A Tool Box Full of Hammers

Seth Godin, whose blog is well worth a daily read, wonders about the old cliche which says that if your only tool is a hammer then all problems look like nails.


The practical effect of this thinking is that “when the market changes, you may be seeing all the new opportunities and problems the wrong way because of the solutions you’re used to”.

His theme is business, of course, and specifically with how they’re using social media, but Seth’s basic concept still applies to the institution of American education.

For starters, we don’t seem to understand that the “market” has changed (drastically!), so we continue to pull hammers out of the tool box.

Although we talk a lot about “differentiated instruction” and “individualized learning”, the details and solutions tend to look like the same classroom hammers we’ve always used.

When it comes to the major education reform proposals of the past fifty years, we’ve pretty recycled the same old hammers by painting different politically motivated labels on them (think: Sputnik, Nation at Risk, NCLB).

Then there’s the little corner of the system with which I’m most familiar, instructional technology.

Millions of classroom computers, most connected to world-wide networks, with a variety of amazing communications tools should have brought about major alterations to our process of teaching and learning.

If we didn’t just use them as digital versions of the same analog tools we’ve always used.

We want laptops to be electronic textbooks or workbooks.

Expensive interactive whiteboards are too often used for one-way transmission of knowledge, in very much the same way as the traditional analog chalk version.

Students write research papers and create presentations using sophisticated software for an audience of one.

And here in the overly-large school district we’re taking binders full of central office-blessed curriculum materials and test questions, putting it all in a big database, and declaring this to be a paradigm shift.

As Godin has pointed out many times in his writing, in times of crisis, economic and other, smart companies inspect every aspect of their business processes and find new opportunities to grow hidden in the bad news.

Instead of stocking up on new types of hammers as we in education seem to be doing.

Image: Hammer for what…? by Per Ola Wiberg (Powi) used under a Creative Commons License

I Just Can’t Stay… And Here’s Why

In the opinion section of this morning’s Post, a DC charter school teacher finishing her fourth year in the profession explains why she’s leaving.

The simple answer is burnout, a reason often given by the 30 – 50% of teachers (numbers vary based on the study) who exit from the profession within their first five years.

As you might expect, it’s not quite that simple.


But there is more to those numbers than “burnout.” That term is shorthand for a suite of factors that contributed to my choice to leave the classroom. When I talk about the long hours, for example, what I mean is that, over the course of four years, my school’s administration steadily expanded the workload and workday while barely adjusting salaries. More and more major decisions were made behind closed doors, and more and more teachers felt micromanaged rather than supported. One afternoon this spring, when my often apathetic 10th-graders were walking eagerly around the room as part of a writing assignment, an administrator came in and ordered me to get the class “seated and silent.” It took everything I had to hold back my tears of frustration.

Almost every education reform program I’ve ever read centers around the concept of recruiting and retaining great teachers.

At the same time all those politicians and educational “experts” are proclaiming as indispensable the “highly qualified teacher” in every classroom, they also want to automate the teaching process with collections of “best practices” with the goal of squeezing out even better standardized test scores from each student.

So, why would smart, creative, highly educated college grads want to become teachers only to be handed a collection of recipes that dictates precisely how to present a narrow, test-driven curriculum?

Many of those same politicians declare that schools ought to be run like a business.

While that’s always been a lousy idea (repeat after me: schools are NOT businesses!), if there’s one element from the corporate world that can and should be adopted for education, it’s that people are your most important asset.

And that a constant and high turnover of talented employees is probably the most detrimental factor for any organization.

Losing half of new teachers every five years is doing nothing good for American education and any meaningful reform needs to start by figuring out how to fix that problem.

Image by mlhradio and used under a Creative Commons License.

Patching Up The Ritz

Another company steeped in the analog tradition is trying to figure out their place in the digital world.

Within weeks, Ritz said in an interview, the company, called Ritz Camera & Image, will reinvent itself in a new ad campaign aimed at drawing a hipper crowd into its stores, which now number around 375.


They plan to sell smart phones alongside a stock of digital cameras. Customers can supply their digital images and video clips and Ritz will package them onto a DVD, with chapter breaks and music. And if they want LCD HD televisions on which to view those images, they can buy those, too, from Ritz.

The retooled Ritz Camera & Image will “appeal to younger customers who were brought up in the computer-digital world who may not understand everything that photography means to them,” Ritz, 60, said in an interview in his oak-paneled office at the company’s headquarters in Beltsville.

I wonder if the people at Ritz have bothered to talk to this “hipper crowd” they’re trying to turn into customers.

Do they really want physical media like DVDs when it’s so easy to post pictures on the web (for free), create slide shows (for free), embed the show in a web page (for free or very close), and share the results through multiple channels (for free)?

As for video, many people in the demographic Ritz seems to be aiming for don’t care if the end result is all that polished. Normally the video is recorded and posted with little editing in between.

It will be interesting to see what the company does in their transformation, especially since photography is rapidly moving away from the formal process that was at the heart of Ritz’s success for so many years.

I haven’t been in a Ritz store in many years (probably not in their target group for the future anyway), at least since I purchased a DSLR (online, not in a physical store) three years ago.

And there’s nothing in this story about their plans for reorganization that will entice me to return.

Photo by BOSSoNe0013 and used under a Creative Commons License.