How to stop shouting into the education echo chamber

Photo by Brook Anderson on Unsplash

School should change – you know it, I know it, everyone knows it. But what can we actually do, besides regurgitate the same ideas to each other, like mother birds feeding their chicks?

How do we change the teachers that need to change?

How do we get at the old-school, authoritarian, teaching from the textbook, if-you-can’t-sit-down-and-listen-you’re-a-failure type of teachers?

What we’re asking for is large-scale behaviour change. Kind of like when they told people to quit smoking. That was in the 60’s, and people still smoke today, so you can see how easy this is going to be.

Seth Godin (cue angelic music) published this list about which problems make people act, and which don’t. He says “Human beings in our culture are wired to pay attention to problems that are”: visible, non-chronic, symptomatic, painful, in our control, keep us from feeling stupid, status-driven, expensive and solvable.

How does the need for education reform rank as a problem?

Is it…

Visible?

Not at all. Students could be excelling at multiple-choice tests in a traditional classroom. The ensuing problems with this – that students lack leadership, creativity, and problem-solving skills – only appear 20 years later, when the kids hit the job market.

In fact, the visible problems might horrify an educator first switching to a progressive style (picture this: a lack of control, students colouring outside the lines, and an inability to regurgitate information).

Non-chronic?

Once you start trying to stay on the cutting edge of what’s best for students, you can’t stop. You end up making constant adjustments. Education is chronic.

Symptomatic?

Similar to visible, a traditional teacher sees no symptoms that a problem even exists. Her biggest symptoms are that, “Kids these days won’t listen,” “Kids these days are addicted to their phones!” or, “They can’t even do long division anymore, can you believe it?”

These symptoms point directly to her cure: more drill and practice, more obedience. (But what if they pointed to a different cure: kids see education as useless, so let’s teach in a way that will captivate their imaginations and ignite a hunger for learning.)

Painful?

Symptoms range from annoying to painful. This is good. Painful problems get addressed sooner.

In our control?

Partially. Unless you are in a very strict district, you have control over your teaching style. Another win.

Keeping us from feeling stupid?

No, the traditional teacher feels like they will go from success to failure if they change their style. However, if the momentum swung so that using traditional practices was seen as shameful, switching to progressive styles would be the only option.

Status-driven?

A lot of young, hippie teachers believe in progressive education, like those alternative schools that don’t even give grades. That’s low status. You could even lose your job, depending on how progressive you go. Mostly, you will tick off the loud, controlling groups advocating we get “back to basics”.

On the other hand, schools like the Ron Clark Academy are Instagram teacher famous, and pockets of communities exist that make cutting edge pedagogy status-raising.

Expensive?

Progressive measures are often seen as expensive (new technology, flexible seating options), but they don’t have to be.

Solvable?

Teachers have usually tried new techniques in the past, and seen no benefits, which leaves them feeling powerless over the problem. In general, change in education takes a long time to affect, if it is measurable or visible at all.

But we know that the current system is broken, and we have evidence for lots of techniques that would be an improvement. So no, you can’t solve the whole problem yourself, but trying will definitely work better than doing nothing.

Making education reform a solvable problem

The problems with current teaching methods may not be visible or symptomatic, and they’ll never be non-chronic. But the problems could become a status issue, and a necessary move to avoid feeling stupid as a traditional teacher.

A critical mass in each grade, in each school, and in each district would make it seem like being progressive is the only option. We need to show that the symptoms of disengagement can be remedied with innovative teaching styles, and that this generation of “millennials” is traditional education’s fault, because the economy has changed and we need to teach differently. 

Those are just some options of where to start. The most powerful and effective thing would be for teachers who get it to band together and spread the word…like a movement.

You know how the rocks in the top photo got so smooth? Persistent pressure over time.

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