Monday, June 6, 2016


One of the dreams of ed reform has been to come up with a system that is teacher-proof, a program or script or curriculum that works exactly the same way no matter what carbon-based life form you have propped up in front of the classroom.

Systems are particularly appealing as a method of controlling "bad" actors, with "bad" defined as "does not do what I want them to do." This is a false hope, a snare and a delusion. Systems rarely fix bad actors, and frequently hamstring your best people.

You have a troupe of dancers, some of leap and soar and move with grace and beauty, and a few of whom dart around the stage like spastic rhinos. So to get the rhinos slowed down and under control, you put everyone in the company in forty-pound cement shoes. The rhinos are now chastened and restrained, but your best dancers can no longer leap and soar and move with grace and beauty.

You worry that the cooks in your restaurant have too much variety, some producing genius blends of flavor and texture and culinary awesomeness, while others can barely make meatloaf. So you create a menu system with easy instructions that anybody can follow that will always result in a predictably consistent product. Congratulations. You are now McDonalds, and nobody is ever going to go to your restaurant because they are in the mood for excellence.

You want your students to write with structure and organization, so you teach the five paragraph format. In fact, you strictly enforce the five paragraph system so that nobody wanders off the farm or blunders into the weeds. And now all the students who could have been excellent writers of sophisticated essays with varied and content-driven structure will just crank our mediocre five-paragraph essays.

The idea that a system can raise the not-very-good performers up to a level of excellence is an illusion, a lie. Nobody gets to excellence by following a system laid out by someone else and designed to be simple enough that nobody could supposedly mess it up. Such a system might raise the bottom of the barrel barely a hair. But at the top end, your idiot-proof system will require your best people to act more like the idiots the system was designed for.

On top of that, because the problem people are the ones most likely to disregard or mess up the system, your effect on them is likely to be minimal. They may simply not want to follow along, or they may not understand how the system is supposed to work and so when it's time to adjust or adapt, they can't do it well.

If Mr. Dimwittie doesn't know how to teach prepositions, handing him a scripted lesson may make him slightly less terrible, but it will not make him good. On the other hand, handing the script to Mrs. Brightangel, who already had a killer lesson about prepositions and understands them thoroughly-- that will just turn her excellent teaching with mediocre teaching.

Your best hope is that Mrs. Brightangel will be able to use her deep knowledge of content and teaching, her professional expertise and experience, to chop up, augment, replace, and ignore the scripted lesson. She will be the teacher equivalent of a Project Runway contestant (personally, I hope she's Chris March) who has to make a couture gown out of a burlap sack. Your best hope is that Mrs. Brightangel will find a way to do what she knows she needs to do, even if you put her in cement shoes.

In short, education in this country will not be improved by coming up with systems that are teacher-proof.

The solution is to have more teachers that are system-proof.


  1. Peter,

    Have you ever cooked in a restaurant? Let me suggest that if anything is about systems, restaurants are it. Even the high-priced ones.

    Sure, people innovate and come up with new dishes. But we're not talking about the innovation process. We're talking about delivering. Product development and delivery are separate things.

    When you have a menu and are trying to deliver what you promised on the menu, you don't want Paul the Chef in the back getting creative. At any restaurant, unless the whole premise is surprise me.

    I know you're a teacher, so you know that some of the things teachers teach are cooking-like. There are concepts, facts, and procedures which really don't vary. There are other things--principle-based tasks--that you never really do the same way twice.

    I've been reading your posts about objectives, and it sounds like you're against objectives because people are taking ways of assessing procedure-based tasks and applying them to principle-based tasks. But that doesn't need to happen. That's a misapplication.

    There's plenty of research on what helps folks learn principle-based tasks. And there are plenty of ways to assess these things.

    And I suspect you know all of this. So I don't get the push back against objectives.

    I've been teaching for many years as well. If there are no objectives, there is no reason to teach.

    Are you simply railing against one-size-fits-all, centrally-controlled national objectives?

    1. Well, definitely the last one. But I also think there's a big difference between setting objectives and letting your trained professionals judge how best to get thete, and systems that try to lay out exactly step by step what one is supposed to do. "Teach students to understand subject verb agreement" is fine, but "follow this script" not so much

    2. The restaurant analogy may have missed the mark, but the overall post did not.

      If my curriculum includes the structure of atoms, I must present a lesson true to the content knowledge, however no one should micro-manage the specifics (i.e. a scripted lesson) of my delivery or require canned activities.

    3. I think you do miss the mark. We aren't dealing with recipes -- we're dealing with human beings. Each responds differently to the ingredients, and the outcome cannot be guaranteed. While, yes, we have certain expected understandings and skills, each teacher must adjust constantly for the needs of the students. Besides -- I can, as an English teacher, assure you that it is very much worth teaching without objectives! They often limit good learning. I've found my students often achieve well beyond the formal "objective" when I don't bother putting it on the board.

  2. Dear Mr. Peter Greene,

    I am sorry, Mr. Peter Green. This was a wonderful post, but at some point it must be added that this does not include regulations on industry that preserve the safety of the workers and the health of the consumers. There aren't any of these pesky regulations in China, and I won't eat anything cooked or packed there because I'm pretty sure that they sweep up the floor, dump it into the vat, and laugh. I'm also pretty sure that if someone falls into the grinders, production goes on.

    I'm all for strong regulations, and I could see someone taking your point and mis-using it.


  3. I call this algorithmic living. This is the scientific method run amok. Very scientific! (Think Yul Brynner.)

    It seems to me that quaint restaurants can afford to be creative and adaptable. People read the chalk board menu with enthusiasm. When they travel, though, they tend to want a guaranteed product like a Big Mac or whatever. They want to know what to expect and they want a guarantee. Mass production is possible with algorithms. Bill Gates hopes to step inside any classroom and witness that everyone knows prepositions, five paragraph essays and pre-algebra. So does the POTUS. So, we are stuck with education mandated and dictated by people who may theoretically reject mass production as an educational construct but all their policies are based in it. This is how they think they will achieve equality. Never mind the facts, it should work, so they will keep developing some system that will be an improvement from the last one, and well, you'll see. You'll see.

    Basic Marxism addresses the concept of the alienation of the worker. This is supposed to be the cause, of course, of an organically grown revolution, not the coercive revolutions in Russia and China. Do we see an organic revolt developing against the alienation of the teachers and students who are being forced to be widgets in mass produced education? If reasoning with supposedly sympathetic leaders doesn't work, what will a revolt look like, if there is one? Refusal to take standardized tests? Anything else?

  4. It seems to me that the forces for using a system come from the relatively arbitrary admission policy for public schools. If you live on the 500 block of maple, your student is assigned to school A. If you live on the 600 block of Maple, your student is assigned to school B. The only way to make the folks on Maple happy with this is to ensure as far as possible school A and school B are the same. So you impose a system.

  5. Peter,

    I enjoy your posts immensely. Systems are tricky because there are some systems that I want students to know. I know that you railed against the five paragraph essay but truth of the matter is that it hits a lot of rubrics. For my struggling writers, I usually go that route because it's a simple plug and play format. My better writers are afforded more freedom because they have demonstrated the ability to master that format. So, now they know the rules, they can go and play.

    As far as teaching, I am a tinkerer. I like to play around with ideas and formats for a variety of lessons. I have my baseline, tried and true lessons but I also have more creative lessons as well. Depends on where a class is at. Often, my tinkering has led to a significantly better lesson. Here's where your point is correct: If I had been relegated to a scripted, teacher-proof lesson, I never would have created the improved lesson. I'm stuck with whatever script they give me.

    Systems are necessary for a baseline but they definitely don't spur innovation. That's why reformers are such an odd series of contradictions. They request standardization but scream innovation at the same time. Gates, especially has tried to standardize teaching. That's what the MET was all about. Poor Bill discovered that many styles and approaches work relatively equally and got very upset. Remember how many delays there were with those studies?