Business & Education: Some Uncommon Sense About Learning — Part 1

High-performing employees are no different than gifted students, nor are the approaches for creating them

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When the “Johnnie Can’t Read” stories began attracting national attention in the United States during the 1970’s, the educational “crisis” was seen to be primarily the problem of professional educators and parents. It was almost another decade before expressions of concern began to creep into the business press. Escalating portions of training budgets devoted to remedial skills were the first warning signs. The greatest concern, however, was evoked by a gradually dawning realization that, even if the “basics” were well taught, traditional education systems were still producing workers who were ill-equipped to deal with the increasingly complex demands of work in the 1980’s, let alone the 90’s and beyond. As increasing numbers of businesses move toward team based structures and delegated leadership and decision making, this concern has launched a widening search — in the schools and at the workplace — for more successful ways to prepare people for modern business.

Two independent, yet fundamentally similar, efforts — a ground-breaking eight-year-old educational research and development project, and a thirty-year-old approach to organization development — offer valuable insights into what those ways might look like. As a means of understanding what they have to offer, we examine here the fundamental principles which these two independent efforts share, and the results of their application, both in schools and in the workplace.

In the early 1960’s, an international consumer products company based in Cincinnati, Ohio, initiated what has become the foundational effort for many new approaches to work redesign, in manufacturing as well as other functions. Originally labeled a socio-technical system (or technician system, by some) because of the attempts to reintegrate the social aspects of the workplace with the technical aspects, it has evolved over the last thirty years into a highly sophisticated and wholistic organizational effectiveness technology which is being used by businesses around the world to develop increasingly complex and sophisticated organizational and individual capabilities. The approach in its current form is now more accurately referred to as Developmental Organization Technology, since it encompasses much more than the original social and technical elements.

In the late 1980s, a research and development project was funded at the University of Arizona, College of Education, to explore and develop a radically different approach to public education in the United States. Since its founding, the HOTS Project (Higher Order Thinking Skills) has involved schools in thirty-three states, and over 5000 students. Documented results include an extraordinary increase in basic skills and self esteem, as well as a capability and motivation to respond to complex and difficult situations far exceeding average students.

One of the frequently noted aspects of Developmental Organization Technology is its success in creating self-sustaining business environments which promote continuous development of the production process, of the product produced, and of all of the people involved in that process. Although completely independent of Developmental Organization Technology, the HOTS Project was built upon, and attributes its success to, many of the same development principles and concepts as the Developmental Organization Technology. Because of this fundamental parallelism, the extensive documentation and evaluations of the HOTS Project successes in the schools helps to shed light on the reasons why Developmental Organization Technology has been so successful in developing people in businesses, as well as providing guidance for future development efforts, both in the workplace and at school. This paper describes the shared underlying structures and principles that are necessary to create a major organizational transformation of the magnitude of the changes achieved in the HOTS program

At a time when falling test scores continued to dominate the news coming from the world of education, the results posted by schools using the HOTS approach were even more remarkable, particularly in view of the fact that most of students entering the HOTS program are considered to be remedial or at-risk students:

  1. Ten percent (10%) of the students were reclassified as gifted at the end of one year, and thirty-six percent (36%) had made and retained a position on the school honor roll.
  2. Of the four students ranked as the top academic learners in one school, two were HOTS participants who had come from the bottom of the class to be included in the top ranks.
  3. Participating students gained an average of 15% on standardized reading and math tests in one year, or 67% above the national average in reading and 123% above the national average in math. The second year results continued to exceed national averages and competency continued to accelerate.
  4. Twenty percent (20%) of eleven and twelve year-olds in the program tested beyond the 18-year-old level. Fifty percent were above their age level (based on national averages), 90% in the first year.
  5. Significant improvement in every student’s self-concept was noted: they report feeling increasing confidence to succeed at levels significantly beyond those which they originally felt capable of achieving.
  6. A tough inner city school, after one year, no longer had any discipline problems with any of the students in the program.

Given these impressive and well documented results, one would assume that school districts and educational institutions would be racing to integrate this approach into their systems. One would assume that businesses would also rush to integrate this approach into their learning processes, given what these statistics could translate to in the work world (e.g. a workforce increasing its capability at a rate from 67–123% faster than the competition; half of the major promotions into new challenging positions coming from people considered un-promotable or “topped out”; workers formerly considered discipline problems becoming fascinated, committed, and self-disciplined contributors; etc.).

While the HOTS approach has spread steadily over the eight years of its existence, it has been a slow and sometimes arduous growth process. In part, this is due to the fact that sophisticated capabilities are required of teachers to develop and lead this process in the classroom. Such capabilities can obviously be learned, however, and their requirement provides only a partial answer to this slow expansion. The major barrier to the HOTS program expansion and to the fundamentally related Developmental Organization Technology is, rather, their violation of all our accepted truisms about learning and the processes that best support it — a violation of the paradigm that has shaped the development of learning processes, in business as well as education, for the last century.

Based on the eight years of research findings, what seems like “common sense” regarding how to educate or to support learning, is actually “upside down” from what works. Copernicus was not the first human to discover that violating a predominant paradigm is a daunting and often dangerous undertaking. So powerful is an entrenched paradigm in shaping our thinking that a major crisis or catastrophe is often required to shake us free of its confining definition of reality. Thus it is not surprising that both education systems and business organizations regularly follow the same learning models that education has used for decades — models that, according to the HOTS findings, not only do not achieve desired results, but actually work against their becoming possibilities. Current research indicates that businesses may not only be recipients of insufficiently and inappropriately educated graduates, but are compounding the problems by repeating the same processes based on the same “conventional wisdom.”

In attempting to describe the distinctiveness of their processes, one of the HOTS research papers compares key elements of their approach to conventional wisdom. By substituting “job objectives” for “curriculum objectives” and “non-hierarchical” for “ungraded”, one can use the same contrasts to understand the distinctiveness of Developmental Organization Technology in relation to traditional business training approaches. (see table)

Although this paper will not explicate the foundations of these two paradigms, I refer the readers to the article “Self-Organizing Leadership,” in New Traditions in Business, for further research.

Both the Developmental Organization Technology and the HOTS approach are structured as a network of interconnected elements. The materials/curriculum are sophisticated instruments that are designed with appropriate levels of ambiguity, requiring the participants to struggle to understand what is in the material and to extract meaning from the ideas that are there. This material becomes increasingly complex over time. As the participants work with the materials, they are encouraged to express the ideas that are emerging in their thinking and then to reflect on their own thinking processes. The discovery process itself leads to improved confidence and self esteem. Over time, this process builds an increased level of intelligence in the participants. Both approaches require a sophisticated level of capabilities in the “teachers”, including competence in interactive questioning processes that induce self-reflection; an ability to spontaneously design learning processes to fit the current stage of development of a continuously evolving learner; an understanding of and ability to apply systems thinking; the ability to manage their own state in an environment of ambiguity and complexity; and a commitment to their own continuous learning and development.

In the second part of this piece, we’ll see the surprising results of these approaches in both education and business, beyond the already impressive increases in performance noted in the classroom study.

Sr Fellow Social Innovation, Babson | Best Selling/Multi-Award Winning Author | Regenerative Paradigm Educator

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