Stafford Beer coined the term Cybernetics.
He was a brilliant man who, among other things, wrote a novel about a very wise but forgetful wizard. This excerpt tells you what he thinks of our education system. The title alone- referring to the Education Minister- should give you a hint of what is to come.

Excerpt from: Chronicles of Wizard Prang by Stafford Beer

From Chapter Two: A Pompous Man

The pompous man lowered himself into the visitor’s armchair.

“I have the honour to be the Chairman of the Education Committee in our little town,” he said. “As you know, education is the hope for mankind.”

Wizard Prang raised an eyebrow, but waited politely for his visitor to continue.

“It has come to my attention,” the pompous man said, “that you are the possessor of some very advanced knowledge. Our Committee has therefore passed a resolution Inviting you to give the School Prizes away on Speech Day this year and to give us a little address telling us all about it.”

…The wizard cleared his throat.

“In a hundred years or so, everyone now alive in the whole earth will be dead – is this not so?”

The pompous man was relieved. He could follow that. He nodded sagely.

“It would therefore be possible for the human race to run its affairs quite differently, in a wise and benevolent fashion, in a relatively short time.”

This way of looking at things appealed to the Chairman of the Education Committee. It had an optimistic ring, so different from the doom-laden pronouncements of most so-called clever people.

He leaned forward. “And so?” he asked encouragingly.

“The purpose of education,” said Wizard Prang, “is to make sure this doesn’t happen.”

The pompous man was thunderstruck.

“Look here, Sir,” he said, “please remember who I am. Not only do I have civic responsibilities – I am also a Pompous Man. You can’t say things like that, you know.”

The wizard was under the Impression that he just had said it, and looked around anxiously to see If anything was wrong. But things looked much as usual.

“Young people today are lazy and good-for-nothing,” declared the pompous man. He resounded. He was on familiar ground. “They sit around listening to pop music and taking drugs. What they have to do is learn more things, apply themselves.”

“No, that’s not correct,” the wizard explained, “they have to unlearn things.”

“How can that possibly be?” The pompous man was lost.

“Well,” said Wizard Prang, “we can teach only what we know. Now what we know is how to devastate the planet, kill its inhabitants, and starve two thirds of the rest. Seems a bit silly to teach people to do all that.”

“Ridiculous!” shouted the pompous man. “That is not the intention at all, and you know it.”

The wizard looked reflective. “The purpose of a system is what it does.”

Originally posted: March 29th, 2006

Reflection upon re-reading and re-posting:

It seems fitting to me that this was my first ever blog post. If I were given a magic wand and provided with an opportunity to change just one thing about institutional learning, I would wish for a dynamic system that charged forth, innovatively leading the way with new ideas and attitudes towards what it means to be an intentional learner. I wouldn’t worry about ‘What has been done in the past,’ or ‘How we always do things around here’. However I am not going to go off on a diatribe… this is about a new beginning.

This first post set a tone for my blog. It was a metaphorical opening of a window, allowing a breath of fresh air into my teaching and into my experience as a lifelong learner. As I approach the two year mark since first blogging this, I can honestly say that becoming a blogger has been absolutely transformative! I feel like I’ve learned more in the past 2 years than I have in 22 years of one kind of institutional learning or another.

We are embarking on a new era for schools. Technological tools and the world of Web2.0 are helping teachers and students leave Clay Burell’s Schooliness behind. But it won’t be an easy ride! Many people treat the technological tools as a means to do ‘old things in new ways‘.

What I think makes this new transformation more meaningful is that we can no longer ‘hold students back’. Dave Sands, a friend and mentor, told me years ago, “Do you know what will change education? Students will!” They will indeed, as the metaphorical window is open for them too. They can, and will, lead the way and we need to decide if we want to help guide their learning path beyond the walls of our schools, or if we want to hold them back… have them fill in a multiple choice answer here, and a fill-in-the-blank question there?

‘The purpose of a system is what it does.’ What do we want our schools to do?

4 comments on “The purpose of a system is what it does.

  1. Hi Dave, so it seems to be moving time all over! 😉 I had to switch the url – from www to userpages – seems to be a little change, but finally its more like a ‘digital suicide’ – because of all the subscribers! 😉

    So great to hear from you again and have fun @ your now ‘self hosted’ blog.


  2. As much as his enormous work is fundamental to the field, Stafford Beer did not coin the term “Cybernetics” and never claimed that he did.

  3. As someone with no love for institutional education, I think I support the spirit of this post. What I am struggling with is the logic.

    To say the purpose of the system is what it does is to leave the concept of purpose completely empty and useless. If we accept that logic, then we would have to agree with absurd conclusions such as: the purpose of blogging is to wear out your keyboard. That leads to other absurdities, such as that setting your keyboard on fire is better than blogging, because it will destroy your keyboard more efficiently.

    I work in a field called testing. In a world where the purpose of a system is what it does, testing things is unnecessary, even nonsensical.

  4. Greetings James,

    Thank you for your comment, and apologies for the delay in replying.

    I am glad you appreciate the spirit of this post, and I would like to suggest another angle to look at it. I will use your field of testing to explain that angle…

    One of the most interesting courses in the BC, Canada Curriculum is Social Studies 11. But it is also a course that has a standardized test that is fairly heavy in content knowledge. I’ve met many teachers that have told me (paraphrasing) “I wish I could spend more time on ___(fill in the blank)___ but I have too much content to teach to prepare my students for the exam.”

    As long as the testing is focused on content knowledge, the system will push teachers to give students that kind of knowledge. It is in this spirit that I mean ‘the system is what it does’… if it tests for content, it produces content oriented teaching.

    What do we want our schools to do? Then let us create the testing/evaluation methods that measure those things we want it to do, and we are more likely to see the results we want.

    Thanks again for commenting,

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