Why Do Smart People Do Dumb Things? Thinking about School Reform

Examples are legion. Recall President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Or Director of the Central Intelligence Agency David Petraeus resigning over extra-marital affair. Or shrewd investors in Bernard Madoff’s company losing their financial shirts.

Switch to education and consider El Paso (TX) Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia who went to jail for inflating student test scores and giving a no-bid contract to his mistress.

OK, Larry, you made your point. People with smarts, power, and position caved in to their impulses. They did dumb things.

Actually, I want to go beyond that self-evident point made elsewhere and say that very smart educational policymakers also engage in folly not involving sex or money. Two stories make that point.

The first happened in New York City public schools in the early 1980s over abolishing “social promotion.” For many years, reformers had criticized educators for moving students to the next grade when they lacked the requisite knowledge and skills. The then Chancellor instituted a “Promotional Gates Program” in elementary and middle school grades with high-stakes tests in reading and math. If students didn’t pass they would have to repeat the grade. After a few years, so many students failed the test and were retained in grade that they eventually dropped out of school. When data confirmed that outcome, the Promotional Gates program disappeared.

Then a decade later, Another Chancellor attacked “social promotion” by holding back 35,000 students, requiring them to take special summer classes to advance to the next grade. Of that number, nearly 25,000 had failed the annual tests but almost a fifth of those failures occurred because of mistakes made by district officials. The Chancellor at that time quickly ended the program. But in 2000, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein railed again at “social promotion” and, yes, you guessed it–another version of the “promotional gates” was resurrected.  Putting an untested policy into action the first time might be chalked up to error. And then putting those same ideas into practice a second time is dumb. But a third time? Well, That’s plain stupid.

Now consider the story of an elite university sliding into dumbness.

In the late 1960s Stanford University administrators secured federal funds to build a multimillion dollar facility called the Stanford Center for Research, Development, and Teaching (SCRDT). A fully furnished television studio with “state-of-the-art” cameras, videotape recorders, and monitors occupied the main floor with the star-in-the-crown of the new building located in the Large-Group Instruction room (LGI).

The amphitheater-shaped room with half-circular rows looked down on a small stage with a lectern, a massive pull-down screen, and two large monitors suspended from the ceiling. At most of the individual seats was a small punch-button pad called the “student responder.” The responder contained the numbers 1-10 and letters T and F.

At the very top of the amphitheater was a glass-enclosed technician’s station where an aide could assist the professor with simultaneous interpretation of various languages, show slides or films, and put on monitors data that the professors wanted.  Administrators had designed the room for professors to enhance the delivery of lectures.

For lectures, the student responder came into play.  Students punched in their choices to communicate answers to the professor’s questions, such as “If you agree, press 1, disagree, press 2.” “If statement is true, press T.”  As students pressed the keypad, the data went directly to a mainframe computer where the students’ responses were immediately assembled and displayed for the professor at a console on the lectern. The lecturer was then able to adjust the pace and content of the lecture to this advanced interactive technology, circa 1970, that linked students to teacher.

By 1972 when I came to Stanford as a graduate student, the LGI was being used as a large lecture hall for classes from other departments. The now-disconnected keypads were toys that bored students played with during lectures. The pull-down screen was used for overheads and occasional films. The fixed position cameras purchased in the late 1960s were already beyond repair and obsolete.

In 1981, when I returned to teach at Stanford, the SCRDT had been renamed the Center for Educational Research at Stanford (CERAS). In the LGI, none of the original equipment or technology (except the sound system) was used by either students or professors. The student responders, however, were still there.

In 2011, nearly a half-century after the SCRDT installed the LGI, the amphitheater room was still in use as a regular lecture hall. When I came to hear a professor lecture, yes, you guessed it, my fingers crept over to the “student responder” and I began to click the keys.

In 2012, however, a long awaited renovation occurred and the responders were gone. Finally.

In the past two years, however, Stanford faculty and administration have been swept up in offering Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The pervasive belief among many faculty including top University administrators is that MOOCs will “revolutionize” U.S. higher education teaching, learning, and college course offerings.  The belief in the power of disruptive technologies such as MOOCs to upend an institution is deep and abiding.

Perhaps there is another reason smart people do dumb things beyond succumbing to sex and power. They are too smart, they are too facile in devising clever responses to turn away arguments, logic, and historical evidence that challenge their beliefs and policies. They then end up doing foolish and even stupid things.



Filed under leadership, Reforming schools

30 responses to “Why Do Smart People Do Dumb Things? Thinking about School Reform

  1. I don’t think the current form of the MOOC is of high enough quality to “over throw universities.” How can a system wherein most people drop out of a course count as a success?

    I do think you can build online courses which may work for some people. I think they would have to be grounded in the inquiry model to have a chance of being successful though, and they would have to put peer to peer interactions as much more important than the current courses do.

    • David
      Please do not call everything MOOC . There is only cMOOC created by Stephen and George in 2008 .
      Coursera and EDX are two different poles .
      Coursera is a wonderful marketing for profit. Sure they can not replace traditional schools.
      But EDX is nonprofit consortium with the top top schools of the world .
      MIT + Harvard + Berkeley + Georgetown
      They can replace traditional schools in 5 years .
      I also recommended EDX that they should award an EDX degrees when a student completes 40 courses from edx member schools .
      We employers would hire them immediately .
      EDX has all that peer to peer and instructors interaction and more .
      Sure ONLINE may not work for everybody, particularly lazy people .

  2. Wow. Just wow. There really is nothing new under the sun. Were there any papers published based on research from these clickers? I’d love to see them…

    • larrycuban

      I interviewed former administrators of the CERAS and read the early proposals of the late-1960s that included the technology pieces. I do not know of any formal studies for the “responders.” The fact that it was planned without significant faculty participation or subsequent extensive professional development of professors doomed it in the early 1970s, in my opinion.

  3. larrycuban

    Thanks for your comment, David.

  4. Case in point. A friend’s son is in medical school. He spent a summer in various locations on continental Africa working as a volunteer for NOG’s doing lay medical work in camps and remote communities. His experiences were hands-on, authentic and visceral… he was sharing is knowledge and experience form medical school with local people who had been way over their heads in dealing with (what to them were major concerns) simple issues like how to disinfect facilities, ensure water was clean and personal hygiene to prevent compounding health concerns needlessly. He was using (in many parts of Africa, a very broad-reaching medium) cellular phone communication to liaise with instructors and fellow students back home for advice, and everyone was learning more about preventative health measures in a collaborative way. Flash forward to his return home…
    Upon return to his faculty, outside of a great addition to his resume, he received no official recognition or credential for his experience, nor did any of his peers for collaborating in the process. The knowledge, skills and attitudes he, and his peers were able to develop; priceless to all of them in their quest to become medical professionals… received no official nod form the university. They learned more about public heath and preventative medicine as a result of their experiences than they could possibly form a textbook alone. Perhaps there is a happy medium we can divine in the interest of best practice in learning and practicing our knowledge.

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  10. larrycuban

    Thanks for re-posting “Smart People…,” David.

  11. A fool with a tool, is still a fool. The same concerns our “wisemen” with power.

  12. I have to clarify some points .
    1.- EDX can replace the traditional HE in the USA and in the world . It is non profit and top schools of the world , best valued knowlwedge in the world , at a small fee with a more than 300 years experience behind it . BRAND Name of education .
    2.- Old online classes and degrees are in this country for 20 years. 6.5 million people in these schools are getting online classes and degrees at very high price $ 1,500-3,000 .
    That means already a very bad online courses replaces 6.5 / 18 million = 36 % of the HE in the USA .
    3.- Sure the best schools of the world at a small fee, EDZX , will replace at least 66 % of the traditional schools in the USA and the world .
    EDX is global . That is their biggest asset.
    4.- EDX will save the USA and the world regarding HE . I claim even that much . It is very well thought long term strategy they have since 2001 when MIT launched first OCW project and now reaching to 100,000,000 students and teachers in the world .

  13. Larry
    We have done dumb things for the last 20 years getting online courses and degrees from no name school at a very high price. Now 7 million people are taking onkline classes from these no name schools . Stanford , MIT did not attempt to online since these no name school made the name of online so bad . Now Stanford, MIT, Harvard are offerring online at a small fee.
    Thanks to them . In 1962-1970 I was at Stanford also . So please be more kind to Stanford .

  14. Larry, what are your thoughts on the new edx.org part of an organized effort led by Harvard and MIT to cull the MOOCs under one umbrella? Stanford is not currently part of it, but many others are jumping on the band wagon. It seems like this is an emerging idea of giving the public access to specialized knowledge and lowers the barrier to both the specialized knowledge and levels the playing field. Our team here at Stanford is thinking about how to utilize this medium (tool) in our efforts share and engage with educators– but is having trouble fleshing out the unintended consequences to this model. Our biggest concern is how to engage more peer to peer interactions so they are productive– as well as how to assess students in a formative way so it’s authentic. Thank you for stemming this conversation.

    I’ve also noticed that in the past decade, there’s been significant influence and funding from philanthropic leaders who have been driving much of the education agenda and more often than not, there’s a lack of depth and knowledge of the history of school reform– this includes individual like myself who have been in this work for just a little bit over a decade. How do we prevent ourselves from this cycle– or is it just inevitable that generations of reformers continue with this work– with hope that the new context provides enough reason in moving forward.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for taking the time to comment on the post. I have no certainty or wisdom on MOOCs as this reform spills over higher education. The aims of MOOCs vary among those who press forward and who have developed different platforms. Clearly, equity–making higher ed accessible–is high on the agenda for promoters. So is altering traditional higher ed pedagogy through far more peer learning and collaboration. So is how to best evaluate both teaching and learning in these new courses. Also how best to monetize the outcomes of creating access and possible credentials for anyone with an Internet connection. It is hard for me to sort out the different goals and pedagogical issues entangled with MOOCs. What I do know from past efforts to adopt and implement technological innovations is that sorting out hype (what David Tyack and I called “policy” talk) from what implementers–professors–do in their courses each week and figure out how to evaluate both the teaching and learning–once agreement among adopters and implementers is hammered out over precisely what the goals of MOOCs are.

      • Please do not generalise.
        There is no MOOC. There is only one MOOC that is cMOOC by Stephen Downes and George Siemens in 2008.
        Today many people, including you, follow the name media placed on Coursera and EDX . But they are completely two different poles .

        Coursera is a wonderful marketing company for profit.. They make the promotion . EDX is top top schools of the world MIT,Harvard, Berkeley, non profit . They do not accept every school who applied . So far only 6 .
        But Coursera is not selective. They accept everybody, so they have now 35 or so schools.
        Unfortunately MEDIA leads even intellectual people like you .
        Yes many people , like Joneses , wish to join to Coursera and Coursera does not mind . Here I find your headings ” very right ”

        First you have to understand that none of these are massive.
        First enrollment is 100,000 but the finish is only 2,500 that is 2.5 %
        But still a good number for online .
        Beware of numbers :
        If a school registeres 1,000 students for 10 quarters and charge only $ 100 per course they will collect 1000 x 10 x $ 100 = $ 1,000,000
        No online course in the world costs more than $ 1 million .
        If 2,000 enrollment than we can afford even $ 50 per course
        2,000 x 10 x $ 50 = $ 1,000,000

    • Tina ,
      Please do not call MIT and Harvard MOOC as COURSERA is called .
      They are 2 different poles .
      MOOC is a name placed by media and many people just jomped on to it .
      I do know what Stanford is doing regarding online for the last 10 years , your comment does reflect what is being done at Stanford .
      Biggest concern of Stanford is not ” peer to peer interaction ” There are many things to be thought of . Stanford is as always very careful to make decisions . I am an alumni of Stanford too .

      • Muvaffak,
        Thanks for the clarification on MOOCs. I’m still getting wrapped around this idea of MOOC as a solution proposed to solve educational problems. I’m questioning how this type of movement– or organization of resources are addressing problems that are ill-identified, with goals that vary among organizing units (e.g. Coursera, .EDX), and what possible intended and unintended consequences will play out over time.
        One of the concerns for our team is how to manage the “peer to peer interaction” via this type of platform. Our team believes that learning involves interaction with others–(e.g. argumentation, debate, questioning) and it not a solitary activity. I can’t speak for how Stanford as a larger institution is situating itself in this context, I’m only speaking for my immediate team and our concerns.
        Thanks, Tina

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  16. I’d revise the title slightly: “Why do smart people do dumb things and then repeat those dumb things?” A current example right in San Francisco.

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