I recently attended a conference where keynote speakers and session presenters shared their definitions of good educational practices. I heard many wonderful things, but the shared information reminded me of the glaring contradiction educators are facing: administrators and teachers alike tout the importance of innovation within classrooms while at the same time stressing the importance of following pacing guides and keeping “fidelity” with all adopted curriculum and programs.

So how can both students and teachers be innovative while at the same time traveling lockstep through the school year?

That’s the million dollar question (literally). In trying to discuss it, we can easily get lost within a maze of opinions. Talking about what we think is the correct response works out OK at first, but talk too much, and eventually even the most knowledgeable people reach a point where they throw up their hands and say, “I don’t know.” (Try writing about how innovation and fidelity go together–it’s hard.) The resulting cognitive dissonance is extremely frustrating.

I’ve been thinking about this the last couple days, and as the thoughts have been marinating, the books I’ve recently read have mixed with what I witnessed at the conference. Skin in the Game is one of the best books I’ve read over the last couple years, and in it author Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains the importance of the Latin phrase via negativiaVia negativia is the practice of describing something by stating what it is not. Taleb illuminates this idea by comparing the Golden Rule and the Silver Rule.

The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The Silver Rule: Do not treat others the way you would not like them to treat you.

Taleb writes that we know with much more clarity what is bad than what is good. The Golden Rule is nebulous because we aren’t always sure how we want people to “do unto us.” On the other hand, the Silver Rule is crystal clear because we definitely know the ways we don’t want people to treat us. In other words, it’s easier to say what we don’t like than what we do like.

In Skin in the Game’s Glossary, Taleb writes via negativia is “a recipe for what to avoid, what not to do–subtraction, not addition, works better in domains with multiplicative and unpredictable side effects.” This addition through subtraction can go a long way–especially in the complex system of a school or district standing at the intersection of innovation and fidelity.

Instead of saying what we should do when grappling with the cognitive dissonance of a pacing guide and innovative lesson plan, we should be stating what we shouldn’t do (à la via negativia style).

  • We shouldn’t disengage our students from their learning through ineffective lesson design.
  • We shouldn’t teach concepts that aren’t connected to the students’ lives.
  • We shouldn’t plan lessons in isolation.
  • We shouldn’t assess just to assess.
  • We shouldn’t be afraid to learn new things we can incorporate into the classroom.
  • We shouldn’t neglect to stay up-to-date on the latest effective educational practices.

Does this provide the reader with a clear guideline of how to rectify innovation and fidelity? NO. If I could do that, I’d be a millionaire. But I think the idea of via negativia can help guide educators as they teach in this messy 21st Century.

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