"What do you know? You never taught!" and other ways we slow down educational progress
A few weeks ago, I posted a piece about how reading instruction would change when aligned to the Common Core. For the piece, I drew on advice from David Coleman, the lead architect of the CCSS. At least one element of the post (his push to end pre-reading activities in ELA classrooms) set off a firestorm of debate among ELA teachers. What’s interesting, however, is so much of the pushback against Coleman’s ideas centered not on the ideas themselves, but rather on the fact that he does not have a background in teaching.
Take, for example, California teacher of the year and education blogger, Alan Lawrence Sitomer who wrote:
[Coleman] has zero K-12 teaching experience. Should we really be learning how to cook from a person who’s never been in the kitchen?
Sitomer isn’t alone in this view. Here are a few other samples from across the web:
Mr. Coleman is not an expert. He is simply someone who has been positioned and now is situated as an 'expert'. Itrequires significant arrogance to utter the bold statements Mr. Coleman makes.
I apologize for my brevity, but who IS David Coleman? What are his credentials, and how did a non-teacher gainauthorship of the hugest educational document ever written?
Practitioners are often quick to dismiss reform ideas that are promoted by people who have little direct classroom experience.
Of course, these instincts aren’t limited to reading instruction. Practitioners are often quick to dismiss reform ideas that are promoted by people who have little direct classroom experience.
These critics are not crazy, particularly when we’re talking about reading instruction. After all, it’s difficult to imagine someone who has never been in front of a classroom figuring out the delicate balance of classroom management, student engagement, and reading strategies it would take to ensure that all students could access sufficiently complex texts.
On the other hand, perhaps it’s exactly David Coleman’s distance from the classroom that gives him a comparative advantage worth listening to? After all, even after years—decades, even—during which dedicated educators have been pushing to move comprehension to the next level, reading achievement has languished. (Achievement on the fourth- and eighth-grade NAEP tests has virtually stagnated since 1992—and fourth grade NAEP reading achievement has not moved at all since 2007.)
In fact, research suggests that a fresh perspective is exactly what’s needed to solve seemingly impossible problems. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlights growing evidence that “big breakthroughs often depend on the naive daring of outsiders,” not the conventional wisdom of the best and brightest in the field.
Such solutions are known as "mental restructurings," since the problem is only solved after someone asks a completely new kind of question. What's interesting is that expertise can inhibit such restructurings, making it harder to find the breakthrough. That's why it's important not just to bring new ideas back to your own field, but to actually try to solve problems in other fields—where your status as an outsider, and ability to ask naive questions, can be a tremendous advantage.
In science, this idea is being put into practice through a website designed to solve difficult scientific problems. In short: organizations posted problems that they themselves were having trouble solving. “Nearly 30 percent of the problems were solved within six months. Many were solved within days.”
How were these problems—which had vexed organizations for months, even years—solved so quickly?
The secret was outsider thinking: The problem solvers on InnoCentive were most effective at the margins of their own fields. Chemists didn't solve chemistry problems; they solved molecular biology problems. And vice versa. While these people were close enough to understand the challenge, they weren't so close that their knowledge held them back, causing them to run into the same stumbling blocks that held back their more expert peers.
And so, perhaps what we need right now in education is not fewer outsiders, but many, many more? Not to overrun the voices of those in the classroom, but to join the conversation and help spark new directions. And rather than dismiss those ideas out of hand, we should put down the pitchforks and pull out the welcome mat. There are big problems to solve and we need as much help as we can get.
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About the Editor
Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow
Kathleen Porter-Magee is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow and the Senior Director of the High Quality Standards Program at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where she leads the Institute’s work on state, national, and international standards evaluation and analysis.
May 16, 2013
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