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« Creativity without purpose? Experimentation without control? | Main | Becoming George »

Is experimentation ethical?

I honestly didn't expect the amount of reaction to last Wednesday's post, Becoming George, that I got. And little of it was sympathetic to my George-like tendencies. While all the responses are worth reading, I would like to dig a little deeper into one issue raised.

Sue, Miguel, Jeff and Mark all pretty much took me to task for not allowing teachers to experiment or to be creative with their computers. (Please take time to read their eloquent and compelling comments.)

Now one of the problems with being an administrator is that you start thinking like one after a while. The lure of the dark side (or as  Miguel would say "Gadget Gestapo, the Network Nazi") is formidable. Here are some questions that may get more at the heart of the control vs. creativity question. Questions I don't have a good answer to. Questions that come from the dark side of the force...

  • Does technology management come down to a choice between reliability/security and creativity/experimentation? If it is not possible to have both, which best serves student interests?
  • Why should a teacher be given any more latitude to be "creative" with a computer than an accountant? Why should a teacher not be required to use district adopted software, much as they are required to use district adopted reading series or textbooks?
  • Should a teacher experiment rather using established best practices? (A medical doctor who "experiments" on his patients would be considered unethical - that job is for specially trained research scientists.)

mad-scientist.jpgI am especially interested in the last question. So much of what is being written about in the educational blogosphere (at least what I read) promotes the experimental use of technology with students. At what point do we need to ask ourselves is this healthy for students? Without studies showing that student blogging or writing in wikispace or the cool thing du jour increases student learning, am I acting like a true professional? What is the difference between untried methods and crackpot methods except one's point of view? (If I wear green socks and stand on my head as I deliver  lectures in Latin, I know student achievement will go up. But your ideas about using computers with kids are wacko!)

Answers? I'm looking for answers! 

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  • Response
    In the educational, classroom environment, authentic education is always experimental. This is because teaching is an art, not a science.

Reader Comments (11)

Doug, I wrote to this a bit on my blog at and shared the graphic I sent you via email there.

The answer to each of those questions that you ask, which really represent a point of view that is less classroom focused and more business model seeking to measure results, is REINVENTION. As teachers, we are expected to reinvent lessons and use resources in ways THAT HAVE NEVER BEEN USED BEFORE. This occurs, not because we as teachers like to reinvent our work every day, but because students are different every day. So, while we may have an infinite variety of instructional approaches and tools, there is an infinite variety of possibilities as to what will work for THIS particular class and this student.

If we were able to replicate success from year to year, those questions would be valid. But the truth is, we're not able to. What makes an exemplary teacher worth emulating isn't her repetitive actions applied with minor adjustments...what makes her exemplary is her ability to innovate, adapt, and reinvent learning situations that match a human child's needs.

Research to support that? The best stories of teachers are of those that do this. This is what also makes prohibitionist or "strict father" frames so dangerous to our youth. The human spirit cries out for both consistency and reinvention. The good teacher manages both. The poor district administrator manages only draconian consistency.

Miguel Guhlin
April 7, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMiguel Guhlin
Thanks Doug for MAKING me write this comment (which is also a post on my blog) on a Friday night!!!

These are not “experimental” practices. They are tried and true, research based, best practices and techniques used with new media, technology and applications. It’s research (librarians should like that), quantifying data, brainstorming, gathering and organizing data, synthesizing information, designing a method for dissemination, editing and more.

The leverage comes in many forms, but include: being able to print pictures from primary sources (could we cut pictures from your books or periodicals?) and change the size and crop out unnecessary, distracting areas and enhance others. It’s being able to ask questions from experts here-to-for that were very hard to access (email, blog requests, ask-the expert sections on many web pages). Instead of writing a report and delivering it in a report folder that the student and the teacher and maybe the student’s family will see and learn from and so who really cares, students can deliver in a web page/blog, Wiki, slide show, digital video and more – and have the report become an international resource instead of a folder in a drawer (which just might mean we are more motivated to polish and rework and rethink and revisit and polish some more and even update at a later date - I can just see someone pulling their old report folder on the Revolutionary War out of their drawer and updating it).

The experimental part comes in having to think out of the box (we wouldn’t want that!) to think about which media or application or venue should be used or not used or is appropriate to use (you mean think about, discuss and debate ethics and best use?). One of the best parts is that when things go wrong it is often an opportunity to problem solve and learn from mistakes and learn to deal with mistakes (unthinkable) in a relatively safe environment when you’re not going to get fired from your job.

Why should teachers be creative? Hmmm… boy that’s tough. Think about your best, most memorable learning experiences in school. Come on really think. Did you list reading groups or working a sheet of math problems or doing a state report? You may have thought of one of those, but if you did it was probably because the teacher had you do that in a creative way! Most likely however, you thought of a project or field trip or activity or science experiment.

Blogging is akin to journal writing (journal writing is a big waste of time?).

Doctors would be liable if they “experimented” on their patients – but I guarantee that no two doctors do the same procedure exactly the same way (except of course for the most absolutely critical parts). I’ve had doctors try new approaches and methods on me a few times – and I’m Ok …and I’m Ok… and I’m OK. Teachers may use the district adopted textbook or reading series – but use it the same?… excuse me I’m still recovering from my laughing fit … and of course I can see your point. When teachers use the district adopted textbook or series they are always successful and teachers that try new ways usually fail. (Sorry, I’m bent over laughing again – or at least trying not to cry).

Student motivation is one of the keys to teaching and learning. New approaches are often intriguing. Many students are not served well by traditional methods, but there are many examples of unreachable, unmotivated students being caught up in a new approach.

Communication is intriguing - and blogging and Wikis and publishing and presentation applications are all about communicating.

I’ve gone on long enough … I’ll ask others to add to and enrich my thinking and comments (dang, there I’m pointing out an advantage to blogging again – I hope no one notices this publicly published comment). : )

Learning is messy!
April 8, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Crosby
As someone astutely pointed out to me, it's digital presentation and communication methods we're teaching; not technology per-se. Students ARE 21st century learners, whether we like it or not. Although, I'm sure that's your point. But why should they continue to use the 'old' tried and true book report, glittered filled covers, or learn about the Industrial Rev. in the text??? I think teachers need to experiment more at home and then bring their findings into the class room. But and it's a BIG but, the technology, regardless of what you use, HAS TO WORK seamlessly.
April 8, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAmy
Doug, I just posted this response, with a little background, on my blog at I wanted to respond on Friday night, as Brian did, but thought it best to let my thoughts mellow a bit :)
OK, Doug, I'll bite hard on these questions. I know you are in part only playing devil's advocate here, but the bait looks so tasty!

the choice between reliability/security and creativity/experimentation...
Creativity and experimentation. The other gets us safety (maybe). We become stale, dry up and wither away. Management will of course never choose this. But how about putting some classroom teachers in with the group of admins who determine security parameters? I'm not talking about teacher consultants, tech integration specialists, computer lab teachers - I'm talking classroom teachers.

why should teachers be allowed to be creative, why should they not have to be required to use district adopted texts, software, etc?
This goes way beyond the question of technology use. Administrators at many levels are contsantly in search of the perfect answer to improving education. "Apply this one to our schools, and now we'll really have something!" But the answer to excellence in teaching and learning does not lie in mandating the perfect textbook, demanding the teaching of the "ultimate social skills curriculum," or insisting on the exclusive use of a piece of software. The answer to excellence in education lies in having excellent, excited, talented, and passionate teachers in the classroom. Top down mandates stifle creativity - and drive out talented teachers in droves. If creativity in teachers is cultivated, not squashed, you will see an incredible surge in talented teachers returning to the profession - and the resulting upswing in student achievement and engagement.

why should teachers be allowed to experiment rather using established best practices?
This one I love. Because established best practices are not getting us anywhere right now. Because established best practices are dated, are dead in the water right now, are slow to develop and spread, are built on tools and methods of instruction dating back at least a century. If I teach my current third graders using established best practices, then I am not preparing them for the future, I am teaching them information and skills they may never use, and I am wasting their time. If I experiment, communicate with others around the world, collaborate on developing new approaches, and pass this on to my kids - well then, I might be making a difference for them.

Now this last point requires two things: trust and freedom. I must have the trust of the parents in my classroom - and I must have the freedom to pursue alternatives to established best practices. I consider myself a very lucky guy to have both of those right now. I know many of my colleagues do not. It is in part for them that I take the time to write this.
So Doug, thanks for the conversation. The questions you asked are good ones, because they are so natural to ask. I hope the folks making decisions will look beyond their own circles for answers beyond the obvious. In peace - Mark

April 8, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMark Ahlness
I agree with you 100% Mark. That is why what we need in education today is more trust in teachers and curricular autonomy from administrators and governmental regulating agencies, not less.
April 8, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterWesley Fryer
Hi Miguel,

I'd agree that I am "framing" this topic from a business (or scientific) model. But it's a frame we ought to be acknowledging more than we have been.

Why do teachers need to reinvent on a daily basis? Not only does it sound exhausting, but lacking in much surety of success.

I support individualization. Again, using a medical model, we would not treat a child with diabetes the same way we would treat one with asthma. We would individualize any medical treatment based on other medical factors, body weight, allergies, etc.

But a doctor would use medical best practices to every asthmatic, rather than try new medications with each one.

Oh, "stories" are not research. As my statistics friend says, the plural of anecdote is not data. I love stories. I promote the use of stories. But stories themselves are not enough in today's political climate.

I guess you could call requiring teachers to teach to standards, to be accountable for their efforts, to use district-provided resources "draconian." You might also call it "responsible" if you were a parent or taxpayer.

Don't mean to sound so argumentative here, Miguel. I truly enjoy and respect your comments. Got to be a sensible middle here somewhere!

All the best and thanks again for writing,

April 9, 2006 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson
Doug, I'm going to meditate on your statements a bit longer before I reply. However, I did want to acknowledge receipt! And, while some may perceive the discussion as argumentative, I do not. This is a amiable chat among friends (I may call you that? At the very least, an admirer of your work) struggling to better understand the work they are about, not so that they can tear it down (although that's not ruled out) but to build it up, to facilitate transformation.

I'm reminded of this quote that appears in a book I'm reading, "Deep Change"...
<blockquote>a point of view that unifies the flow of experience into a coherent narrative--a narrative striving to connect with other narratives and become richer.</blockquote>

When I reflect on the concept of teachers being draconian, of acting like the soldiers who do only what they are told to do, I ask myself, who is it that suffers most in this environment? Who is the hero, who is the victim who benefits from the hero's efforts? Finally, who is the villain?

What if the hero of this sad story of political intrigue are the children in our classrooms? The children that day after day must wrestle with powers and principalities simply to learn what they need to survive in a society that has lost its moral value, that of complete dependency?

Imagine that the hero is not the all-knowing central education system that sends its clone-like teachers to indoctrinate and brainwash, or even, the curriculum clones that serve as teachers. Instead, it is America's youth struggling for a way to survive, to learn IN SPITE OF what they are taught in schools.

We are the victims, caught up in our misguided ideals and commitment to a race that is run out of fear in reponse to uncertainty and constant change. Alas, we have found a way to crack the bubble of becoming, the happiness leaking out, in which our children came to understand who they were and what they were about. Alas, I mourn the loss of childhood, but admire the resilience of our children, who stand forth with sharpened swords and burnished bucklers, ready to slay the fears of those enslaved, those who insist that every child must meet ONE standard.

The villain? The villain are those, who upon awakening to the lie perpetrated on the system, fight even more to keep the others in somnambulant step.

Isn't this fun?

Take care and I'll write you a real response later,
Miguel Guhlin
April 9, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMiguel Guhlin
Just today I wrote a post about how assessment for learning and blogging fit hand in hand. Even if the use of new tools is, well, new, there's normally plenty of tried and tested successful practice in behind it, such as assessment for learning.

My Mac's just died and I'm concerned with trying to get it to work again. Typing on this Dell just isn't the same user experience. I'd be interested in your comments on my post and then we can continue the debate (or debacle!) ;-)
April 9, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterEwan McIntosh
I can't help but grow from these blog entries. Since I am always thinking about purpose and how this would look in my classroom, would my students be as passionate and continue a conversation beyond the walls of the classroom, beyond the classroom time delegated for reflection, only if their teacher modeled and welcomed time for conversation. Am I creating life long learners or am I supporting students who always have the correct answer?
Cheryl Oakes
April 17, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterCheryl Oakes
Doug -- Ever since I discovered your short piece in the August 2005 issue of "School Administrator," I've been sharing it around, especially among teachers who want to have a voice at the district IT policy table (and the IT people who love them!). The most memorable quote from the article, I think, is this:

"I have a mantra I often ask teachers, librarians and administrators in our district to repeat: 'Technicians don't make school policy.' It sinks in if people say it regularly... The best rules and guidelines are those developed collaboratively."

And now, after reading about George and your follow-up reflections, I'm wondering... do you actually have teachers on your advisory group? (Friendly smile - really!) Teachers like those we're hearing from, who use web tools in creative ways in their classrooms? Have you visited them, watched what they're doing, thought about how their use of web tools fits into the body of research emerging around problem-based learning and the like?

When someone in authority (sorry, Doug) asks: "Where's the research," watch out! Where's the research showing that clamping down on 21st Century learning opportunities won't place the students in your district at a serious disadvantage in the future? Is that research we can wait for? Is this?

I don't think this debate's going to be settled with "research," per se. However, I do think some of the teacher leaders out there using these tools to good effect can demonstrate how what they're doing fits into current findings about "best practice" teaching. Why not support some quality action research in your own district around these questions? The AR initiative could be led by the advisory committee that you wisely advocate. Maybe the committee needs to meet more often... perhaps have "hearings" with more teachers... who can, to quote from your article, "“Explain it to me like I was 6 years old.”

Let me close by saying this isn't meant to be a flame -- I'll still be handing out the article. Because you're absolutely right about the critical importance of having open, collaborative conversations about these issues. And in many districts where I work, the IT folks are - de facto - setting instructional least the "21st Century Learning" instructional policy. Whether they like it or not, in the absence of dialog that goes all the way to the top, they're feeling pressured to function as the IT Police. You were right to share your message in a publication widely read by superintendents. This is a logjam THEY need to break.
April 17, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Norton
Hi John,

Since I don't have an e-mail address, I will need to respond this way. Hope you see it.

I am taking your words to heart. I still stand by AASA article and that teacher voices are vital in making good tech policy decisions.

I appreciate the reminder,

April 18, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

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