4 keys that predict which education ideas will be more than just a fad

Why do some ideas about education become common knowledge, while others don’t? According to From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship becomes Common Knowledge in Education by Jack Schneider, there are four key attributes:

  1. Perceived significance
  2. Philosophical compatibility
  3. Occupational realism
  4. Transportability

The book explores educational ideas that made the leap from academia to being something that “every” teacher knows about:

Tracking the history of these ideas as they journeyed from research to practice is a fascinating look not just at education, but also politics, culture, personalities, and pure luck. Contrasting each these ideas with four similar ones that did not receive the same attention makes the case even more compelling.

The 4 characteristics of sticky educational ideas

In part 1 of this blog post, I’ll summarize the four characteristics that are commonly found in ideas that become “sticky” and well known to educators. In part 2, I’ll compare those ideas and practices with the current trend of making and makerspaces in schools. Will “making” be a sticky idea?

1 — Perceived significance: People have to hear about the idea multiple and believe it’s important. It has to address a timely, significant issue on teacher’s minds. It also has to come from a place that inspires believability. (To be blunt on this last point, prestigious university credentials matter.)

For example, Multiple Intelligence theory helped teachers explain that students who don’t do well in school aren’t simply unintelligent. At a time when school was becoming more standardized (1980s), it was a big picture explanation of how teachers could still meet student needs without really changing curriculum. Coming from Howard Gardner, a respected Harvard professor, meant that it would be listened to, talked about, and taken seriously.

2 — Philosophical compatibility: Educators often complain that scholars don’t have any idea what happens in real classrooms. Scholars complain that educators rely on folk wisdom and tradition rather than research. But when scholarship validates what teachers feel, it has a special resonance.

At the turn of the 20th century, rote learning and recitation were the primary modes of schooling. Many teachers felt that there was more to learning, but were powerless to change the system. William Kilpatrick, on the faculty of Columbia University’s Teachers College wrote about what he called “the project method.” It validated teachers’ feelings that something was wrong. It offered an explanation that made sense, and a way to operationalize that in a classroom.

3 — Occupational realism: The idea has to be easily put into use. It must not require extensive training or major changes to existing structures and practices.

Both Bloom’s taxonomy and MI had occupational realism in that teachers didn’t have to change very much to feel like they were using these scientific methods in their classroom.

In the book’s discussion of “the project method,” the practical application in the classroom was its weakest point. It wasn’t clear how to do it, and even if it was possible, seemed to call for a complete overhaul of chool structures and curriculum. Therefore it was mostly adopted as something that happened every once in a while as an add-on to the curriculum. As time went on, widespread adoption of formulaic projects subverted the power and promise of the idea. The book discusses the spread of the “California Mission Project” as an example. (For those of you not in California, every fourth grader in California builds a model of a Spanish mission, and has for decades.) The poor implementation of the project method on its way to occupational realism was the price paid for its widespread acceptance and endurance.

The review of why Direct Instruction became so widespread is especially interesting. It violates the second principle of “philosophical compatibility” because many teachers do not believe in scripted curriculum. However, at the time (late 1960s), political pressure for accountability and cost reductions required a curriculum that did not need a highly trained professional, yet produced increased standardized test scores. Despite complaints that students were being treated like trained animals, politics and budget cuts overwhelmed that objection.

DI solved multiple problems. It made it easier to spend less on teacher training and teacher salaries, increased test scores, allowed larger class sizes, and satisfied the “back to basics” movement all at the same time. The occupational realism of Direct Instruction was above all, institutional and political, rather than classroom centered.

4 — Transportability: The research and terminology must be easily understood. It must have both a big idea that can be quickly expressed, and simple parts that support the whole.

Bloom’s Taxonomy started off as an assessment scheme, a way to be more objective by defining different kinds of questions for students to answer. It quickly leaked out of assessment, as educators applied the structure to every part of the educational process from planning onwards, taking Bloom’s into a whole new area for which it had not been intended.

As time went on, the original complex definitions were simplified and recast as a pyramid that implied a progression from bottom to top. Teachers started seeing the drawing of the pyramid everywhere in their professional lives, and every instance reinforced the idea that it was reliable. This cycle of positive reinforcement-–of exposure validating reliability, and so in turn creating more exposure–-is typical of ideas that gain traction.

Original Bloom’s Taxonomy

Fifty years before Bloom, MI, and DI, “the project method” found its way to millions of teachers. It had a persuasive and tireless advocate in William Kilpatrick, from Columbia University’s Teachers College. He was an ambitious academic who wanted more than just scholarly fame. He convinced the publication Teachers College Record to publish his article, “The Project Method” and give it away for free to teachers. Sixty thousand copies were printed and distributed nationwide. Thousands of subsequent papers and articles were written about the project method and its application to all grade levels and subjects.

Although not a new idea, Kilpatrick wrote in a clear and less formal manner than many academics, including his teacher and mentor John Dewey. Kilpatrick was also genuinely interested in real classrooms. While some of his colleagues complained that he was a self-promoter tarnishing the reputation of academia, the results spoke for themselves.

The project method made such an inroad into teacher education in the first half of the 20th century that it became a part of every teacher’s classroom practice up to this day. The resurgence of various project methods in the 1960’s and 70’s (PBL, The Project Approach, etc) simply built on this collective consciousness of the idea from a half century earlier.

The project method became so popular that “project” became a term of art, not a specific method tied to one person. One can only assume that Professor Kilpatrick would be a bit miffed by this.

Ideas make their way into the world

The book creates a case that one of the reasons that most of these ideas took hold was that they were both specific and general at the same time. They also had a wide variety of interpreters and promoters who helped spread the message.

Bloom’s Taxonomy gave teachers a new way to look at classroom practice, yet didn’t require any particular belief or theory of pedagogy to implement. If you were progressive, it matched your understanding that growth is at least as important as learning specific facts. If you were more of a traditionalist, it provided a path from content to deeper understanding. The lack of opposition was an opportunity for it to spread widely. Everyone saw what they wanted reflected in an idea from a highly respected source. Schneider says the taxonomy was, “… an idea that somehow had the power to generate multiple constituencies without sparking opposition.”

Various providers of professional development created materials that further examined Bloom’s Taxonomy and provided specific curriculum and lesson planning advice. For the time, Bloom was remarkably open about supporting various groups, authors, and companies to interpret his work. These satellite disseminators made it easier to access the work, and even though some complained that it was misinterpreted or diluted, it was widely spread. These providers helped the idea gain the operational realism that it lacked in earliest incarnations. They answered the question — What would a teacher DO exactly, in a classroom where Bloom’s Taxonomy was a driving idea?

What does this mean for today’s ideas about making in education?

In part 2 of this post, I’ll take a look at how “making” in education aligns with these four traits.

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Originally published at Sylvia Libow Martinez.