Sunday, August 5, 2018

In Praise of Inputs

One continuing thread throughout modern education reform has been the focus on outputs. Let's direct our attention to outputs, preferably measurable ones, has been the refrain again and again.

The argument is not entirely without merit. It's not enough to account for your work in the classroom by saying, "Well, I threw a unit about adjectives at them, and hopefully something will stick." We have to do better than that.

But the complete rejection of inputs in education leads to the old drunk under the streetlight problem. That would be the classic story where a man is found searching for her car keys at night under a streetlight. "Why did you lose them so far from your car," asks a bemused bystander. "Oh, I didn't." Replied the man. "I lost them over there somewhere. But the light's much better here."

The problem with education-- and this has always been the problem with education-- is that the most important outputs are nearly impossible to measure. Has an education helped make this person wise, insightful, thoughtful, capable, kind and knowledgeable, in that critical thinking way that goes beyond mere factual recall and the performance of simple tasks? We don't know. We can't know, and sometimes when we can know, we don't know for years afterwards. Like any teacher who's been at it for a while, I have dozens-- hundreds, even-- of stories from students who, years later, told me that X turned out to be useful or that Y has helped them their entire life. Sometimes it's an academic insight, and sometimes it's something more personal. And as is true for most teachers, I can't think of many of these stories where the student thanks me for something that would have been a measurable outcome when they were a high school senior.

Sometimes there's an educational moment that dramatically changes a student's direction, but mostly it's nudges, a shift that is barely perceptible at the time. Right now, their path has only changed a quarter of an inch from its original trajectory. But once you extend that path out for years and years, the difference expands to become huge.

So it's not that outcomes don't matter. They matter tremendously. It's just that most of the really important ones are unknowable, sometimes for decades, sometimes forever.

And though I'm here to praise inputs, I have to point out that their nature is also shrouded and obscure. Human beings are not machines. There is no predictable science that tells us, "If you do X to a small person, that small person will grow up to be an adult who values Y." Human beings are not programable. This is the problem of an output-focused approach; the mistaken belief that if we know what outputs we want, we just select the inputs that get us those outputs. That is not how human beings work. There is real formula, for instance, that says, "Do these ten things and the person you desire will fall in love with you." The dream is that if I know exactly what outputs I want, it will tell me exactly what inputs to select. This only works with vending machines. Human beings are not vending machines.

Among those "You made a difference in my life" stories that every teacher saves and treasures are stories in which the teacher, years ago, did something that was really important to the student, but which that teacher remembers as some quick off-the-cuff nothing burger (or, once you reach a certain point, the teacher doesn't remember at all).

There are two important truths that every teacher can tell herself at the beginning of every day:

1) Something that you do today will make a huge difference in a person's life.

2) You will have no idea ahead of time what that thing might be.

There's only one way to manage this puzzle-- we must do our best to make sure all our inputs are good ones. Make sure each lesson is rich in quality content. Make sure we treat each child with kindness and consideration. Make sure we set a good example. Make sure we visibly live out the best principles. Make sure that everything we do in our classroom is built around the ideal of becoming our best selves and building our understanding of what it means to be human in the world. Make sure we behave in ways designed to foster growth in learning and skills.

We have a problem these days because of all of the items I just listed, only that last one gets anything like support. At the rest, our reform leaders will cock and eyebrow and ask, "But will that raise test scores?"

This is our problem. We have accepted cheap, small, simply measured outputs in place of larger, more global, more human-centered but hard-to-measure outputs. And in doing so, we have savagely chopped up our inputs, narrowing the whole range and depth of human experience and learning to the narrow sliver of "Will this raise the output test scores?"

Let's feed our children well. But instead of worrying about how we can choose food to create a certain physical form, let's just feed them healthy food, the healthiest and richest and best food we can find, and let the growing take care of itself. Yes, we will have huge and endless arguments about what exactly a healthy meal will look like, and yes, we will have students who really challenge our ability to feed them well. But focusing on outputs (like, say, deciding there's a specific size, shape and color of poop that we expect from each person) just gives us the illusion of mastery of a big, beautiful, chaotic, artful and often mysterious human process that we cannot control. In trying to control it, we just damage it.

Yes, there are specific things we could do (for instance, I'll bet interviewing every grad when they hit 35 will tell us far more about our system than their teen-aged test scores). But mostly we need to commit to making the best inputs we know how. We should not ignore outputs, but as long as we focus too carefully there,. we will never find the keys.

1 comment:

  1. I like your feeding metaphor. And the inputs you state are excellent. Three cheers for inputs!