©2003 NewFoundations

The Educational Theory of Phillip Schlechty
Analyst: Wendy Hancock


edited 8/18/11

I. Theory of Value

The basis for all knowledge according to this theory is that students learn from “knowledge work.” Knowledge work involves “transforming information into usable propositions, organizing information in ways that inform decisions and actions, and producing products that require others to apply knowledge and ideas in useful ways ( p. 46).” In short, knowledge work is that which is compelling, challenging, and relevant to students. Further, students are to be seen as customers whose ongoing interest and patronage is vital to the success of the business (school).

What knowledge and skills are worthwhile learning?The knowledge and skills worth learning are those that have applicability and worth to students’ lives. Students must learn to determine those facts that have such value, they must “discern which parts of the information they are getting are truthful, useful, and relevant to them and the tasks they are undertaking (p. 164).” Specifically, adults need to be “generally conversant” with American and world history, as well as basic geography and map skill (p. 155).” Learning to read is a must, as students become adults who have duties and obligations that require literacy.

What are the goals of education? The goal of education directly relates to the need for students to do knowledge work. Schools, like businesses, must work to satisfy the customers. The business of schools is to ensure that its customers have “rich and challenging” experiences that will result in being well-educated (p. 128).” Schools and teachers are, therefore, duty-bound to invent work that “attracts the attention and compels the energy of students (p. 51).” Ultimately, the goal of education is that the student customers’ skills, understandings, and insights are not only important to them as well, but also to the society in which they live.

Il. Theory of Knowledge

What is knowledge? Knowledge is the ability to work on and with information, to transform the information into usable [bits, and to use that knowledge to solve problems, produce aesthetic enjoyment and artistic appreciation, enrich civic dialogue and discourse, and enhance the quality of our inner lives as well as the live of those with whom we interact on a daily basis (p. 40).” Knowledge is a means to handling information, to being able to process new information, and a means to a fulfilling life. Knowledge is also a means to success in our very competitive world.

How is it different from belief? Beliefs spring from knowledge. Beliefs are careful, constant statements that must be consistent across and an organization (i.e. school or school district) and in such language to be understood and taken seriously by those both in and outside the organization. Moreover, “for beliefs to be compelling they must be articulated in language that stirs the heart as well as engages the mind (p. 106).”In an organization such as a school, beliefs must be demonstrated in the writing, expression, and behavior of all things and people related to that organization for them to be genuine.

III. Theory of Human Nature

What is a human being? Human beings crave challenging and meaningful learning experiences. While being equipped with a great variety of interests and abilities, humans share the desire to find relevancy and importance in what they learn and do. This characteristic is what sets humans apart from other species of animals.

What are the limits of human potential?The limits of human potential are not definable—schools have yet to tap into what students can do. By giving students opportunities to reach their potential—through knowledge work—they can better understand what they are able to accomplish

IV. Theory of Learning

What is learning? How are skills and knowledge acquired? Learning is a process that requires action and experience, specifically voluntary action on the part of the student. What teachers do is less important than what teachers are able to get students to do. Students learn by activities that include “imitating, listening, creating, muddling around, and talking (p. 42).” Yet what matters less than the mode or style of learning is the meaning students attach to what they do and learn. Knowledge and skills cannot be acquired if the material presented is neither relevant nor compelling, and if they cannot be actively involved in both choosing and doing the job of learning

V. Theory of Transmission

Who is to teach? Teachers must be facilitators, leaders, and inventors. Not only must they be constantly inventing knowledge work, they must understand their clientele. Many teachers, even the creative and inventive ones, are “presently operating in schools intuitively (and sometimes consciously) viewing students as customers. Unfortunately, many teachers seem reluctant to acknowledge that students have the power all customers have: the power of choice (p. 52).” Teachers need to know how to interest students in topics they would not ordinarily care about but need to care about. Teachers must also allow students to make choices that will lead to important, relevant learning. Because of the great many responsibilities that teachers have, those interested in becoming educators, and those who already are in the profession must be: endlessly motivated to discovering how to challenge students, must be willing to lead as well as step aside when the situations demands it, and must be reflective and self-critical to determine how well the work is being invented for the learners involved.
There is a “perception that having students do unconventional nontraditional things in school will result in a diminution in their learning of the conventional things they need to know to be successful on college entrance exams p. 145).” This is not the case, as learning how to think and produce good work is useful for any subject, as well as for any academic and life endeavor.

By what methods?What will the curriculum be?The method and materials used for learning center around technology. Technology is the most important resource available. It includes “tools” such as books, magazines, lab equipment, chalkboards, and computer software. Skills that include the know-how to use the tools is another aspect of technology. The final part of technology is processes “including the processes by which skills are developed and tools are accessed and made available (p. 161).)

VI. Theory of Society

What is society? What institutions are involved in the educational process?To understand the definition and role of society, it is essential to understand the need and purpose of schooling. The very existence of schools is due to the fact that adults in our society believe that young people need to learn the skills that will help maintain our social and cultural structures. It is through schools that “society perpetuates the condition of its own existence and progress (p. 69).” Society is a changeable, often inequitable conglomeration of people, some of whom regularly serve and/or address the needs of others and the greater group (society), many of whom do not. A school’s obligation is to “provide leadership and advocacy so that the community and the agencies it has created to provide support services can do what they are designed and funded to do with maximum effectiveness and efficiency (p. 128).”

VII. Theory of Opportunity

Who is to be educated? Who is to be schooled? The democratization of information refers to everyone in society having the same access to information, as well as having the rights that accompany that information. The abundance of information in our society demand that schools—or some alternative form of educational institution –provide an “elite” education for nearly everyone. “Some people say that not all students have the ability to read well, and they leave the matter there. This is no place to leave the matter, especially in a democracy where the ability to access, control, and use information is becoming the currency of the realm (p. 158).”
Educators must be committed to creating knowledge work for all students, not just those who have a predisposition for success in schools. This is not to say that all students will receive the very same education or go to the very same schools. Rather, it is to say that all students, regardless of where they are being schooled, receive work that is engaging, meaningful, and relevant to them.

VIII. Theory of Consensus

Why do people disagree? How is consensus achieved? Whose opinion takes precedence? “All we need do is follow the controversy surrounding the results of the proposed standards for history instruction to see how far from agreement Americans really are about what students should know and be able to (p. 196).”
People disagree because their beliefs conflict. In education people may have fundamental disagreements about the role of schools, of students, and of teachers. Those who believe, for example, that students are customers whose job it is to choose and be engaged in knowledge work, will disagree with others who feel that students should be products of the knowledge teachers give them (i.e. passive recipients). Another example is the notion that teachers are leaders who “should be evaluated and assessed on the basis of what they get others to do, not on what they do themselves (p. 185).” This is contrary to the belief that teachers are disseminators of information and should be assessed on how well they deliver lessons.
Yet one thing is clear when it comes to disagreement and consensus in education: For change to occur within a school district “consensus regarding what schools are about and what beliefs should guide them is more important” than any specific disagreement (p. 194). But consensus over schooling is seldom achieved and in its absence, the question becomes “Whose opinion will take precedence?” The answer lies somewhere in the voices of the strongest leaders, the most assertive parents, and most invested students. Consensus then becomes less about beliefs and more about persistence and volume

Citations are from:

Schlechty, P. Inventing Better Schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997.