“The brick walls are there to keep out the people who don’t want it as much as we do.”
– Randy Pausch, author of The Last Lecture
The thing about conventional wisdom is that it usually applies…unless it doesn’t. History is filled with agents of change who overturned—or just ignored—conventional wisdom. Brick walls and other obstacles in one’s way to something important are always there…unless one refuses to see them.
I’ve seen this phenomenon in two very different fields I have been reading about lately, the stock market and education. Different domains, different goals, same phenomenon.
First the stock market. I’m reading a book called The Physics of Wall Street by James Weatherall. In discussing the well known “efficient market” theory, Weatherall makes my point. (The efficient market theory says that prices of stocks are essentially fair, because they are based on all the publicly available information about a company. According to the efficient market theory, when new information comes out about a stock—for example, the company is about to introduce a hot new product—the level of demand in the market to buy the stock will automatically adjust the price based on this new information.) Markets seem “efficient,” he says, because they correct for each new piece of information. That is, unless you can predict that information.
“So-called sophisticated investors…identify certain patterns and then adopt trading strategies designed to exploit those patterns,” says Weatherall. “These sophisticated investors are what make the markets random.” Each new piece of information is quickly gobbled up in our information-rich environment and is incorporated into the new price of a stock.
Herein lies the rub: “But if you’re the first person to notice such a pattern, the argument about self-correcting markets doesn’t apply.” In other words, the efficient market theory is a great way to describe the behavior of stock prices on the market…unless you can tell what’s coming when others can’t.
I think most people think the efficient market theory tells them that it’s useless to try to “figure out” the stock market, because it’s all random anyway. But it doesn’t. It is saying, “Be the first to uncover an inefficiency. Then you can be ahead of the game while others face the illusion of randomness.”
What about in education? Take Grant Wiggins, half of the duo that wrote the seminal guide, Understanding by Design. (Wiggins and his colleague, Jay McTighe, popularized “backward design,” in which educators begin planning with their goals and success criteria in mind and proceed with activities only when those goals and criteria are clear.) Last year, Wiggins commented on his blog in what is now a noteworthy post about a new book by Australian researcher John Hattie. Hattie performed a meta-analysis, examining and combining hundreds of education studies to assign an “effect size” for each of dozens of interventions and factors in student achievement. The higher the effect size, the more powerful this intervention or factor in raising student achievement.
Hattie found that “home environment” has an important effect on student achievement, but it is far from the most powerful. There are, he asserted, dozens of things that are completely in the control of schools that outrank home environment as more powerful factors. In other words, Hattie concluded that educators could counter the effects of a deleterious home environment by pursuing specific practices at their schools.
Hattie never said that these practices are easy to implement, but none of them are foreign to educators. They include such familiar concepts as focused classroom discussion time, specific intervention programs, and cooperative learning. All of them would seem to require a school-wide commitment to a consistent approach in a targeted area.
A commenter on the blog (actually, more than one) took issue with this conclusion. The commenters stated something to the effect of, “I’m offended – how could you rank such and such ahead of home environment? Obviously you haven’t seen my school or met my students! The kids are poor, they don’t read at home, etc. Your other interventions just wouldn’t work.”
Wiggins countered by saying (and I am paraphrasing), “I suppose that your school has not tried, at least with a concerted effort, any of the interventions that scored higher than home environment. If that’s the case—and it takes a school-wide effort and careful focus to make any of these things happen successfully—of course home environment seems to dominate. It’s the highest factor in student achievement that is present at your school.”
The point is not that there is a magic, specific, research-based “effect size” attached to each intervention, but that you can counter a seemingly overwhelming factor with a more powerful one, provided that your school community commits to a certain direction and then sticks to a well-informed plan. If you throw up your hands and say, “Nothing can counter poverty effects”—as much of the anti-education reform crowd seems to be doing—you are reinforcing your own hypothesis by not even trying something potentially more robust.
That obstacle, that brick wall, is there, lurking as the most powerful factor in student achievement…unless it isn’t.