Why Teaching is Harder than Rocket Science

While it may not be on their list to Santa, there’s one thing that every kid wants and needs:  a good teacher. Take time over the holidays to read this insightful and informative story from Ryan Fuller, a former NASA engineer who is now an 11th grade math teacher – one who is humbled by the revelation that teaching is harder than rocket science.

Rocket engineers get months to craft solutions based on data. Teachers have to solve problems on the fly, often with little access to relevant data.  Engineers count on the codified laws of science. Teachers have to respond to the realities of young lives, which often includes significant stress.

The rocket science comparison is apt not only for explaining why classroom teaching is hard; it helps to show why, at the community level, making the array of policy, practice and resource changes needed to improve classroom teaching is hard. John Kania of FSG, co-author of the Stanford Social Innovation Review “collective impact” article that has had such an impact on community leaders, emphasizes the difference between tasks that are complicated and those that are complex. Building rockets is complicated.  Raising and teaching children is complex. There are no formulas that, even if followed perfectly, consistently produce the same outcome.

The two things Fuller found most challenging in his transition from engineer to teacher illustrate the challenges that executives face when they transition from managing or governing organizations to guiding a collective impact approach in communities:

  • Teachers have two jobs. They curate and coordinate – lesson plans, tests, grades, parent conferences, forms – and they orchestrate, conducting a literal “symphony of human development” that is heavily relationship driven.

  • Teachers, even when they execute lessons perfectly, have to expect much higher failure rates than engineers. This is because teachers work with animate beings, and cannot treat young people narrowly as clients.

These are among the reasons that it is so difficult to correctly and effectively implement collective impact strategies for young people. That’s why the Forum works with community leaders to effectively implement community change, and is proud to be partnering with FSG on the Collective Impact Forum– a resource for practitioners and funders who are using the collective impact approach to achieve large-scale systems change.

Read the article in Slate >>