At the moment, professional golf is the latest sport to be going through a spasm of effort toward perfecting itself by applying scientific rigor to what has always seemed more of an art. Money Ball, the book by Michael Lewis and later a movie of considerable acclaim, documented the emergence of “cybermetrics” and data analytics in American baseball. In Money Ball, the longstanding conventional wisdom of highly experienced baseball people proved wrong compared to statistical analyses. In golf, the even more longstanding dictum of “drive for show and putt for dough” falls in the face of compelling analysis showing that prowess with the driver and long irons counts for more in terms of scores and tournament wins. Bryson DeChambeau is a case in point (see David Perrell’s excellent essay on DeChambeau and the metrification of golf here).
Few fields are as permeated by conventional wisdom and seasoned practitioners’ opinions than sport, with the very probably exception of education. In school after school, we hear teachers and parents alike speak about the moment when the “magic happens;” that is, the point of engagement between teachers and students. The very notion that what happens in the space can be subjected to rigorous measurement and analysis seems equally heretical to many parents and especially teachers. It is as if someone suggested quantifying the “sense of community” that seems to make every school special.
Maybe the conventional (albeit anecdotal) wisdom is right. Maybe there is magic that happens in the teacher-student interface; pixie dust that cannot be otherwise measured. Maybe community really is the secret sauce that laminates families and staff to their schools. Or maybe not. What if the conventional wisdom in education is as wrong as it was in baseball or golf?
I am not at all saying that I believe the CW is wrong; rather, I am only suggesting that we do not really know for sure what matters most in student learning. Nor do we know whether the same thing matters most for all (or even most) students, something that seems intuitively doubtful on its face.
As school leaders prepare for the return to full in-person teaching and learning, instead of simply rushing back to the old normal, perhaps it is time for us to think anew about where the magic happens in schools. What if we have been wrong all along? Or, more likely, what if we have been right, but only for a fraction of our students? And, more to the point, what data do we need to know for sure?