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.