The Best Way to Kill a Good Idea

When I was in middle school I set out to read Stephen King’s complete body of work. I was inspired by my uncle, Pat, who was only five years older than me and owned many of King’s books. I read them throughout high school. Although I hadn’t finished by the time I went off to college, I abruptly stopped reading much of anything a week after setting foot on campus. The reason? I had too much required reading to do.

I rarely read any of it, and of what I did read, I remember almost nothing. Feeling guilty that I wasn’t doing the work my father was paying a fair amount for the opportunity to do, I read nothing at all. How could I read novels for enjoyment when I had neglected hundreds of pages of required text for class?

Reading is good. Requiring it is far less good.

This is the major problem with most education initiatives. Many of them are wonderful ideas that have the potential to positively impact students. But their effectiveness is neutered when legislatures, school boards, and school leaders force teachers to implement them. There’s a very simple reason:

People hate being told to do things.

Time for teachers to collaborate is good.
Requiring teachers to collaborate is not.

Professional development for teachers is good.
Requiring all teachers to attend the same professional development is not.

Having student learning goals is good.
Requiring every teacher to write learning goals on the board every day is not.

Lesson plans are good.
Requiring teachers to submit lesson plans is not.

Reading professional articles about teaching is good.
Requiring teachers to read specific articles is not.

Calling parents with good news is good.
Requiring teachers to call parents with good news is not.

Using humor in the classroom is good.
Putting humor on a checklist that principals use to evaluate teachers is not (and let’s hope such a thing never happens).

Reading books about teaching is good. Book studies are not.

Having a classroom management system is good. Forcing all teachers to use the same system is not.

 

The best way to kill a good idea is to force people to do it.

But that’s just what too many educational leaders do. There’s a tendency in education to take anything with evidence to support its effectiveness and try to force all teachers to do that thing.

Which of course has the effect of teachers not wanting to do that thing and results in it being done less than optimally. Force me to do something and sure, I might do it (unless I think I can get away with not doing it), but I won’t put much effort into it.

Enter the work of Robert Marzano (among others). Like many teachers, I’ve read Marzano’s book, The Highly-Engaged Classroom (and, notably, I read it on my own, not because my school did a book study and required its reading). I read it because it’s really good information for a teacher that I knew could make me better at my job.

However, it’s potentially really bad information for administrators. Leaders, pressured to improve student test scores, look at Marzano’s book as a comprehensive checklist of things great teachers do. But that’s not what it is or was ever meant to me. The book offers guidance. It provides the research to aid in decision making. You’re not supposed to read it and think, “Well, if one of these strategies is good, doing all of them would be even better!”

An analogy:

I have, at different times in my life, been overweight (like, for instance, at this particular time in my life). There are many ways to lose weight. Here are some:

Get more sleep
Stop drinking soda
Join a fitness class
Walk
Run on a treadmill
Lift weights
Weight Watchers
Pole dancing
Atkins Diet
South Beach Diet
Keto-something, or whatever the current dieting trend is
Read my book, The Teacher’s Guide to Weight Loss and then do what it says!

Those strategies will all work. If you do even one or two of them with any regularity, you’ll likely have success. But try to do them all and you’ll burn out pretty quickly. You’ll become exhausted. You’ll give up altogether. And if someone else, say, your personal trainer, tried to force you to do all of those things, you’d think she was crazy. But that’s what we do in education.

Instead of forcing teachers to eat their vegetables, let’s treat them like professionals. Inform teachers of the research and allow them to do what works with their students. If you must, require evidence that what they’re doing is working, but stop treating teachers like machines who, if they just did everything you told them to do, would produce better test scores.

That’s not how it works, and trying to force the matter is making it less likely that teachers will do the things you think will work anyway.

Stop jamming even the best ideas down teachers’ throats. They’ll die of suffocation, and the teachers will either reluctantly choke them down or, more likely, barf them out when you’re not looking.