Challenging Conventional Wisdom in Teaching

Challenging Conventional Wisdom in Teaching

By: Dr. Jeffrey Mulqueen

Jeff is the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction, and Evaluation in the New Britain Public School System (New Britain, CT.)

We educators might think about reaching upward, lifting off of our usual gravity-bound world and launching into the beyond. Contemporary education challenges us in ways that only nature and the Wright Brothers, so far, have met with success. Today we educators are charged with educating every child. Some who are steeped in conventional wisdom would tread lightly down this potentially daunting path. They might say that educating every child is impossible. It can’t be done! Taking ownership for the success of our students is a huge endeavor and may be something that hasn’t been accomplished in the past, but what if?

When I think about the challenge of taking ownership and responsibility for the success of our students’ learning, I think about being like the Wright Brothers. In a sense, we are like Orville and Wilbur who believed that flight is possible and orchestrated its eventuality, despite evidence to the contrary. What might have happened if the Wright Brothers really were not convinced, really did not believe that they had the collective power to fly?

I observed a middle school class of students who were experimenting with balloons, thrust, and Newton’s Law, you know, the one that goes something like for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Well thrust is certainly one part of flight, but there is more. Bernoulli’s Principle, as they would learn, is the key that so many forget. If it were just thrust that mattered, then the commuters traveling with me on the highway each morning might take flight; not a bad idea to avoid the jam at exit 5D on Route 2W, but quite impossible.

It’s the curve of a wing that accelerates the speed of air, causing lift, and allows the plane to defy gravity. A simple curve on the wing, and the speedy flow of air over that curve, makes all the difference. Otherwise, the plane sits hopelessly on the ground. No matter how much acceleration or thrust, without the curve on the wing, a plane would just zoom around on the ground. Imagine. A small curve in the wing’s design makes all the difference and changes conventional wisdom (flight is impossible) into a miracle.

We face a dilemma that is similar to that faced by the early pioneers of flight. Conventional wisdom might dictate that it is simply impossible for every child to learn. You can’t do what is not meant to be done. If every child were meant to learn, the Bell-curve wouldn’t have been invented. If man were meant to fly s/he would be a bird!

Let’s step back for a moment and consider that teaching a student is like constructing a plane. Perhaps we can reach every child, and, in a way, defy the inevitability of gravity. Perhaps it is the limitation of our conventional wisdom that prevents us from seeing the curve of a wing that would bring each student the lift needed for flight.
As you would read in Wikepedia, Wilbur was “afflicted with the belief that flight is possible.” I really like the way the word afflicted is used! The reality of that obsession was a lonely quest for the brothers in the workroom behind their bike shop, plotting to defy gravity and conquer the wind. Yet that obsessive kind of world-changing belief is a force that drives you to solve a problem, to find the breakthrough–a force that drives you to bet everything on a fragile wing or a new idea. It was a force that led the Wright brothers to invent, single-handedly, each of the technologies they needed to pursue their dream.
What force drives you? Are you afflicted with thoughts about how best to reach every student? Do you wonder, as I do, about the subtle and big-picture adjustments in our practices that will make all the difference for our students? It is my hope that we all join together, afflicted with the belief that our mission is possible — that our obsession to educate every student will drive us to defy the odds and conquer conventional wisdom. Can we be just like the middle school students who were exploring the possibilities connected to Newton’s Law and the Bernoulli Principle? Can we discover the huge benefit of a small curve? I believe that our collaborative efforts can bring to fruition the brilliance needed to actualize our dream.
How have you challenged conventional wisdom today?