Our failure to conceive the idea of…

IMG_1365I appreciate letters to the editors and blog comments that enable me to see a problem and its solutions in fresh ways.

My previous post described physician Atul Gawande’s New Yorker perspective regarding the uneven pace of medical innovation and my thoughts about the implications of his views for education.

A couple of weeks later this letter written by Daniel Mark Fogel of the University of Vermont appeared in the magazine:

Gawande begins with an example of an innovation that spread rapidly after 1846: William Morton’s use of gas to render patients insensible to pain. This advance has been pondered elsewhere, however, as a discovery that surgeons were agonizingly slow to adopt. In 1800, the English chemist and inventor Humphry Davy, in his book “Researches,” described the anesthetic properties of nitrous oxide, remarking, “As nitrous oxide in its extensive operation appears capable of destroying physical pain, it may probably be used with advantage in surgical operations.” This discovery caught the attention of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, to whom Davy’s publisher sent “Researches.” Richard Holmes, who tells the story in some detail in his book “The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science,” relates that Coleridge wrote to Davy, pressing him to pursue the matter with Coleridge’s friend Sir Anthony Carlisle, a leading London surgeon. Yet nearly half a century of excruciating pain for surgical patients was to pass before the date when Gawande takes up the story. Holmes suggests that the best explanation for the failure to adopt anesthesia is that surgeons—who prided themselves on the speed with which they operated and on their psychological mastery of pain—were simply unable to conceive of the idea of painless surgery.

“The failure to conceive the idea of…”—that is exactly it!

The failure to “conceive the idea” that:

• Virtually all students can learn important things given high-quality teaching and sufficient time

• Learning for both adults and young people is as much about effort as it about “smarts.”

• It is possible to design schools in which everyone in the school community experiences engagement, success, and satisfaction virtually every day.

• Together we are better than we are alone—teaching and school leadership are not independent activities but part of a larger, interdependent whole.

What ideas would you add to this list?

2 Responses to “Our failure to conceive the idea of…”


  1. 1 Mike Phillips October 2, 2013 at 5:59 am

    Being fair is not treating students as equals. Instead, being fair is meeting each student’s learning need and understanding that each student may have different needs. Educators can be fair to all students, so learning improves.


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