Keep the Principles

Use your own best judgment at all times.
The entire Nordstrom’s Department Stores policy manual

While sorting my literature I stumbled over an interesting chapter by Carl Bereiter. His discussed his early work and how one of his programs was proven ineffective after it was adapted to wide-spread practical use. The reason he gives for the lack of impact of a formerly high impact experiment when it is turned into practice is remarkable:

This reduction of principles to procedures is, I believe, the main reason why high-impact experiments turn into low- or zero-impact practices. I have seen it happening in all the areas where I have tried to have impact. The principle that mathematics should make sense to students gets turned into exercises with manipulatives. Inquiry learning gets turned into filling in the blanks in laboratory workbooks. Thinking about what you have read gets turned into answering comprehension questions. Problem solving strategies get turned into the “golden steps.” Writing as a socio-cognitive process gets turned into “process writing”: plan, write, rewrite.
Bereiter, C. (1999). In Search of High Impact. In L. Harasim (Ed.), Wisdom & Wizardry: Celebrating the Pioneers of Online Education. (pp. 8-9). Vancouver, BC: Telelearning, Inc.

No wonder he went on to create a Knowledge Building project (together with the person who had showed that his early program had no effect) that had the principles build into the program that was used. It’s hard to mess up a intervention when the affordances of the program are set up in a way that simply using it will lead to the desired effect.

But I think that this problem occurs on a general level. In many areas people desperately want to follow procedures, rather than the principles behind them. And there are strong incentives to do so, for example:

Procedures are safe. You can always proof that you have done the right thing if you follow procedures (at least to others, your conscience might be harder to convince). After all, you did exactly what the procedures asked for and the procedures are usually operationalized in such a way that you (and others) can easily see this. In contrast, acting according to principles is harder to defend. There is always room for discussion, and there is always the chance that someone sees a way of behaving closer to the principle (e.g., more efficient, with less negative outcomes for others), which is often regarded as threatening to the perceived competence of the person who did not see it.

Procedures are predictable. You know what happens and who does what. Principles, on the other hand, can lead to vastly different behaviors based on tiny differences in the interpretation of the situation. Even worse, a person can change his behavior and act completely different the next time.

Procedures are easy to work with. Especially in a cognitive demanding job, clear procedures save resources. You do not have to rethink the situation or make value judgments, you just follow the procedures. And in some areas this makes sense. However, you miss chances for improvement and risk causing harm by neglecting the specifics of the situation. Principles are messy and take a lot of cognitive resources (What does justice in this situation mean? What would be fair?), but they can produce better results in a specific situation than procedures can.

So, yes, there are understandable reasons for turning principles into procedures. But while you gain some things (safety, predictability, easy of work), you loose so much: Not only the high impact Bereiter’s earlier program had, but also the opportunity for a better implementation of these principles. Procedures cannot be replaces without making those who followed them look like fools are simple-minded sheep: They did follow the procedures to the letter and now it turns out they are wrong, or inefficient. For those who follow them it is much better to keep the principles no matter how outdated they are, to resist any change that comes. Creativity is an enemy because it deviates from the established procedures — and improvement of these procedures is very hard to impossible.

Principles, however, are so abstract that they actually can stay the same. Creativity might be limited by the principles, but the creativity has at least free reign to improve the actual implementation of these principles. And the implementation can change dramatically. New and better implementations of the principles are welcomed — and improvement is possible.

Note: Regarding “mathematics should make sense to students gets turned into exercises with manipulatives” — there is an interesting TEDTalk by Dan Meyer about this topic.