Learnable Intelligence and Taking Refined Pedagogical Practices Seriously

I recently wrote Charles Manski regarding his article “Genes, Eyeglasses, and Social Policy,” in which he argues that regardless of the heritability of IQ, that fact is irrelevant to social policy, much as the heritability of genetic defects in vision tells us nothing about social policy with respect to sight.  Manski points out that there may be ways to compensate for inherited IQ defects much as eyeglasses compensate for inherited defects in vision.

Arnold Kling’s comment on Manski,

What I would counter is that high heritability of a trait may not tell us the effectiveness of treatments that have yet to be discovered. However, it does tell us that the existing treatments in a population make little difference.

I explained to Manski that one reason why people like Kling rightly note that “existing treatments in a population make little difference” is because we have not allowed great educators to create brand name educational chains with their own training programs to come into being.  I cited my own experience as a Socratic educator who has increased students’ intellectual abilities to explain my perspective.

Manski, to my great disappointment, merely acknowledged that he had heard good things  about Socratic education in Chicago Public Schools through his wife, a professor who consults there.  My immediate response is to cringe.

After writing my book The Habit of Thought:  From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice, I provided hundreds of Socratic in-service trainings to public school teachers across the U.S.  Although the gigs were well-paid (typically $1500 – 2000 per day), I soon realized that because I had no control over quality, I was often doing the students a disservice.  The problem with Socratic Seminars is that they very easily degenerate into worthless bull sessions with essentially no pedagogical value.  If the teacher is not adequately intelligent and if the teacher is not adequately trained, the entire experience tends to be worthless.  Thus although this was by far the most lucrative career path open to me at the time, and several leading educational organizations encouraged me to create a Socratic consulting package for the mass public school market, which they would promote for me, my heart was not in it.  I would be just another educational consultant, making lots of money promoting yet another pedagogical fad.

I realized that all of the lofty claims that I made about my Socratic practice were true IF and ONLY IF I completely controlled the implementation:  I had to be able to hire, fire, promote, train, and evaluate the staff myself.  I had to be able to create a schedule that provided adequate time and I had to be able to create an appropriate curriculum.  If I was not able to do these things, then while occasionally a teacher would succeed in developing students’ intellectual skills, on balance most teachers would simply be wasting time on bull sessions.  (This is why I went into the business of starting schools – so that I could be responsible for the version of Socratic Practice that I advocated).

Since realizing just how vulnerable my pedagogical practices were to corrupt implementations, I’ve become a student of other pedagogies that require considerable training and control over the environment to succeed.  The most obvious ones are Montessori and Waldorf, which each require a dedicated teacher training program (typically a year long) as well as specified curriculum and school accreditation (a process which specifies many details).  But the need to create a system with adequate control over refined pedagogies is common.  A few other examples:

1.  High Tech High, a celebrated charter school in San Diego, began to replicate nationally but then stopped after discovering that they could not adequately control quality.  They then began an internal training program which allowed them to certify their own teachers, a unique privilege – they are the only school I’m aware of that is allowed to certified its own teachers (they had special connections in the high-end education establishment that helped them finagle that privilege).  They now have eleven schools in San Diego County, allowing them considerably more control over their program, especially given the fact that they now have their own teacher training program, than was the case when their ideas were simply being used to set up other schools across the country.

2.  Bert Kaufman and IMACS, after their program was pulled from public schools because it required too much training they set up a private for-profit after school program which they then franchised – until they realized it was too difficult to guarantee staff quality at satellite locations.

3.  Brent Cameron of Self Design, a sort of structured “unschooling” program with hundreds of virtual students under the control of carefully trained mentors.

4.  Reggio Emilia, the famous educational community in Italy, where they train their own staff internally and regard long-term participation in the community to be essential to understand the pedagogy.

Indeed, I would say that any time I find a great teacher who wants to disseminate what he or she does, they quickly realize that it takes time to train someone in a refined pedagogical practice.  Any written description of the practice misses the essence of the practice; all great pedagogical practices are based on thousands of moment-by-moment judgment calls.  When is one pushing a student too hard, and when not hard enough?  When should one open up a discovery process, and when should one search for closure?  When should one break a problem down into parts, vs. when should one shift a student’s attention to the big picture?  Etc. Etc. Etc.

We have not been able to scale great educational practices because we do not have institutions that allow great educators to transmit their expertise. This is what I refer to as “The Missing Institution.”  Until and unless we allow more great educators to create institutions through which they can pass on their expertise, we will hear of occasional great educators and yet mediocre large scale results.

What most non-educators conclude from the fact of great educators combined with mediocre large scale results is that great teaching ability is rare, and because the average teacher will never be able to replicate the results of great teachers, we need to lower our expectations of what can be achieved through education.  Many people on both the left and right have basically given up on the transformative power of education; the conventional wisdom today is that education really can’t make much of a difference in the lives of children.

But consider how bizarre and outrageous our system of teacher training is:  Pedagogy is arguably the most important complex performance art there is, and yet it is a performance art for which we have no system for transmitting expertise.  Professors of education are hired and promoted almost exclusively based on their ability to publish academic papers.  Some are statisticians, some are theorists, some are historians.  But almost none of them are great practitioners of the art of pedagogy.  Pedagogical ability with K-12 students is not a factor in obtaining tenure as a professor of education.

While music professors are typically scholars and occasionally also musicians, in the realm of music we have multiple pathways in which an aspiring musician can learn from other performance artists.  Because everyone recognizes that performing ability is the sine qua non of musicianship, everyone knows that in order to be a great musician one needs to study with a great teacher – i.e., someone who is known to be capable of coaching great performances.

Imagine if, instead, all students were required to take music – but by law they were required to study with teachers who had passed a series of academic courses on music but who may or may not have actually performed music themselves.  Indeed, because there was no pressure to have learned how to perform music, the vast majority of teachers would simply be those who jumped through the necessary academic coursework to obtain the secure job of teaching music, and because of this gradually almost all real musicians would leave the field of music teaching.  Thus over time one would have created a system in which almost everyone who learned “music” would only have learned “music” from someone with absolutely no expertise in performing music.

Worse yet, imagine if we then required by law anyone who performed “music” in public to have first obtained a degree in “music.”  While occasionally there would still be a great musical performance, almost all actual performances would be wretched.  Most people would hate and ridicule “music” while acknowledging that occasionally it was worth listening to.  While there would be no market demand for such noise, perhaps PBS would show “musical” performances because they were believed to be a classical art.  Only nostalgic old people who were half tone deaf would bother listening.

And most people would conclude that it was not possible to transmit musical talent, that it was simply a rare genetic gift.  Indeed, in such a world, it is likely that the few individuals who were actually able to perform music that was even tolerably worth listening to would probably be those individuals with such an unusual genetic propensity for musical ability that they could pick up the signal from the noise, so to speak, even in such an atrocious system for transmitting musical ability.

This is exactly the system we’ve created in the world of K-12 education, for IQ and essentially all intellectual abilities, all emotional abilities, all human capacities.  The only exceptions are extracurricular activities, mostly sports and music, where real talent is still valued over academic credentials.

About Michael Strong

Co-founder, Ko School + Incubator, Conscious Capitalism, Radical Social Entrepreneurs, lead author of Be the Solution: How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the World's Problems, author of The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice.
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2 Responses to Learnable Intelligence and Taking Refined Pedagogical Practices Seriously

  1. Marsha says:

    Fascinating and wonderful analysis, as usual Michael. I like the analogy with music – can we learn from that analogy to figure out what kinds of institutions or practices can be set up to insure high quality teacher outcomes? Are there other professions that have more consistent outcomes in their training programs? I’m wracking my brain on this, because almost all those I can think of: law, medicine, music, acting, dance, etc., etc. do not have a consistent way to produce superior results on a large scale. And we could include science, engineering, mathematics, and business in this, too, I think. Or am I missing something?

    We have many educational institutions that produce many good “performers” in any of these fields…but are they consistently of the quality you’re speaking of? I’d love to brainstorm about this, and find a good model.

  2. pradlfan says:

    I too am interested in brainstorming and seeking models. I discover your post through the back door, so to speak, having sought you on Twitter after hearing about Bronze Door months ago. Now I am going to see what I can find out about that!
    I coincidentally just posted a blog on coaching drama vs. literature. I am a Johnnie who loves inquiry.

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