Why Silver Bullet Solutions Persist in Education

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(Image credit: Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay)

Silver bullet solutions are not unique to education. Fad diets, get-risk-fast investment schemes, and untested COVID cures are testaments to the widespread appeal of a silver bullet solution. But silver bullets, and the almost-magic quick fixes promised, can be particularly damaging in education where funds and resources are limited, and where these can distract from more modest interventions that provide small but important gains. 

Educators have spoken out against silver bullet-type interventions and the quick fixes these promise since at least the 1980s, so why do these approaches continue to have such appeal? We asked some leading researchers. 

Silver Bullet Solutions Offer Easy Answers to Complicated Problems  

“The alternative to there being silver bullets is this idea that school communities are unique, they have unique needs, and that if you want to improve them, it's a very bespoke local process,” says Justin Reich, director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab. 

Viewed from this localized perspective, fixing problems in education becomes a more daunting task. “Then there are 130,000 schools and 13,000 school districts that you have to help try to get better,” Reich says. “I totally understand why people hope, ‘Oh, but aren't there some things we could do that could help everyone?’ It just usually doesn't unfold that way.” 

Silver Bullets Appeal to Us Cognitively  

One or two simple interventions are often easier for most people to digest than more complex strategies. “The architecture of human cognition is such that we have a hard time handling more than a handful of concepts in our head at a time,” says Virginia Clinton-Lisell, a professor in educational psychology at the University of North Dakota.

Given this, many people are unconsciously drawn to silver bullet solutions to complex problems. However, the impulse to try silver bullets isn’t always a bad thing, says Matthew Kraft, an associate professor of Education & Economics at Brown University

“It's understandable that people are looking for big solutions because we have big problems in education in the United States,” he says. 

We Misunderstand Data  

A silver bullet-type intervention can seem better than it is because it relies on the results of one study that often can’t be applied universally. Sometimes smaller studies show lots of promise but are not effective when implemented on a larger scale. 

A classic example of this is found in Benjamin S. Bloom’s famous 2 sigma problem. For his study, Bloom observed tremendous positive impacts from students who engaged in intensive one-on-one tutoring instead of taking a class, but as is often the case, there was no way to implement this type of program on a larger scale. 

“That was from a study of tutoring done with a very small group of students focused on a very narrow content area,” Kraft says. “It's just not something that is realistic to replicate at scale, in our very diverse and decentralized education system.”

Research Is Often Focused on One Intervention 

The complex nature of research often requires researchers to zero in on their particular area of research to the exclusion of other areas. 

“Experts narrow in on one specific component,” Clinton-Lisell says. “So their suggestions are probably going to be single-focused. And in order to advance in their careers and get funding for the research, they have to come up with a convincing narrative as to why their particular area of expertise is better.” 

Because of this, some have suggested re-working the funding structure for researchers. Clinton-Lisell believes it might help if researchers didn't have to fight one another so much to win funding. 

Even Effective Educational Interventions Have Limits

Even good research-backed interventions that really help students are rarely, if ever, true silver bullets, because there’s a limit to the impact any one intervention can have. 

“If you're really good at [something], oftentimes getting better involves not doing more of that thing, but doing more of something else,” Reich says. “I spent some time in Singapore as they were really coming to be recognized for their impressive growth in the education system, which they accomplished due to a lot of centralization and coordination. But they reached the limit of what they could achieve through centralization and coordination, and they needed more autonomy and innovation and independence.” 

Big Ideas Have a Place But Shouldn’t Distract From Everyday Efforts 

Kraft says education needs moonshots and silver bullets, but at the same time school leaders should be realistic about the impact of any one innovation. 

“There's an incredible need to change the status quo, but that work is often very difficult and only produces meaningful change with sustained effort over time, and it often is incremental change,” Kraft says. “Even though we need massive change, that doesn't mean that we should be dismissive of incremental change, because sometimes if we prematurely abandon efforts that are making a difference, we end up chasing the next big fad in education rather than just doing something well.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.