Cart Awaiting a Horse

A little more this week from Eduflack guest blogger, Dr. John Jensen …
Several decades ago when differences between right and left brain thinking were first explored, a story was told to illustrate.

During World War II, many harbors in Hawaii were blocked by sunken warships, one important channel in particular. After the war, engineers puzzled over how to move them out of way. As they found themselves stumped, someone said, “I know a captain who has a reputation as a good problem solver.  Let’s invite him in.”     

They brought the captain to an overlook where, standing among the important brass, he could see the masts of vessels protruding from the water. As he stared at them, someone nearby heard him muttering, “Mother… Mother… the garden.”  The image that came to him was of his mother breaking large clumps of sod into smaller ones, which suggested his solution: Don’’t try to move the ships. Break them into pieces and leave them there–a solution that worked.

Which is to say that if we find ourselves stumped over education, could we consider a different viewpoint? 

The title above hints at a shift. Recently I happened across two reports, one on the ongoing work on national standards, and the other on the international education conference in Helsinki earlier this fall. The reports presented exactly opposite views on how to get quality education. The Finns hosting the conference, as is widely acknowledged, get the best educational results in the world. Two features of their system stood out for me. They 1) insist that teachers know their subject matter, and 2) they allow them great latitude in designing what they personally will teach. 

How unusual!  Find someone who knows and ask him to do what he knows.  What an innovative model!  One wonders what would happen to the entire American economy if such an insight were widely accepted instead of having the state micro-manage everything from the top down.  The US model in contrast 1) presumes that teachers don’t know their subject matter.  Once accepting that as inevitable, the second step follows: 2) spoon-feed them every detail they must teach.  

It’s clear that the Finn model works and, as best we can tell, the US model doesn’’t. The conclusion is obvious. Do the US model more intensively!  Bring into education more people who know even less about teaching, and specify in even more detail what they must teach. Exert more control of the process with less confidence in and freedom for teachers to teach what they know.

I sympathize with policy-makers who don‘t know what to do with their big hammer, the billions they’’re anxious to spend. They don‘’t know what, among their myriad of options, to spend it on that will make the most difference.  A possible corner is at least to define what students need to know in the subjects most commonly taught.            

Sensible as it may sound, even this has its holdouts. Alaska and Texas want no part of it.  Texas, I assume, is independent  enough to believe that their own people know better what their children should learn, but Alaska (my home state) is a different matter.  The knowledge useful for living in many of its remote communities and even larger cities can diverge greatly from what one needs to know in the continental US; climate, weather, geology, environment, wildlife, fish, transportation, Native heritage, and energy, for instance.  The concerns of a Boston or St. Louis are far off the mark, hinting further that a varied and changing world could soon make the current knowledge disseminated today
 in any city moot even there.

But let’’s say the macro-plan has its way and we could standardize what students need to know, what then?

To me this is the cart waiting for a horse, a cart we wouldn’’t need if we just had a horse.  What curriculum do you want to tow along?  Ask the Finns, who say that the curriculum is what a teacher who knows the subject is ready to teach. But even settling that, we still need the horse:How do we get students to learn what is either in the teacher’s mind or, lacking confidence in their mind, in the national standards?

How?  That we even have to ask the question is my concern. If we have any doubt about how to do this, then it’s premature to define standards nationally or require particular knowledge in teachers. The “horse” is what moves everything else–to know that you can teach students whatever you want to teach them each, always, and every time. Do this with a lot of learning (a good start is “whatever the teacher wants to teach.”). After much of that, look around and inquire, “Is there anything essential we haven’’t covered?” Let teachers teach what they want to for eleven and a half years and spend the last semester on lacunae.  These are likely to appear much less significant once you already have a child saturated with usable knowledge, but if something is both missing and important, cover it then.

First, though, do the big chunks, the stuff good teachers already know.  Stay out of the way while they do it and don’t micro-manage.


(John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of The Silver Bullet Easy Learning System: How to Change Classrooms Fast and Energize Students for Success (Xlibris, 2008), which he will send free as an e-book to anyone requesting it. He can be reached at  This post represents the opinions of Dr. Jensen only.)

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