Review of Lengel’s ‘Education 3.0’, pre-revised version

[A revised version of this review ran in the Teachers College Record, 2 June 2015. I’m posting the version I originally submitted, as some of the edits they made for space (I went over word count — surprised?) dinged the intended message a bit. -EK]


Straightforward as it may seem, the idea of “creating and providing better schools in the U.S.” is actually complex beyond its own good.

One troublesome matter wrapped inside this aspiration is that of which systemic issues most urgently require improvement. One group of thinkers sees education’s workforce as its central problem (and thus fights to tighten practitioner-accountability and -evaluation structures, increase market pressures through expanded school choice, and/or revamp practitioner preparations and qualifications). Another group views students’ lives outside of school as the largest barrier to educational-systemic success (and accordingly advocates for schools’ expansions of mental health services and culturally responsive instructional methods, as well as for stronger socio-political action to curb problems like poverty and racism). Still another believes the system’s academic standards and curricula are its main issues…and so on.

Another confounding complexity within “creating and providing better schools in the U.S.” is that the very concept of “better schools” is relative to each beholder. As judgments of educational effectiveness most times revolve around each expert’s preferred practices and/or missions of schooling, the idea of a successful school is more up for debate than it would sensibly appear. To wit: the public-sphere-preparing “schools we need” E.D. Hirsch envisions[1] do not look anything like Alfie Kohn’s intensely student-centered “schools our children deserve”.[2] As such, even bottom-line, seemingly objective descriptors of schools’ effectiveness (standardized test results, for instance, or student graduation rates) can become axes for vigorous disagreement.

And the examples given here provide only a glimpse at the enterprise’s range of available voices and viewpoints. Included to provide illustration, they don’t come anywhere near describing the education-improvement conversation’s actual multitude of voices or variations on themes. These factors taken together, the last thing the current education reform conversation seems to need is an infusion of great new ideas. More so, the conversation seems to need a healthy reset: a definitive establishment of vision, a thorough pruning of existing priorities aligned to that vision, and sensible plans for aggressive action on each priority.

Not very helpfully toward any of these scores, Education 3.0: Seven Steps to Better Schools, a 2013 book by digital-learning consultant James G. Lengel, carries heaps of new ideas into the discussion. Even less helpfully, the ideas for improvement Lengel offers are thinly justified, immensely costly, essentially untested, and seemingly more motivated by tech vendors’ potential profits than by American students’ improved preparation for the future.

Lengel begins Education 3.0 by establishing himself as an educational futurist, aligning himself with thinkers like Tony Wagner (author of The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need—and What We Can Do About It) and organizations like the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) and the Clayton Christensen Institute (whose Michael Horn and Heather Staker authored 2014’s Blended: Using Disruptive Education to Improve Schools). In short, these futurists are driven by a belief that U.S. schools cannot, using current structures and practices, imbue students with the skills and habits of mind they’ll need to succeed in the 21st century’s knowledge economy.

Lengel’s presentation of this critical idea, however, is woefully thin. In his opening-chapter argument about why schooling must shift to better mirror shifts in work environments—all work environments, apparently—over the past 200 years, his rationale consists of little more than a few Winslow Homer paintings, some stock images of contemporary workplaces, and a handful of guiding questions about what can be observed in each. Also, but more suspicion-arousing than simply sloppy: while Lengel makes no reference to what the last three decades of cognitive-scientific research have said about how to build the genuinely creative and critical thinkers[3] the transformed age will purportedly prefer (this research is also glossed over by Lengel’s aforementioned brothers-in-talking-points[4], by the way, likely because it largely contradicts the futurists’ main messages), he does cite a 2009 white paper on education from Cisco Systems—a technology company for which Lengel consults and which would benefit handsomely from the changes Lengel encourages—as his “objective” support. (More on this theme is soon to follow.)

The first chapter’s weakness, then, weakens all that follows in Education 3.0. For simply: when justifying why entirely new qualities must be taught and acquired in order for society and individuals to productively progress through the transformed age—and when attempting to convince already-overwhelmed education leaders that it’d be worth spending the remarkable amounts of cash and energy necessary to make it happen—a much greater helping of sound, rational proof is in order. By not providing such proof, Lengel signals either that he does not have it or that he believes the dubious, suspect proof he does provide is all he will need to sway his audience; and neither, frankly, gives the remainder of Education 3.0 much of a chance.

Still, Lengel goes on to outline precisely how schools must change to accommodate the transformed needs of students. He argues (just as the other futurists do) that schools must throw out their dusty and obsolete “factory” models and replace them with more interactive, project-based, student-personalized models of education enabled by lots of handheld devices and videoconferencing technologies. And here, in addition to touting a wholly unproven educational model using little more than semi-fictional “day in the life” portraits of students and practitioners (which are, by the way, rosy beyond plausibility), Lengel brings even more suspicion to his argument by allowing his obvious profit motive to show.

(Incidentally: Florida International University education professor M.O. Thirunarayanan recently challenged promotions of unproven models and methods like Lengel’s as unethical, likening them to pharmaceutical companies selling products to patients without thorough prior testing.[5] Relatedly, cognitive scientist Dan Willingham wrote an entire book exploring ed vendors’ habit of doing this, why educators so often buy in when they should not, and how educators can make decisions toward ending this wasteful cycle.[6] The entire education enterprise would be much better off spending time with ideas like Thirunarayanan’s and Willingham’s over those of Lengel and his cohorts.)

For when Lengel gets into the specifics of how schools can make all his idealized transformations, he unabashedly recommends that they lean more heavily on products offered by Apple and Cisco, two of the companies he consults for.[7] (Recall here how Lengel cited Cisco as a source of educational expertise in his foundation chapter and draw your own conclusions.) And indeed, the product placement and promotion in Education 3.0 is in spots so brazen that it borders on absurd, especially in a book published by the venerable and enterprise-trusted Teachers College Press. Apple- and Cisco-branded products like iPods, iPads, WebEx, iTunesU, Keynote, et al, are waved about so enthusiastically that readers may wonder if they’re in a book of professional learning or a sales brochure. (NOTE: If this blatant advertising is what Teachers College Press believes “deserves readers’ attention” [8], by the way, especially on the heels of the patronizingly weak research basis in the book’s foundational chapters, perhaps there’s something they’d like to tell all readers about their relationships with Apple and/or Cisco.)

Following suit toward filling Lengel and his clients’ accounts, chapters two through five of Education 3.0 effectively form a step-by-step guide for assembling the marketing plan educators—not Apple or Cisco or whichever other tech provider—will eventually present to their school boards and communities when they move to acquire funding. However cynical and cost-saving this by-proxy approach to marketing and promotion may be, Education 3.0 is, in fairness, an effective guide for doing at least this. Leaders who are (somehow) sold on Lengel’s arguments, interested in making the changes he suggests to their schools’ operations, and blessed with tremendous amounts of clout and cash will find the book to be thoughtfully sequenced, and Lengel to be both a savvy anticipator of challenges and an agile designer of solutions. Similarly usefully, Lengel provides a number of copy-and-go instruments for surveying and analyzing local site/district readiness, timelines for keeping projects on track, and so on.

Circling back to the beginning of this review: educators hoping to make clearer decisions within the current cacophonic education-improvement landscape will not find much of value in Education 3.0: Seven Steps to Better Schools. Despite the direct nature of its title, it is absolutely not a work concerned with the education enterprise’s current context. In fact, it essentially disregards the current context and its associated pains (e.g., meeting NCLB requirements, providing productive interventions for students who are significantly off-track, implementing Common Core learning standards, improving teacher quality through observation-based evaluation processes, etc.) so it can greedily focus on its own sets of questions and answers.

[1] Hirsch, E.D. (1996). The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them. New York, NY: Doubleday.

[2] Kohn, A. (2000). The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards”. New York, NY: Mariner.

[3] Willingham, D. (2009). Why don’t students like school?: A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom (pp. 19-39). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint.

[4] Trilling, B., & Fadel, C. (2009). 21st century skills: Learning for life in our times (pp. 3-19). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

[5] Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 24, 2014. http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17393, Date Accessed: 2/15/2015 4:31:43 PM

[6] Willingham, D. (2012). When can you trust the experts?: How to tell good science from bad in education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint.

[7] Lengel, J. (2013). About the Author. In Education 3.0: Seven steps to better schools (p. 223). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

[8] Teachers College Press. (n.d.). Retrieved February 21, 2015, from http://www.teacherscollegepress.com/info_desk.html#1

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