Andrew Feenberg’s critical theory of technology posits that technical structures constructed under a previous system, when inherited by a new system will likely result in the re-establishment of the old system. For example, in a socialist revolution, if the technical (or organizational) structures created under capitalism are maintained, the decisions leaders are forced to make end up creating a system that looks a lot like capitalism. This is one way to possibly explain the failure of socialist revolutions throughout history. They assumed an instrumentalist view of technique. That is, they believed technology to be neutral and that if they simply used the techniques in a different way, they could maintain their ideals. What they missed is that technology is not neutral – it’s not just a matter of “how you use it”.
So, if we apply this thinking to educational change, what might be some implications? Right now, my twitter feed is abuzz with discussion of standards-based grading because a local school district is moving in that direction and some (a vocal minority if you will) are not happy with the change. Up to this point, the SBG “movement” has been largely grass roots so the technical structures surrounding the implementation have been easily navigated by the revolutionaries because they see the incongruence and work around such issues. However, as SBG is moved to larger scales, and implemented from the top down, organizational techniques will play a greater role in how SBG is implemented. So, if we leave much of our system unchanged (e.g. we keep reporting A – F grades) are we doomed to simply recreate the old system with new names (as the socialists simply recreated capitalism)? What other technical structures must we consider if we hope to create a truly new system?
Similarly, and perhaps somewhat obviously, this thinking helps to further make clear that adding technology (e.g. laptops) to a classroom does little to change the learning in that classroom unless the other technological structures change as well (e.g. pedagogy, assessment strategies).
I wonder, is incremental change possible, or will their always be other structures that bring us right back to the way schools have always looked? Perhaps this is why schools have such tremendous institutional momentum.
(I’m too young to be this jaded, aren’t I?)
For me, this reaffirms my belief that individual teachers matter. If enough individuals change, then the system just might change. However, if we try to change the system, it’s likely we are just going to recreate the old system with some new labels.