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Thompson: Can School Reform Learn from Failure?

The November, 2014 New York Times Magazine special edition on innovation focuses on failure. As explained in its introduction, most innovations are like Esperanto. They fail.  As they say in that long-forgotten language, “Oh, Well, Gravas la penso (it’s the thought that counts).”

Some of the best parts of the issue involve the inflated hopes of 1990s Big Data and corporate-style innovations and how they failed in similar ways. From the mapping of the human genome to output-driven, market-driven school reform, innovators learned that the world is far more complicated than they had anticipated. 

Virginia Hefferman explained how 1990s Virtual Reality mediums failed to live up to their marketing hype because, real world, they felt “like brain poison.” After a reworking of these technologies, virtual reality should now live up to its promise by creating “’a deep hunger for real-life experience.’”

Kemia Malekvilibro recalled the 1990s promise of DNA sequencing, and concluded that the “golden road to pharmaceutical riches as target-based drug discovery has often proved to be more of a garden path.” Its approach to improving health outcomes relied too heavily on Big Data. It needed more old-fashioned inductive research, where scientists formulated hypotheses and tinkered with their experiments.

In both cases, pioneers faced up to facts and adjusted to reality. They looked again at the phenomenon they were studying and asked questions. Education seems to be the exception; its true believers have refused to acknowledge the failure of their beautiful first generation theories.

So, school reformers persist in their futile effort to turn schools into sped-up Model T assembly lines, imposing test, sort, and punish to ram more facts into students’ minds. They forgo the opportunity to help young people explore Virtual Reality-type technologies. They continue to drive the hunger for learning and the quest for understanding of real-life experiences from public schools.

Because they refuse to admit that their hypotheses failed, Big Data is used as ammunition in a war on teachers, keeping score in the cutthroat competition that market-driven reformers impose on schools. But, perhaps great journalism, such as the NYT Magazine will encourage reformers to look anew at the potential value of the digital miracles of our era. Perhaps they will understand that failure happens, and then they will learn from it. Then, a new era of innovation can enhance the health and the hunger of students for 21st century learning.-JT(@drjohnthompson)  



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What is surprising is that propagandists of "test and punish" have learned so little from their own failure ...


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