If we were all academic research scientists instead of teachers, we wouldn’t be bothered when we looked in the latest teaching book or the most recent Edutopia article and found that some educator had “invented” a great new strategy that we thought we had invented ourselves. This is because academic research scientists are painfully familiar with the phenomenon of “multiple discovery” (or “simultaneous invention”). According to one survey of 1,718 US researchers conducted in 1974, University of Wisconsin sociologist Warren Hagstrom found that 46.2% of scientists of those surveyed had experienced a time when their research was “anticipated” at least once in their careers, meaning that nearly half of the scientists surveyed had experienced exactly what you and I do when we look at that latest book or article and see “our” strategy described by someone else who had discovered it independently of us .
To be clear, we’re not talking about plagiarism here — multiple discovery excludes cases of stealing ideas. Nope — this is just good old fashioned “someone else came up with my great idea completely on their own.”
As a blogger, this is something I came to peace with long before learning about multiple discoveries. First of all, I’ve long been suspicious of “new” ideas — “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun,” right ? Books like Schmoker’s Focus, which clearly proclaim their non-uniqueness, are those I tend to trust most.
But in newer teachers especially, I still see this penchant for doing the best, most unique things. If we see another teacher in our building using better strategies than us, or our same strategies with better results, we feel that there’s something wrong with us, like we’re not good teachers. And certainly, I’m not so mature a teacher-writer that I don’t encounter magnum opuses like Jim Burke’s The English Teacher’s Companion (now in its fourth edition) or Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle (now in its third edition) without being left slack-jawed and weak-kneed. Why even try writing for teachers when works like these exist?
And here’s the truth, for both the teacher threatened by the greatness of others and the writer: the point of teaching is not to be the Unique Teacher who is the Hero and has the Answer and saves the Day. This mindset is built on a notion of scarcity, that there can only be a limited number of fantastic teachers, and it’s absurd to think like that for a lot of reasons, and one of those reasons is the phenomenon of multiple discoveries.
Ironically, it’s only when we stop obsessing about our uniqueness, about becoming the Hero of the Movie, and start obsessing about becoming as good as possible at what we do, that we begin coming up with our best possible contributions to our students and to our field. The accolades aren’t the point. The uniqueness of what we do isn’t what it’s about because it’s not about us.
- Robert Merton, a sociologist of science at Columbia University, seems to be the expert on multiple discovery. The best source I read on the topic, which included information from Warren Hagstrom’s 1974 survey, was in this academic essay (author unknown).
- Ecclesiastes 1:9. This book’s authorship is commonly attributed to the Hebrew King Solomon, c. 990 BC.