“I never let my schooling get in the way of my education…”
Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)
How Do We Make Substantive Changes in Education? Start by looking for a solution in the simple statement of a nineteenth century social critic.
In the mid 90’s I worked with an AmeriCorps program to assist librarians with using the computer as an educative resource in the k-12 school library. In the late ‘90s, I formed Charmed Solutions, Inc. to provide training to K-12 teachers in how to use a computer in the classroom as a pedagogical tool. The focus of the school districts at the time was to train the teachers in the software that was being installed on the computers, but by working with master teachers and professors of education we developed a curriculum that:
- modeled active learning techniques; and,
- manipulated the training activities on the mechanics of the software to become lessons in active learning techniques.
We did this because we recognized that computers could become a revolutionary tool useful in reframing the practical relationship between teaching and learning. That is, because teachers had to learn HOW to use the tool, you could present the usage of the tool in a way that supported a fundamental change in pedagogy through a definition and demonstration of best practices that supported the usage of the tool in a particular light.
If you look at teaching as a shaping of the brain, and there being a significant inertia inhibiting the reshaping of that brain, then distracting the brain from the fact that it is being reshaped can become a powerful tool in overcoming that inertia. The participants’ emotional vulnerability generated by their fear of HOW to use this tool was just that kind of a distraction, and motivation, to put them into the right frame of mind to embrace a new method of teaching.
Working within the existing training structure, we delivered week-long and weekend-long intensive training programs. We tried to engage the district staff to educate them as well, but there was no infrastructure to support a systemic and sustainable practice or even measurement of success or failure of this kind of initiative. Working from the outside, as consultants, there was not enough political capital to affect the kind of infrastructure changes that was required. At the time, there was also a political shift within the schools to bring this training in-house, so we ended these endeavors.
While it might be difficult to garner the social support for investing in a change to the fundamental structure of teaching and learning, it is much less socially difficult to find resources to invest in technology initiatives, which, if well designed, will come with the political, organizational, and fiscal support that makes such investment successful and effective. A successful implementation of technology has a multiplier effect when it comes to effective change. This multiplier is a result of the recognition that technology is disruptive and a successful technology initiative requires additional support to be sustainable and systemic.
So how does one effect revolutionary change when the infrastructure does not support measures to do so? A decade later, New York State implemented a policy decision requiring colleges of education to become accredited by a peer-review professional body, separate from the college/university level accreditation.
There was a critical process to this accreditation that was grounded in research methodology.
- Create a conceptual foundation of what constitutes the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of a good teacher
- Continuously test and measure your success of preparing graduates that meet those qualities
- Continuously test and measure the underlying validity of that conceptual foundation—that is that teachers who embody those foundational qualities ARE IN PRACTICE effective teachers
I have worked with universities and colleges to facilitate the data driven decision making that supports this process. This recurring data-driven assessment improvement cycle is exactly what education should be about and ironically many schools of education find it difficult to implement because it is CONTRARY to the way we think about teaching and learning. But this is neither the fault of the researchers nor the educators of our teachers; rather, it is due to the inertia of a system that will resist all change unless that CHANGE IS EMBRACED and implemented in a systemic, sustainable, and AGILE fashion.
Nevertheless, many professors of education and K-12 teachers have been able to shirk the shroud of socialization and model the very behavior that they espouse. Many of them went into education for the very purpose of trying to change the system from the inside. One can find entire departments or colleges that are successful in training the next generation of teachers. Further, this next generation of teachers is even being hired based upon the successful mastery and demonstration of these qualities, techniques, and tools.
But this is not the end of the story. Simply throwing newly educated teachers into the system and expecting changes to occur is not going to be effective in implementing systemic and sustainable change. There are too many OTHER factors at play.
For one, our education process is not a two party system (teacher and learner). The ecosystem of learning includes expectations of teaching and learning that have been ingrained and reinforced for influencing stakeholders over periods of two, three, four, five, six, and more decades. These are grandparents, parents, testing agencies, state agencies, school administrators, textbook companies, professors, trustees, school boards, and different classes of learning institutions (K-12 may go in one direction, but will higher education follow suit?).
But even in a two party system, and even with relationship of power titled towards the teacher, it is not a cut and dry relationship. A recent change made at Harvard in the large introductory classes that moved from the traditional lecture to a more active learning methodology identified that while the professor and the grad students were prepped for the change, the students themselves were very unsure of the format change. Para-phrasing one student interviewed by NPR:
I was worried about having to learn and develop brand-new techniques for this class when I had developed and mastered very successful ones that have brought me to this point in my career.
So, in certain scenarios, professors, schools, departments may not have as much power in effecting a change as they wish, if they desire to effect that change in a vacuum. Students may refuse to attend a particular class, or school if they feel threatened by that change. We need to look at all the stakeholders in the system to determine and what are their motivations, risks, and rationales behind their behavior, to identify how best to achieve that change.
Further in discussing a practice of pedagogy and how to support an effective approach to teaching and learning we must realize that a) that there may be more than one effective practice; and, b) an effective practice in one situation may not be effective in another.
There are realities that have catalyzing influence—negative as well as positive—and these pressure points, if they can be tapped and manipulated, may facilitate change across the entire ecosystem. This is not as impossible as one might expect and we see it in the study of systems that happen in nature. The best examples will be found in the study of ecology and how our manipulations of these large and complex systems can result in success and failure through expected and unexpected outcomes.
As Twain, in his usual tongue in cheek manner, so clearly defines for us, what is most important for us to understand in order to function in the world—our education—is rarely a simple and proscribed series of teachings on the ways to do things—our learning. If one wants to revolutionize education, one must understand, address, and test the facets of the system in which it takes place, and quickly adapt one’s delivery to what one learns along the way.