Six Social Scientists

Originally published in the SFLC Monthly Recharge. Read the rest of the issue for other perspectives on the messiness of school leadership.


Our brains contain 80-100 billion brain cells, or about as many stars as are in the Milky Way galaxy. [1] We do not yet understand, or can simulate, consciousness, never mind thought. How, then, could it be even remotely possible for us to scientifically understand human behavior, learning, and the complex system of people that we call “school?”

Federal and state education policies reduce the analysis to an attractively simple principle. Administer student standardized tests about three times per year, in reading, writing, and math, and evaluate schools based on student performance. Standardized tests provide the illusion of scientific rigor, as tests may produce reliable, but certainly not valid, measurements of what kids know and can do. Absent leadership that is mindful of the human condition, this strategy leads to narrow curriculum, reductive teaching methods, and loss of enthusiasm for learning.

Over many decades, academia has developed a far wider range of social science practices than testing, to learn what we can about messy, human behaviors. Instead of reducing to the simplest principles, social scientists first look at the products of human behavior: the artifacts we produce, rituals we follow, and ideas we express. This approach assumes that people behave in complex ways and asks what patterns we can discern that may have validity and inform our practice.

Tom Kelley offers his Ten Faces of Innovation. [2] Edward de Bono has Six Thinking Hats. [3] I humbly offer you my “Six Social Scientists.” The next time you study an issue in your school, assume one of these social science roles and see whether it changes your perspective.

The Historian

The popular press would have you believe that education today is completely unique, unlike anything ever experienced before. Some education theorists would argue the opposite: that education has not changed at all in a hundred years. We know that neither is entirely true. Some education practices have changed little, and others have changed dramatically. Larry Cuban and David Tyack eloquently explain this in Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform [4]and Tyack’s The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education. [5]

A historical lens helps us better understand contemporary education debates. For example, 21st century education builds on progressive education of the 1950’s. School architects have walled off classrooms, opened them up, and brought walls back again.

The Anthropologist

Anthropology is the study of culture, and culture is defined as the beliefs and behaviors of a group of people. Schools develop strong cultures, including the cultures of the individuals within them. Ignore culture at your own risk. Anthropologists Mimi Ito and danah boyd, among many others, help us understand students’ beliefs and behaviors. Design thinking emphasizes anthropological methods, particularly techniques of observation to gain insight into subjects’ experiences and needs.

The Sociologist

Sociologists ask big questions about people and education. Contemporary topics include socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, gender identity, and social networking. The Pew Internet and American Life Project, Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Youth Project have contributed immeasurably to our understanding of youth uses of electronic media.

The Psychologist

The field of psychology has contributed to our understanding of the process of learning, memory, intelligence, learning disabilities, and self-esteem, among others. From Piaget’s theory of cognitive development to Michael Thompson’s work on boys [6], psychology continues to fundamentally influence our educational practices.

The Communications Scholar

The arts of persuasion, explanation, and storytelling find expression through print, web, and video media. Skilled communication is vital in this era of social media and instantaneous news dissemination. School leaders keep their constituents informed. Boards set the vision and strategic direction of the school. Teachers keep students and parents abreast of the essential questions and accomplishments of the class.

The Education Scholar

Let us not forget that education is a social science to itself. While making explicit connections to all of the other social sciences, education also has its unique domains, such as pedagogy, curriculum development, supervision and evaluation, professional development, educational leadership, and teacher training. Make sure that you have a few education graduates in your faculty and administration!


1. “Simulating 1 Second of Human Brain Activity Takes 82,944 Processors.” ExtremeTech. ExtremeTech, 5 Aug. 2013. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.

2. Kelley, Tom, and Jonathan Littman. The Ten Faces of Innovation: IDEO’s Strategies for Beating the Devil’s Advocate & Driving Creativity throughout Your Organization. New York: Currency/Doubleday, 2005. Print.

3. De, Bono Edward. Six Thinking Hats. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985. Print.

4. Tyack, David B., and Larry Cuban. Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995. Print.

5. Tyack, David B. The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1974. Print.

6. “Michael Thompson, Ph.D.” Michael Thompson, Ph.D. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.

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