Not Rocket Science…


Teaching is not rocket science. It is, in fact, far more complex and demanding work than rocket science.”

~Richard Elmore~

I used this quote a few weeks back during one of our staff meetings and it seemed to resonate nicely with the group. Like many pithy statements, it’s hits the mark because it is both funny and true. We are asked to do many things in our public schools and we make an honest and sincere effort to meet the complexities and challenges that comprise our work.  So complex is the work of teachers and public schools in the 21st century that I advocate a point of view that goes something like this- the more complex the environment, the more important it is to foster simplicity in the structures that govern that environment.

The folks I work with are used to me confining myself to statements and projects that our limited to the numbers 3 or 5. Though fascinated by Prime numbers, that is not the reason behind this constraint. A desire to adhere to my complexity/simplicity principle is the reason. Our school district, York Region is located in one of the most culturally diverse and dynamic communities in Canada, which is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. This diversity, along with the requirements of 21st century learning and the challenges that accountability and globalization present makes for a lot of complexity. How do I feel we can meet this challenge?

One educator who has had a tremendous influence on me is Deborah Meier. With a great deal of credit to her work at New York’s Central Park East School and Mission Hill School in Boston and the Coalition of Essential Schools I’ve learned a great deal about the ‘5 Habits of Mind’ she has stressed in her leadership. Meier asserts that these habits are “…crucial for exercising judgement on complicated matters.” 5 habits; sounds good to me!

I’ve been thinking about the habits and how I can adapt them and make them part of my leadership toolkit and have landed on these 5 points as being foundational to my work. These habits form the basis for the inquiry I wish to engage upon; for students in classrooms, for teachers working to improve their practice, and for my school leadership and in the networks I’ve joined. They can be articulated as my 5 P’s and, in my thinking, they fit for any context; student classroom learning, teacher learning and the learning that we engage in as school leaders.

Proof- consider the evidence and observations on has; historical events, the solution to a math problem, classroom practice or the results of student assessment.

Perspective- consider the point of view that is reflected and/or the stance of the learner; each event or experience is filtered through perspective and create processes to capture and describe these perspectives.

Pattern- consider the relationships, connections and trends and reflect upon the similarities and differences that are apparent in the proof and perspectives that are the focus of the learning.

Prediction- consider what possible outcomes or results could be, or have been in the past, or how events may have been different if the actions of those involved had been different.

Purpose- consider the importance and relevance of the information and why it is worth pursuing.

Each of these habits will remain the focus of my ongoing professional learning on how to lead complex schools in a complex world. I look to infuse them into my work as a school vice principal, and in the future, when I’m given the opportunity to lead a school as a principal. I look forward to the influence and impact that my colleagues, near and far, will have on this inquiry.

This entry has also been posted on my personal blog, The Smaller Office




  1. Dave said:

    As a former aerospace engineer and now high school physics teacher I can tell you that teaching is harder. Aerospace engineering is harder math and engineering wise, and there are a lot of nuances and issues to deal with, but you are on a team and have lots of time to work on things. As a teacher, most of your time is spent on your own in a classroom and your time to work on lessons is usually your own free time, not work time.

    October 13, 2011
    • Brian Harrison said:

      Thanks for the reply and I appreciate the confirmation! I suspected Elmore’s quote to be true, however, he’s no rocket scientist either and his sentiments could be suspect 🙂 Your mention of the team aspect is so important to me and I’m glad you mentioned it. I wonder why we in education are so reluctant to work in authentic, collaborative teams when there are so many professions (like aerospace engineers) that not are willing to work collaboratively, but expect to do so as part of their professional practice. BTW, it was so cool to hear from an actual rocket scientist who has chosen to work in education!


      October 13, 2011

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