When is Research, Research?

Funny_HatA story is oft told of the comedic teacher who challenged his colleagues to adopt the latest innovation in education. During his conference period, while in the teacher’s lounge, he claimed that some Ivy League schools in the Northeast discovered that student’s IQ grew exponentially when teachers wore funny hats. A couple of the trend-setting teachers decided to try it with their problem classes.

Low and behold, they seemed well-behaved. Through word of mouth a few more teachers bought in to the new system. Reports of improved test scores resounded throughout the building. Teachers wore pointed hats, hats with shocking colors, and hats with plumes sticking out the side. They tested which hat received the best results. Next, the principal shared their success story with other principals. Entire districts adopted the new system. Colleges began to embrace it and produce “How To” manuals. After two years, it became evident that this was not all what it was cracked up to be. So, one-by-one, schools abandoned the “funny hat” method.

Such lunacy, although somewhat exaggerative, is all too reflective of the way school reform actually occurs. Too often changes are made in schools based on spurious research, transitory test-scores, the “publish or perish” pressure upon college professors, or multiplied millions of dollars to be made by creating a popular teaching method. Meanwhile, children are subjected to these countless buffooneries.

Myron Lieberman, in his profound work, Public Education: An Autopsy, rightly posthumated, “Like individuals, social institutions die, and their death forces us to face an uncertain future… we cannot always wait until rigor mortis sets in to consider what should be done to meet the new situation.” The present climate is a complex combination of the pungent odor of a rotting corpse, along with techno-reforms.

Doubtless, there are many wonderful teachers, lots of resources, and well meaning politicians. The evidence that the case is terminal, however, is that each new resuscitation reverts to a deceased state.

I will never forget a horrifying event that happened when I was eight years old, which graphically illustrates the situation. I went to my neighbor’s house, where she was slaughtering chickens. She would place the chicken over a stump, stretch out its neck, and quickly chop off the head with a cleaver.

I had nightmares for days as I saw the chicken she threw to the side, jump to its feet and start running around in circles without its head! It was at this juncture that I first learned that activity and life are not the same things.

The difficulty in true education reform is that each new fad causes a flurry of activity, but when all of the dust settles, it returns to its former lifeless state. The pathologies remain the same – poor reading and comprehension skills, inability to communicate with clarity, and incapability to perform basic calculations.

Not everything that glitters is gold. Shiny new reforms, based upon bankrupt ideologies, are not the path to effective education. After fifteen years of research, I have come to the conclusion that effective education is dug out of the past. Jesus said the wise teacher of the kingdom, “…brings out of his treasure things new and old (Matt.13:52).”  Or as C. S. Lewis so aptly put it, Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook… The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.” (Introduction to St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation)

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