U.S. Innovations that U.S. Education Reformers Ignore

In a Washington Post blog by Finnish scholar Pasi Sahlberg, five educational innovations developed in the United States, but which are in large part ignored by American schools and reformers, are outlined. Sahlberg counts among these innovations Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences. He provides strong examples of how work that is done by US researchers so often benefits other countries who are willing to implement changes in their education systems and how these same ideas end up going to waste in America as a whole.

Sahlberg’s blog can be read in it’s entirety via the Washington Post here.

In response to this piece, Gardner responded with his own thoughts about the argument Sahlberg has made. Below are Gardner’s comments to Sahlberg:

You have written a thought-provoking piece, noting that the United States may produce promising ideas in education but lags in the implementation of those ideas—except perhaps the proliferation of standardized, high stake testing.

A few comments:

1. In the US, experimentation has too often occurred in so-called “junk works,” which are separate from the funding source. The most dramatic example is Xerox PARC—a research setting that developed many important ideas and practices in the digital world, only to have them scooped up by rival Apple.

2. The ideas you mentioned can all be found somewhere in the U.S. but our public system is so scattered that it’s hard to make changes that have wider impact. Independent schools and charter schools have more space to experiment, but again, the changes do not spread easily—the ‘lone cowboy’ phenomenon.

3. An even more dramatic example of the phenomenon that you describe is chronicled in Loren Graham’s recent book LONELY IDEAS: CAN RUSSIA COMPETE? Graham chronicles how so many wonderful ideas emerged in Russia in the last century or two, but they were almost all monetized elsewhere… except the Kalashnikov rifle!

4. Thanks for the mention of multiple intelligences (MI) theory. You might find of interest a just published book, FROM THE IVORY TOWER TO THE SCHOOLHOUSE. Jack Schneider traces four ideas that became well known by American educators, including MI theory, and compares those ideas to others that superficially seem similar—in the MI case, Robert Sternberg’s ‘triarchic theory of intelligence.’ The other ideas are Bloom’s taxonomy, the project method, and direct instruction.

5. Finally, I would add that while ideas like the ones that you mentioned may have come from American scholars, none of us worked in a vacuum. (I was greatly influenced by Piaget, Levi-Strauss, Vygotsky, Luria, and many others.) Both the amount of money available for research (from both public and private sources) and the freedom for research at the major colleges and universities enabled the emergence of interesting ideas in the social sciences, with implications for education. I worry that period is over—accordingly my current research is designed to help invigorate ‘liberal arts and sciences in the 21st century.’

These comments are also visible on Pasi Sahlberg’s website.


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