Getting there … and letting go of ‘what works’

We’ve all seen them … lovely compilations of ideas ‘that work’, often published by an esteemed leader or organization with the goal of moving our profession forward.

A recent post by Justin Baeder (see got me thinking about my response to these ‘what works’ lists.  Most of the entries on the lists are discrete items, and their inclusion might have some evidence-based rationale.  However, they are seldom presented with a conceptual framework to understand what is productive about them.  Justin Baeder also points out that the ‘what works’ mentality often misses the importance of system thinking … life (and teaching) is much more complex than using the right set of tools.

It’s not that I do not want to see change happen.  Obviously (or maybe not so) I have invested considerable time and energy to bring about change.  My concern: Change without understanding context or concepts is just like our students doing 100 problems practicing ‘solving equations’.  The result may (on occasion) look pretty, and it appears that we are doing the right things.

Our work represents our understanding and wisdom; our work represents professional effort.  Replicating ‘what works’ in the field normally avoids the understanding and wisdom … after all, “X” was listed as a ‘best practice’ by an expert, so it must be a good thing to do. 

Learning is a complex process, involving elements of a multitude of sciences (psychology, biology, sociology, and anthropology to name a few).  Each ‘practice’ exists in a complex web of practices and their meanings.  Transferring a best practice to a new context assumes a fundamental equivalence of the contexts.

Getting there will involve developing our understanding and wisdom.  We will find that there are concepts and theories with a track record of predicting positive outcomes.  At a sufficiently high level, we can all use the same concepts and theories to produce good results.  Seek the understanding and wisdom.  As Albert Einstein was reported to have said:

The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.

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