Cargo Cult Education

Cargo Cult Education — the idea that it’s enough to “find what works, adopt it and spread it around ” — is all the rage, writes Allison at Kitchen Table Math in response to Curt Johnson’s Eduwonk post on innovation vs. replication.  She quotes physicist Richard Feynman on “Cargo Cult Science“:

In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

Districts need to “understand what’s underneath the ‘lessons of the high performing school’” in order to make a difference, Allison writes.

Reading instruction — all strategies and no substance — is an example, writes Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog.

Its entire point is to teach children “what good readers do” and the habits of mind that are reflexive to able readers. It’s the exactly the same thing – you teach kids to mimic the behaviors that lead to comprehension – but without the background knowledge that actually makes it possible.

The Music Man’s Harold Hill was ahead of his time. Buy the band uniforms and the instruments — look like a marching band — and you’ll never have to learn the notes.

About Joanne


  1. In the 19th century, scientists believed that malaria was caused by “bad air,” such as was found in and around swamps. To combat malaria, they drained the swamps…and malaria disappeared!

    We know now, of course, that malaria is carried by mosquitoes, and draining swamps kills mosquitoes, and the death of the mosquitoes is the real reason that malaria disappeared in those areas.

    But for most purposes, the empirically based swamp-draining solution worked quite well.

    The same is true of teaching methods – if we find a method that improves outcomes, we should implement it in appropriate situations, *even if* we don’t precisely understand why it works.

    Of course once we understood the mosquito-malaria connection, we were able to fight malaria even more effectively. And I’m certain that if we understood why certain teaching methods were effective, we would be able to come up with even more effective methods.

    But we shouldn’t throw out empirically proven methods simply because we don’t understand why they work.

  2. Clearly these people have not watched Field of Dreams 🙂

  3. Peter, your malaria analogy is fine to a degree. But it’s not enough. Suppose our 19th century scientists come to understand that in draining the swamps, it’s not the bad air, but the standing water that “causes” malaria. Eureka! Standing water causes malaria! Quick, no more bathing! You’ll catch malaria!

    The problem with a half truth, as has often been observed, is that you might be holding on to the wrong half.

    We shouldn’t throw out empirically proven methods simply because we don’t understand why they work, you say. But if we don’t understand how they work, then we have empirically proved nothing. The Cargo Cultists are doing what is “empirically proven” — building runways, lighting signal fires, etc. Should they not abandon these proven methods?

  4. Parent2 says:

    “The same is true of teaching methods – if we find a method that improves outcomes, we should implement it in appropriate situations, *even if* we don’t precisely understand why it works.”

    There’s a misreading of the original post at KTM in this discussion. It misses the point of the Cargo Cult story. Allison wrote, “But replication should not be left undefined, as if it’s easy to “find what works, adopt it, and spread it around” so to speak.”

    “As if it’s easy.” She did not assume, nor accept, that it’s possible to “find what works.” The whole point of the analogy is that imitation doesn’t lead to success–particularly if you only imitate that which you have the capacity to understand.

  5. Homeschooling Granny says:

    And is it what is going on in schools that makes the difference or is it what is going on in homes?

  6. Richard Aubrey says:


    To reiterate an analogy: Alphabets are attempts to write down sounds. If you can “sound out” a word, the presumption is, you will then recognize it from the spoken language which surrounds you, and which you speak. It works better if you have more familiarity with the spoken language, a larger vocabulary and more understanding of the concepts included in various words.
    Whether it’s phonics or “look-say”, if you don’t know the word to begin with, you’re screwed.
    Which means that the richness of the kid’s home life is the primary factor in learning reading. Not only vocabulary due to having been spoken to, but the parent’s (s’) interest in explaining things.
    I happened to be out with a couple of two-year-olds, my granddaughter and a friend with his daughter. As we wandered down a dirt road, he was forever picking up a stone or a plant leaf and explaining something. Showing her how the water came onto the road….
    She’ll do better than some poor kid who’s mostly been told to shut up.

  7. Its hard to match pm’s comment about the Field of Dreams.

    So why do otherwise intelligent people like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee believe you can just raise expectations and impose accountability and the turnarounds of our toughest schools will just come?

    I hate to use the words “common sense” because when I was in grad schools, those words were banned, like the words “culture of poverty.” Obviously there isn’t a scientific definition of common sense. But, there is something that grows out of the word “common.”

    After a generation of the “Big Sort,” we have no commons in America. Look at the political signs in my neighborhood and you’d assume that Oklahoma is Obama country. Few education reformers know and love family members or friends who would attend a hardcore NEIGHBORHOOD school. They have no personal knowledge of whether “best practices” that work in elementary or low-poverty, or high-poverty charter schools would work in neighborhood schools or not.

    By the way, the first book I read in college was by Feynman. Maybe we should make “reformers” more accountable by testing them on Surely You Jest, Mr. Feynman, and above all, Catch 22 by another old guy with a teacher’s sense of humor.

  8. A significant problem with the Cargo Cult Education model is that schools tend to implement only those aspect of a successful method that they actually agree with.

    For example, the KIPP schools are doing a fantastic job of improving educational outcomes for typically underperforming students. They are a success story, but there are a variety of opinions about why the KIPP method works.

    If there isn’t an understanding of what KIPP is doing correctly, and WHY that is working, the immitators and replicators will pick and choose what they feel like implementing (and miss the important ingredients along the way).

    So, using my KIPP analogy, a constructivist teacher might observe a classroom room, see that the teachers stand in the hallway before class and great every single student on the way in. Our constructivist likes that practice and adopts it, and says she is now doing what they do at KIPP. On the other hand, the constructivist doesn’t like the extra hours (longer day) of direct instruction, so instead does extra hours of projects, keeping the kids after school to work on constructing their knowledge by building mobiles with index cards. She also calls this a KIPP method, because she has extended the day.

    My point is that the lack of knowledge about why something works leads educators to only adopt those aspects of a successful model that the teacher already agrees with and rejects other aspects (which might be the real key to making it work). So my hypothetical teacher extends her school day and greats her students on the way into the classroom (which may have some improvement in and of itself), but rejects the fundamentals due to faulty preconceptions.

  9. I have a single bumper sticker on the back of my car. I had it specially made up by Cafe’ Press. It say’s “It’s the culture, stupid.” I’d like to thank Bill Clinton for the inspiration.

  10. The home lays the foundation for school. It is the difference between building on rock and sand.

  11. What the author, and the commentors, are missing is that the “Cargo Cult” description doesn’t apply because the prayers of the faithful in the public education system are regularly answered. No matter what half-baked, hare-brained scheme the purveyors of edu-crap come up with there’s almost always someone to buy the idea and fund it.