What Can We Do To Change Education in ND with Doug Burgum as Governor?
Part II

November 15, 2016


Fargo Inc! Business Magazine had several business leaders ask governor-elect Doug Burgum a series of questions. One question, a question that probes at Burgum’s solutions to the ongoing shortage of qualified employees in the Fargo / West Fargo metro area is a problem that is not isolated to Fargo / West Fargo, but reaches across the state and the US. His response was surprising. It was surprising for what he did say, as much as what he didn’t say. It was surprising because it didn’t sugar coat the truth, even though the truth, as Burgum sees it, runs counter to what many adamantly support. He didn’t say what many were expecting to hear.


“Over the past couple years the biggest issue I have heard from business owners is difficulty finding employees from general laborers to skilled professionals. It is one of the major issues I see stifling the area’s growth. As governor, how would you address the issue?”

Burgum Response

Governor-elect Burgum responded by providing his assessment of K-12 education in North Dakota. He did not mention recruitment from out of state; he did not mention better training programs; not even a mention of a better system of higher education or any of the rhetoric usually attached to discussions about what is often referred to as workforce readiness. Burgum focused on K-12 education. He explained that through his children he has recognized that the schools they currently attend (his youngest is a senior in high school), or recently attended (one in college and one a college graduate), are not much different than the school he attended 40 years ago in Arthur, ND, or for that matter, the schools our ancestors attended over 100 years ago. He summed up that a school today, like one 40 years ago, is only a teacher, some books, and some knowledge transfer. That’s it!

Doug’s surprise that schools have not changed is explained by his description of what he sees has changed for all of us in the ensuing 40 years (or 100 years).

  • Access to information is much greater now by many magnitudes than in the past, and most of that access is free. The internet and all of its ramifications allows everyone, including our kids, to find the latest information about anything with no more effort than it takes to enter some words into a smart phone.
  • Much of what we now produce as adults and thereby what we do to make to pay our bills, buy our groceries, make our trips to the lake, requires teams of people; teams of people using tools and methods that require well-developed skills. Skills that were in the past acquired through experiences outside the classroom; but experiences that no longer exist or that exist in a manner that is not applicable the right kind of skills development.
  • We now know a great deal more about how people learn. We know more about how to apply the science of the brain to the teaching of our kids.

Doug sums up his answer with this admonition. “Education really has to be focused on creating skills we need for tomorrow, not the skills for yesterday.”

Our Reaction

Though it is likely that many of us, who are not part of the education community’s mainstream or who are not educators, whole-heartedly agree with Burgum’s observations, most of us don’t have a good answer for what to do. But even more worrying is that most of us are left with a kind of uneasiness. It is a sense of unease with Burgum’s solution. He believes according to the answer he provide that there exists in the North Dakota a partnership that is unique to ND, that is not seen in other states. It is a partnership of DPI, the teachers union and the business community.

We are bothered enough to pose a question. Hasn’t this partnership always existed?

No, this cannot be the answer. We do agree that Doug has the problem well-stated. But we can’t help but conclude this is not a problem that can be fixed by an unwieldy group of leaders assigned to committees and task forces. Been there; done that. Didn’t work. Something is missing.

Our Question

What can we do? We agree with his assessment of the current K-12 education system. We agree that there is at times more cooperation between labor and management in ND than in other states and the same can be said for the cooperation between government and the private sector. But we still don’t feel confident that a solution will be forthcoming. Our thinking then logically leads us to ask a simple, necessary, but difficult-to-answer, question. What do I do tomorrow?

What do I do tomorrow? Do I do nothing? Do I wait for the groups – DPI, businesses and a union, which may be unique to ND compared to other states in their ability to cooperate, but who have had much opportunity in the past to do something, but apparently did not come up with solutions? Or do I do something on my own? And if yes, what can I do?

What can I do?

Our Answer

Every community, and every member of each community in ND can start by listening to their kids. Burgum says he wants government to treat taxpayers like customers. Most of us agree with him. Now we need to recognize that our kids are customers, too.

Our kids are able to describe what they want; and most often, if we listen closely, what our kids want, adds up to what they need.

  • They want to be motivated.
  • They want to understand how what they are assigned to learn is relevant.
  • They want to be challenged.
  • They want to solve problems.
  • They don’t want tests to be their main source of success and affirmation.
  • They want choice.
  • They want to be able to make mistakes without penalty.
  • They want to know that they are not odd, that there are others out there that are just like them.
  • They want to figure out the best pace of work for them individually.
  • They do not want to be labelled.
  • They want to be proud of what they can accomplish.

Communities, that is the adults in them, then need to examine what is available to meet the needs and wants of their kids. We do so recognizing and appreciating that our kids are the only ones that can produce the end-product of the education enterprise – learning.

One, Proven Solution

NDCDE found an educational program that meets our kids’ expectations, while at the same time, their needs. It is a program that not only delivers learning for students, it has a track record of being capable of changing the school itself. The program’s environment provides solid hope that the kids exposed to it will be capable of competing in a future world that will have an overwhelming amount of information to sort through, a global economy that will require more and more workers to acquire higher and higher technical skills, and a workplace that will require nearly all workers to be productive members of teams. That learning environment is the North Dakota SmartLab.

What is a SmartLab? The ’Smart’ in SmartLab alludes to a type of action-planning – S.M.A.R.T.

  • S = Specific
  • M = Measureable / Motivational
  • A = Assignable / Attainable
  • R = Realistic / Responsible
  • T = Time-based / Touchable

The SmartLab in action is a room comprised of computer-assisted work areas where projects are designed to teach all academic areas, but do so through highly engaging problems to solve. Each problem is posed in a way that fits the person’s grade level. There are enough problems to choose from to satisfy all interests. Each problem and each project is fully supported by software and construction kits. Each problem and project is provided in the context of real-life situations. The SmartLab is a safe and encouraging place where students explore STEM and media arts through applied technology and project-based learning.

Next Step(s)

But how will the communities’ adults know how to examine the worthiness of the SmartLab; after all, most members of a community are not professional educators? Most of us don’t typically assess course materials; most of us don’t typically read treatises on brain science; most of us don’t attend seminars on the latest methods of teaching a particular subject?

Each of us will know when we reach inside ourselves and consult with the kid that resides in each of us. That kid knows what he or she wanted and didn’t get. The kid is an expert, if we let him or her be one.

To help the kids inside us remember, let’s let the kids of today tell us about the SmartLab in their own words and in their own way.

The answer to ‘what can we do’ starts with listening to the story your kids can tell us and show us. Then the kids outside us and within us, along with the adults we have become, will figure out what we do with our tomorrows.

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