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.

10 Replies to “The Best Way to Kill a Good Idea”

  1. In the administrator’s zeal to show their teachers are doing their job we are sacrificing too much energy on the showing, taking much away from the actual doing of the job.

  2. Yes! I don’t think of myself as an ornery person, but as soon as I’m told I have to do something, I get antsy. I love learning from my colleagues, but as soon as my colleagues and I have to do the exact same thing, I get resentful.

    Of course, your introductory example is about how requiring students to do something can backfire, and I am certainly guilty of doing that all the time! But your point about being professionals is central here; my students are not yet professionals, and so I think it’s my responsibility to teach them certain things so that they can one day be professionals. But teachers are actually professionals, and I’ve seen more than one good idea founder because it became mandated and institutionalized.

  3. Murph:

    Every time – your essays speak to the nonsense going on in schools forced on teachers by anxious management fearful of angry punitive politicians…

    Years ago I was teaching in a coastal resort/holiday town a couple of hundred kilometres (sic) north of Sydney. I had had time as an Education Officer – I’d been in Adult Education – I’d undertaken a number of Graduate Studies – and then to the high school in that coastal town.

    For three years in a row I wrote up reports for my own edification – on my teaching – a précis of each class taught through the year. Highlighting my strengths – the good things achieved by my students (and in Australia most high schools are Elementary 7, 8 – the Freshman Sophomore, Junior and Senior – ranging 12 turning 13 to 17 turning 18 years of age). I shared them with my Head of Department.

    And then regional education directives made such a kind of end-of-year review virtually compulsory. I never did another of those reports – coinciding as well with a change of teaching domain – from English and from History – to Japanese. You are so right Murph – as human beings – as professionals – we ARE professional in our pursuit to be the best teacher we can be – and we cannot stand being told that we must do something – especially by those who are not OF our profession – merely management and bean counters!

  4. I totally agree with the premise of what you say. But therein lies a conundrum. If there are teachers on staff who are not invested, are not intentional, are really old and resistant to new ideas and use of best practices and refuse to join the 21st century and want to teach their own way, and year after year. Then, each year their students move to the next grade unprepared for the rigors of that grade because they were taught by practices useful to students 25 years ago, what do you do?

    1. lutisamjo,
      That’s where an administrator comes in. That’s why they are getting paid the big bucks. They should direct their attention to those teachers who need it instead of forcing EVERYONE. If I’m a principal and I know a teacher isn’t measuring up, it is then my job to figure out what to do with THAT teacher. Instead, administrators, individuals afraid of hurt feelings and being politically incorrect, make blanket statements that only apply to a few. Then everyone gets stiffed. A former teacher such as myself who doesn’t like it will move on or just close my classroom door and do my thing, resentful. Steve Jobs said something about why hire great people and then tell them how to do their job? Administrators should think the people they hired are smarter than them. If they were so great as teachers, why didn’t they stay in the classroom? Maybe because it’s easier to force the rules instead of actually following them.

    2. We must learn to marry the traditional and contemporary. There are still practices from 25 years ago that have a place in our society today.

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