RHSU Classic: The Wham-O Pudding Essay Contest Theory of Educational Innovation
This month marks the 10th anniversary of Rick Hess Straight Up, making it a propitious time to revisit some favorites from the past decade. For each of the Top 20 which run this month, I've offered a quick reflection or thought as to why it remains a personal favorite.
Education funders, advocates, and other assorted talkers have always had a thing for big, bold ideas. The specifics fall in and out of fashion, but the enthusiasm for "exciting game-changers" is always with us. Here's the problem: If I've learned anything after hanging out at a think tank for close to two decades, it's that dreaming up education innovations is one of the easiest things in the world. After being bombarded with weeks of goofy notices for a think tank's "moon shot" competition, in which a bunch of advocates and analysts would evaluate paper plans submitted by other advocates and analysts and then crown a winner, I felt moved to mock. This post was the result. Now, on to number 12, originally published on July 15, 2019.
Back in the 1950s, American marketing mavens had a love affair with contests. Sara Lee would invite customers to devise a homemade recipe using the company's new waffle mix. Or Wham-O would implore kids to write a hundred words on the niftiest treat they could dream up using Wham-O chocolate pudding. And creative jingles were, of course, huge. Winners were feted. It must've all been very cheerful and amusing.
Disconcertingly, Wham-O corporate marketing seems on the verge of becoming the go-to strategy for turbo-charging K-12 school improvement. On an alarmingly regular basis nowadays, I receive another invitation to participate in some new make-a-video/pen-an-essay/dream-a-little-dream contest devoted to rethinking, reinventing, or reimagining American education. The announcements are invariably marketed as a chance for enthusiastic pudding eaters to tell the world about their pie-eyed plans to revolutionize American education.
I get it. I do. It's good to explore possibilities, and there is real value in spurring our collective imagination. In a polarized era, after years of heated debates over things like testing and teacher evaluation, gee-whiz contests focused on big ideas seem like a genial, likable idea. These kinds of contests can be inclusive: Everyone gets to play, so long as they have an e-mail address and a keyboard. And the contests are a special boon for the marketing/PR types, who get to put on their 1950s Mad Men hat and then blast out fawning profiles of appreciative winners.
And, let's be clear. I'm all in favor of creative thinking. But, for all that, I fear that these contests are the worst way I can think of to spur real change in schooling.
Truth is, I can't think of a single transformational venture that ever emerged from a Wham-O pudding essay contest. Why? Pioneering works are inevitably the product of single-minded, sustained commitment. They require a fanatical willingness to fail and iterate. They're less about a shiny idea than about the relentlessness needed to twist, muscle, and drag that idea into reality—and none of that shows up in a video, essay, or jingle.
Indeed, the history of innovation makes clear that having a neat idea may be one of the least important, and most overrated, parts of the story. Steve Jobs thought he was going to transform the world in 1984 with the launch of the Macintosh, only to fail miserably and be driven out of Apple within a few years. The fascinating part of the story wasn't his vision but the tenacity with which he pursued his vision of tightly controlled, carefully curated computing over a span of decades.
If Jobs and Wozniak, or Bill Gates and Paul Allen, had penned an essay in the 1970s about their vision, it would've been divorced from the experience of doing it. Heck, it likely would've been hard to distinguish from hundreds of other similar entries. Worse, because they were garage-builders whose success was due to relentlessness, adaptation, and more than a little luck, I kind of suspect their entries would've paled next to those of thumb-suckers and soothsayers who'd spent their days learning what phrases were in vogue and mastering impressive-sounding terminology.
As I survey education innovation over the past three decades, I think of ventures like KIPP, Teach For America, Big Picture Learning, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, Khan Academy, Relay, Success Academies, Edison, TNTP, and New Leaders. Love them or loathe them, these ventures have had an impact on schooling for millions of children. And, yet, having spent many years observing these various efforts, I'd submit that their founders would've fared poorly in a big-idea essay contest—because their ideas evolved dramatically as they actually had to do the work they'd previously envisioned.
Indeed, I fear that this big-idea contest boomlet risks redirecting attention, energy, and regard toward poseurs and aspiring TED talkers and away from the innovators and inventors with the skill and the will to make remarkable things happen.