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Posted by Michael Milone on Jun 14, 2017
A foundational ability of humans is the willingness to try things to see how they work out. This might be the most important talent we have developed. Imagine one of our ancestors long, long ago struggling with hair in her face as she managed the family fire while keeping the children from being eaten by a cave bear. She tried the Flintstone’s bone-in-hair approach, and that didn't work. Frustrated, she grabs a piece of flowering vine in one hand and her streaming locks in the other. Deftly wrapping the vine around her hair, she invents the hair tie and hair flair at the same time! (Unfortunately, this also led to the man bun thousands of years later, but that’s another blog entirely.)
Throughout history, we have admired those who tried things, failed, kept trying, and eventually succeeded. It’s the keystone of science and other important things like home gardening, which is why drip irrigation systems come with goof plugs. (Look it up if you don’t know what a goof plug is.)
Oh, right, I should get to the point. Why the heck have we lost this talent in education? Let me use a little anaphora to describe some recent experiences. When I talk with teachers, I hear about a lot of great ideas. When I ask them how the ideas are working out, many of the teachers said they didn’t know because they hadn’t tried them. When asked why, they expressed more or less the same rationale. They were afraid to try their ideas because they might not work with all students or their fellow educators might criticize them.
Now, take a deep breath and let’s rethink this. No strategy works with all students, all the time, in all circumstances. If we are going to be totally awesome teachers, we have to adopt the science project mentality: try things, evaluate them, and decide if they are working. Not only that, we have to be willing to solicit feedback from our peers (the science fair mentality), encourage our peers to do the same thing, support their efforts, and not get in their faces if something doesn’t work out in a given situation.
This doesn't mean we have to go rogue, abandon our lesson plans, and dis the conventions of our profession. There is a certain degree of conformity in education that is necessary, just as it is in all collective enterprises. If a school has adopted a given instructional product or method, then it makes sense to do everything possible to help students succeed using those products or methods. That’s the essence of fidelity of implementation. But there also is another consideration, and that is adapting the products or methods to the needs of students and supplementing them with other strategies or materials, as necessary.
Teachers bear an incredible amount of pressure these days because of some misunderstandings about accountability. I’m not going to get into a discussion about these misunderstandings because I might be kidnapped and reprogrammed, but they revolve around the apotheosis of a single mandated accountability test score. That’s not what teaching and learning are all about, and given the technology available to us, it is SO not necessary.
If you decide to try teaching as a science project, here are a few things to keep in mind. Start small, work with a few students at a time, and keep notes about the outcomes. If you have the capability and time (I know, no teacher has time for anything!), gather a little data. Talk to some peers and discuss what you are doing and why you are doing it. Try to get some feedback from them, and while you are at it, ask if they have any ideas. (If they have good ideas, steal them...maybe imitate is a better word, as T.S. Eliot has suggested.) Then, continue the process by replicating your experimental approach, adapting it as necessary, and trying other ways.
There is no doubt some of the things you try won’t work. That’s fine, and don’t fear failure, embrace it. That’s all part of the scientific method. Document the circumstances in which an approach works or doesn't work, keeping in mind that no approach works with all students all the time. The more information you gather, the more likely you are to answer the who, when, and why questions that will lead to further success for your students.
An added benefit of this approach is the collaboration it will build, which is another hallmark of the scientific method. It’s not necessary for everyone to agree about everything, but it would be wonderful if you could talk with your colleagues in a way that increases the opportunities to learn for all students.