Run away from “top-down, one-size-fits-all”

Michael Bloomberg wrote a wonderful piece entitled Why Cities are the Key to Fighting Climate Change. The article focuses on why local government–specifically, urban populations–is the least fragile way to solve 21st century problems. Money quote:

Nations and cities that fail to prepare for the urban population explosion risk creating, or worsening, slum conditions that frighten investors, perpetuate a permanent underclass, and impede national progress. The best way to prepare is not by implementing top-down, one-size-fits-all centralized programs but by empowering cities themselves to solve problems, invest in their futures, and harness the potential of their residents.

How does this apply to education? By avoiding “top-down, one-size-fits all centralized programs,” and empowering districts and counties to solve problems on their own, we can avoid fragility within the systems that support student learning.

  • Interventions should not be accomplished through Systems (notice the capital “S”) but rather embedded within instruction and assessment.
  • Lesson plans must be nimble and able to change minute by minute.
  • The quality of the teacher in the classroom is the most important factor regarding student learning. Instead of spending money on consultants, technology, and intricate top-down programs, seek smart individuals who know how to teach and pay them well.

The answer begins by not doing anything

Educators get a whole summer to reflect upon the last school year and be introspective: What advanced student learning? What didn’t? How can I be a better teacher?

I’ve used June for reflection, and I’ve come to a conclusion I believe is important: It’s arrogant to think we understand all the implications constant changes to education bring to the classroom.

When a country invades another country, there’s no telling how out of whack the invaded territory will become culturally, religiously, economically. When you take a medication that affects one number obtained through blood work–let’s use cholesterol as an example–there’s no telling how all the other intricate metrics will be altered. When the government chooses to subsidize certain industries or companies and not others, there are going to be consequences. When pollution pours into water sources and the atmosphere, it’s a no brainer our ecosystems will be affected.

When you deploy technology into the classroom, there are going to be certain outcomes. The same goes with implemented curriculum, intervention strategies, and standards. The hope is the positive consequences will outweigh any negative results that may be detected. This leads me to another conclusion I’ve come to in June: It’s misguided to know there are negative implications to what’s being implemented but choose to ignore them in hopes they’ll go away or won’t be a factor. 

In education there’s a big emphasis on doing something. Do this, do that, read this, implement that, deploy this… Is time taken to reflect upon whether anything worked? I’d say the fact that we’re always trying something different is evidence that nothing is working.

The answer begins by not doing anything. Hunker down and get good at what you currently have as a school district. Create lessons and units with resources you already own. Share. Avoid paying consultants. Ignore the calls from tech vendors and publishing sales reps. Revel in the immobile pendulum you helped create because you realized the foolishness of the schizophrenic actions education policy has committed throughout the decades. 

Happiness is found when you stop looking for it. I think this sentiment can effectively be implemented in the education realm, too.

Places of education must be antifragile

I’ve written about Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile in the past. If an aspiring teacher asked me which book he or she should read that would be of the greatest use in preparation for becoming an educator, Antifragile would be at the top of my list. Here’s an all-too-brief look at the book’s central idea:

Fragile: Anything that’s fragile can break easily. Think of an egg. If you drop it on the kitchen floor, it will break.

Robust: Anything that’s robust can withstand something bad without damage. Think of dropping a bowling ball on the floor.

Antifragile: Anything that’s antifragile will not just withstand damage, the contact will make it stronger.

To clarify, Taleb’s theory is that complicated systems (Wall Street, bureaucracies, a body pumped full of various medications) are weak; they can easily be destroyed by volatility, uncertainty, and slight changes in the norm. It would behoove organizations to avoid becoming (or remaining) fragile so that the slightest financial or natural event doesn’t put them out of business.

Similarly, individuals should find ways to make a living that cannot fall prey to the whims of fate. Robust organizations can be beaten up by whatever’s thrown their way and keep ticking. Of course, this is much better than fragility, and most people would assert that being robust is the ideal. In the case of a black swan event, a robust company or school district can take a hit and continue functioning properly.

According to Taleb, however, being robust is not ideal. “Antifragility” should be the aim. An antifragile organization not only can withstand the blow from an unfortunate event, it will be made stronger. A bowling ball may be robust because it wouldn’t be harmed if it were dropped on a tile floor, but if it actually grew stronger due to being dropped, then it would be antifragile.

It’s important to bring the idea of antifragility to a school district. Businesses should seriously consider ways to become antifragile, and school districts are no different. How can dropping enrollment rates actually make you stronger? How can a bond that failed to pass make you stronger? How can a lack of funds for technology or PD make you stronger?

Tightening one’s belt by budgeting and focusing on only the essentials are broad responses to the above questions, but they’re the beginning of a transformation away from fragility. I’d say almost all school districts in the U.S. are fragile, and this is because their well-being is dependent on too many entities and factors that are out of the districts’ control. Being debt-free, remaining independent, keeping things simple, having a plan (and changing that plan based upon evidence), hiring good people, and keeping a good asset allocation (in more ways than just investments) are great places to start, but I’ll admit that avoiding fragility is a tough nut to crack.

So what power do teachers have to help? 

I’d be remiss to not mention a way the philosophy of antifragility can benefit not just school districts but also the people they’re created to help: students. Taleb discusses how intervention weakens systems. For example, the U.S. meddling in the Middle East, the government meddling in private business, and cholesterol medication in the human body are all done with the best of intentions, but oftentimes these interventions create unintended consequences that leave us worse off than where we started.

It’s with this perspective that educators must approach Response to Intervention (RTI). In the field of education, we’re so quick to change the system and ‘make it better.’ We’ll throw in a half-hour intervention period two days a week and expect teachers to be able to reteach concepts to students who are behind. What we fail to perceive is that intervention periods throw off a system that has been established, and just like a medication that’s focused on changing one number on a blood test report, an RTI period could cause negative consequences on student learning. Even if teachers have a good lesson plan, are able to get failing students in their classrooms during the RTI time slot, and formative assessments are present to assess student progression, we still don’t know what unintended results could develop.

I am a huge proponent of not making organizations too complex, and this goes for school schedules as well. A school day should maximize the instruction time by allowing teachers to provide help to students during the regular schedule. For junior high and high school teachers, this would be done during the period they have the students. For elementary teachers, help should be provided during the portion of the day devoted to the content area that’s being retaught.


Intervention is viewed positively by many people. It means you’re trying–that you’re doing something. Unfortunately, that ‘something’ that’s done with the best of intentions can actually be worsening the situation. Teachers may not be able to make their school districts antifragile, but they can definitely make their classrooms antifragile, and I think RTI is a perfect place to start by maximizing instructional time with good teaching strategies and leaving schedules alone.