An Interview with Dr. Phil Schlechty

February 10 | Posted by Marc Simmons | Editorial, Education, Interviews: On the Air, Profiles in Education, Reform Tags: , , , , ,

A few years ago I had the opportunity to sit down and interview Dr. Phil Schlechty.  Dr. Schlechty is the author of many reform-minded books about education such as Shaking up the Schoolhouse, Inventing Better Schools, and Leading for Learning.  His perspective is so timeless and relevant to the plight of education today, that I have decided to post the transcript here.

Interview with Dr. Phillip Schlechty

August 9th, 2006

Marc Simmons: Sitting with me is Dr. Phil Schlechty, and he has agreed to answer a few questions that we have. As I’ve mentioned, this interview is designed to help induct or familiarize educators with your work. I know induction is kind of a key word of yours, and I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind sharing your views of the current state of education, trials of education and maybe even, perhaps, a glimpse of the future of education.

Phil Schlechty: Well, this may sound a bit dramatic, but I really believe that public education is on the cusp right now. And the next 10 to 15 years is going to tell us whether we’re going to retain a vital system of public education, or whether we’re going to lose public education. That doesn’t mean we won’t have public schools, but if we don’t get some dramatic changes in the system of education, we’re not going to be able to install the kind of innovations we have to install, to make it possible for the schools to do what they are going to be required to do over the next 50 years. Which then means that what will happen is alternative forms of education will replace schools. And the problem is not just public school, it’s school. And schools were organized on a set of assumptions that were appropriate to another time and another place. With the advent of electronic information processing technology school wasn’t designed to accommodate that. And the whole structure of public education is having a difficult time keeping up with the way information now is transmitted, processed and used. And unless we can redesign the schools so that can be used, we’re going to wind up losing public education for a good half of the kids, and they will go into alternative forms of education. It will be these little informal networks that will be sort of…it won’t really be virtual school, virtual school will be a piece of it. But it will be organized more like the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts. It won’t really be homeschooling. It will be an entirely different part of school.

In fact one of the books I wrote a few years back I had an epilogue in which I described [this]. I call it looking back from 2020, in which I described what happens. It’ll be the privatization of education, not private school, but a whole different form of education. I see that as a possibility and I think …unfortunately what we have, in the effort to improve our schools will make them more bureaucratic than they were before we started to reform them. Because basically the biggest bureaucracies we have, Federal and State bureaucracies are subsuming schools and schools are being transformed from community institutions into government agencies and, as government agencies, they are part of a bureaucracy. And so schools are becoming more and more bureaucratic in the effort to make them better. And I would argue that that is a mistake. We need to really understand that schools belong to the community and we have to create them as learning organizations as opposed to bureaucratic organizations and that’s going to require an entirely different way of looking. Well, a lot of that depends upon the nature of the leadership we’ve got in school boards, local school boards, superintendents, principals, teacher union leadership and whether they’ve got the imagination and the will to push back to create a community-based school organization.

MS: Considering that is the focus of a lot of your writing, based on that view, what is your message for educators?

PS: First off, understand the difference between bureaucracies and learning organizations. Get a clear conception in your head of what a school would look like if we were really focused on developing engaging work for kids. Because that’s the key. If you don’t have engaging work for kids, and you don’t produce it as opposed to simply, inherently, exploit it, if we don’t figure out how to really create work that engages the hearts and minds of students, there are people out there that are learning how to do that and they are largely private sector folks. And we haven’t even learned to buy that from the private sector and incorporate it into our bureaucratic structure. So, we’ve got to ask ourselves how, if I were talking about what you’d do that, as a group of faculty, I’d sit down and ask myself the question, ‘What could we do, if we were to put our school out of business, and if money weren’t the issue, what would we do to put our school out of business?’ Now let’s get about doing that. Not putting our school out of business, but making our school the way our intuition leads us to where every kid would want to come to school. What would we do? And that’s where I’d start. And I think that it’s going to take courage and it’s going to take courageous leadership.

MS: That’s a great segue into my next question. In your latest book, Creating Great Schools, you talk about critical systems at the heart of educational innovation. Could you share some of this message?

PS: What I’ve done is, over the years, I’ve identified…not alone, I’ve done it based on the work of a lot of sociologists, organizational theorists and social theorists looking at what kind of systems we put together. And I talk about six systems: the power and authority system, the evaluation system, the boundary system, the knowledge transformation system, the induction system and the system of direction. And basically those are six systems that hold all social organizations together. In bureaucracies they put the emphasis on the power and authority system, they put the emphasis on the boundary system and they put the emphasis on the evaluation system. Learning organizations put the emphasis on direction, which has to do with beliefs and values, the knowledge transformation system and the induction system. Our present school reform activities tend to put the emphasis on the bureaucratic side. What we’ve got to do is transform that and put the emphasis on the learning organization side which has to do with direction and knowledge transmission and so forth. And so in my book Creating Great Schools what I argue is that the strategies it takes to make a bad school adequate, are very different from the strategies it takes to make a good school great. And that what we really have to do is move from good to great.

Collins has written a book called Good to Great which I have been impressed by. He talks about “how do you change a system to move a good system?” Because we’ve got a lot better schools in America than a lot of people believe. The press and a lot of people talk about the schools as if they are bad. Now I’m 70 years old, and I remember the ‘good ol’ days.’ And we didn’t have a drop-out problem when I started teaching school, because drop-outs were a solution. In 1950, half of the kids in America didn’t drop out of high school because they hadn’t dropped in. In 1950, literally, 50% of all Americans above the age of 25 had not entered high school. So they couldn’t have dropped out. So we talk about a 50% drop-out rate being a problem, that’s really based on an assumption that there was no problem in the ‘good ol’ days.’ We didn’t have a drop out problem then because dropping out was all right. Now dropping out is not all right. Our schools are much better today than they’ve ever been at doing what they used to do. The problem is we want our schools to do something different from that. And so we’ve got to get over the notion. It’s like the Model T Ford. There was nothing wrong with the Model T Ford in 1910. The problem is that the Model T Ford won’t work on these interstate highways. Well that’s the same thing we’ve got with our schools. There’s nothing wrong with our schools that we have in 1950. If we had schools as good as we got now in 1950 we would have had wonderful schools. But we didn’t have them. Now if we get good 1950 schools (And that’s where I think a lot of the reform is headed) it tries to make the schools good enough for 1950. But we’ve got to talk about the year 2050.

There are some things I don’t always agree with Bill Gates about, but one of the things I do agree with is the high schools we have today, if you made them as good as you could make them, couldn’t satisfy the conditions. There’s no way to reform the present schools, improve the present schools, enough to make them good enough. They are based upon the wrong assumptions. We’ve got to have an entirely different form of school – a different system of schooling. And people don’t seem to understand that, they keep trying to make the high schools better. Well, you can only make them so much better. The internal combustion engine can only get you so far, but it’s not going to get you to the moon. If we want all children to be educated at high levels for the 21st century, the present high school system can’t do that. So we’ve got to create a different system of education. And that’s pretty dramatic.

MS: You also have a book coming out in the spring. What can we expect to see in that book?

PS: Some pretty specific strategies about how to move from bureaucracy to learning organizations. The title of the book is probably going to be Images of School, which I’m going to look at images of school like the school as a factory, the school as a prison, the school as a warehouse, the school as a hospital, and then the school as a learning organization. Now each of those images shape how we fulfill the functions of schooling, whether we see the function of schooling as being controlling kids or liberating their minds, and there’s a real difference between those two things.

MS: And if you were king for a day, and you were to design a learning organization, what might you think you do.

PS: The first thing I’d do is to help teachers reconceive their own role and understand that their primary role is that of a designer of work for kids as opposed to instructor of children. That they have got to design work that the kids want to do which leads them to want to learn the stuff, makes you want to be instructed, the quality of the instruction becomes less important, the quality of instruction is only important when you don’t want to be instructed. When you want to be instructed, a lot of self instruction is very possible. Changing the role of the principal to that of leader of leaders. Understanding that we’re going to have home based education, school based education and community based education. It’s no longer to talk about three separate forms of education. We’re going to have to talk about the school providing support to families and communities in educating children, as opposed to doing all of the education of children. The school people are going to have to learn how to design educational work for the home and educational work for the community, and provide that work just as they do in school. And understand that school is probably, we’re probably going to have to think about 365 days a year, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day education – some of which will take place in school.

MS: Do you have any parting wisdom or advice for future educators?

PS: I am too old to be wise.

I think, stick the course, and understand that this generation of educators, the people who are likely to listen to something like this, are going to be the generation about which it is going to be written that they saved public education in America, or they lost it. My generation didn’t do the job we needed to do. But we left this generation with a system that either has to be saved or it will be abandoned. And as an old public school educator I hope that you all have the courage and the ability to really preserve it. I worry about that.

MS: Well, Dr. Schlechty, I thank you for your time and thank you for agreeing to meet with us.

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2 Responses to “An Interview with Dr. Phil Schlechty”

  1. Miki Frace says:

    Wow, Marc… I think I’ll make a sign for my classroom wall…”teachers reconceive their own role and understand that their primary role is that of a designer of work for kids as opposed to instructor of children.” It fits with my favorite Margaret Mooney quote…”See children as worthy, not needy.”

    Isn’t that the whole basis of challenging and engaging????
    Great article.

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  2. Tracy Odneal says:

    Having for many years been a teacher of young children ages 3-5 I just wanted to say that being a “designer of work for kids” really sums it up. If children weren’t interested or engaged in a subject during a group discussion, then I looked at it like *I* need to do something different to *make* it interesting. It’s not that they have ADD (attention deficit disorder) but more like SAA (selective attention apportionment). Children will keep their attention on what is interesting to them no matter what. Designing work for children means designing work that will be interesting enough to keep them engaged. Your interview with Dr. Phillip Schlechty was very interesting. Thanks

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