On “Innovation” in Social Policy, and “Solutionism” in Education

The following was written by the Princeton sociologist Melvin Tumin, in 1973. Tumin was thinking about the Teacher Corps, a Great Society program that was a sort of lefty precursor to Teach for America, in which intern teachers arrived in disadvantaged schools eager to close achievement gaps and — because it was the sixties — also build racial pride, improve student self-esteem, and overhaul the curriculum to better reflect African American history and culture. Most Teacher Corps interns grew frustrated by the slow pace of change within schools; most veteran educators were suspcious of the interns' intentions and ideology. As Tumin points out, this inevitable culture clash is a key finding of research in organizational theory, and helps explain why it is so difficult for small social programs to impact bureaucracies:

…one of the most important factors that made the Program difficult to implement was that it could not promise the members of agencies and institutions whose cooperation was needed that it would be worth their while. Innovation is a charming word, beguiling and rousing. But it is like other terms such as relevance, concern, sensitivity. One cannot be against these on principle. But they are almost always privately read as warning signs that there is trouble ahead for those who are fulfilling their accustomed routines. Moreover, since most innovation efforts fail sooner or later, wise masters of ongoing enterprises have learned to live and wait until such innovations speed themselves to their ultimate demise. While not many other earthly travails can be safely waited out, with any hope of relief, innovative programs do have that special quality of a high probability of failure, so that “this too shall pass” is a reasonably sound prediction about most of them. 

I read this just after I returned from SXSWedu, and it seemed particularly relevant to the (almost total lack of) dialogue between social entrepreneurs who want to use software to disrupt traditional classroom practices in ways that are supposed to benefit poor children, and the majority of teachers and administrators who might be enthusiastic about specific technologies, but who simply do not see the lack of technology as the key barrier preventing schools from better serving all students. Educators are more likely to point to teacher quality, or to the content of the curriculum, or to factors stemming from the home and family. And sure, technology may be able to address many of these challenges. Yet tech-hypers lose credibility when they ignore the fact that inequalities outside the realm of access to technology remain the primary drivers of disparate educational outcomes.

Evgeny Morozov's recent essay on technological "solutionism" is certainly applicable to the tendency to mistake the technocratic measurement of educational problems, using software, as the very same thing as coming up with solutions to those problems. It should be obvious–yet at SWSWedu, it rarely was–that the quantification of inequality, whether in student achievement scores or ratings of teacher effectiveness, is only a jumping off point for complex political, policy, and social debates over how to use such data, and whether and how to close achievement gaps. The collection of "Big Data" does not, in and of itself, guarantee the formulation of effective solutions to problems.

2 thoughts on “On “Innovation” in Social Policy, and “Solutionism” in Education

  1. Vieves

    “The collection of “Big Data” does not, in and of itself, guarantee the formulation of effective solutions to problems.”

    Could not agree more. Anyone putting blind faith in the power of big data to solve problems, simply by virtue of an ill-defined power of analytics, is not really solving anything.

    I think you make an interesting point about the disconnect between educators and tech providers at SXSWedu. My experience there was different. I work with one of those tech providers and our main reason for attending was to hear how educators, esp classroom teachers, were experiencing (loving? hating? igoring? pining for?) technologies that connect with student data, so we heard a lot from educators, but maybe that wasn’t happening broadly?

    You’re right: technology doesn’t magically solve disparity, and should never be used to paper over it, but where I think tech companies can provide value is in looking at problems, especially systemic problems, and ask: “What could technology do to improve things?” The challenge is to resist the tempation to mistake improvement for a cure.

  2. Berkun

    Every expert has their faith. Technologists see everything as technological problems. Teachers see pedagogy as the problem. And for that reason often it’s the high profile experts who have the hardest time making progress: they’re the least willing to experiment and try ideas that cut across those artificial boundaries.

    I studied the history of Innovation in many fields to write The Myths of Innovation, and the belief that a grand singular (and typically very neat and clean) idea is the future is a common trap. Idealists, the most vocal champions of a particular solution, fail to recognize how messy, experimental and uncertain change always is, including the changes that led to the idea they’ve polished so brightly.


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