The Education Paradox Requires New Ways to Think About Schools

When surgeon and noted medical writer Atul Gawande wanted to make the point that treating patients today requires specialized teams of medical personnel, he listed some of the procedures surgeons are allowed to perform. He didn't list them all, because surgeons can legally perform more than 4,000 procedures, ranging from setting broken arms bones to excising breast cancer to repairing hernias. His point: To expect one surgeon to know the best way to do each of those procedures -- not to mention to understand the actions and interactions of the more than 6,000 medications that he or she is allowed to prescribe -- is unrealistic.

Gawande argues that the old model of medicine, built on the individual, autonomous practice of isolated practitioners -- think of the family doctor of yesteryear -- needs to be replaced with the concept of teams of medical personnel, each with specialized expertise. The analogy he uses is that we need to move from lone cowboys to pit crews (if you haven't read his essay, you're in for a treat).

The point is just as relevant to education.

Think for a moment about a typical elementary school teacher, who, in order to teach her students, must know:

  • The research and science of early reading instruction, which consists of five elements, each with its own body of research:
    • Phonemic awareness
    • Phonics
    • Fluency
    • Vocabulary
    • Comprehension
  • All the content areas - English, math, social studies, science, and how the arts tie in
  • The pedagogy of each of the content areas (Some examples? All the ways to help students understand the concept of two-thirds; how to use primary documents in research; how poetry differs from prose; how waves act, etc.)
  • The different kinds of challenges kids arrive with and how that affects their learning -- ADHD, visual discrimination issues, auditory issues just to name a few. And that doesn't even get to what to do when kids arrive without knowing English or even knowing much oral language of any kind.
  • Each individual kid in her classroom -- where they are and what excites and motivates them to get to where they need to be
  • How to organize a classroom of dozens of children to maximize learning and minimize disruptions and disciplinary issues.

There's more, but that's enough to strike fear into the hearts of any non-teachers.

Secondary teachers need to know fewer subjects -- they tend to just teach one or two disciplines -- but they must have much deeper content knowledge than elementary school teachers, and they usually have between 120 and 140 students they need to motivate, interest, and teach.

This leads us to what I call The Education Paradox, which is:

Teachers are the most important in-school factor in whether students become academically successful.


It is physically impossible for every teacher to know everything necessary to teach every student.

Is it possible to solve this paradox?

Yes. But it requires doing things a little bit differently, and schools that successfully teach a wide variety of children, including children who arrive with more than their share of challenges, point the way.

Successful high-poverty schools do what Gawande argues that the medical profession must do. They pool the knowledge and expertise of all the teachers and school staff in a building, and sometimes tap outside expertise, in order to help all children learn.

That means teachers must work in teams to deepen and extend their content and pedagogical knowledge and work as part of other kinds of teams to help them understand the needs of their students. They need to be able to call on extra help and coaching and have additional time to plan and develop their expertise.

That is a huge departure from the old model of the teacher who is expected to know everything necessary to teach all her kids while she teaches behind closed doors.

To expect teachers working on their own to teach all their students everything they need to know is unrealistic. If we want all kids to learn to high levels, we are going to have to do things differently.

It's not impossible, it just requires tapping the expertise of those who have figured out how.