Five Obstacles to Change in Education

Recently, I led a professional development seminar in which I introduced colleagues to the SAMR model of technology integration. Meanwhile, I shared two excellent TED talks with members of our technology exploratory committee. The reactions from these extremely talented, experienced, dedicated teachers were especially insightful. In bold, some of their thoughts, followed by my own.

1) We need to change parents’ and students’ expectations.

Diana Laufenberg’s talk makes a compelling argument for contextualizing content in the real world and pursuing the “big ideas” of a curriculum through student-centric, non-linear paths. She nails 21st century pedagogy. But she works at SLA. Most schools were not built from the ground up to pursue this progressive model. Most schools have found success for many decades in traditional instructional models. Independent schools are supported by parents who have benefited significantly from this traditional model. Though they go home to an increasingly digital world, our kids know only one sort of school too. Serious effort must be put into changing everyone’s expectations by justifying an alternative model. That argument is too often buried in empty rhetoric and jargon. What’s more, it is often combative in tone and content. Kids, parents, and educators all want what’s best for the students; the moment you pick a fight, they think that you don’t. Every argument for change should focus on how it serves the students while acknowledging that your audience has the same goal. Parents and students can’t be convinced otherwise.

2) We need time.

Trying new instructional models requires a lot more time. Most of us roll our curriculum into each successive year, tweaking and improving along the way. Trying something entirely new requires significant research, thinking, and planning. Also, if it involves the real world in any meaningful way, it’s not going to neatly fit into the time slots allotted for a traditional lesson or unit. The real world doesn’t break down into semesters. Stipends for summer work are an excellent investment for these reasons.

3) We need to be willing to be rookies again.

Ken Robinson is right (mostly). But embracing his views isn’t easy. New instructional models sound great in TED talks, blogs, and on Twitter. I’m happy to write about the lessons and units that were achievements. Less often will you hear about the unsuccessful ones. But that’s where real lessons are learned for an educator about how these new instructional models work. As inspiring as the blogs can be, we must remember that the role of a teacher in these new models – that of facilitator, as they say – is very difficult. It requires a delicate balance of self-restraint, passivity in the face of student failure, and acute awareness of exactly when and how to get involved. For years teachers have been talking more than they are listening, correcting wrongs, and intervening wherever we can. We must allow ourselves to feel like a rookie again for a few units. Every good educator can figure all this out. When kids start doing extraordinary things in our classrooms, it’ll be worth it. But it’s tough.

4) We need technical support.

In short, if technology doesn’t work, you shouldn’t use it. Teachers shouldn’t be their own IT team. We have a great IT team at my school, but not all schools are so lucky.

5) We need to evaluate the old AND the new.

There is a temptation among reformers and edtech folks to speak of traditional instruction as if it is poisonous. Just about every one of those people benefited from it, though. There is a lot of good in what we’ve been doing for many decades. We’ve developed a good sense of what ideas are most worth thinking about. We’ve developed a keen sense of how history progresses and why. We’ve found ways to explain really complicated math and science concepts to kids. The ability to write a good sentence is more important than ever. Our understanding of child development continues to improve. Many of our learning objectives and fundamental beliefs about education won’t change; the means of pursuing them might. At the same time, new objectives will continue to be introduced as well. Until we can claim the same expertise about these new objectives, we ought to be cautious. Meanwhile, we can champion the superior means of achieving traditional ends. In so doing, the traditionalists can be converted, and we can rest assured that students will continue to learn the ideas and skills that have served each of us so well. It’s a brave new world… sort of.