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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

Scribbling Is Okay When You’re Two

By Jon Harper — March 07, 2014 3 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Jon Harper, who is currently the vice principal of Choptank Elementary School located in Cambridge, Maryland.

Draw Mommy. Very good!”

What’s that? Oh, a helicopter.”

And, what’s that? Oh, a dolphin.”

The picture above is a collection of drawings made by my two and half-year old son. I have always found it amazing that my son can draw what appears to me to be a curly line and identify it as an dolphin or a helicopter or even his own mother.

I mean I don’t expect perfection, but he identifies these objects with the same certainty that you or I would identify our own first name.

I am certain that he is able to identify dolphins and helicopters and his mother. Maybe to him what he is looking at is a helicopter and his Mommy and a dolphin. So what does he see in these scribbles? Or more importantly, what doesn’t he see yet?

This is my seventeenth year in education and in all of my years I have never heard as much disagreement or read as much vitriol as I have in the past year.

Simply glance at the headlines in The Washington Post, Education Week or Education Next and you can quickly find pieces on heated topics ranging from the role of the federal government in early childhood education to testing and the Common Core Curriculum.

I have nothing against debate and I truly believe that people must stand up for what they believe in. Respectful debate and meaningful protest help us to grow and change and shift.

My thing is this, how can we be so far apart on so many issues? I don’t doubt for a minute that the vast majority of those involved in these disagreements and debates want what is best for children. Policy makers are mothers and fathers and daughters and sons. And yet we seem so far apart. To those of us in education the answers seem so simple. So, how and why does this keep happening?

In my opinion, this incessant discord is due to what Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the groundbreaking book Made to Stick, call the “Curse of Knowledge”. In their book, the Heaths explain the difficulties that arise when two people, or groups of people, approach the same situation with different sets of prior knowledge. They go on to cite a brilliant experiment conducted by Elizabeth Newton in 1990 that clearly illustrates the “Curse of Knowledge”.

For the purposes of her experiment Dr. Newton assigned some people to be “tappers” and some people to be “listeners”. The “tappers” had to tap a well-known song such as “Happy Birthday” or “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”. The “listeners” had to try to guess the song being tapped. One would think, since the songs being tapped were quite familiar, that the “listeners” would correctly guess the song being tapped most of the time. Quite the contrary occurred. Out of 120 songs that were tapped, only 3 were correctly identified. Three!

The Heath brothers go on to write the following:

This is the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.

The tappers/listeners experiment is reenacted everyday across the world. The tappers and listeners are CEO’s and frontline employees, teachers and students, politicians and voters, marketers and customers, writers and readers. All of these groups rely on ongoing communication, but, like the tappers and listeners, they suffer from enormous information imbalances. When a CEO discusses “unlocking shareholder value,” there is a tune playing in her head that her employees can’t hear. (Heath & Heath, 2007 p.20)

So is this why there is so much disagreement in education? Is the prior knowledge that we each bring to the table so very different? Maybe. I don’t know for sure.

But I do know that we owe it to our children to try to bridge this gap so that we can begin to move forward before it’s too late. We don’t always need to be on the same page, but we at least should be on the same chapter. Because while it is totally acceptable for my son to scribble at age two, I do expect that his drawings of his Mommy and a helicopter and a dolphin will develop over time.

I expect the same growth from the policy makers and those not in the schools that make decisions that affect the lives of our children each and every day. It is their responsibility to learn and our job to teach them. Patience is important, but we are running out of time.

I can accept the fact that some folks start off as scribblers, but after a while I do expect to see some growth.


Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2007). Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die. New York:Random House Publishing.

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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.