July 1, 2018 JV

They call this progress

I recall those monotonous mornings in the second grade of primary school where hour upon hour were sacrificed on the altar of learning to commit times tables to memory.  Then there were those homework spelling lists, followed by the inevitable weekly tests.  It was hard work committing all of that information to memory!  Fast-forward several decades and we now find that many sixth-graders still don’t know that seven nines are 63 (unless the calculator says so) and who cares about learning to spell when Word has a spell-checker!

Prevailing purveyors of pedagogy say that rote learning is so passé.  Their claim is that young minds need not be filled with facts and figures that technology so easily provides.  Rather, imbue the next generation with social justice outrage, environmental activism, some critical thinking skills and an absolute disdain for absolutes.  Now, I’m not going to pretend that I know more about learning than Dewey, Parkhurst and Montessori, but I’d like to offer some insights on the topic drawn from decades of personal experience and empirical evidence, both in the academy and in business.

Despite significant investment in Australia’s educational systems, our students are becoming progressively less intelligent that their peers from other, in particular, Asian nations.  Dr Sue Thompson from the Australian Council for Education Research said local academic performance was in “absolute decline”.  “The proportion of high achievers is decreasing and the proportion of low achievers is increasing,” she said.  “Basically, what’s happening there is everything’s sliding backwards if you like — our strong kids aren’t as strong as they were and our weak kids are actually weaker than they were.”  Please refer to the following link for more details:


Having worked in various industries for a long time now, it doesn’t seem that management practices are improving either.  On the contrary, important concepts, previously well-known and routinely applied now often draw blank stares at their mention.  In some incomprehensible manner the average Australian worker appears to be subject to a systematic “dumbing down” through the joint efforts of educational systems and Learning and Development departments.  Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, methinks.If you are a young business leader and think that I’m dissing you, please hear me out.  In my opinion, not only is the educational system broken, but the philosophical backdrop to organisation and management seems now to be thwarting any attempt to improve systematically.  Middle managers appear to be constrained to dealing only with what’s in front of them and using the tools and processes afforded to them by their organisation.  One must examine the positions, policies and priorities laid out by an organisation’s top-level leaders and their advisors to discover whether an organisation is really serious about improving their business performance.  Too often I’ve seen very little in the way of a defined approach, performance measures that divide and conquer and leadership training that is strong on inclusion and weak on expectation.

I’d like to share some experiences (including some offered to me by a friend who shares my concerns) that will help to summarise the issues under discussion.

  1. An organisation decided that in order to improve its maintenance performance it should implement a new Computerised Maintenance Management System (CMMS). However, rather than configure the CMMS to support a desired way of working, it was determined that employees would simply align their practices to the CMMS functionality.  Easier said than done.  Everyone has their own idea of how work should be managed and without a defined approach and the discipline required to deploy it, the new CMMS became more of a burden than a benefit.  It took several years for the organisation to claw back to an acceptable level of work process performance and there was still much more to be done before the investment began to yield appreciable benefit.
    CMMS implementations are rarely successful and take a lot of effort.  IMHO, not agreeing to a defined way of working is among the biggest reasons for failure.
  2. A manager, new to his position sought to replace an existing service desk system with a new work management system due to lack of transparency in workload for his team. The team members involved simply don’t use the existing system, or previous systems for that matter.  The manager does not monitor or control the existing system to enforce its use.
    How could a replacement system fix the problem when multiple systems have been tried before and failed?
  3. A volunteer recently took over the timekeeping duties at their local running club. He was presented with some manual timekeeping records for the club dating from 1985 to 2003.  These old handwritten and typed records were meticulously organised in folders and were based on hand written timekeeping notes for each race.   There was little technology back in those days, but bucket loads of discipline to keep everything so well organised.
    However, between 2003 and 2008 no timing records were kept, despite it coinciding with the beginning of the so-called “information age”.  Unfortunately, as quickly as technology became available, the discipline required to maintain good organised records in one place went out the window!

Just what did we learn in the second grade that was so hick and regressive?  I use my times tables many times each day but that’s not the most important thing that I believe we learnt back in the day.  What I’ve found to be of great import is that it takes patience and discipline to accomplish something significant and things that come easily are rarely valued.

Sometimes there needs to be a standard way of doing things and people just need to follow instructions – no questions asked.  At other times, people can be given some latitude to make changes.  But even then, the process for making such changes needs to be managed so that they will actually result in improvement.  Finally, people should occasionally be encouraged to try something weird and wacky to break entrained patterns of thinking and create something totally new.  Effective leadership knows the difference between each of these ways of working and has the courage and ability to make each happen in their appropriate time and place.

My take-aways from almost four decades of reflection on this issue are:

  1. Don’t look to technology alone to fix your problems. Figure out what you want to do and then determine how technology can accelerate the process.  Obviously, an idea of what’s possible with modern tech is also useful, so include a propeller head in your design team.
  2. Draw on your “second grade” lessons to create top grade results through patience and discipline in doing what needs to be done. Recall the words of the great golfer, Arnold Palmer – “the more I practice, the luckier I get!”
  3. Great leaders are identified by the people that follow them. Learn how to encourage people to do what needs to be done.  (That’s a whole blog topic on its own!)

What is the biggest issue I see with implementing the above?  Answer: disagreement with my assertion that “sometimes there needs to be a standard way of doing things and people just need to follow instructions – no questions asked.”  There is an absolute disdain for absolutes among many leaders today and this often results in a mandate for no mandates.  Until people can break free from this vicious cycle and agree that there is a valid reason for standards for certain ways of working, we will continue to focus on the less important and will ignore the vital.

Comments (5)

  1. Luis Jofre

    John – Interesting topic. A quick Google search shows that the jury is still out on this debate (see/read the links below). I don’t see a clear causality effect on style/quality/depth of the education provided to newer generations with a perceived decline or deterioration of the effectiveness of management of businesses – there are plenty of arguments to sustain the opposite, i.e. the technology output is growing exponentially, quality of products and services are in general much better, profitability of businesses and wealth of countries shows that overall humanity is doing better (inequality is another conversation). In addition, the time span is too short to see a real impact between the education we received in the 1970’s or 1980’s – to the newer generations (kids born after 1995 or 2000). Just yesterday I had a chat with my 15-year-old son – he is in grade/year 9 of high school in Chile and in his physics class he is learning about elementary particles and we talked about quarks and leptons, and he knew about the Higgs boson and the four elementary forces… I was perplexed and highly impressed… I was in grade 9 in 1980 and in physics we were learning basic vectors to represent a force….
    In Chile there is a debate about quality of education; primarily a concern about how much students really learn and how well equipped they are to function in the new economy – but in this case, there is another factor to consider and it is the large inequality between what public schools teach and how they do it, as compared to private expensive schools (resources, quality/commitment of teachers, etc.) – yes, my son is learning about particle physics at age 15, but it is true that 99% of the kids of his generation are at a disadvantage in the public schools.






    • JV

      It’s great that my article has generated some discussion. Thank you for the links. I reviewed them and one of the videos. I will make some comments on these later.
      Firstly, I’m not aware of how educational standards and processes have changed over time, overseas. My article and argument were based on data and experiences in Australian academia and business and even that is severely limited by my personal experience. My opinion is that the standard of education in Australia relative to other nations has dropped. I then made an assertion that this is reflected in the new brigade of workers entering the resource industry where I worked predominantly. As you argued, this is not supported by any external study. I built my assertion on the empirical evidence that I had compiled over the years. I believe that the businesses I have worked in have not improved as they should have, but this is not just due to the younger leaders and workers. In fact, the older senior managers who should know better, have not done as they could, in my opinion and the new younger employees did not do what they should. The latter, according to my argument, comes in part from poor education. The young brigade has suffered, IMHO, at the hands of educators with fundamental problems from a flawed ideological base.
      Regarding the links and video, I have a few comments to share with you.
      The Guardian’s “Declinism” article is more of an opinion piece than an objective argument. My article did not deal with how people “feel” things are now compared with previously, but rather, how they are based on assessments and other, more objective tests.
      Perry’s Bigthink article seems to resonate with your argument about what adolescents are learning in high school these days. It’s true that they are studying things far beyond their years compared with what we learned. They are studying the God particle while we were learning about vectors. The question must be asked: “Why the billions of dollars spent on verifying the existence of this particle”? What’s driving this thirst for knowledge. What are these scientists trying to prove and why?
      James Flynn argued that today’s people have more “mental artillery” and I can’t argue against that. What I argued was that in the early years, some of the fundamentals that we learnt have been jettisoned in favour of more abstract learning. I think that some basics (reading, writing and arithmetic) have been short-changed and in the process, learners have not learnt discipline. My problems with that were described in the blog. There are some fundamentals that I think are now missing and it has a significant impact, not just on education, but also on society as a whole. The single biggest issue in my mind is that of an assault on truth. It’s now “post-truth” and “truthiness.” This has a huge bearing on almost everything else that is learnt. My article: https://jvpienew.wpenginepowered.com/truth-and-dare/ discusses this further.
      Still on the Bigthink article, I was amused by the video by Michio Kaku. He asserted that the reason for mankind being the dominant species comes down to 3 factors: Opposable thumb, Predatory eyesight and Language. And this is despite chimps and humans sharing a 98 % similarity level in their DNA. Kaku and others appear to be blinded by their seeming a priori commitment to naturalism. There is something metaphysical going on with the human race. DNA alone cannot account for the extraordinary development we have seen in humankind. If it looks, smells and tastes like a design, then there’s probably a designer behind it, IMHO.
      I’d like to finish here with the James Flynn Ted Talk. He described where gains were made in IQ tests over the years. Enormous gains in the Classification subtest, some with analogies and almost none with politics. He puts the latter down to people not studying history (or studying it selectively). Current day university lecturers are creating clones of themselves by pushing their particular views. They have done an excellent job of expunging the opposing views and “brainwashing” the next generation of learners. This has led to high levels of polarisation in views in society as one group attempts to curtail free speech and denounces the opposition view as intolerant and unworthy of utterance in the marketplace of ideas.
      Thanks again for the feedback. Let’s keep the channels of communication open.

  2. Dane

    Nailed it John. To many fantastic complex systems fail because the people don’t understand or engage, KISS and discipline go a long way..

  3. Rob Royters

    Now how to turn a country, and in most ways, a world, around??
    Absolutes and the current culture are today like oil and water.

  4. Dony

    Loved the article and the way it got me thinking. I am concerned about what we hear from the media about how our standards are dropping in comparison to other Nations and the amount of money our Government continues to throw at the problem. What does the future hold?

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