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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and independent consultant, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at

Education Opinion

Why Is Educational Innovation Like Hand Washing?

By Peter DeWitt — April 10, 2016 3 min read

Today’s guest blog is written by Michael McDowell, Ed.D., a Superintendent in Northern California.

Almost everything in education works (95% or so) (Hattie, 2009). What separates “what works” from “what works best” is the latter focused on the relentless effort of adults to enhance student learning. “What works” interventions predominantly require no real focused effort from adults in the school on the actual learning of children- schedules, class size, funding, curriculum, technology, furniture, and uniforms.

These symbolize a perceived ability of high performance and they routinely dominate educational dialogue but they do not indicate the actual effort and persistence needed for substantial impact. Gladwell discerned ability from effort in his book “David and Goliath” arguing that the successes of underdogs drilled down to their unrelenting use of effort to thwart the lack of persistence and perceived ability of others. He sums this idea up in the following way:

It makes no sense, unless you think back to Lawrence's long march across the desert to Aqaba. It is easier to dress soldiers in bright uniforms and have them March to the sound of fife and drum corps than it is to have them ride through the six hundred miles through snake infested desert on the back of camels. It is easier and far more satisfying to retreat and compose yourself after every score- and execute perfectly choreographed plays- than to swarm about arms flailing, and contest every inch of the basketball court. Underdog strategies are hard."

Measuring our own impact on student performance, discussing that information with colleagues, and making changes in light of that dialogue is really hard work. This dialogue is hard because it continuously challenges our actions, our beliefs, and it never stops; it is an integral part of our practice.

Measuring our impact requires us to inspect our learning intentions, success criteria, assessment practices, and instructional approaches relative to student performance. This work requires great effort and can easily and quickly be tempered and moved away from looking at student data and consumed with curriculum development and task creation which has a much smaller impact on learning. This drift from substantial impact to minimal impact could be masked under the banner of “PLCs.”

The challenge with the high impact variables in Hattie’s research is that by our very nature we don’t necessary “buy in” to a change in our practices and behaviors. Popular innovations such as developing collaborative curriculum, infusing iPads, and creating unique innovative spaces have great curb appeal and are easy to “buy in” to. Moreover, these initiatives often spread like wildfire.

Atul Gawande wrote about the pace of the infusion of innovation in the medical field. He found that innovations, such as anesthesia, permeated the medical field and scaled at a rapid pace. The innovation was attractive to doctors as they no longer had the arduous task of holding patients down to conduct surgery. The innovation had a direct personal benefit to the doctor and reduced the effort they had to take in the operating room. Who wouldn’t buy into that?

Hand washing however, continues to this day to be a difficult innovation to infuse and sustain. There is clearly a benefit to hand washing but it is a painful, cumbersome, daily routine for doctors. For this innovation to work, specific protocols have to be established, training programs, and, most importantly, daily conversations with co-workers must be held to hold one another responsible for this very impactful innovation.

What works best in the league tables of innovations are underdog strategies that require substantial effort. If the last several years of exploring the educational literature has taught us anything it is that the beliefs and actions of our teachers and leaders make a major difference, and those difference vary dramatically given our actions.

There is a big difference between giving a formative assessment and assessing formatively. One requires substantial effort and has a substantial impact on kids but is hard to infuse into the DNA of practice. Our work is to tilt the scales of innovations and question the less impactful variables that often have a great curb appeal, are easy to infuse, and don’t make us scrub our hands every few minutes.

Additionally, we must focus more heavily on those innovations that are substantially impactful, requiring great effort, and yielding the most important impact - learning for all children at high rates of growth and achievement. We start this journey by knowing our impact collectively and that means we have to continually wash our hands, that’s hard to do.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Pixabay.

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.


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