Instructional Monocultures

976838_palayAn instructional monoculture is a world where all children are expected to learn the same things, the same way, at the same time.

Are we building instructional monocultures in our schools? By we I mean publishers, policy makers, and district level decision makers. The forces of conformity are driving hard against the need for instructional diversity.

More importantly in the Web 2.0 world is it even possible to assert this level of control? Is it an effort doomed to failure as Citizen Marketers invade traditional publishing and turn it on it’s ear.

What may save us all from ourselves is the emerging Web 2.0 culture of mashups, collaboration, open source, and people empowered as digital publishers. As publishers this directly threatens our current business model and the short term temptation is to dig in and try to protect it. But as many other industries have already learned the forces at play here are inexorable.

Agricultural monocultures are an efficient way to drive up yields in the short term. In computer science monocultures are universally used platforms (like Microsoft). In both cases the by standardizing (recognize that word?) you gain significant efficiencies. But you also create fragility and susceptibility to catastrophe. The Irish Potato Famine is an agricultural example. In computing almost all viruses are on Windows.

Just as genetic diversity in a population decreases the chance of a single disease wiping out a population, the diversity of software systems on a network similarly limits the destructive potential of viruses. – Wikipedia

Textbook publishers have assumed that their materials were complete systems used by teachers. In reality teachers have adapted and blended the materials with other resources. But each year the package of materials around a textbook becomes more complex and larger (and more expensive) as the product tries to be all things to all people.

675124_one_way_signPolicy makers, in a vain attempt to assert control and drive standards, have become increasingly strident in their push to have every moment of every school year scripted and directed by a committee of designated experts. To abet this some have deliberately bred a mistrust of teachers – “we can’t have them making decisions…” In an unholy alliance with adoption committees we have seen attempts to drive a single direct instruction product across an entire state (CA) and by design drive all other approaches out of the classroom.

District decision makers, under the gun to deliver on the promises of NCLB have seized more and more control from school sites in selecting supplemental materials. Even when they know teachers need some latitude their fear of failing AYP drives them to assert more control.

But what students really need are individual instruction plans – and plenty of people are working on making that a possibility. But until we change how we create materials, how they are adopted, and the decision making process that select resources we won’t make much progress on this promise. Also – if we are going to individualize instruction we are need to empower teachers to make decisions.

In a world that is changing rapidly having a monoculture is a recipe for disaster. We need to be able to adapt to quickly shifting priorities and needs. Biological systems do this by promoting diversity – the more options you have to respond the more adaptable and resilient you are.

Does this mean that standards don’t have a place? Absolutely not. There are clear taxonomies of knowledge and logical ladders of learning that are efficient. But – how we move through those should be open to variations in learning style, timing, context, culture, and sometimes just whimsy.

There – I feel better. Rant complete (for now).

Here are a few suggestions for publishers on how to build products that fit into the Web 2.0 culture rather than fight it.