kitchen table math, the sequel: Cargo Cult Education

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Cargo Cult Education

Catherine referenced this post at Eduwonk about "innovation" in education, and how it doesn't mean anything like what innovation means in the private sector. The post goes on to talk about the difficulties in getting anyone to move toward real innovation, be it sustaining or disruptive. But it in passing mentions a mistaken definition of innovation, too:

For Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, innovation seems to mean grabbing the lessons from schools with records of high performance and grafting them on to problem schools. Finding “what works,” adopting it, spreading it around. Why not call that what it is: replication?

Replication is a worthy effort. But ‘new, here’ is not the same as ‘new, anywhere’...

But replication should not be left undefined, as if it's easy to "find what works, adopt it, and spread it around" so to speak. There's a large danger that all you'll do is invent cargo cult education, the education version of cargo cult science.:

In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he's the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land. Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they're missing. But it would be just about as difficult to explain to the South Sea Islanders how they have to arrange things so that they get some wealth in their system. (RP Feynman, Caltech commencement, 1974)

Cargo Cult education seems to be all the rage in lots of communities. Sure, districts could just start "grabbing lessons from high performing schools" but that won't make the students suddenly read or write. They can follow the precepts and the form of schools that actually teach kids, but they're missing several essentials: students who already read, write, and do arithmetic at or above grade level. Unless they understand what's underneath the "lessons of the high performing school" (the high performing parents, the high performing teachers, the high performing students) then it won't matter. Unless the "lessons" they grab are that they need teachers who already know classroom management skills and content, need solid curricula that can be built to mastery, need ability grouping rather than differentiated instruction, need schools that already enforce discipline and control their students' behavior, need raised expectations for all students, and more, then they will be missing something essential.

And is it any easier to explain to a school district how they have to arrange things so that they get some teaching in their system than it is to explain things to the South Sea Islanders?


SteveH said...

Educators like to talk about "best practices" too, but what are the assumptions? They might create an innovative approach to differentiated instruction, but it still might be a variation of enrichment, not acceleration. It's all relative and nobody questions the assumption of full-inclusion. Everybody needs to be on the same absolute educational scale before any sort of innovation or best practices can be evaluated. Unfortunately, most educators focus only on relative changes of a "proficiency index" on a standardized state test to define improvement. They assume that there are no fundamental flaws or issues with assumptions.

Also, most assumptions cannot be research-based. Schools just decide. It doesn't matter if you have perfect research on differentiated instruction if you decide up front that no acceleration is going to be allowed. Research on one variable is not much help if you ignore another much more important variable.

I mentioned before that I told a couple of members of our school committee years ago that they should hand out Hirsch's Core Knowledge Series [What your first, (second, third,...) grader needs to know] and tell parents that that is NOT the education their children will get. I never did get a response. It's not so much that I want to force them to select a new curriculum, it's just that I want them to be honest and clear with parents. However, they hide behind words like discovery, critical thinking, and understanding.

I think this is what bothers me the most. They KNOW that there are disagreements over what education should be. Instead of explaining why their view of education is best, they work really hard to bad-mouth what they don't like using terms like drill and kill, rote learning, and mere facts. They tell parents that all they want is what they had when they were growing up and that they just don't like change. It's their turf.

Robert Pondiscio said...


Great post. I have never heard this particular Feynman anecdote before, but it offers a perfect paradigm of "reading strategy" instruction. We teach children to mimic the behaviors of good readers without the conditions (background knowledge) that make those behaviors work.

I'm stealing this meme. From now on, I'm calling it "Cargo Cult Reading."

Can't thank you enough.


Anonymous said...

The analogy to public education would be more complete if we acknowledge that it doesn't matter whether planes land or not for a while because:

1) they have a ready to operate airport regardless of the actual flight activity;

2) all of the personnel at the airport have job titles that make it clear that they are the only people in the South Seas who understand and can talk about airplanes and handle whatever flights occur; and

3) all airport employees will be paid appropriately whether planes land or not.

How many employees over time will continue to care about whether the planes come?

Of course at some point the lack of goods coming in may make the island uninhabitable.

Allison said...

--I have never heard this particular Feynman anecdote before, but it offers a perfect paradigm of "reading strategy" instruction.

Oh, Robert, you're RIGHT! It's EXACTLY what "reading strategy" is!

In fact, it goes farther--it's what Writer's Workshop is too!

Brilliant examples! thank you!

And anon, I like your filling out the analogy. It IS that awful.

Lsquared said...

Near as I can tell, "best practices" means:
a. it's hard to do and find good education research
b. there isn't any research worth citing on the subject
c. the people who "matter" (ie. write papers) think it's a good idea, because, you know, it makes sense
So, some of the "best practices" are good, and some of them are lousy, but they they are accepted as having almost equal weight with actual research results because decent research is thin on the ground.
It leaves something to be desired.

Catherine Johnson said...

Haven't read the thread yet, so someone may already have said this, but I finally had a revelation about the "Secret Ingredient": "it's the culture, stupid."

It hit me while reading an article by Richard DuFour, which he published a number of years ago.

I had to read it twice to get the point -- !

Restructuring Is Not Enough

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm pretty sure you can find copies of the article via Google/Bing, etc.

If not, I can email.

cijohn @

Redkudu said...

"We teach children to mimic the behaviors of good readers without the conditions (background knowledge) that make those behaviors work."

It always amazes me how this blog seems to reflect conversations I'm having with a good friend of mine who is also a teacher. We talk non-stop about education. Just two days ago we were talking about this, which seems especially prevalent in high school remedial reading courses. Since these kids are perceived to be able to "read" (that is, say out loud the collection of letters on the page), the idea seems to be that they just aren't concentrating hard enough - or as mentioned mimicking the behavior of good readers well enough - and teaching them that should take care of the problem.

palisadesk said...

Feynman's speech can be found here:
Cargo Cult Science

As for "Best Practices," I've often thought it was a very Orwellian phrase, and could go right up there with :

A teacher from Australia shared a refreshingly honest "standard" for First grade reading there:
"engages in reading-like behavior"

Well, if it is "reading-like" it is, by definition, not reading, just as "catlike movements" are movements of some animal other than a cat.

Anonymous said...

Redkudu and Catherine-

In 2007 the National Institute for Literacy published a wonderful report entitled;

"What Content-Area Teachers Should Know About Adolescent Literacy" that ought to be on the desk of every middle and high school teacher.

Among its insightful, detailed explanations of what works and why, it talks about "What do Good Readers Do?" for each of the 5 areas of Decoding, Morphology, Fluency, Vocabulary, and Text Comprehension.

You can get it from e-mailing for the free 60 page booklet or download it by visiting .

Catherine Johnson said...

wow - thank you!

I had never heard of that report, and was just this morning reading about a new government initiative re: adolescent literacy...

cranberry said...

Isn't the whole argument about doing away with tracking, that the strong students should "model" good academic habits? Isn't that the thought that mimicking the external, observable behavior will improve struggling students?

Catherine Johnson said...

What Content-Area Teachers Should Know About Adolescent Literacy (pdf file)

Got it!

Catherine Johnson said...

cranberry - I don't know the answer to that!

ChemProf said...

"Isn't the whole argument about doing away with tracking, that the strong students should "model" good academic habits? Isn't that the thought that mimicking the external, observable behavior will improve struggling students?"

Yeah, that's an argument I've definitely heard for why tracking or magnet schools are bad -- that pulling out the good students means there aren't good models for the others. Of course, that assumes struggling students WANT to be like the strong students, which depending on the school culture may or may not be true.