Saturday, August 28, 2010

If it ain't broke, re-envision it

I've been reconsidering my If I had a hammer post this week because of some discussions I've been having about the redesign of our "broken" web site.  I've tried to steer folks away from terms like "broken" and "fix" when dealing with changing requirements, but the average person isn't so concerned about the semantical differences. I found myself having to be much clearer in my reasoning than I was in the blog post.

Now I don't really care to engage in pointless arguments over semantics if I don't have to, but our words do matter a great deal.  The language we use drives our thinking and, consequently, drives our behavior.  When you say something is broken, you are inherently saying that the system in question - whether a simple appliance or a large social institution - is fundamentally sound and still capable of producing the outcome you desire, if you can fix the one malfunctioning part.

Saying that a system is broken puts you into troubleshooting mode. Think about troubleshooting for a moment. If a user says "my computer won't work", what's the first thing that comes to mind?  Does it involve the electrical outlet or perhaps you want clarification on the current status.  Either way, in troubleshooting mode you immediately move to the beginning of the process and work forward asking a series of yes/no questions looking for components that aren't functioning or are not functioning to standard.  That's how we are trained.

What if, instead, that user said "I have all these new job tasks and I can't find the tools to help me get them done. This computer won't work for me."? Your attention is immediately focused toward the end of the process and the outcomes. Your questions are open-ended and probing for understanding. You are in requirements mode. Imagine the look you would get if your first response to this second question was "Is the computer plugged in?".

In a recent post, "Who's Asking", Will Richardson advises leaders in educational reform that they must some how satisfy the complaints of the school-is-broken crowd without losing sight of real need, which is a re-envisioned education system focused on 21st century outcomes.  In my mind, however, there is only so much that reformers can do until the question is rephrased from "what's wrong" to "what should we do". This is pretty much the same thing I said in this rant 2 years ago in response to a Scott McLeod post about building community backing for 21st century skills.

I think IT leadership is (still) uniquely positioned to help educational reformers, but not until we are clear in our own minds that we must first redefine the goals of education before we change the structure and funding of education. Let me recommend this post on Redesigning Education in Fast Company Design as a starting point.