Solutions Looking for Problems?

All fields have their shop-worn phrases and clichés, and education is no different. And while there are lots of them in education, the one that chafes me most is the well-meaning: innovation.’

Good teachers, the story goes, change everything all the time. They change books, they change approaches, they change seating arrangements – everything needs to be different than before. Much of this pressure comes from (again) well-meaning administrators who praise certain teachers for “never doing the same thing twice”; more of it comes from those teachers themselves. But I’ve always wondered: what if the way you were doing it before was best?

A gifted colleague of mine recently put it this way. Imagining a discussion with his wife later that night, “For dinner tonight, let’s eat in the ditch. Or, the dumpster. Always changing!”

People will scoff and say, but wait – when we say innovation, we mean improvement. And that’s the rub: not all new ideas are better than the ones that came before. In fact, some of them (lots?) are bound to be worse. And if we adopt them before we know if they are indeed better, really know not just have a hunch, then we do our students a disservice in the name of our own boredom.

I generally don’t tire with the comparison to medicine. We would not want our doctors ‘innovating’ protocols for assessing heart attacks, or the general method of removing a liver. There might be better techniques for those, and research ought to go into it (it does), but at the level of practice, I want my doctor to do what is generally known to create the best results, novelty be damned. Our classrooms should, in the main, follow the same example.

Here’s one of my professors, Ben Levin, on a similar topic:

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