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.

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Change Your Life, Do One Thing Differently Today

DecisionsLast night, I had three intriguing firsts. One occurred because I chose to turn left instead of right. Another occurred because I chose to go upstairs instead of downstairs. A third occurred because I trusted someone’s suggestion and said yes. Each of these decisions led to outcomes that were significantly more valuable than the cost of the decision itself. The decision was not complicated at all, it was nothing more than changing or tweaking one thing and trusting in one person’s suggestion without question. The return on this investment however was quite spectacular given how minimal the investment was to begin with.

This made me think, how close are we every day to significant returns if we do even ONE thing differently?

If we choose to praise instead of criticize?

If we smile at one stranger instead of walking right passed?

If we order a tall drink instead of a grande?

If we take the stairs instead of the escalator?

If we text him or her instead of waiting for him or her to text us?

If we call instead of text someone?

If we visit instead of call someone?

If we listen instead of speak?

If we motivate instead of manipulate?

If we inspire instead of intimidate?

If we coach instead of criticize?

If we stop to compliment one service provider (i.e. waiter, barista, doorman, etc.)?

If we choose to get off the subway one stop early?

If we choose to simply trust one person on one thing today?

If we apologize for one mistake we make today?

If we simply go left instead of right today?

Small tweaks, small changes, minor decisions, left instead of right, up instead of down. What if we invested this small change once a day? What about twice a day? What would the returns be like? What if changed that typical linear path we live each and every day, the same things, the same outcomes, the same pain, the same problems, the same issues, and the same happiness. What if it took one change to modify that linear path for the better? Might we end up on a new path? Might we create an alternate future? Might our problems improve? Might our happiness improve?

There’s only one way to find out. Do one thing differently today. Be intentional about it.