Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Great Reset: A Crisis (in K-12 Education) is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Richard Florida has an interesting article in the March issue of the Atlantic titled “How the Crash Will Reshape America." He talks about how big, international economic crises typically usher in a new economic paradigm, and then speculates on what this economic crises may foretell:
Economic crises tend to reinforce and accelerate the underlying, long-term trends within an economy. Our economy is in the midst of a fundamental long-term transformation—similar to that of the late 19th century, when people streamed off farms and into new and rising industrial cities. In this case, the economy is shifting away from manufacturing and toward idea-driven creative industries—and that, too, favors America’s talent-rich, fast-metabolizing places.

. . . the economy is different now. It no longer revolves around simply making and moving things. Instead, it depends on generating and transporting ideas. The places that thrive today are those with the highest velocity of ideas, the highest density of talented and creative people, the highest rate of metabolism. Velocity and density are not words that many people use when describing the suburbs.
I would argue that “our [schools are] in the midst of a fundamental long-term transformation,” shifting away from a model that values standardization and conformity toward one that values creativity and differentiation. I would also suggest that “velocity of ideas” and “density of talented and creative people” is what we would ideally hope for in our schools, but I wonder if our schools – as currently structured – allow those talented and creative people to flourish and explore those ideas.

This interview accompanied the article and is what spurred this post. He reiterates his “the world is not flat, it’s spiky” argument, and argues for great urban centers of creativity and economic activity.
But as you mentioned, we have this kind of mythology going around that somehow the rise of new technologies—communication and transport technologies, which shrink the world—will spread out our geography. We always have this kind of romantic notion that technology will free us from the dirty, the pathological, the slum-ridden, the unhealthful city, and that the world will spread itself out.

. . .There are two tendencies in the world economy. There is a great tendency for low-cost, fairly standardized stuff to spread itself out, and that’s where people say, “Oh my God, the world is flat.” But there’s also this counter-tendency for things to concentrate—to take advantage of these forces of agglomeration and human capital. So what I tried to argue is that that second tendency is very important. And now we have all sorts of World Bank reports talking about how productivity and performance are so much higher in urban areas, even in the emerging economies.

What I tried to do in this piece is say, “I don’t think this great crisis—or great ‘reset,’ as I like to call it—will change this trend. In fact, my hunch is that, coming out of this crisis, our geography will end up more concentrated than it was before.”
While I think he perhaps underestimates the power of technology to allow that "agglomeration" and to bring together "human capital" in geographically dispersed locations, his argument for bringing together people in dynamic environments focused on creativity and innovation makes a lot of sense to me (whether they are geographically concentrated or technologically connected). How many of us would describe our school as dynamic environments focused on creativity and innovation?

And then he says:
Well, I am worried, and I think many people are worried, that we would waste public investment on bailing out the industries of the past—on things like automotive bailouts, which promise to simply prop up and breathe life back into industries that certainly show their share of problems in international competition. And that’s why I like to think of this as a “great reset” rather than a crisis. What economic crises do is reset the conditions for technological innovation and consumption and demand.

But rethinking infrastructure changes the institutional rules of the game and the way people and industries organize themselves geographically. What that does is create new patterns of living, new patterns of working, new patterns of consumption, and new demand.

. . . So it’s important to spend money on the right kinds of projects and the right kinds of infrastructure.

. . . If we take as a first principle that we really have to invest in the creativity of each and every individual—and give people the right to express their creative talents in ways that they find interesting and relevant—then I think we will end up with a better future than we otherwise would have had.
The phrase “great reset” really resonated with me, not only in the economic way he was using it but also in terms of K-12 education. He quotes Stanford economist Paul Romer, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” and I think that applies directly to the current situation in K-12 education. The current economic crisis only amplifies and exacerbates the current crisis we are experiencing in our schools, and if we continue to “waste public investment on bailing out [schools] of the past,” then we will indeed be wasting this crisis.

Instead, we should be taking this opportunity to “reset” our schools, to “create new patterns of” teaching and learning and “spend our money on the right kind of projects and the rights kinds of infrastructure.” We need to “take as a first principle that we really have to invest in the creativity of each and every [teacher and student] – and give [teachers and students] the right to express their creative talents in ways that they find interesting and relevant.”

From the original article:
The United States, whatever its flaws, has seldom wasted its crises in the past. On the contrary, it has used them, time and again, to reinvent itself, clearing away the old and making way for the new. Throughout U.S. history, adaptability has been perhaps the best and most quintessential of American attributes . . . At critical moments, Americans have always looked forward, not back, and surprised the world with our resilience. Can we do it again?
At times of crisis, the eventual “winners” that emerge are those that are bold and seize the crisis to move forward, taking advantage of the altered landscape to achieve their mission in creative, innovative and powerful ways. Unfortunately, at the moment, I’m seeing very little evidence of bold thinking. So, in this time of multiple crises, I would challenge my school district, and all K-12 schools, to not waste this crisis but, instead, reinvent themselves and look forward, not back. If we do, then, like Richard Florida, “I think we will end up with a better future than we otherwise would have had.”


  1. Karl,

    You say that education needs to (will) shift "..away from a model that values standardization and conformity toward one that values creativity and differentiation."

    I would suggest that we add "Specialization" to the shift targets. I guess that differentiation does the same thing, but in education it has a connotation for being an instructional technique rather than a learning technique.

    -- dave --

  2. Karl,
    Outstanding article, thanks for linking to it!

  3. The analogy drawn between the present economic crisis and the crisis in K-12 education is interesting. The economy crisis has the potential of “ushering in a new economic paradigm with which money will be spent on the right kinds of projects and the right kinds of infrastructure and we will end up with a better future than we otherwise would have had”. The crisis in K-12 education has such potential? The present economy crisis is out there—we can “see” it while it is working on the old economic order. But, how many of us have realized the crisis in K-12 education and how much have we realized “standardization and conformity” in the educational system are suppressing both teachers’ and students’ creative talents? The answer may very probably be “not many” and “not much”. So instead of hoping that the crisis in K-12 education can reset our schools, create new patterns of teaching and learning, bring us a dynamic environment promoting creativity and innovation, we have to first of all think about what we need do to make the crisis in K-12 education realized—perhaps, this is the first step of not letting the crisis wasted.

  4. @David Warlick - I meant "differentiation" in terms of allowing students to pursue their own passions and not being restricted to one, set, prescribed curriculum. So if you meant "specialization" in the same way, then I'm with you.

    @SUNNY - Well, I suppose you may be correct that not everyone sees the crisis in education. Actually, I think everyone sees a crisis in education, but we don't agree on what the crisis is. I think that's a big part of why I participate in my learning network - to try to engage more folks and encourage them to see the same crisis I'm seeing.

  5. If you look at the history of US schools, they have always been in crisis of one sort or the other and changing schools is the subject of endless treatises, books, and presentations from as far back as I've researched. So part of me, the former classroom teacher, flinches when people talk of crisis in the schools. It's like hearing that our security alerts in the airport are code orange - when have they been different since the setting of color-coded security?

    Yet, I very much agree with the core ideas in the article, particularly the need to invest in the creativity of teachers and students. The school culture does seem to beat this out of people at an early age and it's difficult to know which part of that vicious cycle to interrupt first. I think that teachers should be our first focus. Spend a day in your local school, especially an inner city school, and see how beleaguered teachers are. We have to provide rich and inviting learning environments so learning can happen. The larger question is how to do this and where to start?

  6. @Marianna Adams - I agree that many folks have preached "crisis" in school before, but somehow I feel like this one is different (and, I know, all those previous folks felt the same way). We're looking at possibly a massive shift in the way capitalism functions for generations to come, we're looking at a massive shift in the way we gather, vet, and publish information (see my recent blog post about the Rocky Mountain News), and we're looking at massive disruption to normal operating practices due to technology.

    I think all these "shifts" are fundamentally different than the crises that schools faced previously, and I think it provides both a tremendous opportunity and a tremendous danger depending on how we react (or not) to it.

  7. Great article. I would have to agree that there is going to be a shift towards differentiation and creativity. I think we underestimate creativity and stick to conformity.