The Thinking Teacher: Worse is better
If we want thinking children, we need thinking teachers. This is the premise of my book ‘The Thinking Teacher’, in this series of posts I am sharing some of the key ideas from the book and the thinking behind them.
In the spirit of questioning assumptions through contrast, a strong theme in the book is looking to areas outside of education for the lessons they might contain for teaching. This chapter considers the field of computer science, and specifically the philosophy behind the Unix systems that inderpin much open source software that makes much of the web run.
It would be easy to paint software engineering as being entirely functional, but this is far form the case. Whether it is the roots in higher education, or the perceived potential of technology to transform society, there is a strong tradition of philosophy in software. In 1994 Mike Gancartz codified some of this in his book ‘The Unix Philosophy’, which explored the underlying principles on which the system was built and which should be followed to continue to develop its applications.
These are not specifically designed guidelines to be stuck to, nor are they hard and fast rules. What they are is principles in the true sense, models for thinking about how systems work, and as such they provide an interesting counterpoint for thinking about learning and teaching. They allow us to wonder what teaching might be like if its systems and processes were designed based on the same philosophy as some of the most successful software in the world.
One such principle has often struck me as having applications for teaching and learning; the concept that ‘Worse is better’.
Fundamentally this principle states that it is better to have something that is imperfect but gets the job done in the context for which it is intended (a ‘worse’ solution) than have something that is perfect in terms of being polished or complete in terms of having all possible features for all contexts (a ‘better’ solution).
I’ve often reflected on this when thinking about teaching practice. So many of us have ideas of what the ‘best’ way of teaching might be, how we might enact our fundamental principles of what perfect learning looks like and executer the in our teaching. A lesson I learned during my first year as a qualified teacher was that trying to enact your perfect model of teaching regardless of context is not the most effective solution. In the complex spaces of schools and classrooms, sometimes it is the approach that gets the outcomes needed that needs to be used, not the one you would use in a perfect world.
In terms of teaching style, ‘worse’ but effective is often more desirable than ‘better’ approaches that just don’t fit the context or constraints you have.
‘The Unix Philosophy’ is full of such principles; small is beautiful, choose portability over efficiency, avoid captive user interfaces. Many of these contain some interesting provocations for thinking about teaching and learning, and in this chapter of ‘The Thinking Teacher’ I pull apart a few that we might use to challenge the assumptions we bring to our teaching every day.