Liberating the Camel
By Abner Oakes
ISA's Director of Outreach
by Dr. Robert Slavin, the Director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University. This article originally appeared on Huffington Post.
Many years ago, in the time of the Shah, I hitchhiked from London to Iran. The highlight of my trip to Iran was visiting Isfahan, a beautiful, ancient royal city.
I was visiting the fabled Isfahan bazaar, when a young man offered to show me around behind the scenes. Just behind a spice shop was a room with a large stone trough. Fitted in the trough was a huge mill wheel with a wooden axle, which was attached to a blindfolded camel. The camel pushed the axle and wheel around the trough, crushing turmeric seeds continually added to the trough.
As far as I could tell, the camel was happy about this arrangement. He seemed well fed and cared for, and he got to go on regular night journeys. By grinding turmeric and I’m sure other spices, the camel was contributing an important service.
I bring up this long-ago camel because at the moment, I am writing the 12th edition of my educational psychology text. That means 36 years of writing and revising. I follow a regular 3-year cycle of researching, writing, and revision. Like the camel, I’m well fed and cared for. Like the camel, I enjoy the journey, and I’m actually producing something of value, or so I hope.
The problem is that both I and the camel get in a rut after a while. In the case of education, progress up until recently has been slow, and a lot of what I added to my text each time I revised it was, let’s be honest, just updating established educational principles by citing the latest people to say or demonstrate them, rather than truly new methods or theories with strong evidence that could change practice for the better. Each revision did contain exciting advances, but not so many.
The evidence-based reform movement is slowly taking the (metaphorical) blindfold off the (metaphorical) camel. Instead of walking around the same well-trodden paths, I and others have more and more to say that is not just the same old accepted wisdom, but that genuinely moves the field forward. New teaching methods, new technologies, new professional development methods, and new understandings about how the brain works are opening up extraordinary possibilities for change. Someday, our camel friend will retire and be replaced with a mechanical spice grinder, lose his blindfold entirely, and open up his eyes to the fantastic possibilities that were always there but that he could not access.
Our liberated camel may no longer want to grind spices, but no matter. Similarly, the world of education may find far more effective strategies once it is liberated with evidence to see new paths to effective practice. And education will become exhilaration for students and their empowered teachers. No longer a grind.
Follow Robert E. Slavin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RobertSlavin