Do you have children? If not, no problem, because you might recall these yourself: the parent conference days! This ‘running-around-at-the-school-campus-and-looking-for-the-room’ where teachers are waiting for parents and their school-kids. Depending on the pupils’ ‘performance level’, the numbers of meetings were few or many and likewise torture or purely a matter of duty.

Recently I also had to attend these at my child’s school, and before I realized, it was all over: barely ten minutes per teacher were scheduled to receive short feedback on your child’s performance in class.

Since this ‘parent-conference-day,’ my motivation to encourage my child to go to school has further decreased towards an all-time low: personally, I wouldn’t attend that same school, maybe no school at all!
Actually, my child’s school is a renowned ‘Gymnasium’, situated in a well to do part of a relatively wealthy little town, not far away from Düsseldorf – and not a rundown place in a suburb of some desolate city in the ‘Ruhrgebiet’. But that obviously doesn’t mean anything!
Now I hope that my kid will survive school time without damage. Maybe she will discover her true talents during her time at home, or later in her further education.

To me, it seems that it’s not because of the teachers that this school struggles to develop my child’s competencies in a holistic matter. They try their best within the boundaries of what the ‘school system’ opposes on them, and with the methods, this ‘system’ provides to them. And these methods – which resemble a great similarity to those that are at use in many corporations and organizations – are not centered on the human, but on the process. They treat education as a process and the educated as to the product, in the same way as the industry uses processes to produce products and services. And like within every well-managed process, the development gets standardized and quality checked (What, repeatedly an F? Please leave the class!). Such processes are great for erecting skyscrapers, but not for building personal competencies.

Here the school system is falling into the same trap in which many companies are caught as well: they stick to a system approach that stems from the industrial age, which standardizes processes and thinks mechanistically. This system treats pupils (or customers) as users who equally have to be standardized. Such an approach is centered on the ability to continuously check itself and its performance, and on the goal to have everything ‘under control’: it’s a technical system, not a human one. These systems likewise need to determine how things have to be, not how they could be: in it, there is no place for individualism and non-aligned behavior, or for uncertainties and alternatives. But we all know that humans are all about just that: individual, not aligned, uncertain and full of other options!

In a short burst of enthusiasm, I addressed this observation to one of the teachers I met, about the fact that it is so difficult to hold a standardized lesson to a class full of individuals. She immediately went along with my thoughts, and we blew the scheduled ’10 minutes’ until the next parent insisted on his term. The teacher shared my opinion that it would be better to focus on the differences in kids, instead of getting them all on an equal norm. Unfortunately, she’s only a French teacher, and she did not see an opportunity to change this from her position. Upon which I could report that it is the same in the industry: also there many desperately stick to technocratic processes and try to enforce all into a manageable norm.
Both of us had to release a deep sigh, and with the hope that things would turn for the better, we said goodbye until next year.

The outstanding spokesman for better education, Sir Ken Robinson, found a great analogy when placed the education in a ‘death valley’. “In there, he said, in this unpopulated desert nothing is really dead: it’s just dormant. It looks dead because it never rains. If it does eventually rain, the dormant organisms flourish. Same counts for the dormant talents of pupils: a fitting ‘rain’ and they can unfold!”

Such a ‘rain’ is nothing less than a human-centered approach that focuses on the latent talents of the individual to let these flourish.And this has a striking resemblance to the economy where a lot seems dead until a new ‘rain’ can release the ‘dormant’ resources. The question is how to water these seemingly dead organizations? Do you take a watering can? Or does it take a deluge? One that flushes out all the pure mechanical thinking and brings human-centered thinking to the surface!

Whether you take a water-can approach or just flood the place: to water your ‘death valley’ you foremost need a lot of courage and conviction, and the ability to see that things are not dead, but dormant.

You need to focus on what things could be, and not only on what you see: have a design focus!

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