Peeping Tom: Finding Windows in the Ivory Tower

Today on Twitter, Tom Whitby posted:

For fun ask colleagues if they have heard of 2 of these people: Robert Marzano, Alfie Kohn, Ken Robinson, Alan November, Heidi Hayes Jacobs?

I understand the intent of Tom's post: we have too many teachers who have become detached from some of the "big thinkers" in education. It's easy for a teacher, with all the pressures and responsibilities, to become isolated in their classroom with their students. Fortunately, it's easier than ever to traverse the branches of the internet and find leaders in education online, as well as other teachers who want to share, discuss, and debate big ideas in education.

While I'm sure Tom didn't intend for his list to be all-inclusive, all the names listed have something in common: none of those people are current professors of education. I'm not saying that professors have cornered the market of good ideas, but rarely do I see them mentioned on Twitter or elsewhere outside the ivory towers of academia. (Not suprisingly, several professors who are breaking down this wall are professors of educational technology, such as Alec Couros and Scott McLeod.) Trust me: ed school professors care just as deeply about students, schools, and the improvement of our educational system as anyone, and many have wonderfully big thoughts and ideas. In addition, they have a scholarly duty to promote ideas that have been tested and shown to have positive effects, not just ideas that sound like good ideas.

This might not be the place for a lame sports analogy, but I'm thinking of it this way. I love baseball, and I could happily spend hours listening to Bob Costas and Peter Gammons describe the nuances of the game. But if my job is to walk up to the plate and hit a major league fastball, do I want Costas or Gammons as my hitting coach? No! Give me Joe Varva or Rudy Jaramillo. Never heard of them, you say? Well, they're both major league hitting coaches, for the Twins and Cubs, respectively. Costas or Gammons could probably help me get a swing that looks like Joe Mauer's, but I'd need Varva or Jaramillo to help me develop my best swing, not one modeled after somebody else's. And neither Varva or Jaramillo themselves played in the majors. They know what they're doing because they tirelessly treat their jobs as a science. Alfie Kohn isn't Joe Varva. He's Peter Gammons -- an intelligent and thoughtful commentator who is making positive contributions to his profession and our enjoyment, but not necessarily a scientist.

So while you're asking your colleagues about Kohn, Marzano, and Sir Ken, try asking them if they have heard of Linda Darling-Hammond, Deborah Ball, Michael Apple, Truus Dekker, Alan Schoenfeld, or Lorrie Shepard. Don't know them? You should, but if you don't, don't be too hard on yourself. I was disappointed to the see that the list of Race to the Top scorers was heavily populated with educational consultants, institute founders, foundation advocates, and others who might profit from the results, instead of more ed school researchers. So maybe Arne Duncan doesn't know many of the names on my list, either. But it's not all his fault, and not all your fault, either. Our system of higher education and scholarly publishing is holding up those ivory walls, walls that work both ways. Stick to Alfie Kohn and let the wall crumble, or read Linda Darling-Hammond and try to knock it down.