“In the era of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter, we’ve become enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether. We want frictionless, “turnkey” solutions to the major difficulties of the world—hunger, disease, poverty. We prefer instructional videos to teachers, drones to troops, incentives to institutions. People and institutions can feel messy and anachronistic. They introduce, as the engineers put it, uncontrolled variability.
But technology and incentive programs are not enough. “Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,” wrote Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas are communicated and spread. Mass media can introduce a new idea to people. But, Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.”
This quote comes from a long and impressive article about the spread of good ideas. It starts with a historical look at anesthesia and disinfectants in the medical practice and how one of these ideas spread relatively rapidly (anesthesia) while the other took a great deal of time until it was generally accepted practice.
“So what were the key differences? First, one combated a visible and immediate problem (pain); the other combated an invisible problem (germs) whose effects wouldn’t be manifest until well after the operation. Second, although both made life better for patients, only one made life better for doctors.”
“This has been the pattern of many important but stalled ideas. They attack problems that are big but, to most people, invisible; and making them work can be tedious, if not outright painful. The global destruction wrought by a warming climate, the health damage from our over-sugared modern diet, the economic and social disaster of our trillion dollars in unpaid student debt—these things worsen imperceptibly every day. Meanwhile, the remedies to them, all requiring individual sacrifice of one kind or another, struggle to get anywhere.”
I read this article thinking about technology and its spread in schools, in learning and in education in general. Are we using technology to change teaching, or to enhance learning? My last post on venture capital funding would suggest that a lot of money is being spent on teaching, but little on learning.
In the internet age we expect good ideas to move extremely quickly, to adopt wide spread acceptance almost immediately and to spread at the speed of a viral outbreak. But it doesn’t always happen that way. Ideas take time to form, to percolate. I once listened to a podcast interview of one of my favourite authors, William Gibson, who talked about our society not allowing things to grow and mature and he lamented that many of our ideas and innovations are “veal” as opposed to well thought out concepts. This idea reminded me of the slow blogging movement.
A long read, but worth your time to think about. Keep your school or classroom in mind as you work your way through this article.