Using the Wisdom of Educators

One of education’s big problems is that the collective wisdom, insights, observations and experience of educators are pretty much squandered.

That is to say, millions of educators have figured out important things about what and how to teach under different kinds of conditions — but no system exists for them to contribute their bit of knowledge to the larger field in ways that help them and their colleagues get smarter and better.

EdTrust-LogoWell-organized schools and districts have systems to ensure that the expertise of faculty and staff is exposed and shared — but most schools and districts are still organized around the long-standing tradition of isolated, autonomous practice.

Although this is frustrating for individual educators, the real problem with an inability to aggregate collective wisdom is that it means education has few ways to get better as a field.

This is why Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better is a welcome addition to school literature. Written by Anthony Bryk — the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching — along with Louis Gomez, Alicia Grunow and Paul LeMahieu, the book lays out a systematic way to roll up what it calls the “micro-expertises” of individual educators into the collective wisdom of the field.

The big idea of the book is that educators should come together in what it calls Networked Improvement Communities to focus on what the authors call a “high-leverage” problem, and then use the knowledge of individual educators, armed with relevant research, to tackle the problem and monitor progress. One of the keys is what the book calls “learning from variance.” That is, if a program or practice is tried, and it works well in one place and not in another, that variance needs to be studied to understand what factors made the difference.

By starting very small and working in ever larger groups to develop hypotheses, test, monitor, learn from success and failure, and revise, the book argues that large-scale improvements are possible.

That’s the theory, anyway, and Learning to Improve describes a couple of big efforts by the Carnegie Foundation to solve education problems.

For example, if you give students something to read that draws on Carol Dweck’s work on Mindsets, will that change their attitude toward whether they can become good at math? One developmental math teacher tried it and found that it did have an effect on his students; others started as well and were able to map under which conditions it had a positive effect — or no effect.

Many such micro-experiments, complete with data and analysis can be conducted and rolled into a larger framework in ways that do not conflict but instead complement each other.

This is a complex and deep process that has a lot of aspects to it, but if you’re interested in solving big problems in education in a way that honors the knowledge and expertise of educators in a methodologically rigorous way while addressing the larger systems in which educators work — this could be a book for you.