Elegant Systems Part II: Education, Deconstructed

We’re pretty good at recognizing dysfunction when we see it.  But when the system, in this case Pk-12 education, is so complex and multi-faceted, our understanding of the shortcomings is inherently limited, which in turn limits our ability to envision, engineer, and monitor change.

Toward this end, I find that deconstructing an idealized version of the system through identifying the basic elements of outputs, inputs, internal mechanisms, and quality control system is a very useful exercise. Although the resulting analysis will be purely conceptual, it will serve as a comparison for the current system, thus allowing for a gap analysis and resulting action plan, both of which are sorely needed. To be clear, for the purposes of this exercise, this post will focus primarily on the idealized system with future posts to complete the analysis and hopefully give rise to action steps and pilot initiatives (in case anyone is still with me at that point…).


In a highly functioning education system, the outputs would be graduates who possess the skills and dispositions that will allow them to participate in and contribute to high functioning communities. If we were to fully map out a functioning system we would need to operationalize and unpack these component constructs, but for our purposes we can simply point out that they would include economic, civic, and cultural contributions associated with idealized distributions of human capital and engagement which in turn would need to be mapped to the definition of high functioning communities.  My main point here is to suggest that the driving output of a functional education system would be the ideal citizenry and their related dispositions and skillsets.

It should be noted that our ability to design (or redesign) an elegant and high functioning system is inherently determined or limited by our ability to identify, operationalize and recognize our intended outputs. Put another way- regardless of the quality of teachers, curricula, and all the other elements of an education system that we tend to focus on- if we don’t know what we’re trying to produce, then we can’t make sure our system is working, or fix it when it’s obviously not.


In the world of education, the inputs are the students.  It’s an interesting question to ask what the students would look like in a high functioning system.  One way to approach this is to point out that in any system the difference between the inputs and outputs is addressed through the internal mechanisms or processes.  If the inputs are very close to the desired outputs, then presumably less work needs to be done.  But if the inputs are very different, then more intense (or transformational) processing is required.  On the other hand, if the inputs are varied, then differentiation and customization must be built into the system to ensure a consistent output.

So following this logic, the most efficient system would begin with inputs that are maximally “ready” to become the intended “outputs”, namely young children who are ready to participate in and contribute to the needs and opportunities within communities.  Clearly, the more prepared they are with regard to key competences and dispositions (if they were to be defined), the less complex the design of the internal mechanisms must be. However, regardless of the necessary degree of differentiation and customization, the system (and related systems) should be able to be tweaked and re-engineered to ENSURE a consistent and high quality output, if that output is adequately clarified and defined.  After all, that’s what a high functioning system does.

I can’t help pointing out that if the system’s ability to produce successful outputs is solely contingent upon the quality of the inputs, with no other connected systems ensuring that this initial expectation is met, then it’s really not a system at all and will fail, by design. 

Internal Mechanisms and Processes:

In an education system the “magic” for taking the inputs (students) and producing the outputs (the desired citizenry) lies in the teachers, environment, and the experiences that together afford those skills, competencies and dispositions to develop.  Obviously there are many variables that contribute to the complexity of the necessary “magic” but for the purposes of this exercise we’ll keep it very simple. We’ll assume that in our idealized system children come with diverse skills, passions, and interests as well as some degree of varying readiness and skillsets.  So even in a well-controlled high-functioning system, we would expect a high degree of variability with regard to inputs.  On the output end, if we were to fully clarify and build out our notion of an idealized citizenry and idealized distribution of human capital, we would presumably look for diversity in terms of talents and contributions, while seeking consistency in core dispositions and skillsets.

By design, the internal mechanisms and processes would need to create a pathway from the starting inputs, whatever they were, to a place within the intended outputs.  In order to create this pathway, the internal mechanisms (curriculum, environment, experiences, etc…) would need to be closely calibrated to the settings of individual students including their needs and talents, as well as the opportunities on the other end of the system.  Because of the high degree of variability on both ends (inputs and outputs), the system in the middle would have to be very flexible, responsive, and sensitive to maintain connections to both ends. (See my recent TEDx talk http://youtu.be/NpNwz0zk7ns for more about this notion of connecting to the beginning and end of the story….).

Quality Control

If a system is to be effective and sustainable within an ever-changing high stakes environment, then the quality control system becomes absolutely critical.  Like with any other important system, the quality control mechanisms should ensure consistently high quality outputs and timely repairs when problems or abnormalities arise. The quality control system should ideally also assess alignment with other related systems towards the broader health and viability of the communities related to the overall vision.

It’s important to point out that although absolutely critical to the ultimate and continued success of the system, the quality control system (which includes assessments) is not and should not be the driver of the system, which is in our case the output of a prepared citizenry. The quality control system is there specifically to ensure that the outputs will be achieved – consistently and with high fidelity- as a function of the system.

It should also be noted that even with all components intact, this idealized system is highly fragile due to its inherent sensitivity (which is necessary for its success). Because it is responsive to the opportunities, and expectations of the broader communities and surrounding context it can easily be recalibrated or thrown out of balance.

Namely, if assessments or any other component of the quality control system (or virtually any other element, component, or metric) is elevated through some weighted incentivization or punishment in a way that promotes it as the functional output, then the system will reorganize itself to maximize that “output”.  This is especially prone to happen when the ideal output (in our case prepared citizenry) hasn’t been identified, unpacked, or encouraged.  Simply put, in the absence of a powerful and recognized vision with clearly articulated goals, the functioning expectations or standards will become default outputs and the system will reorganize, leveraging any available space, flexibility, or control to do so.  It simply can’t help itself.

Interestingly, if most of the internal mechanisms are rigid and fixed (through mandates and policies) along with the expectations for the outputs (such as firm thresholds or pass rates), then the only component that can possibly be manipulated, squeezed, or controlled will be the very inputs that the system was supposedly designed to support and cultivate…..the students….

(I’m curious to know if anyone is actually with me at this point, so send me a quick note if this makes any sense at all… otherwise I’ll just work through this in private….)


About mbhuber2013

convener and co-founder of BTEP, instructor for Tanzania Study Abroad course; Associate Dean for Undergraduate Research and Experiential Learning at University at Buffalo

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