The Inherent Reductionism Of Educational Policy: Good Ideas Gone Wrong

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By Grant Wiggins, Ph.D

Stupidification (n): 1. A deadly illness in which perfectly good ideas and processes are killed as a result of thoughtless interpretation and implementation. 2. The reducing of intricate issues and processes to simplistic, rigid, and mandated policies, in the impatient quest for quick fixes to complex problems.

No, it’s not a real definition, but it’s one sorely needed in education, don’t you think?

Over the course of my 40 years in education I have seen one great idea, process, approach, or program completely stupidified in witless mandates. It’s like a bad game of Telephone: what often starts out as a sensible notion ends up down the line as nonsense. The sensible idea of tests of achievement that are valid, reliable, and efficient gave us the monster of test prep as the de facto curriculum. The need for equipping isolated teachers with helpful materials gave rise to 500-page textbooks and the absurd view held by too many that a teacher’s job is to “cover” what’s in it.

This Is Not A New Phenomenon

Long ago, John Dewey’s insightful guidance in How We Think was turned into a rigid step-by-step method of “thinking.” Noteworthy was that Dewey termed it reflective thinking but most writers after Dewey dropped the adjective. Much of the worst of the critical thinking literature is based on this kind of reductionism: a simplistic focus on logical reasoning and logical fallacies, and a mini-course in logic – though Dewey endlessly argued against reducing his method to learning logic or steps.

Similarly, Madeline Hunter developed a perfectly sensible way of describing lessons, their structure, and a design process in support of it – only to have it bastardized and stuffed down the throats of teachers by thoughtless administrators. I often saw fast-moving and stern supervisors walking in and out of classrooms, with their clipboards of Hunter-esque checklists looking for the precise ‘anticipatory set’ that was mapped out and standardized at the district office with God knows what rationale.

Now, we see the same thing with Standards: in many schools you have to post the Standard being “learned” in today’s lesson on the board. With my own eyes and ears, I have even heard teachers asking students to repeat after them: What Standard are we working on today, boys and girls? Standard 6.3.a.1. I am not making this up. This is like the cargo-cult people in the South Pacific described by Richard Feynman.

Alas, I have seen my own work made similarly rigid and simplistic. In many schools doing teachers must post the Essential Question for the currentlesson on the board– despite the fact that we specifically recommend against EQs for lessons and that the whole idea is to help students internalize the question so as to ask it independently moving forward.

Looking Back And Forward On The Theme Of Thoughtlessness 

I bring all this up now because in looking back over last year’s posts as part of my first annual stock-taking of this blog, I saw that thoughtlessness in education was a regular feature. Whether it was decrying the fixation on filling in boxes on “the” template, clarifying what genuine formative assessment and pacing really are (vs. dumb one-shot interim tests now routinely done under this banner in many districts), explaining the difference between transfer and prompted learning, cautioning against confusing feedback with evaluation or advice, or lambasting the witless use of Value-Added Models in teacher evaluation, many of my posts were variants on the lament.

Looming on the horizon are predictable stupidifications of a few current worthwhile ideas related to the Common Core Standards:

    • Conflating standards with a curriculum framework (explicitly warned against in the Common Core materials, but already happening)
    • Confusing valid alignment to standards with a thoughtless check off mentality where we find a way to keep doing favored activities and lessons if they seem in any way related to the Standard.
    • Mimicking the format of the standardized test in local assessments instead of its rigor
    • Assuming that without changing local grading that external standards will somehow be met
    • Ignoring the basic premise of Mastery Learning: assuming that somehow all or most students will meet standards even if everyone has the same fixed amount of time in which to meet them.

Hints For Avoiding Stupidification Moving Forward

The key to avoiding thoughtless policies and mindless acceptance of them is to ask questions: your mentor is Socrates (or Feynman) and your touchstone is the child in the Emperor’s New Clothes. The key question is: Why? Because when practice becomes unmoored from purpose, rigidity sets in. Consider the following set of questions as a stupidification antidote:

    • Why are we implementing this practice or policy? If that’s the reason or purpose for the practice, how might we alter the practice or policy to better achieve our goals?
    • Must this practice be mandated? Or need it only be recommended as one way among many to achieve the goal? Example: the point of posting the Standard or EQ is to help students know where the lesson is going; that should be the mandate, if anything. There are many ways other than posting the Standard or EQ to achieve it: a hand-out with goals and rubrics for the unit, the placing of goals on assignment sheets, even constant verbal reminders, etc.
    • Is this practice and/or policy improving things? If not, how might we improve practice and/or policy? (The goal is not compliance but results).

Please post any stupidifications you have been subject to in your school or district in reply.

Image attribution flickr user deepcwind; The Inherent Reductionism Of Educational Policy: Good Ideas Gone Wrong first appeared on Grant’s personal blog.