Reinventing the Wheel

This post originally appeared at my EdWeek Teacher blog on 12/14/14.


Clichés offer us a shorthand way to express a common idea, and of course, if clichés didn’t capture an idea that resonates with most people, they wouldn’t catch on and become clichés at all.

DSC_0130One cliché that resonates in the field of education is don’t reinvent the wheel. Teachers are notorious “borrowers” of other people’s ideas. If you go to an education conference or training, one of the highest compliments you can hear is when a teacher excitedly proclaims that they’ve left the experience with something they can use tomorrow (or on Monday). It might be a poem, TED talk or article to add to certain thematic unit of study, a nifty classroom management technique, or an app that meets a particular need. No need to reinvent the wheel, after all.

Websites and books are eager to provide teachers with examples, answers, methods and products guaranteed to get results. Education leaders beyond the classroom are subject to the same marketing and pressures. How long would it take to come up with entirely new ways to solve old problems? You’d have to be crazy to pass up proven ideas and take unnecessary risks.

And yet, I think there’s virtue in reinventing the wheel, if your ambition is to be a wheelsmith, or stepping out of that metaphor, someone who engineers, designs, and innovates in any given field. You don’t reinvent the exact same wheel, and even if others can’t discern the differences, you’ve developed a deeper appreciation for the wheel, and perhaps a basis for something more innovative the next time around.

Jeff Frieden, English teacher and department chair at Hillcrest HS.

Jeff Frieden, English teacher and department chair at Hillcrest HS.

I recently spent a day at Hillcrest High School in Riverside, California. It’s a new, traditional comprehensive high school, now in its third year. I spent my time with English teachers, and observed classes for grades 9-11. They have no seniors at the school yet. The English teachers that I spent the day with have all taught at other schools in the past, and they’re in the process of applying past knowledge to a new situation as they add new curriculum and a new grade level each year. It reminded me of my recent visit with Jim Burke, who could easily mine his own books and decades of experience to generate a year’s worth of excellent lessons without any trouble – and yet keeps trying out new content and new methods.

Why do we make it so difficult? Couldn’t Hillcrest teachers and administrators just copy and paste the scope and sequence and curricular content of the nearest similar school in their district? Why not adopt the same materials and approaches of the highest performing schools in the county or state? Wouldn’t that be more efficient?

And speaking of efficient, why do we have so many school districts? We don’t really need multiple school districts in small cities, or dozens of school districts in a large city. I was talking about that idea with a business executive sitting next to me on a flight recently. He used to sell health care plans to school districts in Southern California, and could easily name dozens of districts covering tens of thousands of square miles. Each small district has degrees of overlapping functions in adminstration, transportation, and various logistical operations, not to mention the costs of separate governance. Four years ago, in Santa Clara County (CA), a civil grand jury recommended consolidating school districts and claimed that the potential annual savings could reach $51 million. The topic of district consolidation has also come up recently in Pennsylvania. In every case though – the districts my flight companion knew about, or those in Santa Clara County, or Pennsylvania – the conversation usually goes nowhere.

What’s behind such thinking? It seems impractical, provincial, and sentimental. And yet, perhaps there’s something to be said for sentiment in a community; sentiment drives political behavior, and lack of sentiment might then drive disengagement. And while the article about Pennsylvania suggests some crass and corrupt reasons that people want local control of schools, I think there might be a sense of pride and ownership to consider, hopefully more applicable than the negative motivators. Districts, schools, departments and individuals coming up with their own ideas and their own systems likely produce more commitment to implementing and sustaining what they’ve chosen to create. Attemping exact replication is probably an unworthy goal anyways, as Maurice J. Elias pointed out in an EdWeek Teacher blog post about innovation (by Larry Ferlazzo): “Educational innovation is not like McDonald’s fries or a Burger King Whopper.  They cannot be replicated exactly in different settings.” 

I’m certainly not suggesting that we should refrain from studying what others do, and even “borrowing” great ideas. But at the same time, one path to education innovation may be the reinvent-the-wheel approach. Because the wheel can be reinvented.

Like wheelchairs wheels that fold to half their size.

Like bicycle wheels with built-in motors.

Like skateboard wheels that look like cubes but move in sine waves.


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