05 May 2016

Finding the Future(s) of School: Discontinuous Improvement and Scenario Planning

A couple of recent articles I have read and YouTube videos I have watched, plus a recent email conversation I had, have hit on something I have been thinking about for a few years but never had the vocabulary to talk about in any meaningful way—how can we strategically push school into an unknown future?

The first article was one Will Richardson recently wrote called "We're Trying To Do "The Wrong Thing Right" In Schools." He used some of the system thinking ideas of Russ Ackoff found in this video:

Which led me to this video of his:

Those 21 minutes of Prof. Ackoff have spurred more synthesizing about the way I see my current world (teaching and learning) than at probably any time since I was a junior in college and discussing formal vs. substantive rights for the first time in my Political Philosophy class. In particular his distinction between efficiency and effectiveness and his idea of creativity as a discontinuity—discontinuous improvement—has really created a new set of understandings for me.

Finding Ackoff lead me to start an email conversation with a leading expert in applying a type of systems thinking called Lean Manufacturing (or the Toyota Production System) to health care (he also happens to be my father-in-law). He pointed me in the direction of the second article, found in the Harvard Business Review called Living In The Futures. It chronicles the 50 year history of a small but transformative experiment at Shell Oil in using creativity and discontinuous improvement—alternative futures planning.

Simply, alternative futures planning "is about explicitly recognizing and exploring plausible ways in which the future could unfold"(link). Sounds exciting, especially if the system within which you work is old, slow, and not designed for change. Why? Because as they found at Shell,
They encouraged strategic conversations that went beyond the incremental, comfortable, and familiar progression customary in a consensus culture.

Planning for Possible Futures

From the beginning, those engaged with Shell's scenario practice maintained that scenarios are not predictions but can provide a deeper foundation of knowledge and self-awareness in approaching the future. They also felt that the "official" view of the future—the business-as-usual-outlook—both reflects an optimism bias and is based on the human tendency to see familiar patterns and be blind to the unexpected.
One thing I am not is a systems expert. Nor do I have more than a cursory, ankle-deep understanding of systems thinking, Lean methodology, and alternative futures scenario planning. But I completely intrigued by the concept of discontinuous improvement.

Because here is the riddle for me: how do you at the same time try to do what you are doing a bit better inside one system (more efficient?)—redesign, while at the same time prepare for those things moving to a different possible future/system (looking for effectiveness?)—revolution.

And this corollary: to what extent is looking for efficiencies within the current model (continuous improvement?) preventing preparing for a different possible future (discontinuous improvement?)?

For example, I believe there are things that are common to (almost) every sound learning design, and these small things can (probably) be transferable to such and such systems. However, I also believe that school or education is going through a model crisis on an order of magnitude we haven´t seen in our lifetimes. And most schools are not preparing for nor even really considering this future new system/paradigm.

That is why Ackoff resonated with me so much. If school would take a "possible futures" exercise seriously, I would be very curious to see how far they got along questioning the very model/system/paradigm they are operating within.  And if they got that far, how would they square what they are doing in the classroom right now with "what would you do right now if you could do whatever you wanted to," as Ackoff said.


Scenarios encourage attention to the future's openness and irreducible uncertainty.
Most schools are not designed to incorporate continuous improvement methodology, let alone discontinuous improvement methodology. If they do have some type of commitment to improvement, it is usually reduced to improving test scores.

Ackoff, Shell, et al have inspired a new round of questions for me.

  • What would futures planning look like in school?
  • What possible futures would be created in all the various contexts school operates in?
  • What does a commitment to discontinuous improvement look like in school?
  • How do we get school to institutionalize organizational creativity to allow for the "seeing of realities that might otherwise be overlooked?"
And inspired an urgency to frame new conversations. Because the conversations I am most interested in about education have moved past conversations about pedagogical strategies (important, but possibly only seeking efficiency). They are conversations about the ideas around the "what would you do if you would do anything" with the design of school, the system(s) and model(s), the spaces and structures—what looks like to me to be a conversation about true effectiveness.

The power of this conversation I think is aptly summarized by a closing quote from the HBR article:
It will help break the habit...of assuming that the future will look much like the present.



  1. Exciting! My first thinking on the matter is to harken back to the compelling progressive educational theorists from the 1930s, 1960s-1970s, and 1980s-90s that I fell in love with in college: John Dewey, Herbert Kohl, Paolo Freire, John Taylor Gatto, Grace Llewellyn, etc. They are what first inspired me to think about what education could be. The throughline is this: education could be meaningful, personal, inquiry-based, responding to real world problems, and relevant to every student's life. In a word, *noninstitutional*.

    My second thought is: whoa! Do I really want to think about and/or work towards a future that eliminates my career?

    Third thought: Do I really think that could happen? Nah, not yet. Because school is so tied up in politics, and it serves the purpose of the society, not the purpose of the individual.

    But what if it didn't??? Or, what if there was some magical middle ground where the purposes of the society actually met the aims of the individual in an empowering, enlightening way (instead of a capitulating, cookie-cutter, Stepford Wives sort of way)? What if we wanted people (kids, even!!) to actually be empowered, knowledgeable, autonomous citizens who could design their own learning and create their own path?

    Enhhhhh, that's hogwash.

    1. Ha! Must have missed this reply. Thanks. If a possible future is the elimination of "school" then we should be thinking about it, no? I´d like to see where that scenario led to. More than anything I guess, I´d like school value this type of thinking by empowering both teachers and students to pursue discontinuous improvement.


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