The Worst Consequence of Your Best Ideas

[I've talked about this idea a lot, but I wanted to actually put down both the reasons and some of the pathways to do this down in writing. Hope you find it useful. -- Chris]

You have to wonder why desks in rows and textbooks on the desks have survived as long as they have as the dominant instructional model when so few people think that it’s actually a good way to teach and learn.

And then you realize that while it never goes all that right, it rarely goes all that wrong either. Teachers don’t usually get in trouble when administrators walk into their classroom and see kids with books open, doing work, even if the work isn’t worth doing.

And all those other ideas that we love so much – inquiry, project-based learning, technology, real world application of student work – they get so… messy. And something always seems to go wrong. And we have to face that education is a somewhat reactionary field to work in. The death of so many good ideas is when something goes wrong and someone decides that we should never do that again.

And the desks get put back in rows and the textbooks land on the desks again.

But there’s a way around that, and it involves thoughtful planning. It doesn’t involve coming up with the perfect idea, because let’s be clear – there is no perfect idea.

Again – there is no perfect idea.

Everything has a downside. Everything.

At SLA, the best thing about our school is the incredible empowerment of our students. And the worst side of that is those same kids who are so incredibly empowered occasionally become really entitled, and then we have to deal with that.

But we realized that would happen before we started. And every time it does happen, we remind ourselves that it is a natural consequence of what we love, so our reaction has to be tempered so we don’t lose the soul of our school.

And so, whenever you have a new idea, ask yourself and your colleagues:

What is the worst consequence of my best idea? What is the thing that, even if we do this really well, will frustrate me, frustrate kids, frustrate parents?

And then follow-up with these questions: How will we, as a community, mitigate that consequence? What are we willing to live with, if it means we get something incredible out of it as well? What are the risks we are willing to take? How will we front load the negative possibilities of this idea to our stakeholders so they are prepared for it as well?

Don’t just do this alone. Do this as a community, because the author of an idea is often the last person to see the scary side of the idea. Do this not so you can just dismiss fear, but so you can acknowledge it and lessen the factors that cause it.

An easy, concrete example for us was thinking through the policies around being a 1:1 laptop school. We made a decision not to lock down the machines, because we wanted the kids to really feel like they could use the laptops to their fullest potential. That meant that the kids went home with a fully unlocked laptop to unfiltered home networks. We had to talk to students and parents beforehand about issues of internet porn, around good digital citizenship, around being safe and smart with your digital footprint.

And then we had to expect that no matter how much we did that, kids would make mistakes. And because we agreed, as a community, that the benefits of all the kids being able to access the full power of the laptop outweighed the negatives of some of the kids using the laptops inappropriately, the laptops are still open seven years later. And we’re better for it.

And most of the time, there is still the thing you didn’t think of. But the very act of going through the iterative process of trying to solve problems before they show up has made us more willing to acknowledge that our ideas aren’t perfect and that problem-solving will always be necessary. The goal isn’t perfection — it’s pragmatism.

Whether it is a new technology, a new pedagogy, a new program in the school, we have to be thoughtful in the way we evolve as schools. We have to acknowledge the good and bad in the changes we make if we are to do right by the kids in our charge. And we have to own the limits of our ideas, so that we can hold onto those ideas and not regress to a vision of school that, while easily recognized, is loved by no one. Owning our flaws and learning what we can mitigate and what we have to live with is a way to power past fear once and for all.

9 thoughts on “The Worst Consequence of Your Best Ideas

  1. Increasingly, I think we should worry less about pragmatism and more about doing the right thing, even if there may be unintended consequences. That does not mean we should ignore the lessons of history or be reckless.

    However, there is plenty of gravity pulling you down, It doesn’t need any help or preemptive deference.

    Of course, there is a certain amount of hubris involved in thinking we can predict every aspect of the future, especially if one is more concerned with educating others for their future rather than our past. The best school can hope to do is prepare kids to solve the problems that you and I have not even anticipated.

    A commitment to continuous growth, experimentation and reflective practice is a better way forward than spending time trying to predict the future or anticipate all of the reasons for inaction or incrementalism.

    Incrementalism is the greatest threat (IMHO) to the viability and quality of education.

    Then again, I bet on the Colts, Bengals and Vikings (with points), so what do I know?

  2. This sort of thing takes a fair share of guts and the knowledge that the governance of the school is on board. So much of what drives too many schools is fear.

  3. “At SLA, the best thing about our school is the incredible empowerment of our students. And the worst side of that is those same kids who are so incredibly empowered occasionally become really entitled, and then we have to deal with that.”

    This echoes the experience of our school. So glad you said this. I shared with our staff, but I think it is really important for them to hear this from an outside source as a few members seemed annoyed by the entitlement.

    I really feel that once you open up learning to students’ voice and choice they are going to push back on things that you do not intend them to but that it is a good thing. Once you let the monster out of the box of traditional school it might do things you don’t like. But this is the key to democracy and the kind of kids we need to be raising up.

  4. Excellent Chris! Loved it! Best post of 2013!!!

    “And because we agreed as a community” is the key to making this work. Planning, as well as, the freedom to be a little messy is also key.

    Great title to your post! Shawn

  5. In _Good to Great_, Jim Collins discusses a process he calls “Autopsy without blame”. Fully committed to the integration of technology, to constructivism, to workshop literacy, and to project-based learning, we have to continually dialogue on how processes can run more smoothly.

    And, it’s helpful to involve students in the discussion – they often have great ideas on how classrooms might run more efficiently. Here are some ideas for 1:1 classroom projects: http://wp.me/p1Dq2f-oE

  6. Your example about laptops is especially pertinent for me. My school is considering 1:1 iPads. I want them unblocked. I think that by placing limits we are avoiding teaching online citizenship, IMO a crucial topic for students today.

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