ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - March 2001


Issue Highlight — Someone To Watch Over Me
- Peter Block discusses how technology and aggressive measuring can damage learning behaviors and the importance of human connection to the education of a child.

 In This Issue...
With A Little Bit Of Luck
Using Both Eyes
In The Face Of Change
Answering A Big "What If?" In Chicago

Peter Block Column
Views for a Change

Heard on the Street

Return to NFC Index

  One From Column B                                                                         Peter Block

Someone To Watch Over Me

We are a culture that has a religious belief in the curative power of measurement. Our love of measurement is messianic and runs deeper than any simple wish for data and knowledge about how we are doing. The impulse to measure is a philosophical statement about what matters in the world. It is a life stance that declares that the world is knowable and ultimately predictable. It holds that in mysterious aspects of life, the mystery will eventually disappear with the advance of science and understanding.

  The impulse to measure our way to greatness reduces the human condition to a subject for manipulation and questions the actual value and meaning of those things that are essentially un-measurable. It is the engineer in us that loves a measurable and predictable world. This is what questions the place the mysteries of motivation, learning, love and compassion have in the effort to create a habitable and effective society.

  There are limits to the utility of these tools for human systems. Human systems, like organizations, groups and families, are less amenable to tools of predictability and control. We give misplaced credibility in the human arena to the idea that watching something closely will make it better. When it comes to people and living systems, the act of watching impedes what it watches. An example is our cultural passion for imposed universal standards and oversight.

Is Your Glass Half Full?
Oversight is an optical illusion. It is a companion of super vision. It is a religious belief in the power of the observer and its capacity to change what it watches. There is truth to the idea that what you see is what you get. But if you only look for what is missing, then what you create by watching is a litany of what falls short in the world. Oversight is a tool for researching disappointment.

  Tools, and their watchful use, are not the point. We are not placed on this earth to measure it. We are here to experience it. The fact that we have amazing measurement tools and amazing technology does not mean we have to use them. The fact that management can instantly know the telephone calls made by each employee does not mean they have to use this tool. Because we have computers that give us access to a limitless information base does not mean a child is going to learn to read or write.

  The extreme statement of our mistaking the tool for the point is the statement that the way to improve performance is to measure it more closely and dictate consequences for someone who does not measure up. Most of what is most precious in life defies measurement and does not wish to be watched. The development of a child in school is an example.

  What we want from our measures and our watching is assurance that things will get done, that our intentions will be acted upon. This is fine up to the point where the measuring becomes a weapon. We are at that point in our performance management systems in adult organizations and with the movement to have our children subjected to more national standardized testing with high-stakes consequences for failure. These strategies mostly express our lack of faith in each other and border on contempt for people’s desire and capacity to learn and produce.

Truth or Consequence
There are ways to bring our intentions into reality without the impeding effects of measured watching. We need to set aside our faith in technological tools and the ruler and restore our faith in personal involvement and the power of relationships. Learning and performance in adults and children is a social event. If we believed this, our debate would shift from a discussion of ways of better goal-setting and standards to methods of deeper and wider participation. When the language shifts, the experience shifts. The language of participation is different than the language of standards. Standard setting is a mechanical expression of our intentions. Participation brings an element of what is sacred into our intentions. Standards are instrumental—participation is personal.

  The threat of oversight or super vision believes that weapons are needed to force people to act in the interest of the institution or larger society. We do not have to induce commitment with the reminder of manufactured pressure. Each human soul knows that there will be consequences to poor performance without us having to convene the judiciary. Consequences are inherent in the act of living.

  In fact it may be that it is our belief in the curative power of oversight that deflects us from our purpose. Our penchant for engineering performance actually works against it. If we think that people need to be watched, rewarded and punished to perform well, then we make this true. If you take schools as an example, we create a world that is maize bright and uneducated. We learn how to get good grades at the expense of learning. We enter each class wondering what the teacher expects of us rather than facing the question of what we came to learn.

God Bless the Child
In public education, this question is most urgent in our concern with the next generation—our children. We are worried about the quality of public education but our way of improving it may be destroying it.

 We have been operating with a belief in imposing goals and strong measures for ages, and how is it going? We now have a world that measures more and more without ever questioning the value of measures or the social cost of watching the measured closely. When will we see some research that measures the return on the cost of measuring and watching?

  I would like to recommend that you conduct your own experiment and spend four hours in an elementary school classroom. I have been doing that lately. When you see kids wandering around a little lost, or staring at a piece of paper not knowing how to subtract fractions or compose a sentence, ask yourself whether better testing is going to change that child’s life. Watch how a teacher spends those four hours and ask yourself whether they have a problem in motivation.

  During those four hours, sit with a 10-year-old and work with him or her on a math or reading problem. You will see that a small amount of your attention and care makes an enormous difference. The kid who was lost and staring starts to pay attention. When you slowly go over a lesson with them, they start to believe that the problem that was a mystery might be solvable. You will be reminded that it is their faith in themselves that is the problem with learning, not the lack of tools or the lack of clear and consequential goals.

  We are willing to spend millions on computers for schools and millions for testing and standards development. When it comes to spending more money for more human attention, we claim that teachers are overpaid and underperforming. Most of those who complain about teacher salaries are making a lot more money than the teachers.

  It is not the teachers that are underperforming; it is us as citizens. The solution to public education is solved if every adult decides to spend time instead of money, and decides that the life of a child, especially one that is not your own, is more important than your own advancement.

  It is human connection that makes a difference to the education of a child or the performance of an adult. For every dollar we spend on more technology, measures, standards and oversight, we are not spending that dollar on more personal attention or wider participation. Plus, technology and aggressive measuring changes the learning and behavior of a human being to the same extent as meteorology can change the weather.

March 2001 News for a Change Homepage


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