If it Works…


All things require traction to work — boundaries to push on or pull on. Learning is no different. We had the teacher or the textbook to tell us if we got it right or wrong, or the bell schedule to work within. In less certain times with unpredictable futures, there need to be new boundaries to get traction.

Photo Credit: Wireless Network Learning Resource Centre Edge Hill University by JISC infoNet

I delivered a keynote address last week in Austin to a group of educators and researchers who, from their university settings, support county extension agents on issues ranging from fire ants to precision agriculture.

After the keynote, I had a chance to talk with a number of conference attendees and one said something that I had to stop and write it down. As a way of factoring down some of the ideas that I shared in the talk, comparing old notions about education with becoming educated in a time of rapid chang, he said,


If it’s right, it works.


If it works, it’s right.

I researched the statement this morning, figuring that it was a famous quote, and although I could not find an author, there were many references to the statement and its use in a lot of different contexts, including moral issues of relativism — far from my reading of its intent in that conversation.  So I’ll stick with my interpretation.

When I was in school, I was being taught what I would need to know to be ready for a future that we were fairly certain about.  I could fairly easily and reliably depend on the adult experiences of my father and even my grandfather as models for my own impending adulthood.  We had no way of even imagining the rise of personal computers, the Internet, bio- and nano-technology, energy crisis, water crisis, globalization, global terrorism, and I could go on.

In that comfortable place of certainty, I could be taught the right answers with confidence that they would remain the right answers throughout my future.

Today, we can’t be certain that this answer, this formula, this interpretation, this language, will be the one that helps us accomplish the goals we might strive for 10 or 20 years from now.  If this is true, then how does it affect how we teach?  …what we teach? …how we learn?

We often get mileage, or think we do, when we say that even with all of these advances in information and communication technologies, our classrooms have not changed — and in some fundamental ways they have not.  But many of us are crafting brand now learning experiences for our learners that do not reflect the “methods” we were taught in education school, perhaps even diverging from the basic pedagogies that seemed so universal then.

My daughter took the Praxis test on Saturday, as part of earning her elementary grades certification.  I have no doubts that she was being tested on the education styles that she learned in college, which were no different from the ones I learned at the very same college 35 years ago.  Yet, many of us are not teaching from those pedagogies because we see that so much has changed.  We are experimenting with and even inventing new types of learning experiences that different pretty dramatically from what we were taught and the way many beginning teachers continue to be taught.

I could have shared some of these new ideas with her, but it would not have helped.  The last time I helped my daughter prepare for a test, it was 8th grade and the unit test on the Civil War.  When she walked into that classroom, she could talk about and write about the reasons for the war, what the North and the South wanted to achieve, the advantages that the North held and those of the South, as well as their disadvantages.  She could tell you who won and who lost and why.

She made a 52 on the test because she couldn’t give the dates of the major battles of the war.

It seems like I’ve veered way off from my initial point, but I haven’t.  You see, in secure and predictable times, there are more right answers, facts, skills, and knowledge that we can depend on — that will work.  In times that are less predictable, less secure, and rich with opportunities, the right answers, are the ones that work.

A major element of formal learning today should be the act of finding, assembling, and testing for answers that work — not just memorizing the “right” answers.


5 thoughts on “If it Works…”

  1. I found this to be a very interesting subject today. Teaching has changed so much even in the 17 years that I have been teaching. I still sometimes teach the way I did back then, but I find myself being more open to learning new teaching strategies. Students do not have the same motivation and definitely do not learn the same way I did in high school. If we are to reach students and assist them in learning, we have to be willing to guide students toward the answers but allow them to explore the situation and try to form their own means to the end. I found this blog to be very interesting, yet challenging. After reading it, I am challenged to constantly reflect on what I have taught to make sure that students are learning! If they are, I know I’m doing something right!

  2. Mr. Warlick:

    I love the idea of being unsure and having to collaborate to find what’s “right”. I even like the possibility of having to redefine what “right” is. Each problem facilitates a solution. As the problems grow bigger and more complex, so do the solutions- and they may have to go through many drafts and changes before we find out. But the adventure and the learning are in the search. We now have the technology to accompany others (even around the world!) in their searches. I’m excited about the possibilities. And I’m excited it seems you are too.

  3. I found this to be quite interesting to read about. I have no idea as to when people are going to start recognizing that we need to teach our students how to think. Just because it worked 30 years ago, doesn’t mean there isn’t some tweaking that needs to be done to make it better. On the other hand, if ain’t broke…. I believ educator recognize that students change and their needs change. I think it may possibly be those who don’t have the first hand experience that don’t realize that times and needs have changed.

  4. Sorry about the 52% (I, too, have misled my children on school assignments). To make teaching more difficult, we have to be aware of who is determining what is right. I spend most of my time teaching my adult students what is right from my perspective, but also cover what is considered right, or important, from the perspective of others to whom they might be answering.

  5. I think that the main problem is our central focus in early education. We still focus on what to think, not how to think. We treat young minds as storehouses to fill with knowledge, but that isn’t what they are. They are minds that need our guidance on how to think and process and solve problems; how to access their own creativity and reasoning and expressiveness and use those resources in positive ways. How to interact with others and with the world constructively. We need to change the way we teach to match the times we are in.

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