Systems

What came first? The can or the can opener?

The answer to this age-old question is that the modern can and can opener were invented at exactly the same moment. This had to be true because a can without a can opener (yes, they existed) is of very little value, and a can opener without a can is the sound of one hand clapping (i.e., less than worthless).

The can and the can opener are together a system. Between them, they make it possible to preserve, transport, and distribute foods.

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In educational innovation, we frequently talk as though individual variables are sufficient to improve student achievement. You hear things like “more time-good,” “more technology-good,” and so on. Any of these factors can be effective as part of a system of innovations, or useless or harmful without other aligned components. As one example, consider time. A recent Florida study provided an extra hour each day for reading instruction, 180 hours over the course of a year, at a cost per student of $800 per student, or $300,000-$400,000 per school. The effect on reading performance, compared to schools that did not receive additional time, was very small (effect size =+0.09). In contrast, time used for one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring by teaching assistants for example, can have a much larger impact on reading in elementary schools (effect size=+0.29), at about half the cost. As a system, cost-effective tutoring requires a coordinated combination of time, training for teaching assistants, use of proven materials, and monitoring of progress. Separately, each of these factors is nowhere near as effective as all of them taken together in a coordinated system. Each is a can with no can opener, or a can opener with no can: The sound of one hand clapping. Together, they can be very effective.

The importance of systems explains why programs are so important. Programs invariably combine individual elements to attempt to improve student outcomes. Not all programs are effective, of course, but those that have been proven to work have hit upon a balanced combination of instructional methods, classroom organization, professional development, technology, and supportive materials that, if implemented together with care and attention, have been proven to work. The opposite of a program is a “variable,” such as “time” or “technology,” that educators try to use with few consistent, proven links to other elements.

All successful human enterprises, such as schools, involve many individual variables. Moving these enterprises forward in effectiveness can rarely be done by changing one variable. Instead, we have to design coordinated plans to improve outcomes. A can opener can’t, a can can’t, but together, a can opener and a can can.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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