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Thompson: Learning from Others III

Monkey-fish-netsuke-ebay-TN In the 17th century, when a stovemaker tested a new design he would soak a piece of coal in cat urine, and test whether the smell went up the chimney with the smoke. "Stove-making is more of a numbers game now," with the Gates Foundation and others seeking metrics for the cost-effectiveness of stove design that could save the lives of millions of people in the Third World. Even after decades of experimentation, designing the best stove is as difficult as determining best practices in education. As with teaching and learning, the problem is that "fire is a fickle, nonlinear thing ... (with) each variable amplifying the next and being amplified in turn, in a complex series of feedback loops."

As is also true of education, "stove design is riven into sects and disciplines." Ignore traditional methods and values and "your shiny new stove gets turned into a flowerpot" (as is true of so many educational silver bullets stacked unopened in school storerooms).

"Cater to it, and you may end up with a new version of the same old problem." So, some stove designers seeking to help the poor (like so many educators) have "spent half their time agonizing over cultural sensitivity." Others (like so many educational "reformers") find themselves "grousing about design drift." Some are so committed to a Henry Ford type approach to scaling up that they "don’t really listen to small stove projects anymore," or tell the more modest designers to "now, please step aside."

Education reformers should wrestle with the issues of the entire New Yorker saving the world issue. I can’t say precisely what education reformers should learn from stories of Bejjing "being overrun with visiting MacArthur geniuses and Nobel laureates and Silicon Valley eminences, all angling to influence China’s climate-change policy," and "systems thinkers" seeking to save Mozambique’s biodiversity.

The world’s fish, flora, and fauna - like American urban schools - need saving and an "all hands on deck" approach is required. But "reformers" bringing best practices from their fields should remember that no solutions are possible without heeding the story of the monkey and the fish. The monkey saw a fish swimming underwater and said "‘I’ll save him.’ He snatched up the fish ... Of course the fish died, and the monkey said ‘Oh what a pity, if I had only come sooner I would have saved this guy.’"


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Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on film is captured forever... it remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything.

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