The Question

When my mother was a schoolteacher, and she was asked to evaluate this or that new educational program, she would ask one simple question

Does this program provide me new resources or materials to the classroom?

All too often, the answer was no. 

She would then respond: Then it sucks. 

My mother got in trouble with the bureaucracy a lot. 

Because most educational programs don’t give teachers more classroom materials. Instead, they are a quest for what Software Engineers like myself call a Silver Bullet. You see these all the time in Software Engineering. Someone comes up with some new technique, computer language, text editor, whatever. It becomes a fad, and the proponents say that this new whizzy thing is going to double productivity.

It doesn’t. Silver Bullets don’t work. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you get a 10% productivity boost. More often, productivity falls while everyone learns the new technique, then perhaps you get a 5% benefit. 

As an engineering manager, I know that silver bullets don’t really exist, but unfortunately or educational system doesn’t. 

The more we scream for them to fix the system, the harder they search for sliver bullets. 

Given finite resources, that means that they have to pull resources out of the classroom in order to fund this search. Because they believe in this magic bullet, they know that this will make things worse, but they think it will be ok because once they find the magic bullet, everything will be fixed. 

But there is no silver bullet. Merely a desperate search for one.

Having starved the classrooms to fund this pointless quest, the bureaucrats who meant well, redouble their efforts. Because otherwise they'd have to admit they were wrong

Whole Language vs. Phonics

The classic and probably worst example of the quest for the silver bullet is the Whole Language vs. Phonics debacle, which sadly, is still going on

I can tell by the fact that you are reading this, that at some point, you were taught Phonics. Phonics, in essence, is  teaching children that there’s an alphabet made of letters, letters which represent sounds. 

It’s how humans have taught children to read for the last 5,000 years. It’s not rocket science, its the first step. 

Then came Noam Chomsky, a linguist. Noam Chomsky, despite having never been a schoolteacher, proposed something called Whole Language. Whole Language proponents argue that because, later on, you don’t read by assembling letters into sounds, that instead you should teach children by skipping Phonics entirely. In fact, they argued that Phonics was harmful

Caught up in the hype, State Education Boards around the country mandated Whole Language, and banned Phonics. There was just one tiny problem. They didn’t try it first. 

If you ask any elementary school teacher about Whole Language, they’ll tell you that Whole Language doesn’t work. They’ll generally look kind of pissed about it because Whole Language helped destroy reading in this country. It was uniformly mandated from above, in general over the protests of the teachers involved. 

Now years later, school districts are back to mandating Phonics again.

Have you caught the contradiction?

They’ve gone from mandating one type of instruction to mandating another type of instruction. 

The problem with our schools isn’t the type of instruction, its the assumption that the bureaucracy should choose what type of instruction the teachers should use, and then force the teachers to use that method.

Because even though Whole Language is fatally flawed, because 4/5 students learn better with Phonics, 1/5 students learn better with Whole Language. 

At the end of the day, the best person to decide what educational technique to use is the teacher, and the answer is different for each student. 

That’s why there are no silver bullets in education, because at the end of the day, teaching is about craftmanship. That is, the teacher has to figure out how to reach students who aren’t learning. 

Porcupines, Sports Illustrated and Hershey Bars

When my mother was a schoolteacher, she had a student who was having a hard time learning to read. For whatever reason though, he was interested in porcupines. So my mother, with her own money, bought him a childrens book about porcupines. He learned to read. Another student was only interested in sports. She bought him a subscription to Sports Illustrated. In general though, the easiest and most powerful motivator for most children were Hershey Bars. 

So why am I doing this? Because we are spending billions on this useless quest for a silver bullet, when what we really need to do is spend a few bucks on chocolate. 

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