The initial design influences everything else

If you pit a good performer against a bad system, the system will win almost every time.

This quote from Rummler & Brache in Improving Performance, sums up many of the symptoms of hierarchical systems, whether they be schools, businesses or even prisons.

The great work to be done at the beginning of this century is the democratization of the workplace. Efficiency and effectiveness are not enough, and too often become mechanistic. It’s time to discard industrial management models that emphasize command and control and ensure that individuals at all levels have opportunities to engage in and question the system.

Without questioning, things can quickly go awry.

Gary Stager discussed the well-known Milgram Experiments, conducted in the 1960′s to see how far people would go in administering electric shocks to learners. These experiments were recently replicated by ABC News and Stager picks up the direct link to public education [please read the whole article]:

One of the subjects in the television program was a 7th grade teacher who explained that she didn’t stop shocking the learner because as a teacher she had learned when a student’s complaints were phoney. I thought to myself, “Has she electrocuted many students?”

The teacher asked the researcher, “There isn’t going to be any lawsuit from this medical facility, right?” When told that the teacher was not liable, she replied, “That’s what I needed to know.” It is however worth noting that this was after she induced the maximum shock and the learner demanded that the experiment be terminated.

This is why we need to change the entire education system – constraining curriculum; compulsory testing; useless homework; irrelevant subjects; classrooms cut off from the world; systemic bullying; etc. More or better teachers won’t help; we need to change the system.

In this interview, Dr. Philip Zimardo discusses the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, where students played their roles as guards or prisoners and abuses started within 24 hours:

But on the second morning, the prisoners rebelled; the guards crushed the rebellion and then instituted stern measures against these now “dangerous prisoners”. From then on, abuse, aggression, and eventually sadistic pleasure in degrading the prisoners became the daily norm. Within thirty-six hours the first prisoner had an emotional breakdown and had to be released, followed in kind by similar prisoner breakdowns on each of the next four days.

As Churchill said, “First we shape our structures, and then our structures shape us“. This reminds me of the question about who is the most important person on board a ship. Is it the Captain, the Navigator or the Engineer? Actually, it’s the Architect, because the initial design influences everything else.

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you cannot change the way things work in an organization. The problem may be the organizational model itself and it may be better to leave and create an alternative model than help keep a flawed one going.

Clay Burell had guest blogger Bill Farren discussing the hidden curriculum of school architectural design. He asked what hidden messages are our schools themselves asking by their inherent design:

  • Did the building’s designers take into consideration its location?
  • Who decided how (if) it should be built?
  • Does the building make an attempt to connect students with their outside world?
  • What does the formal, intentional curriculum teach?
  • How is this formal, intentional curriculum taught?
  • How is the school run?
  • How is security portrayed?
  • What is sold or advertised on campus?

There was an article I read many years ago, but never see cited, about designing learning environments. It’s Rodney Fulton’s SPATIAL model (1991) [my emphasis added]:

While a body of knowledge does exist that documents the relationships between learning and physical environment, there are problems that need to be resolved before the present level of understanding can be systematically advanced. One problem is that common vocabulary does not exist. Thus, in the literature, concepts are often described with similar but not identical terminology. Conversely, the same terms are used for similar but not exactly the same concepts. But this confusion in vocabulary is only a symptom of the fundamental problem: the lack of a conceptual model that explores relationships of physical environment to learning rather than to behavior in general. Architectural models address built environments, emphasizing both interior and exterior features of building design that allow, encourage, prohibit, or inhibit various behaviors. Psychological models discuss environmental attributes that set conditions for or even control human behavior. Sociological models emphasize the importance of environment in terms of how it facilitates human interactions. By emphasizing individual appreciation of the environment, aesthetic models address the relationship of values to human behavior. Workplace training models, including human factors engineering, emphasize the fit between environment and person and seek out optimal conditions for performance.

Each of these perspectives can add to a global understanding of the learning environment; however, a model that addresses learners in learning environments is a needed first step in refining educational research. The model described here – satisfaction-participation-achievement-transcendent/immanent attributes-authority-layout (SPATIAL) — can serve as a fundamental basis for organizing research designed to identify relationships between and among components of the learning environment and attributes of the learner. Further, this model has potential for weaving together findings from architectural, psychological, sociological, aesthetic, and human factors engineering studies.

Rodney Fulton responded, when I originally wrote this post in 2008:

I found it very interesting that some 17 years after I published the SPATIAL Model in a Jossey-Bass publication there was discussion that included the model. I am not aware of any significant use of the model or of any real impact on the field of Adult Education in the United States. I have longe since moved on from the field of Adult Education and am now very involved in Public Education at the Elementary level in the US. But again, it was gratifying to see my model referenced in 2008. If you know of any other people using or interested in the model, I’d be happy to hear from you. Thanks Rodney Fulton

There is still much structural work to be done.


Photo by Atelier Teee

Note: this post is an update of two previous posts from 2008

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