The Problem with the Silver Bullet in Education

What is a silver bullet? According to Google, it is “a simple and seemingly magical solution to a complicated problem.”

The problem is that when the problem you are trying to solve is complicated, such as education, there is no such thing as a silver bullet. Complicated problems often have multiple variables that behave in many different ways and at times, unpredictably. When we look for a silver bullet, we run the risk of investing significant sums of money in an unrealistic solution that will never deliver the expected returns.

Solving complex problems requires having an underlying purpose, strategy, and plan before enlisting the use of expensive and comprehensive tools

In 2013, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) committed over $1 billion for a silver bullet – to put aniPads in EDU iPad in the hands of each and every student in the district. Long story short, the initial roll-out proved to be a major failure and not because the devices lacked in performance. One of the key problems was that teachers only received a few days of training on the devices. Perhaps even more critical is the fact that, according to a published report by the OECD, “there is little solid evidence that greater computer use among students leads to better scores in mathematics and reading.”

This is, unfortunately, an incredibly expensive case for the importance of having underlying purpose, strategy, and plan before enlisting the use of pricey and comprehensive tools. According to Michael Horn, executive director of the education program at the Clayton Christensen Institute, “Districts are starting with the technology [tool] and not asking themselves: ‘What problem are we trying to solve, and what’s the instructional model we need to solve it?’ and then finding the technology [tool] in service of that.”

Until education identifies a problem and/or opportunity that requires technology as a means [tool] to address it, any implementation or mandated use of these tools and/or apps will be underutilized and run the serious risk of creating more problems than it even stood the chance to solve. In the case of the LAUSD, teachers reported significant levels of frustration, the iPads required more bandwidth than was readily available, and last by not least, it cost the district a significant amount of money (total proposed expenditure was estimated to be $1.3 billion when the entire project was complete).

Problems and opportunities must drive our need for tools. Tools are developed in response to and in order to solve problems. Purchasing a tool without a problem to solve or an opportunity to pursue is like buying a hammer and not having a nail to hit.

Consider these steps next time you are faced with this dilemma.

  • Identify the problems and opportunities in your school that you need to address – pick 1!
  • If you do not already have a model for addressing your problem/opportunity, design one that you and your team have the capacity and ability to execute
  • If you are struggling to identify or design a strategy, then learn more about your problem or opportunity and understand it in depth – talk to people impacted by problem/opportunity, talk to potential users of solution, look for existing research
  • With a strategy/approach set, Identify and evaluate the tools available to help you execute – what are others doing in your field and consider what are others outside of your field are doing with similar problems
  • Finally, select and employ the tools that best fit/align with your particular plan and people; be open to switching tools when necessary – problems and opportunities evolve and so will your needs

Lastly, do keep in mind that most tech tools today come and go rather quickly, so while you are learning about your problem or opportunity and designing a plan, new and better tools may emerge that you will be better positioned to enjoy.

Building Your Math Toolbox

If you have ever put together a piece of furniture or completed a do-it-yourself project at home you have probably pulled out a toolbox and used your tools on an as needed basis.  Perhaps you had to hammer a nail into a wall and located your hammer to do so.  Every now and then though, you cannot find that hammer and are faced with the challenge of hammering in that nail another way.  You look around and find something that might work even if not originally intended to do so.

This is what we do, we solve problems with whatever means available to us.  We all do it in some way, shape, or form.  Doesn’t matter if you are a doctor, an accountant, a student, a drug dealer, or a mobster.  You do what you have to with the resources available to you.  The same goes for math students.  I introduce every student I work with to the concept of the mathematician’s toolbox.  As we move from one topic to the next I make sure they understand that this is another opportunity to build their toolbox and make it more complete.  As we approach new topics I always ask them what tools can we use to solve some of these problems before even exploring the new tools.  Continue reading