Average Somethings Are Better Than Wonderful Nothings

Sometimes I put myself in the regrettable situation of needing to once again lose weight. If you’re like me and prefer laziness to whatever the opposite of laziness is, then you have probably done what I have done: googled the best way to burn a bunch of calories. Exercises like sprinting, jumping rope, swimming, boxing, and tennis burn far more calories than a light jog or a bike ride, yet many more people run or ride bikes to lose weight than jump rope or swim laps.

If you’ve ever tried jumping rope for an hour, you already know why. Jumping rope for an hour is really hard. Swimming requires a pool. To box, you need equipment and a gym. To play tennis, you need an opponent. People don’t choose which exercises to do based on how effective they are; they choose based on their personal interests and ease of implementation.

In education, we expect the opposite: we consistently ask teachers to do the equivalent of difficult-to-perform, high-calorie burning exercises and then act surprised when the scale doesn’t change.

Choosing Programs

My district is in the process of deciding which science program to adopt for its K-5 students. I’m currently piloting Amplify Science with my third graders. It’s a good program — NGSS-aligned, phenomena-based, lots of hands-on investigations, a robust literacy component, and just about everything fits in a single plastic tote. It’s also time-consuming, both in prepping for and executing the lessons. This is a problem, and it’s one that can be found in just about every subject area program designed for elementary students. The programs are usually designed by a group of well-meaning content area geeks — high school teachers, college professors, and professionals who work in the field. Their passion is evident in the program, but it’s not a passion shared by most elementary classroom teachers, so there’s a disconnect between the intentions of the program and how it’s implemented. To continue the analogy, it’s like asking people who’ve never exercised all that much to start training for a decathlon.

My wife, a fifth-grade teacher, is without a science program. She’s been using Mystery Science, which she found through word-of-mouth. She likes it, and so do her kids. One of the reasons she likes it is it’s easy to use. Most lessons include a video, taught by the co-creator of the program, Doug Peltz, who was an actual science teacher. It shows. Doug keeps the videos short and interesting and then provides teachers with everything they need for students to investigate further. The program comes with worksheets and simple experiments that usually only require household or inexpensive items. 

Most science people will prefer Amplify to Mystery Science. If scored objectively, Amplify is the better program. It goes into the science in greater depth and it’s better aligned to the standards. Our district is in the process of choosing between two science programs for adoption, and Mystery Science is not even under consideration because of its perceived shortcomings.

If someone were to judge the programs only on their merits, Amplify would win, but when districts make these decisions they usually leave out what may be the most important factor, at least when it comes to elementary classrooms like mine.

The question that should be considered by those deciding between new programs is similar to the one those trying to lose weight consider before starting a new exercise routine:

The smart athlete asks, “Which exercise am I likely to stick with?”

The smart school leader should ask, “Which of these programs are teachers more likely to use?”

The reality is that in most elementary classrooms science in an “I’ll get to it when I can” subject. There are a lot of reasons for this. Some teachers aren’t comfortable teaching science because of their lack of knowledge. Science lessons are often more unstructured, so those who like tightly managed classrooms balk at the potential for noise and chaos that can happen when students start experimenting. Science is often time-consuming. Elementary schools and their teachers are more often judged on the results of reading and math tests; doing science takes time away from those subjects.

Science, like exercise, requires a commitment to do well. For this reason, districts should think about what their teachers are likely to do when making programmatic decisions. They should make it as easy as possible for their teachers to teach the subject.

Not Just Science

But it’s not just science. Or social studies. Or math. The question — what are teachers most likely to use? —  should be at the forefront of most decisions and reform ideas. One of the things that annoys me about the focus on John Hattie’s effect sizes is that school leaders, when they promote his high effect-size strategies, substitute the question they should be asking for a different one:

Which one of these is most effective?

That question assumes that strategies, like programs, are implemented equally by all teachers. They aren’t. According to Hattie’s meta-meta analyses, the jigsaw method has a huge effect size of 1.20. But it should go without saying that the jigsaw method can be done well or done poorly. It should also go without saying that the more complicated the technique is to execute, the less likely it will be done optimally.

District leaders who choose the “better” program or building principals who expect teachers to use the most “effective” teaching strategies make the same mistake I would make if after googling high-calorie burning exercises I decided to take up taekwondo. Sure, taekwondo would help me lose weight, but only if I actually learned how to do it and then stuck with it. Taekwondo is only effective if you do taekwondo.

When given the choice (and leaders must choose; you cannot do everything on Hattie’s list) between having teachers focus on providing students with feedback and developing the collective efficacy of your teaching staff, you should consider ease of implementation and how effective such implementation is likely to be given the time and energy you can commit to it.  Note taking may “only” have an effect size of .50, but it’s a hell of a lot easier to do in a real classroom than managing effective classroom discussions ( .82 effect size).

My suspicion is that my district will make the same mistake most districts make and adopt Amplify Science for what seems on the surface a good reason: it’s a good program and kids will learn more science from it than from its competitors.

But that’s only true if teachers use it.

Because it requires a fair amount of prep, assumes teachers have an hour to devote to science class, and is, frankly, a bit of a hassle, it’s highly likely that elementary teachers, who must also prep for at least three other subjects, will decide to skip it on too many days. And if that’s the case, it won’t matter how much research backs it up, how aligned to the standards it is, or even how much kids love doing it.

Simple beats complicated when teachers will do the simple but not the complicated. Click To Tweet

Any teaching is better than no teaching.

Average somethings are better than wonderful nothings.


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2 Replies to “Average Somethings Are Better Than Wonderful Nothings”

  1. Hi Murph,

    I agree with Andrea: a truly thought provoking and well articulated and argued piece.

    I’m a Vice President here at Amplify Science, and I’d love to chat with you at your convenience about some product updates we’re working on, directly targeting some of the concerns you discussed.

    If you’re interested, please email me at [email protected]

    Thanks again for writing this article. Ease of implementation is something that we as publishers and curriculum developers should always keep at the forefront of our minds. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to share some of our ideas for improvement with you.


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