Families & the Community Opinion

On Scripting the Classroom

By Stanley Pogrow — September 25, 1996 10 min read

The current wave of reforms cannot work in their proposed form because they are based on myths about human behavior, the nature of professions, and how organizations function. These myths include the beliefs that: a) you can change instruction primarily via advocacy, in-service, and training; b) you can reform education primarily by disseminating knowledge and leaving it up to practitioners to apply that knowledge; c) substantive change requires radical reformulation of existing practice, that is, new paradigms, to restructure whole schools; d) you can develop learning through reforms designed to enhance correlates and processes of learning, such as self-concept, empowerment, democratic participation, equity, and so forth; and e) you can understand large-scale change by understanding what happens on a very small scale.

Insight into how divorced from the reality of human experience current education reforms are can be found in the work of Peter Drucker. His classic work, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, draws on a wide range of human experience to determine the fundamental conditions under which new ideas become successful and enduring innovations in any field. He found that the vast majority of innovative ideas and changes across human experience have historically failed to become innovations. They remain as interesting ideas. The basic characteristics of ideas that become successful innovations are these: They represent a solution that is clearly definable, simple, and with a complete system for implementation and dissemination. And they start small and try to do one specific thing. “Innovations that stray from a core become diffuse and remain ideas as opposed to innovations,” Mr. Drucker writes. Knowledge-based innovations, he suggests, are the least likely to succeed. They only have a chance to succeed if all the needed knowledge is available. Otherwise, knowledge-based innovation is premature and will fail.

Which, if any, of the above education reforms can stand up to these tests? The realities are that: a) large-scale reform requires highly specific, systematic, and structural methodologies with supporting materials of tremendously high quality (I will call such methodologies “technologies”); b) the effective use of technology requires specific methodology, structure, dosages, and materials; c) it is far more difficult to figure out how to implement theory and knowledge than to generate it; d) the most important and enduring changes tend to be incremental ones (indeed, paradigm changes almost never occur even in the hard sciences) and schoolwide change has never worked on a large scale and is probably not necessary; e) the best way to enhance learning is to develop more powerful specific technologies that enhance learning; and, f) large-scale change has its own properties that are often diametrically opposed to what is observed in small-scale research.

These realities explain why almost all progressive reforms fail. It is not because educators are less skillful or less committed than other professions, but that they are continually seduced by well-intentioned reformers to pursue approaches that have little or no underlying technology. Indeed, restructuring reformers even admit that they do not know how to do it--but still push it. There are good ideas in these reforms, but we should now be experimenting with them to develop effective underlying technologies before we promote them as reforms.

A Commentary by Kathe Jervis in the June 12, 1996, issue of this journal perpetuates the reform myths..A senior research associate at the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching, Ms. Jervis was critical of the support for the use of detailed programs that increased student learning expressed by Albert Shanker based on my article “Reforming the Wannabee Reformers: Why Education Reform Almost Always Makes Things Worse,” in the June 1996 issue of Phi Delta Kappan. She characterized the programs we had been describing as “pre-crafted reform” and basically argued that teachers should develop their own curriculum because they are the only ones who know what their students need. She believes that with proper instruction and in-service training teachers can apply research knowledge and philosophy to develop their own curriculum.

But given the complexity of figuring out how to implement theory or philosophy, it does not make sense as a large-scale strategy to expect practitioners to develop their own techniques for implementing a complex and vague reform idea. While there are many talented teachers who can come up with highly innovative techniques, it’s too demanding and too hit-or-miss a process, especially for major changes. Most practitioners (or academicians) do not have the skill or time to develop new processes. But this is not a criticism of educators. There isn’t any other field that expects its practitioners to develop the processes that they practice. Indeed, in medicine, if individuals invent their own procedures that is called “malpractice.”

The equivalent of expecting teachers to develop the interventions and curriculum they are going to apply is to ask an actor to perform Shakespeare, but to first write the play. The role of the actor is to make the pre-established lines come alive. The primary role of teachers is to teach, not to develop their own interventions because the REAR community prefers more to philosophize and preach than to develop. Professional behavior is judged by the quality with which practitioners implement carefully tested and established procedures; not on the basis of whether they can invent the procedures.

Yet, the promoters of nonsubstantive reform keep pushing their reforms by creating ever more romantic notions of practice, professionalism, and democracy. To support her view, Ms. Jervis cites an example of a teacher creating a learning moment, and thereby creating her own curriculum. As creative and inspiring as the example is, producing substantial learning is a difficult process that probably requires hundreds of such moments produced consistently over several years by most teachers. The approach that she describes is a small-scale approach to a large-scale need. Indeed, in her description of how this example gets leveraged, Ms. Jervis pays the expected homage to the Coalition of Essential Schools, a project that has consumed tens of millions of dollars with little evidence of improvements in student learning.

In defending their approach, romanticists such as Ms. Jervis must of necessity distort the fundamental nature of professional practice. She rejects my analogy that her pure reliance on the creativity of teachers to construct their own curriculum is akin to asking an actor to perform a Shakespeare play after first writing it. Her rationale is: “Good teaching is much more than reading a script, no matter how skillful the playwright. Classrooms are living, breathing entities. ...” In saying this, she implies that a performance of Shakespeare is not a living, breathing entity. She does not seem to understand what performing Shakespeare involves, and in the process has grossly miscast what the performing arts are or how they have come to be what they are. Indeed, she is denying that there is art in the performing arts.

The performing arts have survived and flourished throughout the ages and world precisely because someone was able to invent a technology (my term; craft is her term) for representing universal and timeless powerful ideas in very precise and systematic ways. Yet the precision of those scripts that have endured does not prevent the practitioner from bringing different interpretations, or making it come alive in different ways for different audiences. Professions progress precisely because there are “pre-crafted” technologies that are highly effective and replicable, and that allow for “constrained” improvisation.

To defend her position, Ms. Jervis then follows standard practice and questions our educational patriotism by claiming that we are shutting teachers out of the reform process. Other romantic reformers take positions such that if anyone ever makes a decision anywhere in the educational process it is a usurpation of democratic processes. I am really tired of self-righteous reformers laying claim to being the true representatives of professionalism and democratic processes, while they are really trying to create a whole new social form. The REAR community substitutes romanticism and utopianism for expertise, and leaves teachers and administrators holding the bag.

When the current wave of progressive reforms inevitably flop, the profession will look stupid. Cynicism within the profession and public will rise, and there will be the backlash in favor of too-limited traditional reforms. We have been repeating this boom-and-bust cycle every 15 to 30 years for over a hundred years. This time the conservative counter-reaction will be worse because of the unprecedented leverage being used to push current reforms at the state and federal levels, as well as within academia. For example, all eligible schools are being pushed to adopt schoolwide approaches to Title I compensatory-education programs, even though there are no data or technology to support them. At the same time, zero federal dollars are being spent to develop new technologies for helping Title I students. States like Kentucky are requiring the use of state-developed tests for which there is no reliability or validity. Indeed, the backlash is such that we now have the governor of California trying to dictate reading methodology.

The best chance for real reform in the vast majority of schools lies in adapting those few “pre-crafted” programs that work. As a passionate semi-romantic progressive reformer, I have worked for 16 years to craft the Higher Order Thinking Skills, or HOTS, program for Title I and learning-disabled students in grades 4-8. HOTS is currently being used in approximately 2,000 schools in 49 states. While the program is partially scripted and very systematic, it channels, but does not bar, the creative process. Indeed, Ms. Jervis would find far more “teachable moments” per unit of time in HOTS than from her approach. Another program, Junior Great Books, has figured out how to systematize some of the key ideas underlying whole language.

Have the prescriptions in HOTS removed teachers from the center of reform? I doubt that our teachers would agree. Many of the ideas in our curriculum come from our teachers, and the effectiveness of the program is dependent on good teachers. Our classrooms are “living, breathing entities.”

But Ms. Jervis is most wrong when she extends her misunderstanding about the nature of the performing arts to the widely held conclusion that “teaching a pre-crafted body of knowledge and delivering it ready-made into students’ heads is deadly for students and teachers alike.” In saying this, she has insulted the thousands of HOTS teachers, and teachers in other exemplary programs, who have made learning come alive for their students and who have raised their own practice and creativity in teaching to new levels.

Just as the performing arts can be systematized, it is possible to craft technologies in education that work for most students, regardless of race or ethnicity, and produce very sophisticated forms of outcomes. The systematization and consistency of the HOTS activities over time produce large cognitive growth. Our latest research shows that the program produces simultaneous large gains in: a) reading comprehension, b) selected IQ scales, c) metacognition, d) novel problem-solving, e) writing, and f) grade-point average, all from 35 minutes a day of “pre-crafted” activities. In other words, this “pre-crafted” program can simultaneously produce high levels of both traditional and progressive forms of learning.

We need to change how we do reform. We need to shift from getting Dewey-eyed over poetic descriptions of amorphous processes to associating romance with the actual production of dramatic forms of learning on a large scale. True, the pre-crafted programs that existed in the 1960s weren’t very interesting. But lasers also did not work very well then and today they are ubiquitous because the underlying craft improved. Today a few programs such as HOTS and Junior Great Books have demonstrated that it is now possible for education to also benefit from the same systematic conceptualizations of professionalism, craft, and technology that have defined the human experience from medicine to the arts, and in doing so make real reform work. Such programs have ushered in the capability wherein packaged programs can consistently produce high levels of learning with creativity and passion.

Rather than running in a lemminglike fashion after noncrafted reforms, we should be celebrating good craft in instructional design and rewarding those programs that have figured out how to consistently produce high levels of learning and fund the development of others.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 1996 edition of Education Week as On Scripting the Classroom


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