School & District Management Opinion

The Side Effects of Education: Understanding Perspectives

By Beth Holland — August 30, 2018 5 min read
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As I mentioned in my last post, I am currently reading Yong Zhao’s new book, What Works May Hurt - Side Effects in Education. The general premise is that education, unlike the medical profession, never considers the unintended side effects of a treatment or program. In chapters two and three of the book, Zhao (2018) describes the side effects of two widely adopted programs: Reading First and Direct Instruction. He presents evidence in support and against their adoption as well as discussion of the long-term side effects. Could early gains in literacy made through the Reading First program lead to a long-term consequence of students inherently disliking reading? Could increases in basic skills resulting from Direct Instruction come at a cost to creativity and creative problem solving? Could over-emphasis on “scientifically-based” programs devalue more complex interventions?

I was wrestling with that last question, and writing a very different post, when I became distracted by a second book: Ted Dintersmith’s What Schools Could Be. Within many education circles, the reception has been overwhelmingly positive. Dintersmith gives voice to the stories that many in the education world long to hear as both validation and support. He speaks out against the dangers of institutionalized practices such as standardized tests, while promoting ideas such as Competency-Based Learning, and warning that the traditional paradigm of school fails to encourage innovation.

Whereas Zhao (2018) discusses side effects from a researcher’s perspective, Dintersmith paints pictures of what could (or should) be for the general public, intimating some of these side effects without calling them such. For these reasons, I found myself perplexed and distracted by two articles challenging Dintersmith’s work. First, the Seattle Education blog vehemently objected to the entire premise of the book and discredited Dintersmith as a Silicon Valley elite. On the other hand, educator Benjamin Doxtador wrote a lengthy response not only addressing What Schools Could Be but also Most Likely to Succeed - an earlier book that Dintersmith co-authored with Harvard professor Tony Wagner. In a well-cited thought-piece, Doxtador raised questions, provided additional historical context, and challenged some of the broader generalizations. In reading these two articles, I started to think about another side effect that may not be considered in the education world: the issue of adhering to a single lens.

During my first term as a doctoral student, we studied Disciplinary Approaches to Education. The course taught us to build “lenses” through which to analyze problems in context. We learned how historians seek to understand meaning in context based on events of the past, but economists examine situations as models of scarcity, supply and demand, or inputs and outputs. Sociologists employ large datasets to study the impact of systems such as race, gender, or socioeconomic status; though anthropologists look at the cultures, norms, and beliefs of groups or individuals through qualitative methods and ethnographies.

Any book, whether it be Zhao’s or Dintersmith’s, presents a lens. As a researcher, Zhao seeks to understand problems through methodology. Both Dintersmith and Wagner tend to take an economic perspective. They cite the changing demands of the labor market; the World Economic Forum reports of valued skills in the Fourth Industrial Revolution; as well as the rising implications of artificial intelligence, machine learning, or robotics and see creativity as a scarcity. This then frames their books as one of supply and demand - how to increase the supply of creative problem-solvers in a world that demands more of them.

On the other hand, consider author Larry Cuban. He offers a historical perspective to explain how the past manifests in the present. In his 1995 book, Tinkering Towards Utopia, he explains that change in education is both incremental and cyclical; and yet, change that does not conform to the established “grammar of school” is often rejected. In his recent book, The Flight of a Butterfly or the Path of a Bullet?, he observed over 40 Silicon Valley classrooms known for their “innovation” with technology but observed only one classroom that truly demonstrated a change in practice away from a traditional model of school. As such, he would argue that the entrenched mental models of what constitutes “real school” continues to exist despite advances in technology and calls for change.

Pick a different topic: teens and technology. Jean Twenge takes a sociological perspective to understand today’s students in her book iGen. Using data from a nationally representative survey as well as interviews, she describes generational differences emerging as a result of the influx of digital devices. However, both the methodological approach and the use of detailed ethnographies distinguishes the writings - and the conclusions - of anthropologist danah boyd from that of Twenge. In It’s Complicated!, boyd provides detailed accounts and rich descriptions of the networked lives of teens. Neither Twenge’s sociological perspective nor boyd’s ethnography is “right” or “wrong.” The books just present the problem from different perspectives.

This debate illustrates my issue: that we need to consider the side effects of a single lens or - even a single book - before allowing it to shape our perceptions. When we look at education through only one lens, we only get one perspective of the system. From that angle, it might appear as a confluence of events, a situation of supply and demand, or a challenge of competing norms and beliefs. However, if we look at problems of practice through multiple lenses, we might get a better sense not only of what could be possible but also - as Zhao would warn - the consequences that we never intended.


boyd, d. (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Cuban, L. (2018). The flight of a butterfly or the path of a bullet?: Using technology to transform teaching and learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Twenge, J. M. (2017). IGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy--and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood--and What That Means for the Rest of Us. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Tyack, D. B., & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: A century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wagner, T. & Dintersmith, T. (2016). Most likely to succeed: Preparing our kids for the innovation era. New York, NY: Scribner.

Zhao, Y. (2018). What works may hurt - Side Effects in Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

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