K-12 Education Reform:
Jumpstarting Memetic Engineering for Equity

K-12 education reform is ripe for a new approach.

Can you guess in what year this education reform prediction was made?

“Books will soon be obsolete in the public schools. 

Scholars will be instructed through the eye. 

It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture. 

Our school system will be completely changed inside of ten years.” (O’Toole, 2018, full references cited below.)

Here’s a clue: the use of the phrase “motion picture” peaked in the 1940’s. 

Was this prediction made before, during, or after that peak?

Final clue: the education reform prognosticator was Thomas Edison.

The answer is that he said those words over one hundred years ago, in 1913.

Edison’s conjecture reveals that, for generations, the education industry has been ripe for, not merely education reform, but for productive disruption.

Education Reform or Disruption

According to the book Failure to Disrupt, every new media has, at one time or another, been touted as the innovation that will make every student learn their lessons perfectly. (Reich, 2020) 

Edison’s prediction was an early example of what has become a hype-cycle that innovators and investors instigate in their efforts to disrupt schooling.

They each aspire to bring forth the next educational equivalent of the Model-T, McDonalds, Amazon, iPhone, or Uber.

But, Henry Ford did not invent cars, the factory, nor even the standardization of parts that enabled him to make his production lines famously efficient. 

The pantheon of disruptive innovators includes: Ray Kroc of McDonald’s, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Steve Jobs of Apple, and Travis Kalanick of Uber.

The major impacts these famous entrepreneurs had on their industries was not the result of creating the particular products or services that their companies are now identified with.

The causes of all those disruptions were innovative ideas. 

All those icons of the entrepreneurial spirit combined existing products or services in new ways because of how they thought about their core business. 

They each reframed the problem that needed to be solved and mixed and matched existing solutions with the result that they each disrupted their industry.

Education Reform is the Holy Grail for Disruptor Wanna-Be’s

My name is Don Berg.

Global spending on K-12 education is in excess of $4 trillion. (Global Education Monitoring Report Team, UNESCO, 2019)

There is a well-documented pervasive pattern of disengagement among students and teachers that also infects workplaces globally. (Student and teacher disengagement: Bouffard, Marcoux, Vezeau, et al., 2003; Corpus, McClintic-Gilbert & Hayenga, 2009; Gottfried, Fleming & Gottfried, 2001; Harter, 1981; Hastings & Agrawal, 2015; Hunter & Csikszentmihalyi, 2003; Lepper, Corpus & Iyengar, 2005; Marks, 2000; Miller, Latham & Cahill, 2017; Otis, Grouzet & Pelletier, 2005; Pintrich, 2003; Prawat, Grissom & Parish, 1979; Wigfield, Eccles & Rodriguez, 1998. Workplace infection: Gallup, Inc., 2021)

Despite generation after generation of quixotic reform efforts, there are still high profile concerns about schools lacking equity and accountability.

These facts mean that schooling is still the holy grail of industries to be productively disrupted. 

Disrupting how schools operate in a positive and educationally productive way requires more than a shiny new product or service to offer. 

It requires us to reframe how we think about K-12 education. 

Schools today compete with each other as if they are each a branch of UPS, FedEx, or the US Post Office delivering academic content into the heads of students. 

The central tenet of K-12 school management is gathering indicators to prove that the deliveries were made.

Getting obedience to curricular and graduation requirements produces the necessary academic data, but that data strategy has led to the massive, well-documented epidemic of both student and teacher disengagement in K-12 schools. 

Which is, according to Gallup, just as bad or worse in the workplace. 

Consider the possibility that the primary goal of K-12 schools should NOT be delivering academics. 

What if academics are an optional add-on, a luxury, a frill?

What if the true core business of schools is the development of the necessary PREREQUISITE to truly deep and meaningful academic achievement?

Consider the possibility that the proper primary goal of K-12 schools is facilitating effective self-governance. 

Education Reform Innovation

It is time to manage schools with a different set of data to guide management decisions by bringing together two important practical elements that are already tried and true.

First, a set of practices that date back over one hundred years and, second, a new data model that started being developed in the 1970’s. 

The innovation we are after will combine these existing practical elements in a new way.

The goal is to maximize student engagement by using a school climate data model to more precisely manage school operations. 

This unique combination of proven, practical solutions will demonstrate that educating children can be done with both more equity and more efficiency than it is today. 

We must enable school administrators to quantify a heretofore ineffable quality of the students and teachers they are managing: their experiences. 

Turning the quality of experiences into useful quantities opens the door to solutions that can be reliably engineered, in this case memetically engineered to maximize motivation and engagement.

The best research into quantifying the qualities of experience is Self-Determination Theory (SDT) founded by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. (See: https://SelfDeterminationTheory.org)

 

The critically important aspects of experience in education that SDT already has instruments to quantify are need satisfaction, motivation, and, most important, engagement. 

These are the memetic data we need to triangulate with in order to zero in on revolutionary approaches to engineering productive reforms in education.

The reform challenge is to get those practitioners, the ones who are drawing on over 100 years of innovative practice, to plug themselves into that memetic data model. 

They need to prove that their governance practices create superior school climates, when compared to the mainstream schooling. 

There are a few studies to that effect in the research literature, but I am NOT proposing an academic solution.

What if Steve Jobs or Ray Kroc Were Education Reformers?

To give you a sense of how this relates to the examples of disruptive entrepreneurs:

What would have happened if Steve Jobs had invented the iPhone but FAILED at marketing? 

Since 1940 the McDonald brothers had developed an innovative take on how to run a fast-food restaurant business, but they only had one location by 1954.

That was when Ray Kroc came along with the entrepreneurial inspiration to turn McDonald’s into a franchise business and put their innovations on steroids.

He reframed and marketed their invention to create the global empire we know today. 

The school “innovations” we need in education are currently at the margins of the industry just like McDonald’s was before Kroc came along. 

They already exist and many are well-established, but, just in very small niches. 

The schools I’m referring to are associated with terms like Democratic, Holistic, Deeper Learning, Waldorf, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and probably others. 

In the USA they are mostly private and charter schools. 

The niches they occupy are not coherently organized nor do the folks in each niche necessarily recognize those in the other marginalized niches as kindred spirits. 

They are not organized in a way that is disrupting the education industry. 

These niches CAN be the source of a massive positive disruption to education, IF they have the right conditions to be scaled up and the secrets to their school climate successes are revealed properly, thus inspiring others to emulate them. 

Creating the Right Conditions for Education Reform - EDiE Fund

In order to get the successful alternatives over the hump of being properly recognized and then scaling up to meet the demand, I propose to create the EDiE Fund for Equity Innovation, where EDiE stands for Experiential Data in Education. 

The goal of the EDiE Fund is to use venture philanthropy dollars to jumpstart a market for SDT-based school climate data. 

School climate data that takes proper advantage of SDT will act as a leverage point for transforming traditional schools because SDT contains the equivalent of a causal model for education. 

Self-Determination Theory will be the education equivalent to how germ theory acted as the basis for a transformation in medical practice. 

Just in case you are not familiar with the story: 

According to medical historian David Wootton, germ theory enabled a positive disruption in medicine between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries. 

For example, a 19th century scholar pointed out that, “A man laid on an operating table in one of our surgical hospitals is exposed to more chances of death than was the English soldier on the field of Waterloo.” (Wootton, 2007, p.180)

To be clear: Hospitals were more deadly than a war-time battlefield. 

The infection rate of patients in the best hospitals in the world were on the order of 50-80% with a death rate from those infections of over fifty percent. 

Imagine we are in a hospital back then with a thousand patients. 

At least five hundred patients will become infected and then at least 250 of them will die. 

Today, germ theory is universally regarded as a core principal of medical practice, resulting in under seven percent infections and under six percent deaths from those infections. 

Of one thousand patients in a hospital today less than seventy get infections and, of those infected folks, less than five die. 

Germ theory is a major factor in making the difference between just five people dying versus 250. 

To frame that in positive terms that hospitals shifted from 75% survival to 99.5%.

The adoption of germ theory didn’t stop infection and death, but it helped us get an order of magnitude better handle on prevention. 

In the same way that medical practitioners’ rely on germ theory to create and maintain that incredible improvement, memetically engineering educational improvement will enable the equity and efficiency of our schools to skyrocket in a similar way once educators rely on Self-Determination Theory. 

Projects, like the EdiE Fund, will help make the SDT-informed measures more readily available.

But the importance of that data also needs to be clearly illustrated through appropriate public storytelling (such as the Holistic Equity Media Project which I will discuss shortly).

With compelling stories about how school climate data enables memetic engineering of education reforms the public conversation will be a whole new ballgame.

Implementing the EDiE Fund Strategy for Education Reform

In order for the EdiE Fund for Equity Innovation to become a reality, commitments from 32 schools and about ten million dollars from venture philanthropists are needed. 

Creating a market for SDT-informed measures of school climate is the strategic goal that will ultimately enable us, Deeper Learning Advocates, to catalyze our vision of a world in which every student has a realistic expectation that their enthusiasms will be cultivated in joyful schools by passionate teachers. 

I am the Executive Director of Deeper Learning Advocates which is, currently, a start-up with a small audience. 

In order to realistically achieve the funding goals that are going to be required to create EDiE, it is necessary to build an audience that can support that level of fund raising. 

The Holistic Equity Media Project is the mechanism for building up an appropriate audience and on-going public storytelling in support of the larger mission. 

The project currently has three main products in development. 

First, Equity versus Equality: The Graphic Novel is an explanation of equity that aims to transcend the limitations of the misleading viral online meme that is usually used to explain it. 

Both sides of the equity debate get it partly wrong and it is important to get everyone back on track with a scientific definition of equity and a more compelling visual story.

Second, The Story of School with Don Berg, an animated video inspired by The Story Stuff with Annie Leonard

The Story of Stuff was a viral video released in 2007 that explains how our global materials economy is inherently unsustainable. 

The Story of School explains why academically focused schooling is inherently disengaging. 

A draft version is available at HolisticEquity.org under the holism tab.

Third, The Offer to Educate: How to Build Equity Without Selling a Bill of Goods is a 350-400 page book that presents a thorough rethinking of education in the light of Self-Determination Theory.

The book proposes to use memetic engineering solutions to catalyze the large-scale transformation of our school systems. 

With appropriate professional support these three products should be able to move through development to release within six to eighteen months. 

Releasing each in succession should give us momentum for building audience enthusiasm. 

Collectively they will provide an ideal mix for conference offerings as both products and the focus of workshops or keynotes. 

The international conference scene is familiar to me because I have presented at recent conferences in America, Europe, and Asia. 

Conclusion: You Can Help Make Innovative Education Reform Happen

To conclude, the second of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” is to “begin with the end in mind.” (Covey, 1998)

The end in our mind at Deeper Learning Advocates is enabling every student to have a realistic expectation that their enthusiasms will be cultivated in joyful schools by passionate teachers. 

The strategic goal is to jumpstart a market for SDT-informed memetically engineered school climate measures by creating the EdiE Fund for Equity Innovation. 

The more immediate goal is to create an audience through the Holistic Equity Media project in partnership with Attitutor, a company I founded and manage.

The media project is already underway with videos like this posted at HolisticEquity.org. 

A big thanks to both foundation and individual supporters who make this work possible.

The immediate challenge is getting venture philanthropists to help us get the media project off the ground so that industry leaders in education can demonstrate that they are ready to adopt the memetic engineering science for achieving equity in schools. 

Are YOU a venture philanthropist? 

Will you invest in jumpstarting this new memetic engineering approach to education reform?

If so, visit HolisticEquity.org to get in touch and start making a monthly contribution.

Even if you are not ready to make a financial commitment, I welcome you to visit and sign up for our newsletter to stay abreast of our progress as we lead the way to a whole new kind of education reform.

Thanks for watching.

References:

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