learn to learn

“What is a system? A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system. A system must have an aim. Without an aim, there is no system. The aim of the system must be clear to everyone in the system. The aim must include plans for the future. The aim is a value judgment.

The first step is clarification: everyone in the organization must understand the aim of the system, and how to direct (their) efforts toward it.

 A system cannot understand itself.

Responsible for the quotes above, Dr Deming (1900-1993) seems to be undergoing something of a revival in the blogosphere at the moment and after viewing several of his videos, I can see why (you do need to give the videos a little time, they feel very dated but the advice is sage). Please read his wikipedia page before viewing – ‘A Theory of a System for Educators and Managers‘ and ‘Five Management Diseases’ – below.



Hat tip: @suifaijohnmak for these videos


THE BIG PICTURE view of what our education systems must do to revitalise is what we are missing at the moment. We need vision and leadership and a narrative that resounds.

The horizon needs a beacon!

The Melbourne Declaration (note how few of the education ministers who signed the document in 2008 remain or their senior bureaucrats) does talk about civil society but learning how to learn needs to stride to centre stage if each student, growing into citizenship, is to participate in growing our democracy and solving the challenges that feel more today than tomorrow.

Which leaders are talking about learning how to learn as the central aim of the education system?

Dr Deming and Dr Russell Ackoff make several sage points that we all need to consider, especially the most senior political and educational leaders responsible for lighting the way:

1. “Management’s job. It is management’s job to direct the efforts of all components toward the aim of the system.” What is the aim of the system? Do we want to ‘produce a group of people who have been thinking in a way we have been thinking for years’? How can we design a system that equips students (and their teachers) with the ability to ‘learn how to learn‘?

2. If the education system was destroyed last night…what would you do? The point being made, if we do not know what should be done starting from scratch, how can we improve when such freedom does not exist?

3. The comment about ‘institutionalising dysfunctionality’ resounds with many, especially in regards to our systems, across the western world, of pen and paper exams that test knowledge regurgitation. More of the same is not the answer.

If the education system was destroyed last night…what would you do?

cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo shared by MyLittleFinger



  1. Darcy
    What needs to be done? Start again!

    The current education system (sum total of all learning environments) is a smouldering heap of historical relics, ideas, brands & patches. An immovable system has been created then patched with a range of measures to “make sure no one slips through the cracks”. The resulting mess is a system that ensures that people will slip though the cracks.

    Its time to “blow up the system” (speaking metaphorically obviously) and start again. Until we wipe what is known (and dearly held on to) then start from the very beginning to design, create and own what is possible then history will always repeat itself.

    Ben 🙂

  2. Possibly the biggest problem is that, sadly, when you ask the sort of question in the title (‘what if education system was destroyed last night?’) you’d be dismissed as an ‘impractical dreamer’ and ‘fuzzy thinker’: “What sort of stupid questions is that? We have a system, we just need to make it work better!”

    And sadly, the only people who kinda have the carte blanche to ask these questions are either (little) kids (present in the system on the ground but no power) or the very top echelons of edu-landscape (no touch with the ground but with power to move). Us in the middle? Yeah right.

    Most of the players in the edu-landscape have grown not to question, just do things faster and more efficiently. Dangerous territory that is suffocating millions! But then again not all – millions DO benefit from th(is) rickety old system, or fragments of, that we have.

    But it’s very, very important to ask.

    Cheers Darcy

      • Darcy Moore

      • 12 years ago

      @lasic I was only quoting Dr Deming’s (or was it Dr Ackoff’s) question and making his point that if you cannot answer that hypothetical question what chance fixing the current system with so many more practical considerations? 🙂

  3. Hmmm…a thought provoking way to frame this post Darcy. If the system was destroyed last night…

    I would probably look for kids around the neighbourhood to cluster together and make sure they were all accounted for. That way we could organise some things for them to do. Don’t worry, we’d organise fun things! But yes, my initial thought is that I would still want to rebuild some kind of organized method for ‘teaching’ young people, and that these schools – um, let’s call them ‘clusters’ – of young people would be locally based. If I rebuilt the system tomorrow, it wouldn’t be socially normal for someone to reject their local community to go and learn elsewhere.

    When I imagined this scenario though, I was struck with the thought of how monotonous it is going to any kind of organized event for five days in a row. And, if all these kids are learning locally, I certainly can’t take five days off a week to stay home and teach them. Without designated institutions we just kind of end up with home schooling, but there has to be something in between?

    So, leaving aside completely(conveniently) for now the question of what would actually be ‘taught’ in this post apocalyptic system, I think the answer is that the new system would AIM to support and help organise community based learning. Learning campuses might still exist, but students wouldn’t ‘go to school’ there – it would be more like a big library/conference centre, a learning hub. Some of the now out of work teachers would staff these, but the rest would go and work in museums, art galleries, libraries, universities, writs centres, park and rec. etc. in expanded education programs. Some will teach online and in virtual worlds. Some will run exchange programs and camps. Lessons conducted in classrooms would largely be replaced by field trips and community projects, and we can all keep our jobs in some shape or form.

    Would I have a system of credits, or courses, or a graduation? I don’t know. I really don’t. But my gut instinct is that it makes more sense for students to take an entry exam for what they do next, rather than an exit exam to try and summarize what you know and can do to date. I know there are questions of equity, but I am kinda tired of preparing every kid for the same future; in my system equity would not equal ‘sameness’.

  4. What would I do if the education system was destroyed last night? Assuming I could stand back and assume a new career I would do nothing.

    I would simply observe and see what evolves. I would hope for a way of life to evolve and not a system. Education should not be a system. Education should be living, breathing, dreaming, hoping, playing, learning, unlearning, trying, laughing, crying, seeing, hearing, feeling.

    Education should focus on the learners as human and not as commodities to be manufactured, processed, tested and simply shipped out the door at the end.


    1. Not all systems have to be built around an Industrial model, do they?
      I think that systems can function in a way that supports the construction of new knowledge. I think there are benefits to organising learning in some way, and the cynic in me says that this wouldn’t necessarily just ‘evolve’ if people were left to their own devices.

      1. Yes, I agree Kelli. I have my idealistic moments. But then reality steps up to the plate. I cannot help that think that the human race is heading for a watershed moment. Progress does not necessarily equate with unhinged development. Like to see more “localism” and less “globalism”. Progress based on needs and not on wants.

  5. I would pretty quickly seek to establish a network of welfare access and relationships before anything. Informed by need and designing equity into the day to day interactions of learners and communities is an undervalued aspect of our ‘system’ such as it is. In a broken state, the chance of respite from household deprivations/doctrines and physical/psychological abuse is possibly educations most valuable asset. This is often lost in discussions about learning. Beyond that it’s up for grabs

      • Darcy Moore

      • 12 years ago

      @Mat It is an important issue and very obvious to us working as ‘frontline’ welfare agencies in schools. Wellbeing is fundamental to a day at school and what would replace this caring and belonging in many young peoples lives if they could not turn up every day?

      1. It is a critical role and one that has to be responsive on a daily basis. As school systems we may see and hear more disclosures in a day than any agency because of that frontline role. Often their not turning up every day is the giveaway that things are awry. If we didn’t exist we would have to be (re-) invented in some form.

        I don’t want to be blind to the social trauma school experiences can cause here either (bullying, devaluing difference, tiered cliques etc;) they appear concomitant with many people systems. Replacement of those might be desirable, but doctrine won’t achieve it.

        Empathy and relationship is what will distinguish all education systems in the future I would hope. This is deeper than mere ‘connection’. Connection can be standardised, ‘ping’ed and outsourced. The sphere of the interpersonal goes to the heart of forming learning, it’s at the core of the social and the human, at the center of our strivings.

  6. Enjoyed the post and the discussions. Much to think about. Even more fruitful for discussion. Just gave a lecture today to some 3rd years where I suggested that rather than seeing schools as progressive, we should apply Foucault’s logic of the ‘accidents of history’ for institutions like schools. rather than making sense, we should see the history as far more chaotic and uncertain. Darcy I like that your post does this.

    One of the problems for any reform/change movement focusing on schools (including their complete destruction) is that the school/classroom space is so heavily encoded/striated/signified that it operates like the mythical hydra – cut off one head and multiple ones grow back. Speaking about the future I am not sure if you have ever seen this OECD document which attempts an augury of the future of schools: http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/30/5/36960598.pdf

    Always amazes me that the organisation/system that gives us PISA also dishes up this interesting work. I suppose we should not be surprised, Deleuze always suggested we should embrace the paradox.

  7. Darcy I think this post is inspiring – you always keep us on our toes! I have just put a link to your blog on my vUWS site – so that my M.Teach students can read and respond to it. … always suggest they look at your blog over the semester. Should be an assessable task!
    The Dr Deming videos … how timely! I particularly like the “idea of learning how to learn” … I have just completed 12 months of data collection in the classrooms of some ‘exemplary’ teachers (purposive sample – had to satisfy six criteria) all of whom spoke about this being a central aspect of technology integration in their classrooms. Also themes of creativity, imagination, questions being more important than answers have come through strongly – the kind of system Deming suggests possibly stems from a very different view of childhood – perhaps this dichotomy drives our school system? We have on the one hand educators that see ‘students as empowered’ and those that see ‘students at risk’ – does this view drive their practice? A better education cannot mean more of the same education.

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