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Elephant Tale

by Ernst Z. Rothkopf - January 04, 2011

If proven findings from learning research were extensively and energetically applied in classrooms, the success of American schools would be measurably improved, but practically all of the ideas from the cognitive laboratory make increased demands on teachers. The prevailing micro-economy in the classroom is a serious obstacle to the adoption of research-proven practices because it does not provide needed support (and incentives) for teachers. The current loud pursuit of GRAND magical remedies for our educational problems, while neglecting the use of effective, research-proven ideas, is nothing short of a hypocritical cloak for a grubby parsimony that refuses to support lesson-level, tactical instructional ideas.

The Darwin Award is bestowed on those who have managed to eliminate themselves from the gene pool through an act of colossal stupidity. It was recently given to an elephant keeper in a zoo. The elephant was suffering from constipation and so the keeper fed the animal several large doses of laxatives. Because nothing seemed to help, he finally decided to administer an olive oil enema. Unprepared for instant success and heedless of his exposed position, he was knocked to the ground by the emitted stream and died, buried under 200 pounds of dung.

No one familiar with either the popular or academic literature on educational research or improvement, will think that our elephant is really constipated. Yet something is stopped up there. One has the strong sense a vital element is missing from the fulsome output of those who write about making education more effective. The output volume is fairly large, but critical ingredients have been leached from the content. We read our way through hundreds of documents – articles in research journals, reports by college presidents about the wonderful research accomplishments of their faculty and their success in obtaining funding for various projects, educational research texts, popular magazine articles or media pieces on research-based instructional innovation, and we sense that something is lacking. We are offered chicken soup but the cook was not generous with the chicken. It is difficult to characterize succinctly what is missing because my disquiet is undoubtedly caused by several modal properties of the literature. Could it be because the literature is burdened by too many one-shot experimental studies of organizational changes in schools or classrooms that should really be evaluated through many instantiations of the changes? Or perhaps we find too many toy experiments that do not really allow us to generalize beyond the specific methods or procedures that were used in the study? Many weak practices still infest our literature. I have neither the inclination nor the courage to enumerate these here, in extenso.

What prompted me to write this essay is the incongruous discrepancy between the restless search for powerful solutions to educational problems and the reluctance to fully put available research-based tools to work in the classroom. The view is widely expressed that many complaints about education could be remedied if only we knew what to do and then if we did it. We could banish: poor achievements in science, mathematics, and reading; large achievement gaps between ethnic groups; high drop-out rates; and even the stink of mediocrity that invaded the public school scene by taking bold actions like allowing schools to compete for student enrollments, sudden death evaluations, and charter schools. These grand and somewhat magical schemes sprang in full armor from the foreheads of business administration faculties. Researchers are urged with increasing fervor by government agencies, media pundits, self-assured, knowing corporate leaders, and ever-so-wise lawyers to seek powerful solutions to our complex but rather badly defined educational problems. At times I feel as if I am witnessing the perpetual launch of a hunt for a magic white elephant and any moment I should expect authors to break out into hearty Tally Ho. They write excitedly about a magical trophy just over the horizon. Of course, who would not be glad to have a magic bullet? But as a teacher I would just as soon they’d look for a bigger piece of chicken for my soup.  

Actually, the pieces of chicken are there. It is puzzling, amidst the persistent dreaming about powerful educational remedies, that well-proven, effective instructional tools are not more commonly used in schools and classrooms. Fairly powerful procedures have been discovered during years of previous research and have been repeatedly tested. They include principles about organization of subject matter, content and text design, methods for inducing and maintaining attention and cognitive elaboration, anchoring memory, distribution in time of teaching and testing, formative development, and several others. Above all they include the realizable but still unrealized possibility of using thousands of American schools as development sites and test beds for the effective organization of curriculum including demonstrations, explanations, examples, and exercises.1 This can be done and it should be done albeit the nation has phobias about a national curriculum and a generally unfulfilled but loudly acclaimed love for teachers’ independence and freedom in their classrooms. Schools are still run like cottage industries in an era when factory-scale production of tailored, customized high technology products is common.  

Despite availability and good results, why are these effective tools not more extensively used in the classroom2? One can imagine many factors that contribute to the failure to use helpful tools. The dominant spirit in some teachers’ education may not have encouraged technical or rational approaches to instruction but instead stressed more traditional methods. Teachers may not know about these methods or they may not be skillful in creating such instructional features or knowing how to use them. Some teachers’ classroom activities are driven by lesson plans provided by their supervisors. The teachers may feel that they don’t have time for anything except covering each prescribed topic in a nominal way. All these are very plausible explanations for the spotty use of effective tactical teaching maneuvers. However, it should be noted that the above-mentioned obstacles can be overcome by teachers of all abilities with very modest efforts. Teachers can learn and become very skillful in the use of the instructional tactics referred to above, while supervisors can also promote the effective use of such methods.

I’ve come to suspect, however, that a much deeper systemic issue is at play here. Consider the micro-economic system within which teachers operate. Practically all the tactical maneuvers which cognitive research has suggested involve more work on the part of the teacher. The result that is the extra yield in student achievement is slow to make itself manifest, if it makes itself manifest at all. This is not like a new shape of plow or an electric wrench that immediately displays its labor-saving, production-boosting attributes. Nor is it like the new fertilizer that two months later shows unmistakable rises in crop yields. Nor are any of them obvious labor-savers. The results of these methods make more demands on teachers but do not reflect in their earnings or in the resources made available to them. Lawyers get paid more if they bill more hours. Craftsmen charge more to invest their product with extra quality. Teacher salaries are not result-oriented. The micro-economics of effort and value of return are broadly ignored at the classroom level. School boards should consider that, in our society, altruism is only an adequate incentive system after you make your first fifty million.

The economic vectors in a teacher’s world are hard to parse. If teachers are effective and all students reach their learning objectives in record time, they cause themselves more work and perhaps extra expenses for the school because of the tyranny of the class hour system. If a teacher figures out how to teach algebra requirements in half the usually assigned time, another course will have to be developed to fill in the newly available time. On the other hand, if much of the class has trouble with the subject matter, the teacher is in most cases unable to request time to remedy the situation and to expect compensation for the extra effort. He or she becomes known as a bad teacher because his/her students get bad grades. While undoubtedly there are bad teachers, serious failures occur sometimes because the grouped class system cannot chew what it has bitten off. Clearly the reward structure in the classroom harbors little joy for teachers and little that would offer any real incentive for fully exploiting useful cognitive tools.

People studiously tend to avoid talking about costs and efforts within the classroom. What is the dirty secret behind this very loud silence? Why the loud talk about grand solutions and, at the same time, the reluctance to exploit what we know by providing more resources and incentives for the able classroom teacher? Few scholars write about costs and effort and the value of results within the context of classroom transactions. Is talking about money (i.e., micro-economics) taboo here or do we simply not know how to talk about value in educational research at the classroom tactical level? We see research reporting that one treatment is significantly better than another, and we may even see estimates of the size of that effect. But we have not yet developed a metric to allow us to decide whether the obtained gains were worth the trouble. School boards do worry about funds for teachers’ salaries and benefits, about school busing, textbooks, building maintenance, and the digitization of school. But their interests rarely extend into the micro-economics of the classroom. Many of our problems could be mended if we increased classroom resources in an intelligent way.3

If educational boards feel they cannot provide the needed funds, they should speak candidly and admit that they can only provide enough money to have X percent of all students reach the required instructional goals. If there is an economist in the crowd he might say that no community can afford to effectively educate more than Y percent of the student population in order to reach an ideal achievement criterion. Above the whole school situation, especially in the middle and high school grades, lingers today a kind of shabby cheapness cloaked in hypocrisy. The grouped classroom system for teachers did not evolve because it is the most effective method for teaching but because it was cheaper than many other available alternatives. The continued search for better research-based instructional maneuvers is a necessity, but deferring the solutions for our current problems until the appearance of a magical knight and loudly announcing dedication to the search for new ideas, is plain hypocrisy bordering on a scam if the use of effective but resource-demanding methods is neglected.     

Many years of struggling with both the academic and general literature on educational research and improvement leaves one wondering why we chase magical, uncertain remedies to our problems while well-proven research-based findings that can make public instruction more effective are not widely used. We have allowed a shabby thrift to shape a micro-economy of the classroom that does not support energetic adoption by teachers of these more laborious methods by failing to channel sufficient resources and providing the right incentives. We need to recognize that we can improve schooling now if we spend more intelligently at the tactical lesson level and create a climate that will rescue and sustain teachers who are now entangled in logical confusions about effort, costs, and value. These confusions can have poisonous effects on our children and the future of the nation. The remedy for many of our schooling problems does not require curing the big elephant of his constipation. A more immediately productive (and safer) method is to cultivate our garden with fertilizer from the lesser, but livelier creatures that inhabit the cognitive laboratory and, at the same time, provide the classroom teacher with the proper resources for tilling his or her lot.


1. This note includes a small, illustrative sample of literature references to various instruction-relevant cognitive findings alluded to in the text. Test and recitation effects on attention and memory: Bjork & Bjork, 2011; Karpicke & Roediger, 2007a; Marsh, Roediger, Bjork, & Bjork, 2007;  McDaniel, Roediger, & McDermott, 2007; Roediger & Karpicke, 2006a,b; Rothkopf, 1996; Spacing of instruction and testing: Cepeda, Coburn, Rohrer, Wixted, Mozer, & Pashler, 2009; Karpicke & Roediger, 2007b; Roediger & Karpicke, (in press); Organization of subject matter: Arnoult, 1957; Ausubel, 1960; Gagné & Baker, 1950, Mayer, 1977; Reigeluth, 1979; Formative development of instructional material: Rothkopf, 1970; Rothkopf, 2009; Depth of processing and elaboration: Craik  & Lockhart, 1972; D’Agostino, O’Neill, Paivio, 1977; Merrill, 1977; Slamecka & Graf, 1978; Tulving & Thompson, 1973;  General learning and memory: Bjork (in Press); Rohrer & Pashler, 2010; Rothkopf, 1981; Thorndike, Edward L. (1932).

2. My assertions about classroom practices rely on well-educated guesses. Reliable data on such practices is very much needed but in short supply.

3. Technology, such as interactive computer programs and rich media resources, might be useful here as a labor-saver. School systems seem more inclined, however, to invest in dramatic press-catching technological ventures than in technological labor-saving aids for teachers.


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Roediger, H.L., & Karpicke, J.D. (in press). Intricacies of spaced retrieval: A resolution. In A.S. Benjamin (Ed.), Successful remembering and successful forgetting: Essays in honor of Robert A. Bjork. New York: Psychology Press.

Rohrer, D., & Pashler, H. (2010). Recent research on human learning challenges conventional instructional strategies. Educational Researcher, 39, 406-412.

Rothkopf, E. Z. (1970). Educational experimental stations, data tables and memories for courses are effective supplements for the laboratory. In Needs of Education and Labor, House of Representatives, Ninety-First Congress (pp. 704–710). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

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Rothkopf, E.Z., Dashen, M.L., & Teft, K. (2002). Aggregation in memory of episodic influences on rule-guided decisions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 28(5), 983-998.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 04, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16271, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 11:13:36 PM

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About the Author
  • Ernst Rothkopf
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    ERNST Z. ROTHKOPF is the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Telecommunications and Education, Emeritus, at Teachers College, Columbia University. His major research interests are in human learning, cognition, instructional technology, and instructive communications. His most recent research has been on interaction between analytic processes and episodic memory in problem solving and decision making (with M. L. Dashen and K. Teft, “Aggregation in Memory of Episodic Influences on Rule-Guided Decisions,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 2002); Aspirations of Learning Science and the Practical Logic of Instructional Enterprises, Educational Psychology Review, 2008 (in press); and economic models of pedagogy (“Cost of Asynchronous Distance Ventures,” Economics of Education Review, 2003).
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