Wednesday, November 28, 2012

5 Principles That Make Outdated Educational Practice Impossible

Last night, the #edchat topic was, "How should teachers deal with colleagues who are comfortable with 19th century and punitive measures for non-compliant students?" Judging by the responses, many teachers either felt they could gently prod this colleague to changing his or her practice. Others did not see this their responsibility at all. They saw it as the responsibility of the administrator.

At first glance, I would agree that the administrator does have the responsibility to address the issue of teachers using outdated practices. However, I think the real solution is a bit more complicated and can be captured with another question: How can a teacher engaged in outdated pedagogy and practice possibly exist in a true 21st century school? Should the school environment not be so innovative and challenging that such teaching is impossible? Perhaps the real problem is that we have been fooling ourselves into thinking our school is a "21st Century School" when it's not. Just maybe our school systemically allows teachers to continue do what they've always done and avoid growing personally and professionally

As long as you have a school, school district, and school system that allows people to use "outdated methodology in instruction and educational practice" such practices are going to exist. In other fields such as medicine, obsolete practice is rooted out by a culture that values innovation and pushes out obsolescence. Why can't schools foster that same kind of culture?

What would a school or school district that has a culture that makes obsolete educational practice impossible look like? What are the operating principles? Here are some ideas to start with.

1. A strong expectation of personal and professional growth permeates the school and school district environment. Everyone, beginning with leadership, are lifelong learners, and their every action is focused to that end. There's an attitude of perpetual learning and professional development surrounding everything that is done.

2. The school and school district culture values risk-taking more than playing it safe. Valuing risk-taking takes courage from leadership and everyone else. It means accepting failure as part of learning. Leadership that values risk-taking can't ask others to take risks if they themselves aren't willing to do so.

3. Leadership in the school includes more than the principal. When the leadership includes strong teacher leadership, it is difficult for those not growing professionally to exist. Teacher leadership means there are peers pushing those teachers to develop professionally.

4. Collaboration among staff is the norm. When issues and problems and challenges are viewed as "our issues/problems/challenges" then everyone is expected to be a part of the solution. This means those who are hanging on to outdated practice find it more difficult to do so. Their colleagues are pushing them to take ownership of the school's future and they can't continue to exist in their tiny isolated compartment within the school.

5. There's a strong sense of entrepreneurship among staff regarding the school. They feel that it is "their school." Staff who feel this aren't just provided a token opportunity to give feedback on School Improvement Plans. They have a say in the direction and focus of the school because it is genuinely their school too. Teachers engaged in obsolete practice can't continue to operate in an obsolete manner because colleagues push them to do better.

So, in answer to last night's #edchat question, "How should teachers deal with colleagues who are comfortable with 19th century methods and punitive measures for non-compliant students?" I submit that the answer isn't just a question of what the teacher should do or what the principal should do. It is a systemic problem that can only be addressed by creating places that make obsolete educational practices impossible. It's a question addressed by creating a school or school district culture that will not tolerate obsolete educational practice.


  1. John, I agree with you in principle (no pun intended). The one I find is the most difficult to foster is #2, since there is a very low tolerance for risk outside of the immediate school culture. Parents, board members, and the community want assurances that a change will result in guaranteed improvements (usually determined by state test scores) before it is tried. How have you dealt with that aspect?

    1. I deal with this low-tolerance for risk daily. However, our school is an "outside-the-box-school" anyway, so that lack of tolerance is not quite as strong. In the past, I have always started by suggesting changes on a small scale first in order to just try out a new idea. Most often this is found more acceptable. Education as a whole, is a field that is risk-averse in a time when it should be experimenting and trying new ways of doing business. Many times it boils down to convincing key individuals and have them help sell the idea. It is a frustrating experience at times.

  2. Our teachers try, but our environment evolved faster than our ability to comprehend the consequences subjectively eliminating all possibility of proper adaptation.

    If we were to alter presentation of topics, the intrinsic interest due to clear perception of personal application would nullify many of the behavioral problems organically.

    Our kids for the most part don't understand why they need to learn Calculus. Teachers insist that the explanation to a question is an equation rather than giving insight to the thinking that went behind formulating the mathematics. Colleges in particular have wide-spread problem of teachers acting like tutors. Rather than teach the material they spend class time asking what questions we have before doing a few homework problems. Woe to the student who finds themselves having the notion to suggest actually explaining the material.

    Rather we should educate to empower, not institutionalize. The basic ideas of Calculus are inferred organically when one starts to manipulate e=mc^2 and wants to observe the system response as one accelerates to the speed of light. While twisting the equation around one feels that there must be something with certain features that allows you to study this. Low and behold, your idea is called Calculus and you have an inherent framework to understand the mathematics.

    Even a gang-banger pays attention when they learn diplomas in this area pay more that being a 4 corner boss. I believe a previous physics teacher said it best, "Star Trek is real. Don't get left behind."

    Instead tomorrow some kid is going to learn x*whatever = who cares.

  3. What do we do if the teacher uses 'antiquated' practices but is highly effective with those practices? If the kids are learning the material and are engaged in class, does the teacher need to change?

    1. I think it starts with how you define "highly effective." I don't see test scores as a definition of high-effective. The reason for this, I have seen teachers who honestly hated kids get students high test scores. I can't help but wonder what kind of other damage such teachers do to the kids in the classrooms. If a classroom practice is not in the best interest of the student, then it is unacceptable. If the classroom practice belittles students in any way, for me it is unacceptable. The teacher in those cases needs to change. Truly though, if we are asking students to engage in 21st century educational tasks (things like projects and solving real-world problems) I don't see how "antiquated teaching practices" can promote these kinds of learning. My definition of effective teaching includes having students who can leave high school, not with the highest test scores, but who have the ability to engage in solving real-world problems creatively and who can direct their own learning. I don't see how a teacher using teacher-directed learning can foster those kinds of abilities though.

  4. C. Richardson, (NCDPI)December 5, 2012 at 12:27 PM

    Highly effective means learning is taking place, and since all students do not learn at the same pace or in the same way, I have a problem with what you consider outmoded. Just because it is new or simply rehashed from 15 years ago does not make it better. Each situation must be measured on its own merits.
    One of the biggest problems is the notion that the school board, community, and parents always know better how to educate the children than the professionals who are trained to do so and have years of experience honing their craft. Combining new techniques into tried and true methods is always good, but just to do something because it is different is foolishness.
    Remember every teacher is different, and as soon as you add the expressions "always or all", you are in trouble. My motto is "all generalities including this one FALSE". Be careful about what you call outmoded. The buried study of 1920 comparing the modern American school of mass education vs. the one room school house surprises most folks, even to this day. The one room school house eliminates the element of time and focuses entirely on learning and safety, which beats mass education every time, just as it did in that study. We trade that off in order to try to educate more students, but when you take away the controls of "en loco parentis" and other safeguards, you may get undesired results such as drugs and weapons and a lack of respect and a lack of real learning.
    I always incorporated the best of everything new, technology etc. into the classroom, but one should never throw away those tried and true ways of education, but rather try to incorporate all good practices. "Kids" have more ways to learn than we have ways of teaching them.

    1. I would agree with you that “highly effective” means learning takes place. I do not agree with the idea that determining whether learning takes place can only be done with standardized tests and bubble sheets. Having students demonstrate what they have learned through authentic projects can do that just a well, if not better. Of course policymakers and education leaders can’t use comparisons of scores to brag and boast about raising test scores, but having students authentically demonstrate what they have learned is an effective measure of learning.

      I have also read through my post, trying to identify what exactly was the “outmoded teaching method” I mentioned, and the only method I mentioned was the one in the comments where I mention “teacher-directed methodology.” In retrospect, I don’t think that term accurately describes what I was thinking. In one sense, all learning is teacher-directed from the standpoint that we create the conditions by which the learning takes place, so I am not entirely satisfied with my use of that term. Then what would I really consider “outdated educational practice?” Many things come to mind, but some of the most prominent would be things like using high stakes test scores alone to make high stakes decisions. Another outdated practice’ specific to the classroom, is using the same instructional method all the time, which by the way does not mean there’s no room for lecture and traditional methods. It simply means using those methods, and a variety of others in ways that create students who can demonstrate their learning in ways more than a test score. What I really consider outdated is the idea that all students can sit in rows in classroom and have everything they need to know dispensed to them and then they prove they have learned it through bubble sheets, especially in age where scholars and researchers are telling us that among the most important skills our students will need in the coming years are problem-solving, collaboration, creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurial thinking. And, trying to teach all those skills to our students requires a broad approach.

      On another note, as I mentioned in the comment, I would add that any educational practice that belittles or otherwise destroys the dignity of students is outdated as well. On that I do not compromise. Teachers should never be bullies. For example, I have known teachers to use embarrassment to either keep students in line or to try to get them to perform. While that might work in some instances, it loses most often, and I will never defend such practices.
      One final note, the study you mention regarding the one-room school house sounds interesting. Perhaps we need to look at how we can adapt our schools in ways to capture what was most effective in those models. Thanks for the comment.