To Reimagine Public School, Just (Ignore) The Facts, Ma’am

Is it possible for people to change the story we tell ourselves (and one another) about public education?

I spend a lot of time thinking about this question. And some recent studies all suggest that if the answer is ever going to be “yes,” we have some serious work to do.

Consider the work of cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, whose book The Enigma of Reason demonstrates why facts don’t change our minds. In study after study, they have shown people overwhelming evidence to refute a deeply held belief, and then watch as those same people “fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs.”

How does this play out in modern life? In Science Speak it’s known as the “illusion of explanatory depth,” which basically means that we all believe we know way more than we actually do. And what is it that allows us to persist in this belief? Other people, so much so that on almost any issue of significance, we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins.

So what does any of this have to do with changing the story about public education?

At first blush, nothing.

But when you start to think of the extent to which our public school system has been shared by a group of animals that are evolutionarily wired to reinforce the same way of thinking and feeling about things, you start to appreciate just how powerfully the memes we have about teaching and learning continue to shape, and hinder, our collective capacity to imagine new ways of addressing old problems or institutions.

Memes get talked about a lot these days as catchy GIF files on Instagram, but before they were that, they were the ideas or memories that get shared among people in a given culture. And because they’re so widely experienced — and so ubiquitous in the American public school system — memes are powerful obstacles to change.

As Geoffrey and Renate Caine make clear in their book Natural Learning for a Connected World: “Traditional education is driven by a powerful meme that keeps replicating itself. One simply has to imagine several people gathering to talk about education to recognize how powerfully the meme is embedded. Individuals will visualize desks and books and a teacher in the front of the classroom. Grades, tests, discipline, and hard work will bind together the beliefs that everyone automatically subscribes to. These beliefs linger as foundational ideas that are rarely, if ever, questioned.”

Because we have such a strong shared sense of what schooling is (and isn’t), even small-scale changes to the way we think about public education will be likely to spark large-scale resistance. And yet rarely, if ever, do you hear a discussion of memes make its way into the national debate about school reform. It’s the equivalent of trying to help a garden grow by removing all the visible weeds — and ignoring all the invisible root structures.

In other words, well-reasoned arguments for or against the educational benefits of (fill in the blank) are not the way forward, because they only represent one part of the picture. Far more influential are the social and emotional memories we bring to the idea of elementary school itself, or the level of individuality we ascribe to our own memories of high school, or the extent to which we fear the prospect of replacing something familiar with something unknown.

Consequently, when it comes to changing the story about public education, there is only one conclusion to draw from the research: We have met the enemy. And it is us.

Categories: Learning, Organizational Change

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