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On Cargo Cults And Educational Innovation

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The brilliant Nobel Prize-winning physicist and teacher Richard Feynman tells this story in his 1985 memoir Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman about the self-delusion of a group of primitive yet industrious South Sea Islanders, circa World War II:

"During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo pieces sticking out like antennas--he's the controller--and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land."

The story is instructive.

There was a time--the most exciting time for me as a teacher--when some of us thought that if only classrooms could be democratic and focus on bringing out the individuality of children and letting them move along the curriculum at their own paces, then some real learning could take place--not just academic learning, but creative learning, and social learning, and much more. We experimented and explored in our own classrooms and with our peers; we developed exciting ways of working together and with our students. It worked--it didn't work easily, and it didn't always work quietly, but it worked. Classrooms bustled with activity. Kids learned about many things in many ways. Our rooms were filled with projects and experiments, and our children were successful.

Perhaps too successful. Before we knew it, somebody named what we were doing "the open classroom" and, because it was successful, decided that everybody should do it. That is, everybody should do it with a few minor changes.

The paperwork and organization of running classrooms like ours had to be made easier to manage. So simplified systems were developed. How-to books were written, and workshops were conducted to help teachers quickly implement the change. Teachers were coerced, cajoled, and bribed into adopting new practices. And we had to rethink the individualized work. Instead of using library books to teach reading, for example, individualized reading kits were developed. Choices were limited, activity cards were developed for the kids and question cards for the teacher, and everything was color-coded--green for easy readers, red for primers. This removed the "guess work."

To create replicas of the innovative classrooms, large amounts of money were spent. Desks were replaced with tables, classrooms were carpeted, and new schools were built without walls.

With all the processes and practices simplified and classrooms remodeled to look like open classrooms, everything seemed to be in place. But there was little resemblance between the mass-produced open classrooms and the practice that gave rise to the name. Though they looked similar, something important was missing. And without the missing pieces, the innovation became as empty as those South Sea Island runways. Soon, it was declared a failure. But those of us who had done it back when the planes did land just shook our heads. We agreed that something had failed, but it hadn't been the idea that once was called the open classroom. It may have seemed to be to those who had never experienced it, but it just wasn't.

I am a worrier. It is probably what I do best. What I tend to worry about most these days is cargo-cult educational change.

In the last few years, innovations based on principles of democracy and learner-centered teaching practice have been identified. In support of this work, a family of organizations has emerged to support teachers, schools, and communities as they create dynamic teaching and learning environments. And the work is good.

Still, I worry. I worry about quick fixes, simplified meanings for complex ideas, fancy words that obscure meaning or create exclusive insider conversations, and fast answers. In fact, I worry because we seem to seek answers more than we seek questions. I worry that the great innovation, the exciting practice, the electrifying experiences that make the planes of change land will become hollow, because, like the South Sea Islanders, we will fail to understand what brings them home.

And so, I fear that someday we will find ourselves sitting in the tower with our coconut headphones waiting for the planes to land. When they don't land, we will set aside the cargo-cult reform, declaring it a failure, and move on to a new discovery, which we will proceed to cargo-cult. On my best days, I think surely we won't. But not every day is a best day.

If we are to make lasting and meaningful change, we must grow. We must reach more people with our shared knowledge, and we must follow our experiences and understandings to higher levels. To fail to do so will doom us just as surely as cargo-culting. But how are we to replicate innovation without cargo-culting? Understanding the sometimes subtle elements that make the innovation work is the key. But how can we be sure that we understand the essence of innovation? After all, those South Sea Islanders were pretty sure they understood what caused the cargo planes to land.

Avoiding cargo cults requires that new implementations and modifications be "the same but different." That is, the underlying and essential elements must be the same, and the context-specific implementation must be different. We must, therefore, be rigorous in uncovering, clarifying, and articulating an innovation's essential elements. In this way, we can understand what makes the planes land. At the same time, we must avoid the South Sea Islanders' error of simply duplicating form. Successfully implementing innovations in highly diverse and context-specific learning environments requires that it not "look exactly the way it looked before."

Uncovering, clarifying, and articulating essential elements is a tedious and brain-numbing task, especially when the innovation addresses something as complex as teaching and learning. But we have taken steps in that direction. Many of us who work for school change have identified basic tenets that guide our work. If we understand the essential elements that give rise to each tenet, and if we ensure that these tenets and their underlying elements remain the core of new work, we can have some confidence that what needs to be the same will be.

It was the absence of essential elements that led to the "failure" of open classrooms in the '70s. In essence, we had invented a new wheel. We struggled for every discovery and refinement, and each deepened and broadened our knowledge. Over time, we came to understand how our wheel worked, how to repair it, and how to maintain its "wheelness" while altering it to meet new challenges. Our understanding and appreciation of the complexity of our work made it successful.

When the innovation was widely implemented, however, it was presented whole, as a complete and finished package. There was no struggle to understand. It had all been made simple. Therefore, those who used it did not understand how it worked or how to alter it to fit new terrain. So, when faced with unanticipated challenges, they could not make necessary adjustments.

Without the adjustments, the outcome was merely an imitation of the real innovation--it was "cargo cult" open classroom. Because situations are never identical, reinventing--the creative act of making the innovation the same but different--is the key to successful implementation of any innovation. Without it, cargo-culting is inevitable.

Considered from this point of view, the struggle required to bring the essential elements to highly individualized and context-driven teaching and learning environments is essential. It may be quicker and easier to adopt or offer a model to be replicated. But relying on models to transmit the essential elements is almost certainly the first step toward cargo-culting.

But calling for the reinvention of innovation in individual contexts does not mean "anything goes." The contrary is true; not just anything does go. Innovations work for reasons--the underlying elements. To continue working, these elements must be present in each new implementation. The challenge is to find balance between what must be present to retain the innovation's meaning and what must be altered to succeed in a variety of settings.

There are days--those "not best days" I mentioned--when I worry that I will not be vigilant enough in my drive to understand the invisible elements, or that I will be unwittingly seduced by the quick and easy. On these days, I wonder if I'm just putting "fires along the sides of the runways."

In what could be moments of despair, I am reminded of the day my art-student son enlightened me regarding the complexity of one of his sculptures. To my untrained eye it looked quite simple--two small wooden boxes with lights inside. Intriguing, but quite simple. The piece was far more complex, he assured me. He took care to explain the significance of the craft hidden in the art, down to the precision of joints within the boxes and why, even though they could not be seen by the viewer, they were the essence of the sculpture. Hoping to understand, I continued to question him. Finally, he looked at me with pained patience and a smile that communicated more than was perhaps intended, "If it was simple, Mom, anyone could do it."

Change is not simple. Understanding what underlies successful change is even more complex, and guarding against cargo cults is tedious and treacherous. While the absence of understanding creates empty and meaningless activity, the search for the complexity that underlies our work is both exhilarating and liberating. And, like the invisible work in my son's art, it is the apparent simplicity of the complicated process we seek to understand that gives rise to its beauty.


Bobby Ann Starnes is the president of the Foxfire Fund in Mountain City, Ga.

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