I have been reading fiction lately, and the themes of this blog are much more suited to discussing non-fiction than fiction (unless we count the promises of education reformers as fiction). But the LA Times has an article on how the Gates Foundation is beginning to acknowledge that silver bullets are in short supply, and that is worth sharing. I used to be a big fan of the TV show Once Upon A Time, and in Once Upon A Time there are two lines particularly worth quoting in discussions of education reform:
1) "All magic comes at a price." Said repeatedly by Rumpelstiltskin, the point is that whenever you use magic to solve a problem you might get a a quick and easy way to do something, but you'll pay for it down the road.
2) "That's the problem with this world. Everybody wants a magical solution to their problems but nobody wants to believe in magic." Said by the Mad Hatter, one of the few characters in the first season who knows that magic and fairytales are real, he's complaining about people who want something that's as quick and easy as magic, but somehow fits into their (supposedly) rational world-view. They want things neat and tidy. He was talking to a character who wanted to believe that there was a way to fix her situation without accepting the reality of other worlds and much bigger things than she had previously contemplated, things that could shatter her world and thrust her into a much bigger drama.
But it could just as easily be applied to technocrats. They want to believe that with properly-designed studies they will find the tricks that nobody else found before, and use those tricks to solve the problems of education. They are forgetting a few inconvenient facts. For starters, scientific discovery is never as clean and linear as the technocrats want to believe. You don't simply follow a best practice for research and thereby identify a best practice for teaching or social work or whatever. True insights, let along truly new insights, are dearly bought. They come at unexpected moments and from unexpected directions. New knowledge is the most expensive thing imaginable. There's a reason why thousands of years ago the Egyptian scribe Khekheperre-Sonbu, living in a time when so many of today's great innovations were unknown, lamented the difficulty of developing new and meaningful ideas.
Also, they want to think that success is just a matter of telling people to do the right things and then watching it happen. Just today I was talking to a couple people who found in their research that teaching assistants who were sent to a seminar in which they were told about the (supposedly) best practices for teaching would start out following those practices but would then deviate. Their belief was that they need to find some way to persuade or train the teaching assistants to stick with the best practices. Well, first, let me note that maybe some of these practices are only best for particular people in particular settings, and the teaching assistants might not be the right audience for these practices.
But second, getting people to do the right thing is more complicated than telling them to do the right thing. Perhaps the best way to instill a practice is not with a seminar that meets for a couple hours once per week over a period of 10 weeks, but rather to provide a role model. Perhaps they need to take a class from an inspiring teacher who uses the (supposedly) newer and better practices. Perhaps that is a better way to instill something into the brain. If you want people to believe down to their very bones that a particular method of teaching physics (or whatever subject) is better than any other method, perhaps they need to actually experience the method itself, and actually learn and appreciate physics via that method, and experience enough growth and insight into physics that they will emulate that method as much subconsciously as consciously. Perhaps role models and meaningful experiences matter more than simply hearing and believing best practices.
Think about how much we emulate our parents, and ask yourselves this: Do you do what your parents told you to do, or do you do what your parents did? You probably got some good habits from them, but did you get any bad habits from them? And did they tell you to adopt those habits, or did your mothers tell their children not to do what they had done? (To quote a great song.) I'm pretty sure that your parents discouraged you from emulating their worst habits, but that probably didn't stop you from emulating them (probably without consciously intending to do so). We know from more than a century of research on k-12 education that parents and family background predict educational outcomes better than any practice on the part of teachers. Why? Because people spend far more time around parents than around teachers, and (usually) get more attention from parents than teachers. (If they get more attention from teachers than parents then there's an entirely different set of problems here.) Likewise, people spend far more time with teachers trying to teach them subject matter than teachers trying to explicitly teach them about teaching. Perhaps the best way to shape the next generation of teachers is to teach subject matter as well as possible and inspire people to do what you did, not to spend 2 hours per week over 10 weeks telling people about best practices.
Of course, teaching the subject matter as well as possible is slower-impact than a special seminar, even if it is higher-impact. And we want the fast solution in our society. We want to believe in the magic without accepting that when the magic actually does happen it happens in a much bigger context. So I'm quite confident that when Bill Gates has left the stage Mark Zuckerberg or some similar figure will attempt to implement an education reform agenda, convinced that This Time It's Different. All of this has happened before and will happen again.