Saturday, October 16, 2010

Change? We don't need no stinking change!

While I can admit rules and guidelines have their place, I find rules and guidelines too often are not put in their place.

Here is a story about a science experiment about the nature of rules. I honestly can't remember where I came across this story, so I can't say whether its purely fiction or an actual experiment. Either way, the point is not lost.

Here's the story:

In an effort to study the nature of rules, scientists placed six gorillas in a cage with a set of stairs that led to a basket of bananas. When the first gorilla placed a paw on the first step of the stairs, the entire cage was drenched with water by the scientists' high pressure fire hose.

Despite their discomfort, each gorilla took their turn at the stairs, hoping for a better chance of success; unfortunately for the gorillas their many attempts over the span of 6 hours yielded them a lot of water but no bananas.

After a day of solid water, the gorillas decided collectively to steer clear of the stairs.

The bananas were simply not worth it.

A day later, one gorillas was exchanged for another. Upon entering the cage, the new gorillas spotted the bananas and took for the stairs, but he was immediately stopped by the other three - they were not going to allow him to set one foot on the stairs for fear of being sprayed.

The scientists stood at the ready with their fire hydrant, but there was no need to fire as the five experienced gorillas were successful in dissuading the new gorilla, who gave up his efforts after a brief struggle.

Over the next day, the scientists exchanged more gorillas - leaving the cage with six entirely different gorillas than the original six. The fire hydrant and hose was also removed.

Over the next few days, the gorillas showed no real interest in the steps; however, when one gorilla wandered too close to the steps the other five showed a heightened sense of anxiety and were quick to encourage each other to stay clear of the steps all together.

The bananas remained in their place, and so too did the gorillas know their place.

There is a time and a place for all kinds of rules, but when we refuse to rethink the reasoning behind them and blindly accept them as given truths, we lose our way. There was a time and a place for those gorillas to stay away from the stairs - being sprayed down with water was less than appealing, but when the water was removed, the gorillas went on assuming that tradition trumped reason.

In education, teachers overwhelmingly tend to perpetuate a culture of compliance. Today's top-down, test and punish accountability movement has scared most teachers into stone-cold compliance.

As if change isn't hard enough, it makes it exponentially more challenging when the more experienced generation acts as agents of compliance and openly discourages any change in course. This is why I hold teachers who have accumulated such a rich cast of experience at least partly responsible for ensuring that the inexperienced are encouraged to seek out creative and progressive initiatives.

When we are too focused on how we've always done things, we damn ourselves to exactly that; focus too much on the 'now' and you'll be sure never to arrive any where else.


  1. I work in 'Higher Education' but it seems we share a great deal in common Joe - I'm really glad I found your blog.

    Some thoughts about this post though:

    you say that you hold experienced teachers partly responsible for encouraging progressive initiatives but how might we square this with Thomas Paine's claim that:

    “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.”?

    And considering the theory of "Diffusion of Innovation" does it make sense to expect what we might think of as the "Late Majority" to be "responsible for ensuring that the inexperienced are encouraged to seek out creative and progressive initiatives."?

    On your point about rules and guidelines, I've written about exactly that:



  2. Joe, I am an ardent reader of your blog, often passing topics along to my staff to ponder. I do love the story in this post. But I have to admit, my mental pictures are much different when I envision guerrillas and not gorillas. :-D

  3. @J. Hamlyn: You make an excellent point. I think what I'm really getting at is the the experienced should at the very least not get in the progressives way. However, even that sets a lower expectation for them than I am comfortable with, but it would be better than what we have now.

    Far too many experienced teachers and administrators are agents of the state who do all they can do to maintain the status quo or worse

    @LeeAnn, LOL! Nice find! I have corrected those subversive, surprise raiding, sabotaging guerrillas to be the anthropoid apes they were intended to be. Thanks for the help