Circle the Wagons


Watch Westerns much? I did as a child, and I grew up reading Zane Grey, Max Brand and, of course, Louis L'Amour. One of my favorite memories includes Clint Eastwood in the Outlaw Josey Wales...Wales, choosing violence and revenge after the murder of his family, finds himself in the company of a "snake oil salesman," that is, a seller of quack medicine, not the original Chinese remedy for arthritis made from snake parts. Wales, chary of the quack medicine, spits some chaw on the white jacket and encourages the snake oil salesman to use his formula on it.

"This will fix what ails you," say snake oil salesmen.  Bud Hunt references snake oil salesman in a blog post, reminding us that the big conferences (you name them...I have only been to one or two that don't do this) are often about suspending our disbelief, giving in to the fear of what ails us--and, isn't there always something? Bud takes a kindler, gentler approach to vendors, thank goodness, than Josey Wales:

If I run into you and ask you a question or two, know that I’m not asking to discredit you or make you uncomfortable, I’m asking because I owe it to myself and my employer and the students and staff I’m responsible for to make sure that I’m doing my due diligence. #There’s plenty of snake oil here at ISTE.  And plenty of good stuff. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t aware of the potential and the good
Wait, I'm having fun imagining Bud as Josey the image in mind? Maybe someone skilled in graphic design can work something up for us?

I still remember the day I truly awoke to this fact (snake oil at conferences rather than Bud as Josey). It was after I drank the free software kool-aid, a different type of "oil..." you might say, something more like "cod liver oil." No medicine is perfect, of course. I'm not a purist.

Cod liver oil, foul-tasting, has a variety of benefits...but some complain of its fishy taste, slightly nauseating. That was when I realized that the only thing stopping schools from reclaiming a lot of their funding--spent on expensive software that only a few used to its full potential--was the "silicon snake oil" a la Larry Cuban. We were being sold a magical solution, and we continue to embrace it.

Isn't it time we had a dose of cod liver oil, of reality in schools? Note that it isn't one's intent to say our schools use of outside solutions is wrong or be negative. But go to your school district web site and ask yourself when you see the list of service providers, can you really continue paying for all this and get the work of education done?

The problem isn't high-paid staff, but rather, highly paid vendors who siphon precious funding away from the work we are about as educators.

So, what ills would "cod liver oil" cure--a euphemism for hard-baked truth--for schools?
  • Adopting new technologies simply because they are popular and cool. This could be any one of your technologies, whether it be iPads, iPods, Android, whatever. The problem isn't the technology, it's the attitude of "We've gotta have it NOW" because it's going to CHANGE EVERYTHING. The truth is, technology CAN change how we teach, learn and lead...but it can't do anything if we bring it in just to show off.
  • Drill-n-practice, tutorial programs that get mandated from the top down in response to a grant or special funding source. Ask yourself, how many districts have simply adopted a technology solution because it was expected as a result of getting grants funds when that solution was NOT aligned to district goals?
  • Spending money on expensive software because "We want our kids and teachers to have the best!" even though there's no professional learning or curriculum in place to build people's capacity to use these tools. As one colleague put it, we never quite seem to get all the pieces in place...we have the software but not the hardware. We have the hardware and software but not the institutional support.
Update: Special thanks to Doug Killian, Superintendent of a Texas school District (Hutto ISD) for echoing the ideas expressed above and I agree wholeheartedly: "It has got to fit with an aligned instructional intent... and we must have PD thats aligned as well!!!"

In the old days, I had two quotes that remain true today:

Ask not what computers can do with students, but rather, what students can do with computers.
Hardware without software is just junk, but software without teaching is just noise.

Both quotes could easily be updated for the present. A teammate once pointed out to me amidst the embrace of blogs, wikis, and Moodles (oh my!), What is the instructional purpose? of using these tools. It is a question that we need to revisit. Even though great technologies can change how we approach teaching, learning and leading, we can't forget that the great "technology" are the human beings.

Sometimes, in our rush over the shiny stuff--or as Bud puts it, "in the middle of the craziness"--it's easy to forget that. Drink some of that cod liver oil now, and banish the craziness...yes, it may be too much to expect from any one thing, but surely, together we can hold true to the ONE stakeholder we are in education for.

Ok, let's take a moment to stand in a circle, hold hands, and remember why we are really here.


In the old days, circling the wagons was meant as a form of defense against attack. But, we often forget that circling the wagons was a way to recoup after a long day of travel and dust, a way of getting the campfires going, meals prepared, and critical sharing that takes place when people remember the important things that go beyond the minute to minute survival needs.

Note: This blog entry could use a lot more work but time's up. Thanks for joining me as I play with ideas.

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Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin's blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure


Pam Holcomb said…
Thought-provoking blog & love the quotes. *joins hands & sings 'Cum by Yah' sways
Anonymous said…
This could apply to non-technological solutions as well. Seems every few years there is a new curriculum model that districts must have, and pay to implement, with the same results. Sending staff to conferences and not requiring them to share the information they learned. Too many lemmings in education, if you ask me. We strive to teach our students to ask questions and hold decision makers accountable, yet we do not practice what we preach.

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