"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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