Tuesday, March 31, 2015

New Theories, Innovation and Experience in the Classroom

Have you ever heard of Edwards Deming?  He is remembered in his role as adviser, consultant, author, and teacher to some of the most influential businessmen, corporations, and scientific pioneers of quality control. He is the most widely known proponent of statistical quality control. 

In 1942, while at the Bureau of the Census, Deming was retained as a consultant to the Secretary of War and was asked by W. Allen Wallis, a statistician at Stanford University, for ideas on ways to aid the war effort.  Deming suggested a short course in Shewhart methods to teach the basics of applied statistics to engineers and others.  The idea was adopted, and the first course was held in the summer of 1942.  The courses were repeated many times with Deming as the instructor.  The influences of these courses on the individuals who formed the core of the statistical quality control are well known.

Because of his work at the USDA and his experience in statistics, Deming was sent to Japan in 1946 by the Economic and Scientific Section of the War Department to study agricultural production and related problems in the war-damaged nation.  He returned to Japan in 1948 to conduct more studies for the occupational forces. 

Deming convinced Kenichi Koyanagi, one of the founding members of the Union of Japanese Scientists and Engineers (JUSE), of the potential of statistical methods in the rebuilding of Japanese industry.  Koyanagi, in turn, suggested the idea to JUSE, which invited Deming to teach courses in statistical methods to Japanese industry.  Under the auspices of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, Deming arrived in Japan to teach in June 1950.  He returned five times as teacher and consultant to Japanese industry.

Deming gave his Japanese students not only statistical theory, but also confidence.  “I told [Japanese industrialists] Japanese quality could be the best in the world, instead of the worst,” he said.  Still, many were skeptical.  “I was the only man in Japan who believed that Japanese industry could do that.”  Deming made a prophetic statement that the Japanese could capture world markets within five years if they followed his advice.  “They beat my prediction.  I had said it would take five years.  It took four.” 

During the period of his activities in Japan, Deming pursued a similar mission in the United States.  However, it has taken the United States much longer to pay attention to his teachings.  As I became aware of the economic competition between American and Japanese industries during the 1970s/80s, it seemed as if the Japanese always won the competition.  Everyone was taking about the Japanese management style, which was actually the teaching of Deming.  Japanese corporate leaders bought into his theory, but American corporate leaders did not.  You know the result.  (ASQ)

Around the time of Deming’s death in 1993, I watched an extended interview with him on TV.  The topic of “new theories” came up during the interview.  He said that “experience is the best teacher” is an interesting concept; however, if experience is the only teacher, society is in trouble because nothing will change.  Society must have the constant infusion of new theories; some will be rejected while others will become a significant part of the economic/social structure.   
This very issue of how a profession or society reacts to new theories is at the heart of the educational battle in the United States.  Teachers often respond to new theories by saying, “Oh, that’s a theory you learned at the college/university; it will never work in the classroom” (I have been known to make that statement myself).  However, not having the development of new theories in teaching and learning would be like not having new theories in the treatment of disease in medical science.  Yes, it is essential that all new medical theories be tested, and some will be effective while others will not.  Yet, if new theories are not introduced into a profession, field of science/technology, or society, that entity or organization is in a state of dying. 

One of the significant barriers to change in education is that teachers have the tendency to teach the way they were taught.  In other words, we use those teaching methods/strategies that match our learning preferences.   I have a series of questions that must be asked:  Are the students in my eight-grade class just like me when I was in the eighth grade?  Has the field of neurological research given us new understandings about the function of the brain which impacts how we learn?

Where do we find the source of new theories in teaching and learning?  Often an innovative school system led by a dynamic director of schools (superintendent) may develop and test new theories.  These school systems often attract creative and dynamic teachers. 

I have seen occasions where classroom teachers are the source of new theories.  However, in the United States this is rare because teachers are responsible for numerous other tasks other than teaching.  Teachers in other countries are given more time to plan and develop new strategies than are teachers in the United States.

Finally, colleges/universities are often the source of new theories in teaching and learning.  The very structure and reward system in higher education lends itself to developing and testing new theories.  However, there are those who want to remove the preparation of new teachers from higher education and place it in the school district and classroom because they feel that instructors in education courses are out of touch with the K-12 classroom. I find it amazing that we expect institutions of higher education to develop and test new theories in all academic fields except in teacher education.  If these critics get their way, an essential source for new theories in teaching and learning will be silenced, and the real losers will be our children.

As Director of Teacher Education at Maryville College, I cannot guarantee that each new theory in teaching and learning that we share with our students will be effective with every child in every classroom, but neither can the medical scientist guarantee that each new drug developed from research will be effective in the war against cancer.  But medical scientists keep developing new theories and testing those theories just as educational researchers should keep developing and testing new theories in teaching and learning.  The status quo in the war against cancer is not acceptable; neither should the status quo in teaching and learning be acceptable.

“No one has to change.  Survival is optional.”  Dr. W. Edwards Deming

Bless you my children,
Terry Simpson