what the scientific consensus is, or not, if this is something that actually confronted me in my life instead of just being an intellectual curiosity).

I think praise for achievements that are lame is lame (oh you finished 9th here is a trophy for your great result). But I don’t have evidence for that it is my how I feel.

I certainly could tell when I got praise for lame results and it didn’t make me feel any better it just made me think the person giving the praise was either foolish (they couldn’t see what deserved praise and what didn’t) or they were praising everything because that is just the way they were (in which case their praise was no more valuable than them asking what you had for lunch today – just meaningless talk not to be given any consideration). I do realize most people are not like me – they don’t critically access praise. There is plenty of evidence you can increase your performance review rating by heaping undeserved praise on whoever rates you.

There is a difference between being proud of a student or child and praising them for meaningless achievements. I think many kids can tell the difference, but may lose that ability over time (to a large degree). Kids need to feel respect from their parents, teachers and others. Kids don’t need artificial praise (I suppose there might be some with low self esteem and other issues that need it, but for a healthy, well adjusted and loved kid I think it is at best useless and more likely somewhat harmful).

I would agree it is much less harmful than the harm to a kid that doesn’t know they are loved and respected as a person. I gained a better understanding of the challenges kids that didn’t have as great parents as I did growing up when I was a teenager. So my dislike of coddling decreased – people like me and my brother didn’t need it (and in fact I think for similar kids it is more harmful – challenging them is better). But those with other issues might need praise, even when it wasn’t “earned” for other reasons. And sadly there are way too many kids that don’t have wonderful parents and other adults letting them know they are respected.

Once kids know they are respected I think they grow much more if they are challenged. Many kids will try and get away with the least they can at various times. If you just praise the pitiful results I think they start to learn that pitiful level of result is all they need to strive for. Which sells them short. They would be much better off seeking to keep improving and challenging themselves.

2 thoughts on “The Education System

  1. Pingback: Deming Podcasts #3: David Langford on Improving Education « The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog

  2. Pingback: What Schools Can Learn from Dr. Deming’s Philosophy by Andrea Gabor « The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog

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