The Teflon Problem

May 2, 2022

Let’s say you’re in the business of selling cookware to people, and you actually care about them a lot. You want to get them the best pots and pans possible.

One option is Teflon. It’s modern, nonstick, and easy to use. It seems like a great choice! There’s only one problem: if you stir things you’re cooking with a metal spoon, then you’ll scrape through the Teflon coating on the pan and release potentially hazardous gas and plastic particles. But if people use wooden spoons and take good care of them, it shouldn’t be a problem.

So is that what you should try to sell? Can you rely on everyone who gets it using it exactly as prescribed? As someone who has perhaps never seen a Teflon pan that’s not scratched up, I know my answer.

Of course, this is not my actual concern. My concern is mathematics education. But I think we should be asking the same kind of question about education interventions and curriculum adoptions.

It’s easy to try out some cool new approach in a perfectly controlled environment and see it be wildly successful. That’s not how it will go when it’s released into the world. When ideas and products are employed at scale, they’re used in unexpected ways.

If you have some great new curriculum, you must ask: how robust is this program? If someone skips a lesson, talks when they should listen, or misunderstands the philosophy this curriculum is based on, will it do harm? If it’s used with 70%, 50% or 30% integrity compared to how you imagined, will it do harm? If a teacher who feels anxious about math is in charge of leading these lessons, will it serve them and their students, or will it implode?

These questions are essential. I love project-based learning when it’s done right, but I almost never advocate for it except in incredibly specific environments, because if it isn’t done right, a month can go by with very little show for it. At scale, it feels like a Teflon pan, and I don’t want something that requires such specific care to avoid doing damage. (I also absolutely reject the curricula that demand teachers follow scripts to avoid “doing it wrong,.” These I find both insulting to the people and the profession, as well as wrong-headed pedagogically.)

The problem of scaling great results is difficult, and we need to take it seriously. Step one is to understand the realities on the ground, and to know what is fragile and what is robust about your program, and how it could backfire if it’s misused. Because it will be misused. That’s what happens at scale, to everything. With that knowledge, we still have to aspire to the Hippocratic oath for educators: first, do no harm.

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Michael P Goldenberg
Michael P Goldenberg
2 years ago

So what does the concern for abuse of Teflon lead to in math classes? What’s the alternative to trying new approaches which, if done badly, are going to cause problems? When I encounter arguments against going off the beaten track from educational conservatives, I generally find that with minimal pushing they will tell you that they want lessons and content to resemble some idealized past (usually the time they were in school or just before that). And crucially, they don’t want these venerated methods and content interrogated in any way: “shut up and eat what’s on your plate” could well… Read more »