Blunt tools or sharp?

29 April, 2019

Ask anyone whether they want to be blunt or sharp and the answer is fairly obvious. Blunt conjures up slow, inefficient and collateral damage. Sharp manifests intelligent, SMART, fast, efficacious.

When we look at education, it is not always evident that sharp tools are preferred. If we look to health we see a distinct evolution.

Way back when, if you had to have an amputation, alcohol was generally used to numb the senses rather than disinfect the wound. The saw may have been sharpened. Splints and cloth were used to stem the flow. If you had an illness, the doctor would have called for leeches.

Later arrived the scalpel. More precision, less damage. Wounds were stitched and dressed and infections prevented as best they could. With x-rays and antibiotics, the pace of improvement accelerated.

And now we have keyhole surgery performed by robots to reduce human error and Nano implants, both of which minimise invasion. Sharp, precise tools indeed.

In the future we are already looking at Nanobots injected into the bloodstream capable of repair and even fighting malign cells.

And what of education and schools?

Here, evolution has been much more complex. Are we treating the individual, the school or the system?

We know the quality of teachers is fundamentally important, but is that best achieved by early exposure to classrooms or development of competency in pedagogy?

Literacy rates have improved from 14% literate in 1900 to 14% non-literate by 2000. Great progress, but still we aim to reduce it further.

And therein lies just one problem for education. Whilst health can target longevity and destroying illness, in education, we have multifaceted outcome measures from STEM to emotional literacy and employability to inner resilience. The last few years have brought calls for education to address climate change, obesity, wellness and more rigorous standards.

What works in lab tests and RCTs (randomly controlled trials) may only be a small part of a larger picture. It may not scale up when it lacks the forensic attention or may struggle in “messy” situations, such as a fast moving school.

Even when they are successful, many medicines once over-prescribed can struggle for traction once they are over-prescribed.

Below lies the beginnings of a speculative list. There aren’t definite answers yet as empirical evidence remains painfully thin on the ground:

Blunt tools 

  • School-wide discipline systems to address the few rotten apples in the barrel
  • Heavy-handed marking policies
  • Systemised planning tools where one size fits all
  • Zero tolerance on uniform
  • Performance management
  • Shortened breaks to avoid bullying
  • Whole class detentions
  • Autonomy
  • Sharing best practice. Great for those sharing, not so great for those receiving (empirically at least)
  • Lesson observations

Sharper tools

  • Feedforward
  • Next steps
  • Progressions
  • Collective Efficacy
  • Metacognition
  • Building relational trust
  • Opening perception reality gaps

Nano tools of the future

  • Relational data
  • Expectation disruptors
  • Impact protocols
  • One size fits one rubrics
  • Forensic focus on learning
  • Spaced learning
  • Open to Learning Conversations


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