A while back I followed a link on Twitter from Michael Clemens to an interesting economics paper entitled Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark: How development has disappeared from today’s ‘development’ discourse. The author, Ha-Joon Chang, outlines some concerns around the term “development” that I feel has bearing on our perspective of schools as ecosystems.
. . . there are only so many productive capabilities that can be developed through improvements at the individual level. This is because development in productive capabilities in reality mainly occurs in (public, private, and co-operative) productive enterprises. However well-educated and healthy the individuals may be, they cannot produce rapid, lasting, and sustainable productivity growth that makes development possible, unless they are employed by firms engaged in production activities with large scopes of productivity increase.
One of Chang’s points that stood out to me was his emphasis on the collective impact of systems, as opposed to individual factors and components. This parallels our emphasis on this blog on schools and communities as dynamic environments filled with dense interrelationships. We believe that it takes a whole school, not isolated islands of superstar teachers, to nurture and educate children.
Even if the total number and the capabilities of the individuals involved are the same, more and better ideas will be produced by individuals working together in a productive enterprise through cross-fertilization of ideas than isolated individuals running their own oneman operations. Moreover, because much of the knowledge in productive enterprises is acquired in a ‘collective’ manner in the sense that they are created in the context of a complex division of labour (rather than through the activities of isolated individuals) and deposited in the form of organizational routines and institutional memories (rather than in individuals), when the individuals are organized into productive enterprises, productivity growth stops being dependent on individuals and therefore acquires a self-sustaining dynamic that individual entrepreneurship cannot produce.
This passage also struck me because I am deeply committed to the principle of collaboration in schools. But collaboration, as Chang points to here, is not enough — it is only when it becomes “deposited in the form of organizational routines and institutional memories” that positive effects are seen. Schools require rituals and established protocols for transferring and maintaining knowledge across time, classrooms, and teachers.
. . . What little developmentalism that there is in the currently dominant vision of development is ersatz developmentalism – the belief that, if you educate them better and make them healthier and give them security of property rights, rational self-seeking individuals will exercise their natural tendency to ‘truck and barter’ and somehow create a prosperous economy. However, this vision is fundamentally at odds with the reality of development. In reality, development requires a lot of collective and systematic efforts at acquiring and accumulating better productive knowledge through the construction of better organizations, the cross-fertilization of ideas within it, and the channeling of individual entrepreneurial energy into collective entrepreneurship.
. . . Predictably, the dominant agenda has singularly failed to deliver any lasting development. To go beyond it, therefore, we need to go back to the ‘productionist’ tradition of old development economics and put the transformation in productive capabilities that go beyond individuals back at the heart of our development thinking.
This critique of “ersatz developmentalism” could just as well apply to what we could call “ersatz education reform” — the notion that simply by fostering competition, increasing school choice, and holding teachers more accountable, prosperous communities filled with high achieving students will result. But without “collective and systematic efforts” that work to foster collaboration, inclusive communities, equity of opportunity, and better schools for all, then our efforts will not be sustainable over the long haul.