The Follow Up: Interventions Often Need Interventions


There is no silver bullet.  Change requires tweaking and digging until you get to the bone.  Be ready; it’s hard work.

Last week I wrote some idea of looking at data, in part use counterfactual questions.  In a counterfactual assessment you prove what is wrong, because it is easier than proving what is right.  For example, I can’t prove that coming to school daily works, but I can easily show that students who are tardy and miss a lot do poorly.

So, what do we know does not work?  What stops learning?  These questions came while reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.  Check out that post (Counterfactual Questioning of Data and Needs) here.

The working method behind counterfactual questioning is to continue to shed what does not work.  As a teacher or leader, I am sure you already know the kids the system is not working for.  And I am sure you know what areas are not working for them.

Why, then, do you continue with your system?

I will bet that the finger points to the kid, the family, or some other factor (poverty, tragedy, punkishness….)–but NOT the system in general.

When we adopt a pedagogy, we do so because we believe it will work.  It’s proven.  There’s data behind it–perhaps, even, from your school!  But, looking at your data now, you know it is not working for all students.

And you adapt.  And that does not work.  Or it doesn’t work for another group.    Or, the system is blamed and abandoned TOO SOON.  What you are doing, or some version of it, probably has many components that do work, but you have to adapt it to the students sitting in front of you.

I used the example of reading in that post, so let me focus on it again.  By putting SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) in the school we can focus more specifically on what does not work until it does (we control the environment, thus making it a nice little laboratory). Is it seating (move them), book selection (look at level and keep trying new titles), fluency ro eye tracking (Google Text to Speech)…. And as we take away what does not work we are left with nothing but reading.

Sherlock Holmes said, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”  This is kind of like that–the second half of the process.  Once you stop trying to make your square peg fit the round hole, you’ll find a whole bunch of things that don’t work.  Great.  And as you try more, seemingly improbable solutions, you will find more that don’t work.  Until you hit on one that does work.  Pay dirt.

Start with your solid pedagogy.  You have to.  But, then, measure.  If it isn’t working, figure out why.  Then try something.  You might start with the old toolbox–why reinvent the wheel–but quickly throw the net wider.  As you do, you’ll get a sense of the student and why they aren’t succeeding.  Be Sherlock Holmes and find that improbable solution.


All of that said, let me recommend Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle: A Lifetime of Learning About Writing, Reading and Adolescents.  In short, she promotes reading and writing workshops: Students work, and she offers mini-lesson and conferences.  Unlike current workshop queen Lucy Caulkins, Atwell’s program adapts, constantly.  The program fits the student.

Don’t worry if reading or writing or middle school is not your focus–the methods she employs works for any subject.  And she is honest about her journey finding these methods–she’s being doing for thirty years and is still refining.  Try to introduce a bit of it into your instruction.




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