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A Call for More Educational Engineering

Leadership and Management

A Call for More Educational Engineering

Christopher A. Gearin, EdD, and William H. Zaggle

Educators and engineers approach problems in very different ways. Educators often experiment without attention to detail, causing plans to fall apart. Engineers make a point of diving deep, leading to structures that most often work as intended.

Colleges and universities are some of the most complex organizations ever created. Many educators do not study problems from the ground up and simply adapt the latest ideas in their institutions under the guise of implementing best practice. Rather than work from engineered blueprints, they just start building. That may be an acceptable process to build a toolshed, but not a passenger jet. Adapting in an evolutionary manner often overlooks fundamental differences between campuses and may even disguise the need for change in the first place. Not surprisingly, the change failure rate is estimated to be as high as 70 percent (Kezar 2014).

Change is never an easy task. Most change is first order, such as reducing class size simply because it is supposed to be a good thing. The assumption is that the adaptation itself automatically improves a student’s learning and experience. However, if the teacher does not change his or her teaching approach and take advantage of the adaptation, the student’s experience will not improve.

If we were considering reengineering a complicated machine to do something it had never done before, wouldn’t we do the engineering tasks necessary to make sure it had a chance of working before we started rebuilding? Parts need to work in concert toward a common goal, and even one small broken piece can render a machine useless. Yet typically, when trying to transform an admittedly complex educational institution, educators do not consider the same carefully calculated steps. Engineers call it “doing the math.” Educators failing to do the math helps explain the 70 percent failure rate for change efforts.

Engineers use creativity to find solutions to a problem. Contrary to popular opinion, this thinking is more about process than it is about math. Math is just the language engineers use to prove their point. The process drives the structure of the thought, and the math clarifies and communicates it.

The team starts by defining the problem. This keeps the focus on reaching a proper conclusion and clearly defines what success would look like. Research helps discover the boundaries of a solution and determines what it will solve and what it will not.

Engineers brainstorm to make sure they incorporate some creativity into their planning. The plan is then sketched, checked, and prototyped to confirm assumptions made from doing the math. The result is tested and redesigned at any phase if required. The final output is often thought to be a finished product, but rather than solving the original problem, it is more often the proof of how that product can be constructed. It is a blueprint awaiting construction.

Just as engineers are problem-solvers trained to consider the whole problem, the best educational leaders are often engineer-like. They analyze as if to define the entire institution, they carefully research and plan, they brainstorm and prototype and redesign, and, finally, having now “done the math,” they communicate and implement.

The closest that educators come today to thinking like engineers is outlined by Jay Wiggins and Grant McTighe (2005) in a strategy they call “understanding by design.” They start with the problem and work backward to design and build a solution for how a teacher can construct a mental model of understanding for a new learner. Strategic planning has elements of engineering principles, but the typical practice does not dive down deep into the essential elements. Many higher education leaders oversimplify strategies necessary to change an organization and overlook details, forces, inertial effects, and inherent complexities found in an implementation process.

Where to start? Rethinking the concept of a school is something that is desperately needed to direct the overflow of knowledge in the world today. Most engineers would never start building a new structure without proper geological studies of foundational issues. There are many foundational issues in our educational institutions, including facilities, curriculum, student affairs, faculty, staff, and students. Often treated as separate pieces, they are interconnected through form and function. Yet development of one often occurs in isolation from the other. Will they hold on to a new concept or design around the ideal of what a school is? If not, can they be reinforced or replaced?

Engineers are trained to link proven theory to application, taking science and transforming it into reality. With an engineering approach, all personnel and student planning can be interwoven with curriculum delivery and the facilities necessary to reach expectations. Current educational approaches often overlook essential details. For instance, our schools have always assumed that skills like focus, self-control, and memory are guaranteed in our starting students, when such assumptions are often incorrect. Attempting to crystalize knowledge on top of such poor foundations only results in random facts being piled into a heap with no supporting model or structure for future knowledge. The correlation between executive function and success or failure is well documented. In an engineering approach, these foundational aspects would play a key role. Today, there is often no clear whole-student or whole-institution approach to consider for an understanding of what makes learning happen.

It is easy for educational leaders to become mired in day-to-day activities and forget the importance of communication and collaboration, which are two key elements of successful engineering. Ignoring these elements can thwart even the best-intended change initiatives. Educational transformation requires strong working relationships with all the people involved and includes the proper application of new processes and principles.

Second-order change, involving paradigm shifts in our fundamental philosophy, is what education needs. A new engineering style of thinking is necessary if schools are to transform in methods yet remain safe places to fail as well as the places where learning happens. Transformational opportunities are the bridges of change, and for a bridge to hold, you must do the math before you build.

We do not suggest that all engineers would make good education leaders, or that good education leaders would make good engineers. However, applying principles of the engineering field could easily help. It is time for an educational engineering approach to take its rightful place to reengineer the change processes of educational institutions.

Christopher A. Gearin, EdD, is president of Hickey College and a dissertation chair and adjunct faculty member in Maryville University’s Higher Education Leadership doctoral program. Contact him at cgearin1@maryville.edu. William H. Zaggle is currently board chairman of C8Sciences.com, a neurogaming company building executive function skills in young learners internationally, and chief academic officer for Wazzle Solutions. Contact him at William@zaggle.com.


Kezar, Adrianna. 2014. How Colleges Change: Understanding, Leading, and Enacting Change. New York, NY: Routledge, 2014.

Wiggins, Grant, and Jay McTighe. 2005. Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: Assoc. for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


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