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01.20.14Teaching and Its Problems: Endemic and Exotic

classroom-of-empty-chairs1A few months ago I spent a day with Deborah Ball and her ace team at the University of Michigan TeachingWorks. It was a great day and I told myself I’d write a swath of blog posts worthy of the day. And then I didn’t, which doesn’t reflect on the importance of the visit just on the chaos of my life.

While my list of takeaways was several pages long, one phrase has emerged over time as the most powerful and I find myself using it and thinking about it over and over.

The phrase is ‘Endemic Problem.’  Deborah coined the phrase to refer to a problem that we know is going to exist in teaching. It’s the opposite of an exotic problem-an unpredictable thing that crops up and that you have to solve or deal without benefit of planning or anticipating it.  Endemic problems are challenges you know are going to happen. And so you should be prepared for them.  For example, you should not be surprised when a student does not follow your directions.  You knew that would happen and so you should also have some idea of what to do.  Ideally teacher training would consistently address endemic problems and the ideal responses to them.  People who train teachers ought to also know endemic problems are going to occur and therefore have thought about what specific approaches will help address predictable challenges.  Whether they do or not (Deborah’s program and a few others excepted) is another question.

I think it’s interesting that we often treat as exotic problems that are really endemic.  When you became a teacher you knew someone would try to back talk you, right?  So that’s not an exotic problem, it’s an endemic one and you should already know in advance pretty much what you’ll do in response.  You might feign surprise but you shouldn’t really be surprised.  Similarly, kids forgetting something you’ve taught them is an endemic problem. It’s inevitable. So why be mad at them for it? Better just be prepared for it.  “I thought some of you might forget so I…”

It’s also interesting to think about how much solving endemic problems helps address “exotic problems.”  I often face this issue when I show video of outstanding teachers’ classrooms.  Viewers will often mistake result for cause.  “Well of course she can teach that way, all her kids behave. She has good kids,” they’ll say when really what they are seeing is a result: systematically addressing—before they happen or right after—endemic problems, which makes exotic problems less likely to happen and isolates the people who do them within the community so they are not leaders but outliers.  This to me is the one of the keys to handling “most difficult kids”: removing their receptive audience by addressing endemic behaviors.  Much of counter-productive behavior is social. In their minds kids think, “I want people to see me do this.”  And thinking that implicitly assumes that people will like it and approve it. It assumes a receptive audience.   Removing that encouraging receptive audience and solving the endemic challenges of their classroom behavior isolates an exotic challenge and frees up your time and energy to do the hard slogging of addressing the exotic kid with a bit of tenacity and creativity and maybe problem solving.

Anyway, that’s just one way applying the idea of the “endemic problem” is useful.  I’ve found about 100 others recently, including a discussion with my wife last night about the “endemic problem” of kids not putting laundry in laundry baskets. J

In short I’m always ecstatic when I have a useful phrase to help explain and discuss the work we do as educators and Deborah’s is one I keep going back to. Hopefully now you can too.



6 Responses to “Teaching and Its Problems: Endemic and Exotic”

  1. Max Yurkofsky
    January 20, 2014 at 2:22 pm

    Hey Doug,

    I think it’s really wonderful that you’re seeking out people like Professor Ball who have been so influential in shaping our understanding of teaching/learning, even if your solutions may be quite different to hers in many instances. I was actually lucky enough to take Professor Ball’s class as a TFA corps member in Detroit. We discussed endemic problems, but I remember them slightly differently. Rather than just being a problem that is inherent to teaching or unavoidable, I thought of endemic problems more as “predicaments” (to use her colleague David Cohen’s word), or tradeoffs that are inherent to the work of teaching. For example, the tradeoff between presenting content in the clearest possible/most efficient way and placing more of the burden on students to acquire skills or work out problems (American v Japanese education), or the tradeoff between ensuring behavioral compliance and giving students the opportunity to fail/make bad choices so that they can better internalize behavioral norms. I would imagine you’d argue that these tradeoffs are not as mutually exclusive as I’ve laid out, and I see your work as attempting to bridge that gap. Still, I’d be curious about your thoughts on that aspect of endemic problems, and which problems you feel confident Uncommon has overcome, and which you are still struggling with.


    • Doug_Lemov
      January 20, 2014 at 2:48 pm

      Max- Not surprised there’s a lot more nuance to it than what i described, so thanks ofr clarifying. My own feeling is that teaching is full of necessary tradeoffs that 1) we are always seeking to find the right balance at and 2) that discourse tends to make polarizing (ie people advicate for one or the other as “better’ when a good teacher uses both). I just see that as a slightly difference issue from the predictable problems of the job. or a subset (it’s one of the big ones)… but big enough forme that i’d want a separate word for it.
      PS I actually think that Prof. ball’s solutions are quite similar ot the ones i’ve observed. happily i see mostly alignment in approach to the classroom.

      • January 22, 2014 at 9:44 pm

        This is super interesting. Thank you for drawing attention to a Deborah Ball idea I hadn’t focused on, Doug!

        I’m curious about the difference that Max is pointing out. Max, are you saying that the the definition of an endemic teaching problem is not only that it is non-exotic, as Doug describes, but also that it is inherently ambivalent–inherently involves a tradeoff and thereby is somewhat unsolvable?

        I’m also curious what you mean when you say that you see Doug’s work “as attempting to bridge that gap.” I really like the idea you’re getting at, but I’m also not quite sure what you mean. Do you mean that Doug’s work attempts to eradicate the tensions inherent in teaching? Or that it aims to manage them, both enabling (for example) students to internalize behavioral norms while also scaffolding the decisions to help ensure compliance?

        I also have a question for both Max and Doug. As a journalist who writes about teaching, but who is definitely not a teacher, I have found the Deborah Ball/David Cohen/Magdalene Lampert “endemic problem” framework — the idea that complex human work like teaching often involves irresolvable tensions — both liberating and frustrating. Liberating because it’s nice to be able to admit in the context of, say, figuring out whether to ask a source to go on the record or how much guidance to give a staff member (versus letting him figure out a solution on his own) that there is no perfect answer, and whatever I do will have to “manage” tradeoffs.

        But I also sometimes find myself using this framework as a crutch. I spend a lot of time reflecting on the interesting tensions and tradeoffs, and forget to actually solve the problem in front of me. Then I start to think that maybe it’d be smarter not to dwell so much on tensions and instead to think about complex solutions. I wonder if there’s a similar dynamic that goes on in teaching.

        • Doug_Lemov
          January 23, 2014 at 8:01 pm

          Hi, Elizabeth. I think maybe that’s what i like about my own simpistic formualtion of Deborah’s idea: I LIKE saying “of course that problem exists (a tradeoff or some other sort of challenge). We knew it would exist because it always has and probably always will. But because it’s endemic means some people have solved it. Or they have solved enough of it that they have solved it and gone on the great things. So let’s get solving i nstead of hand wringing, which i agree with you there is entirely too much of

  2. Matt Wheeland
    January 20, 2014 at 7:14 pm

    When I first encountered Dr. Ball’s analysis of problems in education colleges, I did two things:
    (1) I researched for more of Dr. Ball’s ideas because she is quite brilliant.
    (2) In effort to improve myself, I began making a list of specific skills that a Bible teacher (my job) must have. It’s been quite helpful in narrowing areas of needed improvement.

    I remember her saying that her colleagues were attempting to create a list of 19 specific skills that all graduates of her school should have. I know standards exist elsewhere, but there just happens to be so many it begins to make my head spin. Simpler is better.

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