Cart Awaiting a Horse

Several decades ago when differences between right and left brain thinking were first explored, a story was told to illustrate.

During World War II, many harbors in Hawaii were blocked by sunken warships, one important channel in particular. After the war, engineers puzzled over how to move them out of way. As they found themselves stumped, someone said, “I know a captain who has a reputation as a good problem solver. Let’s invite him in.”

They brought the captain to an overlook where, standing among the important brass, he could see the masts of vessels protruding from the water. As he stared at them, someone nearby heard him muttering, “Mother… Mother… the garden.” The image that came to him was of his mother breaking large clumps of sod into smaller ones, which suggested his solution: Don’t try to move the ships. Break them into pieces and leave them there–a solution that worked.

Which is to say that if we find ourselves stumped over education, could we consider a different viewpoint?

The title above hints at a shift. Today I happened across two reports, one on the ongoing work on national standards, and the other on the international education conference in Helsinki earlier this fall. The reports presented exactly opposite views on how to get quality education. The Finns hosting the conference, as is widely acknowledged, get the best educational results in the world. Two features of their system stood out for me. They 1) insist that teachers know their subject matter, and 2) they allow them great latitude in designing what they personally will teach.

How unusual! Find someone who knows and ask him to do what he knows. What an innovative model! One wonders what would happen to the entire American economy if such an insight were widely accepted instead of having the state micro-manage everything from the top down. The US model in contrast 1) presumes that teachers don’t know their subject matter. Once accepting that as inevitable, the second step follows: 2) spoon-feed them every detail they must teach.

It’s clear that the Finn model works and, as best we can tell, the US model doesn’t. The conclusion is obvious. Do the US model more intensively! Bring into education more people who know even less about teaching, and specify in even more detail what they must teach. Exert more control of the process with less confidence in and freedom for teachers to teach what they know.

I sympathize with policy-makers who don‘t know what to do with their big hammer, the billions they’re anxious to spend. They don’t know what, among their myriad of options, to spend it on that will make the most difference. A possible corner is at least to define what students need to know in the subjects most commonly taught.

Sensible as it may sound, even this has its holdouts. Alaska and Texas want no part of it. Texas, I assume, is independent enough to believe that their own people know better what their children should learn, but Alaska (my home state) is a different matter. The knowledge useful for living in many of its remote communities and even larger cities can diverge greatly from what one needs to know in the continental US; climate, weather, geology, environment, wildlife, fish, transportation, Native heritage, and energy, for instance. The concerns of a Boston or St. Louis are far off the mark, hinting further that a varied and changing world could soon make the current knowledge disseminated today in any city moot even there.

But let’s say the macro-plan has its way and we could standardize what students need to know, what then?

To me this is the cart waiting for a horse, a cart we wouldn’t need if we just had a horse. What curriculum do you want to tow along? Ask the Finns, who say that the curriculum is what a teacher who knows the subject is ready to teach. But even settling that, we still need the horse: How do we get students to learn what is either in the teacher’s mind or, lacking confidence in their mind, in the national standards?

How? That we even have to ask the question is my concern. If we have any doubt about how to do this, then it’s premature to define standards nationally or require particular knowledge in teachers. The “horse” is what moves everything else–to know that you can teach students whatever you want to teach them each, always, and every time. Do this with a lot of learning (a good start is “whatever the teacher wants to teach.”). After much of that, look around and inquire, “Is there anything essential we haven’t covered?” Let teachers teach what they want to for eleven and a half years and spend the last semester on lacunae. These are likely to appear much less significant once you already have a child saturated with usable knowledge, but if something is both missing and important, cover it then.

First, though, do the big chunks, the stuff good teachers already know. Stay out of the way while they do it and don’t micro-manage.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of Finding Your Inner Lenin: Taking Responsibility for Global Change (Xlibris, 2006). He welcomes comments sent to him directly at and will email an ebook version of his book to anyone without charge upon request. Read other articles by John.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on November 27th, 2009 at 9:29am #

    In US; some other lands, miseducation and disinformation is controled by the ruling class.
    The information and elucidation that wld diminish ruling class’ control over americans or prevent wars is in toto controled by the ruling class which also completely owns media.
    W.o. changing constitution not much improvement can be expected when it comes to obtaining the right to be informed, educated, or to obtain health care.
    Disinforming and thus [ab]using people is a constitutional holy of holies! tnx

  2. hmmm said on November 27th, 2009 at 11:53am #

    “During World War II, many harbors in Hawaii were blocked by sunken warships, one important channel in particular. After the war, engineers puzzled over how to move them out of way. As they found themselves stumped…”

    As far as I know, the one and only time Hawaii saw action in WWII was that one time at Pearl Harbor. That was a sneak attack that required a huge amount of planning and utmost secrecy, extending the Japanese logistics lines to the breaking point (sailing for weeks just to get there) and was way outside the war zone even then. After that, the action moved far, far, far away from Hawaii. So yes, there were sunken warships at Pearl Harbor. But where were those other “many harbors” in Hawaii with sunken warships that the author talks about? And, by which happenstance were there sunken warships there? Pearl Harbor was the main fleet harbor and headquarters for the Pacific Fleet throughout the war — this is where ships were resupplied, maintained, war damage on them repaired, so obviously they found a way around those sunken warships from day one.

    The other line about engineers being “stumped” by this, is really laughable. Nobody thought about mining them (these ghost warships), even after having just lived through a war and participated in it, handling explosives and ammunition each and every day? Even though that is the method engineers use everyday to get passage through obstacles — say in building roads and tunnels?

    I mean if you’re going to speak about education, shouldn’t the first precondition be that you get the facts straight? Instead of feeding us little children stories just to get us interested in the subject — isn’t that insulting and also the reason why education sucks here?

  3. Autumn said on November 28th, 2009 at 12:09am #

    Your article is so one-sided it’s cartoonish. And your childish attempts at manipulation are laughable. The question begs to be asked…just what are you personally getting out of all this ??

  4. jumpingcatfish said on November 28th, 2009 at 2:41am #

    I had thought that the story about the sunken ships was not meant to be taken so literally, and Autumn, please take a Midol.

    The reason our schools suck is the same reasons that prisons suck, they do not care about the end result, they are a business. While the teachers employed do their best (well, most of them), if the teachers themselves are buying supplies for their students and students are sharing textbooks, it seems fairly obvious that funding is a major issue.

  5. John Jensen said on November 28th, 2009 at 7:16am #

    Thanks to everyone for comments. First about the harbors. Catfish was more to my point. The substance of the story was true, but came out of the recesses of my memory (it’s been decades since I read the story), and so I could have skewed details. The point was that everyone seems locked into a particular kind of thinking about the design of education and a shift is due., which “both” seemed to address best. And to Autumn, yes, “One-sided” is fair. I’ve been trying to write “balanced”, seeing everyone’s point of view, weighing and considering all options, and no one listens. Everyone homes in on the aspect already familiar to them and tells me “I already know that” and no changes occur. I concluded some time ago that taking just a single facet and running with it fora bit might get just one bit across. Maybe it didn’t with Autumn, but isn’t Dissident Voices a place you’d expect someone to shout out a single objection? What people don’t get is how electrifying school can be to students, but it doesn’t tend to happen if we just “teach as we were taught.” How do I say that so anyone listens? Really, I’m open to suggestion. Autumn?

  6. Rehmat said on November 28th, 2009 at 9:04am #

    The good old “The Protocols” does say: “Whosoever, control the information, controls the world”.

    Political aware people do understand the difference between the journalism and Zionists’ “Jingoism”.

  7. Max Shields said on November 30th, 2009 at 7:36am #

    I would first contend that Finland is a relatively homogeneous demographic which is a tiny fraction the size the of USA.

    And while I agree that overall the US education “system” is not working (if by that we mean test scores????) there are small places in the US which are comparable to Finland and where it is in fact “working” (as prescribed by test outcomes – or whatever).

    Uniformity of anything whether from the bottom up or top down in the US is just about incomprehensible. A powerful dictator might achieve it but not what we have set up – which is at the very best a federated hodgepodge.

    If you are going to use an example/model – try the first rule – keep the analogy apples to apples. Also, as is clear, what do you mean by successful education system?

    Otherwise we have a nonproductive piece on how bad the US education system is as if “bad” meant something relative to a “good” Finn system as if “good” meant something.

  8. Max Shields said on November 30th, 2009 at 7:40am #

    To that end, we might want to use the Finn “solution” in its entirety – how do we make the US more like Finland? Chop it up, creating small localized semi-autonomous education system. Ensure an even demographic in each chopped up region?

    Otherwise we have no lesson of value. This is the prime example of the blind mice determining what their touching when an elepant is in front of them – each mouse has a different answer because they can’t see the entire object.

  9. John Jensen said on November 30th, 2009 at 8:08pm #

    Max– There are many logical, reasonable objections to what I say, taking it as a comprehensive piece. But I really was trying to highlight just a few points and examine the difference between reasonably following out an effective policy versus putting more effort into something ineffective. Insisting on good teachers + giving them great latitude is one of these little pieces that by itself makes sense–even though in our present US system they appear impossible to implement.
    Is that sad, or is it sad?