The Thinking Teacher: Worse is better

Thinking Teacher Social Media Posts.013

 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.


More in ‘The Thinking Teacher’, which is available now in from (independent book sellers,) Amazon UKAmazon US and on the iBooks store.

More posts on ideas from ‘The Thinking Teacher’ here.







2 responses to “The Thinking Teacher: Worse is better”

  1. Ken Corish Avatar

    This really resonates with me Oliver and I think is a wonderful slant on the Facebook mantra “better done than perfect”. As a teacher of some 30 years ( yes I know) In my current role I have the luxury of stepping back to view how the teaching landscape has changed. I think I can safely say we have never had such a cohort of young, bright, technically brilliant, innovative, thoughtful, dedicated and talented teachers that we have right at this moment looking after our children and their education. However if Twitter is anything to go by … Boy … Do they beat themselves up about the tiniest of pedagogical detail and there is no lack of advice and commentary out there from the so called education Twitterati who debate and fuel this detail to death. Decorum prevents me from mentioning them but they know who they are. Accountability of course drives much of this… Not just Ofsted but the pressures of the exam system and from schools who are keen to build a reputation that holds them up against others. Its a hard job often made more difficult by the minute detail that is expected now… It gets in the way of breadth and opportunity that young people still need. One thing I have learned in the competetive and challenging sector I now find myself is “getting it done” is the key… Prevarication and inward examination is a barrier to progress and beiing brave is everything. Its a path where the best things emerge and lessons are learned. Better done than perfect.

    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      Thanks for the comment Ken. That is an interesting perspective, and glad that you have shared it here. I go back and forth on this. As you say, there is so often a concentration on what is very much the present situation which can breed an intense reflection and critique that can be too intense at times. In some ways stepping back gives a deeper reflection on where things might have been and where they are going. I’m fascinated by the longer trends, and spent much of my time at Plymouth University deepening my knowledge and understanding of where education has been and might be going. Collective memory in the UK often doesn’t go back any further than the first national curriculum I find.

      I think being able to healthily switch perspectives and focus on the detail of now to get things done, whilst pulling out to look at the bigger picture before this becomes unproductively intense might be the key.

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