How books by Karin Chenoweth and Michaela School blew up my book planning (and why I’m glad they did)

So I’d been working up to writing my second book. Nothing full-tilt or anything, just some exploration around an education issue that had infuriat — er, fascinated — me for a while. I hadn’t yet reached the point of publishers or schedules or anything, but I was feeling pretty good about my research/outlining and figured that, if I could stay on such a ramp, a full proposal by the end of this year was feasible. (And as others I’d shared my early progress with showed real enthusiasm, I’d even started to get a little excited.)

Then, in a span of three months, two new education titles came along and ruined everything. After reading them, I took a long look at all my notes and decided that scrapping the idea was the best way to go. (Well…for now, anyway. It’s still an idea I think has promise, and those don’t come along for me every day. Stay tuned.)

The books that did it — Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Waya volume of essays by staffers at London’s Michaela School, and Schools that Succeed: How Educators Marshal the Power of Systems for Improvement by the Education Trust‘s Karin Chenoweth — are both brilliant, brimming with vital insights about evidence-informed instruction, philosophies, leadership, and school operations. I find them so valuable, in fact, that I’ve been recommending them left and right to individual ed cases and leadership teams I work with.

NOTE: These books’ accomplishments weren’t real surprising. I’ve come to know several Michaela teachers via researchEDTwitter, and their blogs over the past few years, so I went into their book already knowing a fair amount about their practices and guiding principles. Similarly, Chenoweth has been reporting how ‘unexpected’ schools produce their great results for over a decade, and I still look to her work on regular bases. If you don’t know her It’s Being DoneHow it’s Being Done, and Getting it Done, it’s high time you changed that.

Tiger Teachers and How Schools Succeed differ considerably from typical insightful ed-improvement titles, however, in how they are told. For rather than building up support for certain practices and approaches with lots of structured research, reference, and connection-drawing, they promote effective practices by letting practitioners share their experiences with those practices: what they look like in action, how they needed some trial-and-error to get right, what resources provided key direction, and on and on.

And in reading these books, it was this format that really stood out to me. My ‘writing brain’ kept poking at me, like this:

  1. ‘Hey Eric. Wouldn’t it be great if the ed conversation had more books like these?’
  2. ‘Whoooa! Wouldn’t some of the schools, teachers, and admins you work with love that teacher’s story? And those examples? How powerful was that?! Will the book we’re thinking of doing have anything like that in it? No? Hmmm…’
  3. ‘Funny: there are all kinds of specific success stories in here, but still plenty of sound theory and evidence to hold it all up. For ground-level accounts, they’re really very convincing, credible, and actionable — not at all mushy, whiny, and self-serving like so much ‘from-the-classroom’ education stuff tends to be. I think even less evidence-sensitive educators would really appreciate and respond to this approach, don’t you? And aren’t we always wondering how better to reach them?’
  4. ‘When/if that book we’re sketching comes together, you realize it’s not going to look anything like these, don’t you?’
  5. ‘As we’ve been railing for so long about the need to more thoughtfully frame the ways evidence has proven to be effective, isn’t it kinda dumb for us to proceed with our book idea when 1, 2, 3, and 4 are true?’

…and so on, ultimately making me admit to myself that the book I’d been planning would just be adding to the void I’ve been screaming into for years.

To put it another way: when the book I’d been planning would have rounded fully out, I have little doubt that it would have rung with those out there like me. Those, in other words, who love ed books filled with arguments about the ed establishment’s indifference to evidence, heaps of thoroughly researched supports, pages and pages of references for further study, and all that.

The ‘people like me’ bubble is really very small, though. While our bubble gets all rocked by E.D. Hirsch‘s or Mark Seidenberg‘s latest masterpieces, education’s larger bubble (media and funders and parents included, remember) gets drawn in much higher numbers to the evidence-lite (and ultimately enterprise-damaging) pap of figures like Sir Ken Robinson. Frustrating as this may be, I largely hold back bemoaning or belittling. (Besides: with down-dressings of Sir Ken this good out there, there’s no need to do much more. Perfection achieved.) Better, we should seek to understand why it works this way and what lessons we can apply forward into our own messaging and thought-leadership.

And the lesson, in large, is that figures like Sir Ken ‘work’ on educators by reaching them at values levels (e.g., help kids reach their full potentials, allow them to be joyful, they can be successful and joyful if they are able to create, etc., etc.) first, allowing him to pour in about any damn thing he wants after that, factually ‘healthy’ or not.

It’s Framing 101, basically, but we in the evidence-forward bubble continue to like it the other way round: argument, evidence, more evidence, presenting even more academically/officially to further validate the evidence (or something?), and so on. Rather than intentionally seeking values-based entry points and building our arguments around them, we prefer to insist, over and over again, that our way is right, dammit, and that they’re proven! And until we turn that around a bit, we’re likely to keep getting creamed in the campaign for educators’ hearts and minds. Just ask America’s Democratic Party.

(On this note, I’ve really appreciated recent works by Hirsch and David Didau for framing evidence-supported practices as best from a social-justice view. It’s a great start. Please take some time to read them if you haven’t already.)

Stories of effective practices (READ, AGAIN: not just stories from classrooms in general, as far too many of those aren’t much more than self-expression — good sources of inspiration, maybe, but usually not much help from evidence-informed improvement standpoints) like those in Michaela’s Tiger Teachers and Chenoweth’s Schools That Succeed have great potential to reframe evidence-verified practices. They appeal much more immediately to educators at the level of educators’ values and they offer evidence-informed solutions, rather than attempting to simply overwhelm with rationality.

Look at the long list of education titles over the past 50 years lamenting educators’ resistance to what the evidence actually says, after all, and it should be evident that such an approach is worth rethinking. What is that quote, again, about the definition of insanity…?

Speaking of which, back to that book I’d been planning but that Michaela and Chenoweth helped convince me I should abandon. Right there, I myself was about to launch a proposal to do even more of the thing I’d long considered a problem. Wanting to build a book of the type I so love to read, I kind of blocked all the periphery out until Tiger Teachers and Schools That Succeed woke me up. And for that, I’d like to send even more appreciation Michaela’s and Karin Chenoweth’s ways. I’m on to a different idea now, by the way, one that will make sure to contain a lot more ‘from-the-ground’ perspectives and deliberate framing to, I hope anyway, catalyze the more researchy supports. (In all, I’m kind of modeling things on Robert Putnam’s fine Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis — which, yeah, I’d also recommend highly. If interested in knowing more, I’m happy to share. Just be in touch!) I hope I can move it, too, up the ramp and get working on it in earnest, as I think it’ll be great fun to study and write.



4 thoughts on “How books by Karin Chenoweth and Michaela School blew up my book planning (and why I’m glad they did)

  1. Looking forward to this project!
    I appreciate your thoughts on the best ways to frame evidence. I’ve also noticed that writers often ignore the values that teachers hold, and I’ve wondered why that is. Lately I’ve wondered if the point for many writers is to reject many of these values, as they are unreasonable and invite guilt into one’s teaching life. (e.g. “Every child can see themselves as a math person”)
    There’s a lot of interesting writing I’m finding on what exactly teacher values consist of. Lortie is good on this (I recently read and blogged about Schoolteacher) and so is Mary Kennedy.
    I’d love to know more about your take on what exactly the values of the profession are, and whether you find these to be your values too.
    Thanks for the post!

  2. Thanks for the comment, MP, and you’re most welcome for the post! (I write terribly slowly…so much going on, always.)

    I don’t know that ed writers reject teachers’ values so much as get frustrated with how those values become manifest. (Please Note: at least as applies to the types of writers I’m assuming you mean. Hell, I’m sure my own writing could come off as teachers’-values-rejecting.) Deeply valuing students’ happiness, for instance, is not a misguided value or one worthy of rejection; opening academic tasks to exploratory approaches (to name but one practical expression of that value), however, to create engagement and preserve said happiness, is a manifestation that much evidence has shown to be detrimental to the child’s later success. And there is where the frustration comes in, at least for folks like me.

    But discounting/minimizing the values themselves? Not so much. Sometimes, of course, but there are always ‘sometimeses’. 🙂

    I too look forward to working on the project I mention in the post. I’ve started talking to all kinds of people (including former students and colleagues!) about participating. Looking pretty fun, at least at this early stage. Have a great weekend!

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