Trying Something New

By Brett Pawlowski

As Patrick Larkin notes in his Education Week blog, there was a time in basketball when the jump shot did not exist – players took their shots with both feet firmly planted on the floor. The first such shot was taken by a guard from the University of Wyoming in 1942 during a game at Madison Square Garden. It was a complete break with tradition – something people assumed you just didn’t do – and it changed the game completely. (Most assume for the better, though there were notable holdouts like Hall-of-Famer Bob Cousey, who thought “the jump shot is the worst thing that has happened to basketball in ten years.”)

The parallel to education is clear: sometimes you have to break with tradition, try something new and see if you can’t reshape the model to improve the experience. The difference, of course, is that changing your basketball shot doesn’t affect anyone; changing the education model has the potential to change lives for the worse if you don’t get it right. Any change that is not backed by a heavy body of research is not likely to be considered or adopted.

The counterargument, however, comes from Mike Sullivan, former director for the Agency for Instructional Technology, who wrote in “Future Courses” (Technos Press, 2001):

“The dilemma … is that any proposal for change in educational practice that cannot be demonstrated empirically to have a significant impact is universally ignored, if not attacked, yet there is no empirical basis for virtually any current common practice in education. [emphasis added]

Of course Horace Mann did not base his concept of the common school on research findings. He observed the world and designed a school that reflected the needs and practices of the world. He observed the impact of the Industrial Revolution, the efficiency of mass production, the need for a moderately well-trained work force to emerge from a huge group of immigrants, and he created the appropriate school. If Mann were alive today, he would most likely look at the world around him and conclude that a new concept of pedagogy is needed. He would not have to examine the research or endless debate the meaning of standardized test scores or public opinion polls. Mann simply would observe that the theory of pedagogy reflected in current educational practices no longer reflects the needs and practices of our world.”

If you’re hesitant to try new things solely because they are unproven, perhaps it will reassure you (or terrify you!) to realize that none of our current practices were proven when the current system was designed more than 150 years ago. Perhaps it’s time to look at what we’re doing with fresh eyes and think about what education could be?