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Posted at 10:16 PM ET, 07/06/2011

Letting teachers re-invent their own wheel

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Joanne Yatvin, a vet­eran public school educator, author and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, wrote this piece in 1990, when it was published in Education Week. I am republishing it now as a reminder of how some things change over time — and some don’t. Yatvin is now teaching part-time at Portland State University.

By Joanne Yatvin

As a young teacher, I served from time to time on committees charged with writing curricula and selecting new materials for teaching language arts and reading. Often, during committee deliberations, someone would come up with an idea that involved having teachers produce their own classroom strategies and activities. There was something very appealing about many of these ideas–at least to me–and we would spend a lot of time exploring their possibilities.

Invariably, however, some old hand on the committee would haul us up short and remind us that Faraway Publishers had already produced the kinds of materials we needed and that Next Door School District had already developed an efficient method for teaching what we wanted to teach.

“Let’s not re-invent the wheel,” Old Hand would say, and we wild-eyed visionaries, sobered at last, would agree. We stopped talking, adopted the publisher’s materials, accepted the other district’s methods, and went our separate ways.

Nowadays, I am not so compliant. Maybe that’s because I have become an old hand myself and an administrator to boot. But I prefer to think it is because I have learned something along the way: You have to re-invent the wheel, whether you want to or not, because nobody else’s wheels will work on your wagon.

I recount this personal reflection now because it bears on a key issue in education today: Should we use “top-down” or “bottom-up” models for improving our schools? Which way works better for school districts, particularly large and troubled ones where a few people at the top are bright, capable, dedicated, aware of the newest research and theory, and well paid; and the masses at the bottom may not be any of those things?

Under such circumstances, wouldn’t it be better — no, the only way — to give those folks at the bottom a well-constructed wheel, teach them how to use it, and make them accountable? Of course, some clods would never catch on but, at the very least, every teacher would be using a proper wheel, so the kids would be sure to get some benefit.

My answer to the question is swift and unequivocal: No, dammit! For three good reasons. The first has to do with the so-called “Hawthorne effect” that all those bright, well paid types may have heard about in graduate school but, in my opinion, didn’t quite understand. In that famous experiment in a Michigan manufacturing plant, dimming the lights so it was harder for workers to see was found to increase production.

Many graduate students (and unfortunately, some of their professors) think that the Hawthorne anomaly illustrates the fact that human subjects who know they are part of a scientific experiment may sabotage the study in their eagerness to make it succeed. What it really shows is that, when people believe they are important in a project, anything works, and, conversely, when they don’t believe they are important, nothing works.

The second reason for championing greater creativity for all is that, through the process of inventing, people learn to understand what their inventions can and cannot do. They learn how to fine-tune them for optimum performance, and, maybe, figure out what changes are needed to produce even better models in the future. In short, they acquire the intimate knowledge of object, system, and use that makes an invention truly their own.

The third reason is simply that a big part of teaching is inventing. Good teachers invent successfully all day long, every day. They invent better ways to explain lessons, to entice reluctant learners, to bring unruly classes under control, and to fire children’s imaginations. When teachers won’t or can’t invent, believe me, the kids will — 100 ways to shoot their teachers down. If we want good teaching at the bottom of the pyramid, we’ve got to let all teachers learn their craft.

But given the structure of schools and school districts we now have, changing to an inventing mode is extremely difficult. The model of school operation in use for more than 50 years rests firmly on premises of industrial efficiency, institutional uniformity, whole-into-parts logic, and worker obedience that are completely antithetical to the concept of invention. That model never takes into account the fact that the people who make up the mass of the school pyramid have professional and personal needs that–however we try to suppress or sublimate them–will screw up efficiency and logic every time.

Ultimately, the only way to improve American education is to let schools be small, self-governing, self-renewing communities where everyone counts and everyone cares. Yet the people who have the power to make that happen–legislatures, state departments of education, superintendents, and school boards–will not. Convinced that they are the only intelligent, competent, and caring people around, they fear those barbarians in the classroom, teachers and children, who, if allowed, would dissipate all our public treasure of time and money hacking away at rough stone wheels as our nation sank into chaos.

They are, of course, dead wrong. But even if they were right, those rough stone wheels, forged by people who needed to use them, would roll and carry the load of learning, while the smooth round ones sent down from the central office would languish in classroom cupboards.

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By  |  10:16 PM ET, 07/06/2011

 
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