What’s the big idea?

Some of the posts that I write are like drunken tattoos.  They represent my feelings at the moment while writing, but in the morning, or at some point in the future when I “sober up,” I sometimes regret having hit the publish button.  This might turn out to be one of those posts.  Normally those posts are the ones in which I scribble out somewhat random thoughts on pieces of paper while I should be relaxing.  Last week I stayed with the in-laws on Echo Lake in Vermont.  This is one of those posts that was scribbled out on a piece of paper, and I let the post simply represent what showed up on that paper as I sat and watched the storm roll in.

What’s the big idea?

Right now the smartest minds are being plucked out of colleges to do one thing…sell stuff.  Imagine if we were concerned with only coming up with big ideas that were not centered on selling stuff.  From medical research to the companies doing research in the current social media bubble, the best mathematicians, chemists, biologists, and psychologists are all doing their thinking to sell more stuff. Companies like Google, and now start-ups like Groupon suck the best minds into their companies to sell stuff.  Sorry, Google does not exist to allow you to better search the internet or send email.  If that is news, you might also be interested in the fact that McDonalds does not exist to provide you with the best quality food.

Right now there is a battle going on for the next best idea to reform education.  Many of the reformers that are getting the press, and the people conceiving the “ideas,” are coming from outside the teaching corps.  Teachers have allowed this reform movement to be a repeat of other reform movements starting all the way back in the 1850s.  Teachers have turned this into an Us vs. Them.  The teaching machine has become so large that we have lost the ability to connect with the outside world, communicate with reality, and have created our own reasons for existence—we are the true guardians of the kids and the future.  We are in many ways living a legend.  By allowing the reform to become an Us vs. Them battle we have lost the ability to be criticized, and lost the ability to see our own flaws.

These new big ideas that are being proposed by folks outside of education have already been tried.  Collecting data, tying teachers’ performance of students to tests, standardizing the testing, grading schools on students’ end of year test performances, and publishing test results have already been tried as improvements.  They were all part of the first great education reform that started in the 1850s.  At some point we have to stop trying to improve what we have. New Englandused to be a hotbed of entrepreneurship.  It was the place where the next big idea was created.  But old money, like old institutions and companies, grow conservative. New Englandstopped looking for the next big idea, and just started focusing on improving the old ones.  Those Yankees stopped looking and just kept improving those big ol’ mills (ok, the history is a bit more complicated than that).  Their innovative spirit died. Well, you can only improve a factory so much, and when the factories died, so did many towns in my state and the rest ofNew England.

I wonder if we are seeing that same process today.  I wonder if social media is magnifying it.  Are big new ideas being discussed?  We discuss a lot about how the new tools will allow us to create new ideas, but what new ideas have really come from all of these new forms of collaboration?  In my classroom, we “do” school very differently with the addition of social media and all the 2.0 tools available.  It has changed how I teach in the same way putting a robot into a car factory changes how cars are made.  The end result is really the same.  I just now have kids who can use computer tools instead of physical tools. They can talk to people farther away, share their work with 1000s of people, and collaborate more easily, but in the end they still produce the same type of work. Schools might be innovating, might be using new tools, teachers might be teaching differently, but they have only changed how we teach and learn, not how we think, what we think about, and the core of the final products.  Sorry, my kids’ stories were just as deep when we did them with construction paper and crayon, as they are with video cameras, editing tools, doing them collaboratively with far away schools, and share them with the world.

I have read a lot about how teachers want to change things, but then the same people will criticize and give no credit to those that currently want to reform school.  It is the same type of partisanship that is crippling our government during the deficit talks.  Maybe we need to admit that we are somewhat living a myth.  Maybe we need to admit that we are part of the problem. Maybe it is not the parents’ fault.  Maybe it is not the students’ fault.  Maybe it is not the fault of the local, state, and federal government regulations.  I have seen what kids bring home for work, the tests that teachers create, the sources they choose, the products they have the kids create, the learning that the teahers do outside of the classroom, interaction they have with colleagues, and especially the words they use in the classroom…teachers must accept some blame.  I believe that almost every school can provide an unforgettably powerful learning experience and education for kids despite all the regulations placed upon us.  If we want to press on with stressing that a teacher is the most important part of a child’s education then we must also start accepting some of the blame.  How can we be both the most important factor in a child’s education and at the same time have no responsibility for a child’s success?  How can teachers not be part of the problem?

In the future I will judge my students not on their successes, but on how they deal with adversity and challenges.  How are teachers dealing with the current challenge?  Chaining ourselves to the banner of more technology?  Child centered learning? New training for teachers?  Those banners have already been waved numerous times over the course of more than 150 years.  What is the big new idea that teachers are currently advocating in this current reform era?

Yes—we have a vast amount of new information at our finger tips.  Personally it has changed how I teach, but not how I think about teaching.  This vast new depository of information gets placed into a pile that we use to improve schools, but schools, like factories, can only be improved so much.  At some point the factory’s production reaches its zenith and then it is abandoned.  Schools have stayed stagnant for a long time, there is still a lot of room left for improvement—we could still improve steadily for a couple decades, but soon schools will also reach their zenith…if they haven’t already.

We need to start thinking of the next big new idea now before we share a similar fate to the thousands of mill and factory workers in New England who stood by and watched their great idea fade into an abandoned building…and then yuppie condos.  We need to get into the debate as agents of change, and not as defenders of our worn out faith.  We need the next big idea.  What is it?  The upper class big money businessmen (and Oprah) and foundations have chimed in with their ideas.  The teachers have presented some.  But again today we have a repeat of ideas from the past reform movements of the 1850s, the 1900s, and the 1960s. Reform movements started by the intellectually prominent and independently wealthy, who claim to know what is best.  The parents of those most anxious about their children’s school jump aboard first, and no one consults the needs and wants of the vast middle class of parents and students to see what their needs and wants are.  Everyone professes to already know. We seem to not know our own history, and are therefore doomed to repeat it.

We have yet to see a movement driven by the desire to bring joy and delight to the life of the individual, to enrich experience solely for the purpose of making life more full and lovely. The goals of both movements, quite to the contrary, have been extrinsic; they stressed the needs of society and the economy.
Michael Katz The Irony of Early School Reform 1968

What is the next big idea?


After scribbling out this post during vacation, I picked up a copy the New York Times that someone had left behind and of course there was a great article on ideas called the “The Elusive Big Idea” by Neal Gabler.  I know I ended up playing around with and inserting a couple of his phrases, but I just can’t remember which ones.



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