What’s in the “black box” of your school or school system?

Dennis Sparks

Years ago a professor invited me to his office seeking my endorsement of a proposal to solicit a large grant to improve middle school science instruction.

He showed me a large chart on his office wall. In the upper left hand corner was a box that indicated that teachers would be engaged with researchers over many months in designing the curriculum and instructional strategies.

The next box said that the curriculum and strategies would be field tested to determine their effectiveness. The third box pointed out that large numbers of teachers would be trained to use the curriculum and teaching strategies.

An arrow went from that box to a black box with no descriptive words attached to it. And, finally, an arrow went from the black box to a box that concluded that teachers would apply their new knowledge and skill and that student learning would improve.

I asked what the black box meant. The researcher shrugged his shoulders, saying that the box contained all the things that went on in schools that were outside of the researchers’ control but would affect whether teachers actually acquire deep understanding of the curriculum and apply the new practices.

Readers of this blog know the black box contains the elements of school culture (trust, clarity of purpose, etc.) and structure (time for meaningful collaboration, instructional coaching to support implementation, etc.) that determine whether or not innovations are adopted and  student learning improves.

What plans did they have to address that black box?, I asked the researcher. Another shrug, indicating his helplessness in the face of such forces..

What’s in the “black box” of your school or school system?

4 Responses to “What’s in the “black box” of your school or school system?”


  1. 1 Mike Phillips November 5, 2013 at 6:33 am

    What is in our black box?

    Beliefs that have formed into habits over many years. These beliefs are so much a part of the people within the culture that they do not even realize how these beliefs shape their practice.

    As leaders, building trust while having critical conversations moves staff in a new direction…what are your thoughts about affecting things within the black box?

    • 2 Dennis Sparks November 5, 2013 at 8:53 am

      I think that one of the most powerful ways of affecting the black box is to make its contents visible. That is, name and describe it. And do so over and over again at every opportunity. We human beings have a remarkable capacity to look reality right in the face and deny or minimize it.

      Your comments, Mike, always extend my thinking and are very much appreciated!

  2. 3 Jeffery Robinson November 6, 2013 at 8:00 am

    Dennis, I benefit so much from your quick, digestible, well-placed posts. Thank you.

    As for the discussion about the black box, I found myself thinking about how the other boxes on the flow chart were actions (initiatives) that happen fairly quickly and often with some agreed-upon shared efforts. The contents of black box, on the other hand, require much more time to implement and sometimes with over opposition. And it’s the benefits of the black box activities that have such a strong outcome on the rest of the chart.

    Where are we currently spending our time and efforts? Inside or outside of the black box?

    • 4 Dennis Sparks November 6, 2013 at 8:41 am

      You conclude with an important question, Jeffery – to which places, things, ideas, values, and practices do we devote our time and attention?

      As you point out, what is inside the black box is more complex and challenging than many of the tasks that are outside of it.

      I appreciate your thoughtful comment!


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