May 23, 2024


General Line

Shifting Focus From Ideas To The Effects Of Those Ideas


by Terry Heick

It’s not the thinking behind an idea that should bother us, but rather the effect of the idea.

#edtech. Content-based academic standards. PLCs. Video streaming. Use of data. Mandates to be research-based in our behavior. Remote teaching. Differentiation. Social media in the classroom.

None of these ideas are good or bad in and of themselves. They’re just ideas. They’re value-neutral–inert in isolation. We only charge them when we internalize them–think of them using our unique schema, imagine them in circumstances familiar to us, or otherwise contextualize them comfortably to avoid cognitive dissonance.

By internalizing them, we smooth their rough edges for easier consumption. Who wants to feel like they have an incomplete understanding of something? At this point, though, the idea has lost its original shape. It’s misshapen–the same difference between a real dog and one a clown twists up in brown and white balloons.

Moving from a concept or idea to something we understand in our own terms is no small shift. And comes with a loss. By internalizing an idea, we also attach emotions to them–hopeful optimism, head-shaking skepticism. Or indifference.

For example, I love the idea of personalized learning, so I attach positive feelings to it that can lead me to cognitive distortions downstream, where I oversimplify its function or catastrophize our continued misunderstanding of its potential in education. I champion it, but the ‘it’ (personalized learning, in this case) is merely an idea. The it + context is different. This is chemistry.

Think of it as pattern: Idea–>Integration–>Effect.

The idea alone is useful only as a matter of vision or artistry. As an academic or intellectual exercise. As a matter of playful dialogue or good old-fashioned bench racing.

The integration is a matter of design and engineering (designer and engineer being two minds of a teacher).

Ideas, integrations, and effects all matter, of course, but it’s all also recursive: One affects the other, the idea impacting the integration, the integration affecting the effect, the effect shining new light on the idea. Maybe then, instead of a linear Idea->Integration–>Effect, we might think instead of something more like a triangle:


Integration                             Effect

Changing Our Thinking

And instead of “Is this a good idea?”, we might ask other questions:

What is ‘it’? What are its parts? What does it look like whole?

What’s it doing?

How is it working?

What does it ‘cost’? Effect? Change?

How does it support teachers–make teaching a creative and intellectual and human act instead of a matter of policy, procedure, and survival?

What are its effects–and not narrow effects in pursuit of a single goal, but rather macro effects on a thing in its native place?

In education, these might be redressed as:

What has standardizing content into a narrow range of content areas done to learning?

How has a gamified system of education worked for children as they seek to become whole human beings capable of good work, compassion for the people around them, and nuanced digital and physical citizenship?

See also What Should A School Do?

How has education retreated into a tangle of policy and jargon impacted the capacity of families and communities to be served by their own learning?

How do teachers respond when called to be ‘research-based’? Does that encourage them to pour over peer-reviewed journals of emerging pedagogies to only bring in “proven” methodology into their classroom? Or does it send them to Google to search for ‘research-based instructional strategies‘ where they find the same 6-8 examples that are tossed limp and lifeless into their next lesson plan because that’s what they were told to?

Let’s broaden our view. Let’s pretend for a moment that we will eventually be able to design a system of teaching and learning where every single student will be able to master every single academic standard their local government has set out for them. What is the effect of this system? Of this mastery? What are we assuming about the standards and their mastery? That they’ll create a nation of critical thinkers that do amazing things?

And this system–what are we assuming about it and its effects? What does it ‘do’ to children? When they graduate from this hypothetical machine, will they have a strong sense of self-knowledge, wisdom, place, and familial legacy? Of critical thinking, work, and love? If not, is that okay?

Is that even the intended effect we’re looking for? If not, what is? We should know, right?

Ideas As Effects

A flipped classroom is good, yes? 1:1? Maker education? The 3D printer in the library? Yes, as ideas. So what are they doing? What are their effects? The idea is always neutral.

A ‘good idea’ is marketing based on emotion and appearance. How is it been implemented, and more critically, what are its effects? Technology. Workshop-based PD. Snark on twitter. That grouping strategy you were planning on using tomorrow.

And be careful of the metrics or evidence you’re looking for. That new questioning strategy may have 65% more engagement from students but may have stymied the students from wrestling with the question on their own. Same with teacher self-directed PD, 3-minute hallway switches, or labeling a school as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Saying something is a ‘good idea’ can only be accepted if we move directly into a conversation about integration, and then on effect.

“What are its effects?” is a complex question that deserves our thinking and most careful genius. But one even more worthy of our collective affection might be, “What is it doing to our children as they seek to become more human–to grow intellectually, creatively, and in wisdom and love?”

We might then crane our necks further downstream than we are accustomed to so that we might see what we–and they–are moving towards together.


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