The Mill and The School

 

On a recent trip to Scotland, I visited some very interesting oat mills. I always love to visit medieval mills, because I find it endlessly fascinating how people long ago used natural forces and materials – wind, water, and fire, stone, wood, and metal – to create advanced mechanisms that had a profound impact on society.

In Scotland, it’s all about oat mills (almost everywhere else, it’s wheat). These grain mills date back to the 10th century. In their time, they were a giant leap in technology. A mill is very complicated, but at its heart are two big innovations. In the center of the mill, a heavy millstone turns on top of another. The grain is poured through a hole in the top stone for grinding. The miller’s most difficult task is to maintain an exact distance between the stones. A few millimeters too far apart and no milling happens. A few millimeters too close and the heat of friction can ruin the machinery, possibly causing a fire.

The other key technology is the water wheel (except in windmills, of course). The water mill is part of a system that involves a carefully controlled flow of water from a millpond, which the miller uses to provide exactly the right amount of water to turn a giant wooden wheel, which powers the top millstone.

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The medieval grain mill is not a single innovation, but a closely integrated system of innovations. Millers learned to manage this complex technology in a system of apprenticeship over many years.

Mills enabled medieval millers to obtain far more nutrition from an acre of grain than was possible before. This made it possible for land to support many more people, and the population surged. The whole feudal system was built around the economics of mills, and mills thrived through the 19th century.

What does the mill have to with the school? Mills only grind well-behaved grain into well-behaved flour, while schools work with far more complex children, families, and all the systems that surround them. The products of schools must include joy and discovery, knowledge and skills.

Yet as different as they are, mills have something to teach us. They show the importance of integrating diverse systems that can then efficiently deliver desired outcomes. Neither a mill nor an effective school comes into existence because someone in power tells it to. Instead, complex systems, mills or schools, must be created, tested, adapted to local needs, and constantly improved. Once we know how to create, manage, and disseminate effective mills or schools, policies can be readily devised to support their expansion and improvement.

Important progress in societies and economies almost always comes about from development of complex, multi-component innovations that, once developed, can be disseminated and continuously improved. The same is true of schools. Changes in governance or large-scale policies can enhance (or inhibit) the possibility of change, but the reality of reform depends on creation of complex, integrated systems, from mills to ships to combines to hospitals to schools.

For education, what this means is that system transformation will come only when we have whole-school improvement approaches that are known to greatly increase student outcomes. Whole-school change is necessary because many individual improvements are needed to make big changes, and these must be carefully aligned with each other. Just as the huge water wheel and the tiny millstone adjustment mechanism and other components must work together in the mill, the key parts of a school must work together in synchrony to produce maximum impact, or the whole system fails to work as well as it should.

For example, if you look at research on proven programs, you’ll find effective strategies for school management, for teaching, and for tutoring struggling readers. These are all well and good, but they work so much better if they are linked to each other.

To understand this, first consider tutoring. Especially in the elementary grades, there is no more effective strategy. Our recent review of research on programs for struggling readers finds that well-qualified teaching assistants can be as effective as teachers in tutoring struggling readers, and that while one-to-four tutoring is less effective than one-to-one, it is still a lot more effective than no tutoring. So an evidence-oriented educator might logically choose to implement proven one-to-one and/or one-to-small group tutoring programs to improve school outcomes.

However, tutoring only helps the students who receive it, and it is expensive. A wise school administrator might reason that tutoring alone is not sufficient, but improving the quality of classroom instruction is also essential, both to improve outcomes for students who do not need tutoring and to reduce the number of students who do need tutoring. There is an array of proven classroom methods the principal or district might choose to improve student outcomes in all subjects and grade levels (see www.evidenceforessa.org).

But now consider students who are at risk because they are not attending regularly, or have behavior problems, or need eyeglasses but do not have them. Flexible school-level systems are necessary to ensure that students are in school, eager to learn, well-behaved, and physically prepared to succeed.

In addition, there is a need to have school principals and other leaders learn strategies for making effective use of proven programs. These would include managing professional development, coaching, monitoring implementation and outcomes of proven programs, distributed leadership, and much more. Leadership also requires jointly setting school goals with all school staff and monitoring progress toward these goals.

These are all components of the education “mill” that have to be designed, tested, and (if effective) disseminated to ever-increasing numbers of schools. Like the mill, an effective school design integrates individual parts, makes them work in synchrony, constantly assesses their functioning and output, and adjusts procedures when necessary.

Many educational theorists argue that education will only change when systems change. Ferocious battles rage about charters vs. ordinary public schools, about adopting policies of countries that do well on international tests, and so on. These policies can be important, but they are unlikely to create substantial and lasting improvement unless they lead to development and dissemination of proven whole-school approaches.

Effective school improvement is not likely to come about from let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom local innovation, nor from top-level changes in policy or governance. Sufficient change will not come about by throwing individual small innovations into schools and hoping they will collectively make a difference. Instead, effective improvement will take root when we learn how to reliably create effective programs for schools, implement them in a coordinated and planful way, find them effective, and then disseminate them. Once such schools are widespread, we can build larger policies and systems around their needs.

Coordinated, schoolwide improvement approaches offer schools proven strategies for increasing the achievement and success of their children. There should be many programs of this kind, among which schools and districts can choose. A school is not the same as mill, but the mill provides at least one image of how creating complex, integrated replicable systems can change whole societies and economies. We should learn from this and many other examples of how to focus our efforts to improve outcomes for all children.

Photo credit: By Johnson, Helen Kendrik [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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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How Classroom-Invented Innovations Can Have Broad Impacts

blog_3-8-18_blackboard_500x381When I was in high school, I had an after-school job at a small electronics company that made and sold equipment, mostly to the U.S. Navy. My job was to work with another high school student and our foreman to pack and unpack boxes, do inventories, basically whatever needed doing.

One of our regular tasks was very time-consuming. We had to test solder extractors to be sure they were working. We’d have to heat up each one for several minutes, touch a bit of solder to it, and wipe off any residue.

One day, my fellow high school student and I came up with an idea. We took 20 solder extractors and lined them up on a work table with 20 electrical outlets. We then plugged them in. By the time we’d plugged in #20, #1 was hot, so we could go back and test it, then #2, and so on. An hour-long job was reduced to 10 minutes. We were being paid the princely sum of $1.40 an hour, so we were saving the company big bucks. Our foreman immediately saw the advantages, and he told the main office about our idea.

Up in the main office, far from the warehouse, was a mean, mean man. He wore a permanent scowl. He had a car with mean, mean bumper stickers. I’ll call him Mr. Meanie.

Mr. Meanie hated everyone, but he especially hated the goofy, college-bound high school students in the warehouse. So he had to come see what we were doing, probably to prove that it was dumb idea.

Mr. Meanie came and asked me to show him the solder extractors. I laid them out, same as always, and everything worked, same as always, but due to my anxiety under Mr. Meanie’s scowl, I let one of the cords touch its neighboring solder extractor. It was ruined.

Mr. Meanie looked satisfied (probably thinking, “I knew it was a dumb idea”), and left without a word. But as long as I worked at the company, we never again tested solder extractors one at a time (and never scorched another cord). My guess is that long after we were gone, our method remained in use despite Mr. Meanie. We’d overcome him with evidence that no one could dispute.

In education, we employ some of the smartest and most capable people anywhere as teachers. Teachers innovate, and many of their innovations undoubtedly improve their own students’ outcomes. Yet because most teachers work alone, their innovations rarely spread or stick even within their own schools. When I was a special education teacher long ago, I made up and tested out many innovations for my very diverse, very disabled students. Before heading off for graduate school, I wrote them out in detail for whoever was going to receive my students the following year. Perhaps their next teachers received and paid attention to my notes, but probably not, and they could not have had much impact for very long. More broadly, there is just no mechanism for identifying and testing out teachers’ innovations and then disseminating them to others, so they have little impact beyond the teacher and perhaps his or her colleagues and student teachers, at best.

One place in the education firmament where teacher-level innovation is encouraged, noted, and routinely disseminated is in comprehensive schoolwide approaches, such as our own Success for All (SFA). Because SFA has its own definite structure and materials, promising innovations in any school or classroom may immediately apply to the roughly 1000 schools we work with across the U.S. Because SFA schools have facilitators within each school and coaches from the Success for All Foundation who regularly visit in teachers’ classes, there are many opportunities for teachers to propose innovations and show them off. Those that seem most promising may be incorporated in the national SFA program, or at least mentioned as alternatives in ongoing coaching.

As one small example, SFA constantly has students take turns reading to each other. There used to be arguments and confusion about who goes first. A teacher in Washington, DC noticed this and invented a solution. She appointed one student in each dyad to be a “peanut butter” and the other to be a “jelly.” Then she’d say, “Today, let’s start with the jellies,” and the students started right away without confusion or argument. Now, 1000 schools use this method.

A University of Michigan professor, Don Peurach, studied this very aspect of Success for All and wrote a book about it, called Seeing Complexity in Public Education (Oxford University Press, 2011). He visited dozens of SFA schools, SFA conferences, and professional development sessions, and interviewed hundreds of participants. What he described is an enterprise engaged in sharing evidence-proven practices with schools and at the same time learning from innovations and problem solutions devised in schools and communicating best practices back out to the whole network.

I’m sure that other school improvement networks do the same, because it just makes sense. If you have a school network with common values, goals, approaches, and techniques, how does it keep getting better over time if it does not learn from those who are on the front lines? I’d expect that such very diverse networks as Montessori and Waldorf schools, KIPP and Success Academy, and School Development Program and Expeditionary Learning schools, must do the same. Each of the improvements and innovations contributed by teachers or principals may not be big enough to move the needle on achievement outcomes by themselves, but collectively they keep programs moving forward as learning organizations, solving problems and improving outcomes.

In education, we have to overcome our share of Mr. Meanies trying to keep us from innovating or evaluating promising approaches. Yet we can overcome blockers and doubters if we work together to progressively improve proven programs. We can overwhelm the Mr. Meanies with evidence that no one can dispute.

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.

Education Innovation and Research: Innovating Our Way to the Top

How did America get to be the wealthiest and most powerful country on Earth?

To explain, let me tell you about visiting a remote mountain village in Slovakia. I arrived in the evening, as the ancient central square filled up with people. Every man, woman, and child had a cell phone. Invented in America.

In the local hospital, I’m sure that most medicines were invented in America, which does more medical research than all other nations combined. Local farmers probably planted seeds and used methods developed in the U.S. Everywhere in the world, everyone watches American movies, listens to American music, and on and on.

America’s brand, the source of our wealth, is innovation.

America has long led the world in creating wealth by creating new ideas and putting them in practice. Technology? Medicine? Agriculture? America dominates the world in each of these fields, and many more. The reason is that America innovates, constantly finding new ways to solve problems, cure diseases, grow better crops, and generally do things less expensively. I am often at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where the halls are full of patients from every part of the globe. They come to Johns Hopkins because of its reputation for innovation.

In education, we face daunting problems, especially in educating disadvantaged students. So to solve these problems, you’d naturally expect that we’d turn to the principle that has led to our success in so many fields – innovation.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), passed by Congress and signed into law in December, 2015, has taken just this view. In it, for the first time ever, is a definition of the evidence required for a program or practice to be considered “strong,” “moderate,” or “promising.” These definitions encourage educators to adopt proven programs, but for this to work, we have to have a steady stream of proven innovations appearing each year. This function is fulfilled by another part of ESSA, the Education Innovation and Research (EIR) grant program. The EIR provision, which was included in ESSA with bipartisan support, provides a tiered evidence approach to research that will constantly add to the body of programs that meet the ESSA evidence requirements. Proposals are invited for “early phase,” “mid-phase,” and “expansion” grants to support the development, validation, and scale-up of successful innovations that originate at the state and local levels. Based on the U.S. Department of Education’s recent EIR grant application process, it appears (as is expected from a tiered evidence design) that lots of early stage grants of up to $3 million will be made, fewer mid-stage grants of up to $8 million, and very few expansion grants of up to $15 million, all over 5 years. Anyone can apply for an early-stage grant, but applicants must already have some evidence to support their program to get a mid-stage grant, and a lot of very rigorous evidence to apply for an expansion grant. All three types of grants require third-party evaluations – which will serve to improve programs all along the spectrum of effectiveness – but mid-stage and expansion grants require large, randomized evaluations, and expansion grants additionally require national dissemination.

The structure of EIR grants is intended to make the innovation process wide open to educators at all levels of state and local governments, non-profits, businesses, and universities. It is also designed to give applicants the freedom to suggest the nature of the program they want to create, thus allowing for a broad range of field-driven ideas that arise to meet recognized needs. EIR does encourage innovation in rural schools, which must receive at least 25% of the funding, but otherwise there is considerable freedom, drawing diverse innovators to the process.

EIR is an excellent investment. If only a few of the programs it supports end up showing positive outcomes and scaling up to serve many students across the U.S., then EIR funding will make a crucial difference to the educational success of hundreds of thousands or millions of students, improving outcomes on a scale that matters at modest cost.

EIR provides an opportunity for America to solve its education problems just as it has solved problems in many other fields: through innovation. That is what America does when it needs rapid and widespread success, as it so clearly does in education. In every subject and grade level, we can innovate our way to the top. EIR is providing the resources and structure to do it.

This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation

Evidence and Freedom

One of the strangest arguments I hear against evidence-based reform in education is that encouraging or incentivizing schools to use programs or practices proven to work in rigorous experiments will reduce the freedom of schools to do what they think is best for their students.

Freedom? Really?

To start with, consider how much freedom schools have now. Many districts and state departments of education have elaborate 100% evidence-free processes of restricting the freedom of schools. They establish lists of approved providers of textbooks, software, and professional development, based perhaps on state curriculum standards but also on current trends, fads, political factors, and preferences of panels of educators and other citizens. Many states have textbook adoption standards that consider paper weight, attractiveness, politically correct language, and other surface factors, but never evidence of effectiveness. Federal policies specify how teachers should be evaluated, how federal dollars should be utilized, and how students should be assessed. I could go on for more pages than anyone wants to read with examples of how teachers’ and principals’ choices are constrained by district, state, and federal policies, very few of which have ever been tested in comparison to control groups. Why do schools use this textbook or that software or the other technology? Because their district or state bought it for them, trained them in its use (perhaps), and gave them no alternative.

The evidence revolution offers the possibility of freedom, if the evidence now becoming widely available is used properly. The minimum principle of evidence-based reform should be this: “If it is proven to work, you are allowed to use it.”

At bare minimum, evidence of effectiveness should work as a “get out of jail free” card to counter whatever rules, restrictions, or lists of approved materials schools have been required to follow.

But permission is not enough, because mandated, evidence-free materials, software, and professional development may eat up the resources needed to implement proven programs. So here is a slightly more radical proposition: “Whenever possible, school staffs should have the right, by majority vote of the staff, to adopt proven programs to replace current programs mandated by the district or state.”

For example, when a district or state requires use of anything, it could make the equivalent in money available to schools to use to select and implement programs proven to be effective in producing the desired outcome. If the district adopts a new algebra text or elementary science curriculum, for instance, it could allow schools to select an alternative with good evidence of effectiveness for algebra or elementary science, as long as the school agrees to implement the program with fidelity and care, achieving levels of implementation like those in the research that validated the program.

The next level of freedom to choose what works would be to provide incentives and support for schools that select proven programs and promise to implement them with fidelity.

“Schools should be able to apply for federal, state, or local funds to implement proven programs of their choice. Alternatively, they may receive competitive preference points on grants if they promise to adopt and effectively implement proven programs.”

This principle exists today in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), where schools applying for school improvement funding must select programs that meet one of three levels of evidence: strong (at least one randomized experiment with positive outcomes), moderate (at least one quasi-experimental [matched] study with positive outcomes), or promising (at least one correlational study with positive outcomes). In seven other programs in ESSA, schools applying for federal funds receive extra competitive preference points on their applications if they commit to using programs that meet one of those three levels of evidence. The principle in ESSA – that use of proven programs should be encouraged – should be expanded to all parts of government where proven programs exist.

One problem with these principles is that they depend on having many proven programs in each area from which schools can choose. At least in reading and math, grades K-12, this has been accomplished; our Evidence for ESSA website describes approximately 100 programs that meet the top three ESSA evidence standards. More than half of these meet the “strong” standard.

However, we must have a constant flow of new approaches in all subjects and grade levels. Evidence-based policy requires continuing investments in development, evaluation, and dissemination of proven programs. The Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the Investing in Innovation (i3) program, and now the Education Innovation and Research (EIR) grant program, help fulfill this function, and they need to continue to be supported in their crucial work.

So is this what freedom looks like in educational innovation? I would argue that it does. Note that what I did not say is that programs lacking evidence should be forbidden. Mandating use of programs, no matter how well evaluated, is a path to poor implementation and political opposition. Instead, schools should have the opportunity and the funding to adopt proven programs. If they prefer not to do so, that is their choice. But my hope and expectation is that in a political system that encourages and supports use of proven programs, educators will turn out in droves to use better programs, and the schools that might have been reluctant at first will see and emulate the success their neighbors are having.

Freedom to use proven programs should help districts, states, and the federal government have confidence that they can at long last stop trying to micromanage schools. If policymakers know that schools are making good choices and getting good results, why should they want to get in their way?

Freedom to use whatever is proven to enhance student learning. Doesn’t that have a nice ring to it? Like the Liberty Bell?

This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation

Luther Burbank and Evidence in Education

The first house my wife and I owned was a corner rowhouse in Baltimore. The house was small and the yard was small, but there was a long fenceline with no trees overhead. We decided to put in an orchard. By the time we were done, we’d planted apples, pears, peaches, cherries, Italian and Santa Rosa plums, blueberries, and Concord grapes. Some worked out better than others, but at harvest season we were picking and canning a lot of fruit.

My involvement with our tiny orchard led me to find out about Luther Burbank, the botanist who developed many of the fruit varieties we know today in the late 1800s. He and later botanists over the years developed a cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, and flowers of all kinds.

Burbank had nothing to do with educational research, as far as I know, but the process he developed to create and test many fruit varieties has lessons for us in education.

Burbank’s better-tasting or hardy-growing or heat-tolerant varieties enabled fruit to improve dramatically in diversity and quality and to diminish in cost. All to the good. Some of the new fruits were enthusiastically adopted by farmers, because they knew their customers would buy them. Some did not work out, because they were not so tasty, difficult or expensive to grow, or hard to ship. But the ones that did work out, like the delicious Santa Rosa plums we grew in profusion in Baltimore, changed the world. Burbank developed the Russet potato, for example, which rescued Ireland and the rest of Europe from the potato famine.

Now imagine that Burbank’s fruit trees were instead treated like new educational programs. Opponents of innovative fruits would try to get governments to ban them. Proponents might try to get governments to require them. Governments themselves might try to regulate them.

As a result, fruit tree development might have withered or died on the vine.

In education, we need to adopt the approaches agriculture has used since the time of Benjamin Franklin to promote ever-better seeds, varieties, and techniques. Government, publishers, software developers, and others should be in a constant process of creating and evaluating effective methods. Governments should set standards for evaluation as well as funding a great deal of it. When proven programs exist, government at all levels should help make educators aware of the programs and the evidence, much as agricultural extension agents do with farmers.

What government should not do is require schools or districts to adopt particular programs. Instead, they should provide information and incentives, but leave the choices up to the schools. Agricultural extension agents tell farmers about new research, but it is up to them to use it or not. If they choose not to do so but their neighbors do, and their neighbors get bigger yields and higher profits, they are likely to change their minds soon enough.

Similarly, government should not limit the creativity and ideas that are being explored in order to promote one particular design. Innovations should be field driven and address a broad range of issues in different ways to discover what works. Imagine if Burbank and his colleagues were only permitted to experiment with one variety of produce. What might have happened if the Russet potato had never been discovered?

In education, government needs to jumpstart research, development, and dissemination, and it needs to honestly present the evidence and provide resources for educators to use to adopt and perhaps further test innovations. Burbank’s brilliant hybrids would have been local curiosities if the Stark Seed Company had not provided, well, seed funding and marketing support. Changing metaphors, government needs to provide the field, the ball, the rules, and serve as referee and cheerleader, but then let the teams compete in the full light of public view.

America’s students can become the best in the world, if we use the same strategies that have made it strong economically. Create policies favoring innovation and use of proven programs and then stand back. That’s all Luther Burbank needed to revolutionize fruit tree production, and it’s all educational research and development needs to transform teaching and learning.

Scaling Up: Penicillin and Education

In 1928, the Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming invented penicillin. As the story goes, he invented penicillin by accident, when he left a petri dish containing bacteria on his desk overnight and the next morning found that it was infected with rod-shaped organisms that had killed the bacteria. Fleming isolated the rods and recognized that if they could kill bacteria, they might be useful in curing many diseases.

Early on it was clear that penicillin had extraordinary possibilities. In World War I, more soldiers and civilians had been killed by bacterial diseases than were killed by bullets. What if these diseases could be cured? Early tests showed very promising effects.

Yet there was a big problem. No one knew how to produce penicillin in quantity. Very small experiments established that penicillin had potential for curing bacterial infections and was not toxic. However, the total world supply at the onset of World War II was about enough for a single adult. The impending need for penicillin was obvious, but it still was not ready for prime time.

American and British scientists finally began to work together to find a way to scale up production of penicillin. Finally, the Merck Company developed a mass production method, and was making billions of units by D-Day.

The key dynamic of the penicillin story has much in common with an essential problem of education reform. The Merck work did not change the structure of penicillin itself, but Merck scientists did a lot of science and experimentation to find strains that were stable and replicable. In education reform, it is equally the case that the development and initial evaluation of a given program may be a very different process from that intended to carry out large-scale evaluations and scaling up of proven programs.

In some cases, different organizations may be necessary to do large scale evaluation and implementation, as was the case with Merck and Fleming, and in other cases the same organization may carry though the development, initial evaluation, large-scale evaluation, and dissemination. Whoever is responsible for the various steps, their requirements are similar.

At small scale, innovators are likely to work in schools nearby, where they can frequently visit schools, see what is going on, hear teachers’ perspectives, and change strategies in course in response to what is going on. At small scale, programs might vary a great deal from class to class or school to school. Homemade measures, opinions, observations, and other informal indicators may be all developers need or want. From a penicillin perspective, this is still the Fleming level.

When a program moves to the next level, it may be working in many schools or distant locations, and the approach must change substantially. This is the Merck stage of development in penicillin terms. Developers must have a very clear idea of what the program is, and then provide student materials, software, professional development, and coaching directed toward helping teachers to enact the program effectively. Rather than being able to adapt a great deal to the desires or ideas of every school or teacher, principals and teachers can be asked to vote on participation, with an understanding that if they decide to participate, they commit to follow the program more or less as designed, with reasonable variations in light of unique characteristics of the school (e.g., urban/rural, presence of English learners, or substantial poverty). Professional development and coaching need to be standardized, with room for appropriate adaptations. Organizations that provide large-scale services need to learn how to manage functions such as finance, human resources, and IT.

As programs grow, they should seek funding for large-scale, randomized evaluations, ideally by third party evaluators.

In order to get to the Merck level in education reform, we must be ready to build robust, flexible, self-sustaining organizations, capable of ensuring positive impacts of educational programs on a broad scale. Funding from government and private foundations are needed along the way, but the organizations ultimately must be able to operate mostly or entirely on revenues from schools, especially Title I or other funds likely to be available in many or most schools.

Over the years, penicillin has saved millions of lives, due to the pioneering work of Fleming and the pragmatic work of Merck. In the same way, we can greatly enhance the learning of millions of children, combining innovative design and planful, practical scale-up.

Brilliant Errors

On a recent visit to Sweden, my wife Nancy and I went to the lovely university city of Uppsala. There, one of the highlights of our trip was a tour of the house and garden of the great 18th century botanist, Carl Linnaeus, who invented the system of naming plants and animals we use today. Whenever we say Homo Sapiens, for example, we are honoring Linnaeus. His system uses two Latin words, first the genus and then the species. This replaced long, descriptive, but non-standardized naming systems that made it difficult to work out the relationships among plants and animals. Linnaeus was the most famous botanist of his time, and he is generally considered the most famous botanist in all of history. He wrote hundreds of books and papers, and he inspired the work of generations of botanists and biologists to follow, right up to today.

But he was dead wrong.

What Linnaeus was primarily trying to do was to create a comprehensive system to organize plants by their characteristics. In this, he developed what he called a “sexual system,” emphasizing the means by which plants reproduce. This was a reasonable guess, but later research showed that his organization system was incorrect.

But the fact that his specific model was wrong does not subtract one mustard seed from the power and importance of Linnaeus’ contribution.

Linnaeus’ lasting contribution was in his systematic approach, carefully analyzing plants to observe similarities and differences. Before Linnaeus, botany involved discovery, description, and categorization of plants, but there was no overarching system of relationships, and no scientifically useful naming system to facilitate seeing relationships.

The life and work of Linnaeus provides an interesting case for educators and educational research.

Being wrong is not shameful, as long as you can learn from your errors. In the history of education, the great majority of research began with a set of assumptions, but research methods did not adequately test these assumptions. There was an old saying that all educational research was “doomed to success.” As a result, we had little ability to tell when theories or methods were truly impactful, and when they were not. For this reason, it was rarely possible to learn from errors, or even from apparent successes.

In recent years, the rise of experimental research, in real schools over real periods of time measured by real assessments, has produced a growing set of proven replicable programs, and this is crucial for improving practice right now. But in the longer run, using methods that also identify failures or incorrect or unrealistic ideas is just as important. In the absence of methods that can disconfirm current beliefs, nothing ever changes.

It is becoming apparent that most large-scale randomized experiments in education fail to produce statistically significant outcomes on achievement. We can celebrate and replicate those that do make a significant difference in students’ learning, but we can also learn from those that do not. Often, studies find no difference overall but do find positive effects for particular subgroups, or when particular forms of a program are used, or when implementation meets a high standard. These after-the-fact findings provide clues, not proof, but if researchers use the lessons from a non-significant experiment in a new study and find that under well-specified conditions the treatment is effective for improving learning, then we’ve made a great advance.

It is important to set up experiments so that they can tell us more than “yes/no” but can instead tell us what factors did or did not contribute to positive impacts. This information is crucial whatever the overall impacts may be.

In every field that uses experiments, failures to find positive effects are common. Our task is to plan for this and learn from our own failures as well as successes. Like Linnaeus, we will make progress by learning from “brilliant errors.”

Linnaeus’ methods created the means of disconfirming his own taxonomy system. His taxonomy was indeed overthrown by later work, but his insistence on observation, categorization, and systematization, the very methods that undermined his own system of relationships among plants and animals, were his real contribution. In educational research, we must learn to celebrate high-quality rigorous research that finds what does not work, and include sufficient qualitative methods to help us learn how and why educational programs either work or do not work for children.

May we all have opportunities to fail as brilliantly as Linnaeus did!