Policy to Practice: An Abundance of Metaphors

Metaphors simplify yet they can reveal complexity. Over the years, I have used different metaphors (see here,  here, and here) to capture the complex interdependence among reform-driven policymakers, practitioners, parents, students, academics, business and civic leaders during times when strenuous efforts are underway to improve schools.   At times like this, policymakers decide to expand online instruction in K-12 schools, adopt Common Core Standards, expand charter schools, base evaluations of teachers on student test scores, or introduce other ventures that promise to improve classroom teaching and learning. But moving from policy to practice in schools (or other human improvement institutions like health care, religion, psychotherapy, organizational development, social work) is hard, problem-ridden work.

Sometimes to capture the complexity of work in such organizations, using simple images can help. To grasp the complexity of moving from policy to practice in school systems I have used the metaphor of links in a command-and-control chain that, for example, begins in the White House and end up in Mrs. Gomez’s kindergarten class in Los Cruces, New Mexico. I have also used the metaphor of pushing pasta to show that the military image is misleading because schools are complex, not  clock-work organizations and getting things to happen as intended in classrooms, well, are as hard as pushing strands of wet spaghetti across a rug. School systems may look like well-oiled mechanisms complete with flow charts, objectives, benchmarks, and  “mission control” but are singularly vulnerable to unpredictable events and uncertain outcomes when teachers can shut their classroom doors.

So now I want to try out other metaphors that try to capture the policy-to-practice continuum in complex institutions.

Many years ago, I compared school reform to a hurricane. A hurricane whips up twenty-foot high waves agitating the surface of the ocean.  A fathom below the wave-tossed surface, water remains disturbed but is far less intense than what occurs a few feet above. On the ocean floor, however, fish and plant life go uninterrupted by the uproar on the wind-ravaged surface.

The connection to reformers? Reformers traffic in crises and problems.  They talk about schools failing to solve national problems of economic stagnation, social instability, the loss of character in the next generation. Policy elites gather at White House conferences to debate solutions, blue-ribbon commissions make recommendations, academics write papers, media including the blogosphere circulate proposals for action to solve the problems.The hyper-inflated talk of serious problems and solutions that reformers press policymakers to address I compared to the hurricane whipping up high waves on the surface of the ocean.

A fathom below the hurricane-whipped surface the waters are roiled but nowhere near what is happening on the surface. Fish are agitated and dive further down.  There is still turbulence but not the sheer magnitude of what is occurring above.

Reformers continue talking but eventually move to action.  Legislators make laws. Governors and mayors allocate funds.  Superintendents mobilize district office administrators to put policies into practice. Specialists write curricula, units, and lessons. Professional development programs are rolled out.

Yet on the ocean floor, fish and plant life go undisturbed by roiled waters and huge waves on the surface. I compared that ocean floor to the nation’s classrooms where both change and continuity unfold in regular, undisturbed patterns.

The metaphor of the hurricane speeding across an ocean while fathoms below stability reigns tracks the distinctions I have made often between reform-minded policymaker talk, action in adopting policies, and implementation of those policies in classrooms.

Now here is the risk I take. I want to mix this hurricane metaphor with the image of the classroom as a black box. The “black box,” as I use it, does not refer to the well-publicized in-flight recorder that documents cockpit communication. Instead, I use the phrase “black box” as it is used in systems engineering and economic production functions where inputs (e.g., money spent per pupil, facilities, teacher qualifications) go into a box called “schools” or “classrooms” and outputs emerge (e.g., test scores, skilled and knowledgeable high school graduates).

I use “black box” as a metaphor for what happens daily in classrooms that remains out of public sight but are seemingly known to all since every policymaker, researcher, parent, and taxpayer attended school. Yet what occurs in classrooms remains mysterious to non-teachers because memories fade and children’s reports of what they do in school are, at best, laconic, hiding more than revealing what occurs.

Yes, I know that mixing metaphors has its obvious dangers–snickers and smirks at odd, goofy combinations (“I think you hit the nose right on the head”) –but here goes:

On that quiet ocean floor where life is largely undisturbed by the roar of the hurricane rests the black box of the classroom. Within that black box is another complex world filled with patterns of change and stability in interdependent relationships blended with unanticipated events and unpredictable responses. Not only do reformers have to parse the hurricane metaphor but also they have to open up the black box and figure out what happens inside if they want to improve teaching and learning in U.S. classrooms.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

7 responses to “Policy to Practice: An Abundance of Metaphors

  1. Only yesterday I had a discussion with a group of leading educational research professionals in the UK, about why so much energy (and investment!) is wasted by school reformers, looking at the wrong things. The encouragement I’d like to add to your hare Larry is this. Why is it that so much school reform, policy making and industry activity persists in behaving as though there is no such thing as a good, never mind great, school?

    What I’d like to see, is intelligently defined research that examines what it is those great, yet unique schools have in common. Not into leadership, or results, or budgets, but into the black box you identify. How do pupils in these schools perceive their school? How do teachers in them relate to each other? Where does the line between teacher and child responsibility get drawn? After all, to take your metaphorical bait: if you want to learn how to be a great ballet dancer… you don’t ask a stripper.

    • larrycuban

      I do not have answers to your questions. The black box of the school (not the classrooms) does have a great deal of research going back to the Effective Schools movement in the late 1970s. Researchers identified in-school factors highly correlated with high standardized test scores (e.g., instructional leadership of principal, frequent assessments, etc.. Much of the research since then has followed this pattern of factors associated with high performance as measured by test scores. Not the same for the classroom, however, because of so much variability among teachers, kids, etc.

      I like the vivid metaphor you offer, Joe.

  2. Jeffrey Bowen

    A couple of thoughts to add to Joe Nutt’s good comments. First, I suspect the research he hopes for will highlight CULTURE. It is really hard to change (second order, Marzano calls it) but it is comprised of the traditions, symbols, ceremonies, and rituals that make a school “great” and “unique”.
    I think you can focus culture on student achievement, and thereby move mountains and produce wonderful school memories to celebrate. Second, if you watch today’s ballet dancers, you may find they have indeed learned something from strippers. The integration is typically appalling to me, but usually exciting, and just maybe sometimes a signal of creative genius. Finally, the metaphors are terrific. We can learn some much from them, and they surely help us to remember, but then I always did like the Miller Analogies Test. Jeff Bowen

    • larrycuban

      The Effective Schools research since the 1970s and current research on “good” schools does identify “learning climate,” “ethos of school,” and other similar phrases that get at “culture.” As for whether ballet dancers can learn from strippers, I will leave the details to others who know more than I do about both.

  3. The further one gets from the classroom, the more simple learning and teaching appear. “If only teachers would…” then all would be well in the world of public education. This illusive simplicity is the blur that occurs from observing anything from a distance. If only these policymakers spent some quality time in classrooms, as the teachers at our school often wish, they might bring a little more humility to their understanding of the complex task of educating children.

    • larrycuban

      What is ironic, Harold,is that nearly all of these decision-makers were once up-close and even personal with teachers when they were students but, as you say:”The further one gets from the classroom, the more simple learning and teaching appear.” Thanks for the comment.

  4. Pingback: Effectiveness of ICT in the classroom: Findings from the IDB study on OLPC Peru « Learning Matters

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