Education and Change

The Department of Education: A Case Study

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About a year ago I got a call inviting me to participate in a meeting with the Department of Education because they were actively looking at ways to innovate how kids are educated.


I agreed to participate in a meeting in San Francisco, and I was happy to have the opportunity to do so. My enthusiasm was partly due to my own desire to help rework the way kids are educated, and partly due to my curiosity about how the FIRE method and Killer Questions could be tweaked to work in a completely new arena: education. I have a lot of ideas about education; I believe that the way we educate our young people actually works against their best interests. Our attempts to give them a solid background in facts and figures, rather than teaching them how to think, hurts and hinders the people it’s supposed to be helping. Instead of producing a generation of kids empowered to believe in their own creativity, we are producing the world’s greatest test-takers.

A few weeks after the initial call, I attended a high-level meeting. But as the conference room filled with Ivy League deans and people with president Obama’s cell on speed-dial, I wondered what the heck I was doing there. I have very strong opinions on education, but I had a sneaking suspicion that they wouldn’t go down well if I shared them in this forum. The afternoon dragged on. Finally the moderator asked me, “So Phil, what do you think?”

Now, I had plenty of thoughts to share. For instance, I could have mentioned that I have so little faith in our education system that my wife and I home-schooled all three of our kids. Instead, I looked around at the national union leaders, college presidents, heads of Association of Charter Schools, and a deputy secretary of education, then stood up and said, “I can’t tell you how to fix the process, as I’m not an expert in education. I think of myself as a purchaser of your output. I hire scientists and engineers. But what you’re producing, I don’t want.”


We’ve all experienced the process of education in one form or another, so why is it so resistant to innovation? Like all organizations, education is resistant to change. The old adage that “what was good enough for you when you were a kid is good enough for today” gives comfort and justification that everything is fine. Everything is not fine. The world our kids will need to compete in is radically different from the world ten years ago. However, our schools are training students to value depths of information and knowledge in single, specialized fields as opposed to creative and innovative sparks that have the potential to be applied in infinite ways.

The education establishment hasn’t always been afraid of change, though. Ohio State University, like a lot of the early colleges in the Midwest, started as an agriculture school because that was the economy of the day. When family farms stopped being a viable and desirable business for young people, these colleges changed their focus to reflect that new reality. OSU, like many other former agricultural schools, is now focused on engineering.

So, what would you come up with if you were asked to think of twelve Killer Questions that would fundamentally reshape the way we view the education process in America? By the time this book comes out I hope to have submitted a set of ideas that may become part of the Department of Education’s attempts to transform the way we educate our children.

Over the course of the next few pages I will walk you through the process and the actual workshop I ran with the objective of coming up with a unique set of ideas that will be submitted for consideration. Unlike the Kroger case study, which demonstrated how a traditional company can adopt my Killer Questions, the Education Department is a good example of how an organization can adapt them, even to unexpected contexts.

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