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Waiting For "Superman" and How Design Thinking Can Make Us the Superheroes We've Been Waiting for

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Note to the reader: The crisis in America's education system is such a huge threat to our country that I have written a long (think Frank Rich) response to Waiting For "Superman". I have tremendous respect for the film makers -- one of whom I've had the opportunity to interact with twice -- but (for reasons I explain in my essay) there's no way they could have known they were leaving critical information out of their film. I discuss that information below, along with Design Thinking which is the key to seeing what's missing from what the film presents. Thank you for taking the time to read what I've written. I look forward to responding to your comments.

I've had the pleasure of seeing Waiting For "Superman" twice, including at an event on Thursday night sponsored by NYC's Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century political club.

There's so much in this film, I definitely recommend seeing it twice. By doing so, I was better able to see that -- while the film presents a compelling story of a system in crisis -- there is something the film doesn't mention at all: that Design Thinking can turn us all into the education reform Supermen and Superwomen we have been waiting for, which is the only way to destroy the monster that has plunged America's education system into crisis.

Early in the film, Geoffrey Canada (of the Harlem Children's Zone) says that when he got his education degree in 1975 he expected to have education in America straightened out in about three years. That's how optimistic he was. But that was before he ran into "the system". Now -- 35 years later -- while Mr. Canada has been able to improve education in Harlem (a not insignificant accomplishment), education in America is still a complete mess. It's still dominated by "the system," which is a monster dangerous enough to rival any that Superman ever faced.

The Monster Challenging Us All

Waiting For "Superman" describes that monster in some detail. It says it was created fifty-plus years ago, at a time when the majority of students were expected to become farmers or factory workers. In the world of the 1950's, most people were expected to do essentially the same thing every day for the rest of their lives. Every worker was part of the great "economic engine" of the United States. If you didn't wind up working in a factory or on a farm, you were assumed headed for some other "same thing every day" job in a field such as accounting.

The True Nature Of This Monster

That's what the film says about the system. But what it doesn't say is what the system doesn't support: Students who want to be entrepreneurs... innovators... challengers of conventional thinking. Sorry, that wasn't part of the equation. The system was designed in the 1950's, when conformity was king.

After all, being an effective factory worker meant adopting a kind of "assembly line mentality." You had to become a human "cog" in the giant machinery of the company for which you worked, which meant (a) doing what you're told, (b) not asking questions, and (c) being afraid to make mistakes. The classic sign on the factory wall back then said "We pay you to work, not to think."

That's the kind of worker our educational system was designed to produce when it was first created, and that's the kind of worker our system is designed to produce today. Unfortunately, this is the exact opposite of the creative, problem-solving, critical thinking workers -- and citizens -- America needs! But this point isn't made in the film.

One thing Waiting For "Superman" does do is unintentionally confirm how "assembly line thinking" is the system's intended result. It does this by animating the educational process so that it appears to consist of knowledge being poured into the heads of children and of children proceeding down different conveyor belts to either high or low quality classroom settings. This is what we knew how to do in the 1950's: set up a mechanical system to produce workers who would fit into a mechanical employment reality. Today educational experts -- those who put human development ahead of antiquated industrial policy needs -- know that real education involves much more.

Real education does not treat students as empty vessels meant to be filled with some sub-set of what knowledge is already known. Real education creates a love of learning that continues for the rest of a person's life, because the educational process recognizes that knowing a basic set of facts and foundational skills (like reading) is not enough to create a well-rounded human being.

Why The Film Misses This Critical Perspective

Why doesn't the film take up the issue of altering the overall design of this monster? Probably because -- and I don't blame the filmmakers for this -- the vast majority of Americans have been taught that solving problems consists of fixing the most visibly broken parts of what isn't working. This is called analytic thinking.

Analytic thinking is a machine age concept that treats all problems like a car with a dead battery. Fix the battery and the car will run. But if -- based on changes in the larger environment in which you are traveling -- you really need to be in a boat or an airplane, you are out of luck. Analytic thinking doesn't give you the thinking tools to ask whether you should be in a car or not.

Because of its analytic orientation to the crisis, Waiting For "Superman" focuses on two "broken parts" of the existing system: teacher performance and the availability of quality schools. And it ends with words on the screen that say "The systems is broken. But we know how to fix it. All we need to do is..." and then it refers to those broken parts.

Redesigning -- Not Fixing -- Systems

Once again, I do not blame the film makers. Regrettably, very few Americans think in terms of "redesigning systems" naturally. And the only way to learn to think this way is to study engineering or architecture in college.

Engineers and architects are taught that when something doesn't work you should see if its fundamental design -- the collection of ideas believed to be true when the system was first set up -- might be obsolete. Engineers and architects are taught that -- in order to make a system work -- you must replace those ideas which may have been true in the past but are no longer true today. This is called "redesigning the system."

To solve America's education crisis, many more of us must -- at a minimum -- understand that this "redesigning the system" concept exists. We must learn that fixing the visibly broken parts of systems will not get us the change we need... not if the larger world in which that system exists has changed since when the system was first developed.

We do not all need to learn how to think like engineers and architects, but we must learn that this way of thinking -- Design Thinking -- exists... that it is an optional way of looking for solutions to our problems.

My Interaction With The Film's Producer

While Waiting For "Superman" never asks the question "What kind of educational system should America really have?", its producer -- Lesley Chilcott -- recognized the point I'm making here to some degree when I mentioned it (using only a couple of sentences to describe it of course) during the Q&A session with her after Thursday's screening of the film.

In my question, I pointed out that Waiting For "Superman" ends by saying "The system is broken." Then I said that what it should really say is "The system is both broken and obsolete. It needs to be redesigned so it will produce creative, collaborative problem solvers, not just fixed as if the fundamental design is perfectly okay." I give Ms. Chilcott credit for hearing me and saying she would adjust her talking points in the future. My hope now is that she will also read this essay, so she can get a deeper understanding of the point I was making.

What The Film Could Say To Make Its Story Complete

In fact, if I could wave a magic wand, Ms. Chilcott would add a new ending to Waiting For "Superman" that reflects this "redesign, don't just fix" concept and backs it up with examples. Or perhaps she'd decide to make a new film called Finding Superman, which would show those people who are using Design Thinking to transform -- not just fix -- educational systems they control. I'm wishing for this magic wand because -- while Waiting For "Superman" describes the obsolete nature of the current system and its most obvious broken parts -- there are two critical chapters that must be added if the complete story of how to reform (actually "transform" is the word I would use) America's dysfunctional education system is to be told.

Preventing Students From Developing Assembly Line Thinking

Those two chapters are: (1) that there are schools that have eliminated the educational methods that produce "assembly line thinking" in their students, and (2) that -- in a way similar to how Sputnik's launch in 1957 made us realize the importance of science education -- creating a sustainable future for humanity should cause us to teach collaboration, innovation, and design thinking (aka Systems Thinking) in our schools from now on.

I didn't have time tell Ms. Chilcott about any schools that have eliminated "assembly line thinking," but I gave her assistant a book on the subject. "Turning Learning Right Side Up" by Russell L. Ackoff and Daniel Greenberg (2008 by Wharton School Publishing) provides both the theory underlying the kind of education system we need today and tells the story of the Sudbury Valley School, which has been developing and using this theory for over 40 years.

An Education System For A Sustainable Future

I did briefly touch on the sustainability subject in the final comment I made to Ms. Chilcott. In a bit of "stretch thinking," I told the following story related to my take on who the prototypical "Superman" her movie says we are waiting for is.

In 1983 I met a man who was to me a Superman, because he had superhuman abilities when it came to thinking about society's problems. That man was Dr. R. Buckminster Fuller. And the educational system he envisioned was based on the revolutionary goal of teaching collaboration and innovation to the country as a whole, so that every member of society could live a happy, prosperous life. While the term "sustainability" wasn't used back then, Buckminster Fuller used the phrase "doing more with less;" and he said it would lead us to "a world that works for everyone with no one left out."

An education system with a sustainable future as its ultimate aim (instead of creating assembly line workers) is an education system worthy of a nation that wants to continue leading the world. And fortunately, work has already been done that can help us make this so.

Not only does the Sudbury Valley School and "Turning Learning Right Side Up" exist as templates to follow, but there are other education system transformation experts who understand these principles. One of them is Franklin Schargel (the former Assistant Principal at George Westinghouse High School in Brooklyn). Franklin consults internationally on preventing students from dropping out of school and has written numerous books on the subject. In addition to his education background, Franklin studied with the pioneers of Systems Thinking: W. Edwards Deming, Russ Ackoff, and Myron Tribus.

Every system must have both an aim and a method for getting there. And the aim of "an educated population" is incomplete, because it doesn't answer the question "In order to do what?" I suggest that creating a sustainable future (or "a world that works for everyone") is not only a perfect fit for the leaders we Americans say we are but it's also an exciting, challenging and hopeful aim that will inspire America's children to want to be in school.

The Only Way Out Of This Crisis

I have included some videos about Sudbury Valley School, Buckminster Fuller, and Design/Systems Thinking below. If you will take the time to watch them, they will significantly deepen your ability to start the journey I suggest every American who cares about education must start: a journey to becoming your own Superman or Superwoman.... a journey where we will all become the Superheroes we have been waiting for.... because we will know that redesigning -- not fixing -- America's education system is the only way out of this crisis.

Towards the end of Waiting for "Superman," a scene from the 1950's TV show the Adventures of Superman is shown. In that scene, Superman saves a school bus from crashing, and -- when Lois Lane asks what happened -- Superman looks at the unconscious bus driver and says "Someone destroyed his ability to think."

I am asking all of you to do the opposite. I am asking you to begin developing the ability to think differently... to think like a designer... or, at a minimum, to be aware that this kind of thinking exists. Because unless enough of us do, we are going to continue believing that the only thing needed to fix a system that doesn't work is to fix its broken parts. And if that's all we do, the the monster -- the system -- will survive.

A critical mass of those concerned about education must learn that "fixing something that doesn't work" must include examining the design of that "something"... and going through a fundamental redesign effort, if it turns out that the current design is obsolete.

If enough of us learn to approach America's education crisis this way, we will finally defeat this monster: a monster built for an era whose time has passed... and a monster that is robbing our children of their futures.

Correction: In an earlier version of this essay, I misspelled Geoffrey Canada's last name as "Calendar". I apologize for this mistake.

Videos For Further Research And Study

Sudbury Valley School featured at the 2000 Arthur Andersen International Conference, Learning in the 21st Century:

"Turning Learning Right Side Up," Russ Ackoff and Dan Greenberg (Part 1 of 9):

(Please make the time to watch all 9 parts if possible.)

Buckminster Fuller profiled on CBS Sunday Morning in 2009:

Russell Ackoff (Pioneer of Design/Systems Thinking) 2007 BBC interview, Part 1 (career overview; 2007 book "Management f-laws," analytic vs systems thinking):



 Ackoff interview Part 2 (globalization; design thinking; business education):

Ackoff interview Part 3 (K-12 education system redesign):