“You have to run the program to find the bugs.” Unknown
“We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because
only in that way can we find progress.” Richard P. Feynman
“It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them." Steve Jobs
I realized today that these three quotes speak loudly to me about my approach to education. It also helped me realize why some of our actions in education bother me.
We like to talk a lot about data. I’m a science teacher, so I like data. But when the conversation comes around to “data driven instruction” I sometimes get the heeby-jeebies; I get very uncomfortable. It became clear to me today why.
It’s not that I don’t think we should look at data. I think we are foolish if we don’t. We need to look at the performance of our students and identify weaknesses. The question is what do we do after we analyze the data? Some people define data driven instruction as not doing ANYTHING that has not been proven to be effective. I have a real issue with this kind of thinking.
If we only teach using “proven” methods we will forever be frozen in time; we will never innovate and advance. I’m not saying we should disregard proven pedagogical practices. I am saying we can’t cling to them because we are afraid to try something new.
My students have been reviewing the development of the model of the atom. There was a slow progression of ideas from Democritus to Dalton, Thompson, Rutherford, Bohr and then Schrodinger and Heisenberg. Each scientist respected the current model of the atom, but that didn’t stop them from trying to improve upon it.
One of the issues I see in education today is too often teachers are penalized, or at least discouraged from experimenting with ways to improve their teaching. The flipped model of instruction is a fair example. Some teachers are discouraged from trying flipped instruction because it is not “proven” – meaning there may be limited data to support its benefits. That’s the sort of thinking that really aggravates me; the Steve Jobs quote
comes to mind. Administrators may not know it’s what is effective until you prove it.
And so what about proving if a new type of instruction is effective? The next two quotes come to my mind. I really like the quote, “You have to run the program to find the bugs.” That’s the way classroom teaching really works. You have a plan, or an idea – and you have to try it out and see what happens; in some cases that means trying it for an entire year. We must be willing to fail.
The Feynman quote is appropriate at last. When we have an idea – a new model that needs testing – we have to try it out. We have to try it and see if it fails. If the idea fails we discard it quickly and move on. If it shows promise, we must continue to refine and test the model. That’s the path toward the future.
Technology and the internet have been disruptive to education. In these times there are many ideas emerging that are attempting to find ways to deal with the new paradigm. Flipped instruction, MOOCS, Khan Academy, Standards Based Grading and others ideas are being tried. The Common Core comes to mind. I don’t like all of what I read, but at the same time it contains ideas that have some merit. We need to give them a chance and see what happens. Most importantly we need to try and discern what works. We have to find the problems in each model and then address them. That doesn’t mean declare a model a failure because it has problems. Like the model of the atom we must keep what works and continue to improve.