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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Can We Destroy the Silver Bullet Mentality Before It Destroys Us?

By Peter DeWitt — April 09, 2017 4 min read
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We all read books, blogs and articles on education. We buy, click or open them and get the newest ideas to use in our classroom or school. Perhaps the idea resonates with us on a personal or professional level. Perhaps we see so many other colleagues gravitating to the new idea that we are worried we’re missing out if we don’t follow suit. We hurry up and put one book down and pick up another.

Hanging with the cool kids is not just a high school phenomenon. Lots of us want to fit in with the popular kids.

On social media new ideas pop up all the time. Innovative ideas are important, especially as we try to figure out a new way to engage students in this fast-paced world. However, some of the ideas are not so innovative but they’re given a new name as part of their branding. The good news about all of this is that the ideas will usually work.

Awesome, right?

In the research of John Hattie, who I work with as a Visible Learning trainer, it shows that 95% of everything we do in the classroom works. We can wake up with new ideas every day and they will work. That’s the good news. Now to the bad news...unfortunately, those ideas may work but they don’t necessarily lead to the growth we should expect from them.

In Hattie’s work we refer to is as the hinge point, and the effect size associated with the hinge point is .40. It means that when an influence has an effect size of .40 it equates to a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input when it’s done correctly. And that’s where all of this gets complicated.

The Silver Bullet Mentality
I have had the opportunity to work with many leaders and teachers on Hattie’s research. When we learn about the research we cannot unlearn it. We need to dissect it, test it out, and pay attention to best use it. The problem is that many leaders look at the top ten and gravitate toward those. We shouldn’t do that. What we should do is get an understanding of our current reality and then look at which influences best meet our needs.

However, it’s more complicated than that as well.

After we choose the influence on learning, like feedback (.75) or classroom discussion (.82), we need to look at the research that showed how those influences worked best. We need to then grab some articles, blogs or books by the experts who can tell us how to use those influences correctly.

Unfortunately, that is the point that many leaders and teachers never get to because they have the silver bullet mentality. “If we just grab feedback and do that, we should see growth,” is the idea that pops up in their minds. We need to go deeper than that. We need to choose two or three influences based on our current reality and research those.

Shiny New Toys
Perhaps it’s due to accountability or mandates. Maybe it’s because they suffer from initiative fatigue, but there are leaders who seem to be looking for the easy way out...the silver bullet that will save their day. Sometimes we refer to it as the shiny new toy.

There isn’t one.

What I like about the ideas and research I get to share is that they take work on the part of many of the stakeholders within a school. They cannot be accomplished by one person alone. Yes, the leader has an influence on the school climate and how the conversations get started, but it has to lead to building capacity among a group. It’s about self-efficacy, fostering student and teacher voice. The idea may kick it off but the real learning is in the work that people do together. And that involves challenging each other’s thinking.

In order to accomplish the influence or really be innovative in our practice, there is a great deal of work that has to be done. Reading the research around the influence, having teachers bring evidence of how that influence looks in their classroom, and building collective efficacy by having teachers share those best practices and think critically about them takes time. And too often leaders chase the shiny new toy and that chips away at the time needed to follow through on the last shiny new toy they chased.

One of Hattie’s Mindframes for learning is that “Learning is hard work.” Indeed it is, and it is not just hard work for students but for us as educators as well. There are no silver bullets, and shiny new toys become worn or damaged if they are not taken care of correctly. And just because we have been using some toys for awhile doesn’t mean we should throw them out when something newer and shinier comes along.

In the End
Social media only complicates this issue. We see what’s shared from friends and feel like we have to go after it because it looks as though it works for them. How do we know what they’re sharing is real? We live in a world of gimmicks and we get caught up in chasing them. If we didn’t, those gimmicks would not exist. Instead of fostering one idea, we trade it in for another like we do our smartphones.

Education is not easy. Learning takes time. Both involve building relationships, collaborating, thinking critically and providing feedback to others, and listening to the feedback we receive. When we open those books that speak to us, do we ask how this would look in our school? If we feel validated by what we read, do we really do the evidence collection to make sure we’re using the practice or strategy correctly? Or do we only listen to our inner voice?

Let’s stop chasing the shiny new toy, and start building capacity within our schools. The people in it are better than any shiny new toy.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press/Learning Forward), and the forthcoming School Climate: Leading With Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press/Ontario Principals Council. August 2017). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.