Having worked within the professional development community for almost twenty years, as either a facilitator, presenter, collaborator or chair of conferences, workshops and dinner sessions, I have noticed one important obstacle in moving ideas forward and implementing change within the classroom/school/district: scale.
A big change is coming in education, but like all revolutions, the outcome is far from certain. The only certainty is that the current way we teach does not reflect our current understanding of how we learn. By current way we teach, I mean the traditional, sage on the stage, one direction, monologue teaching style. I know many teachers who have abandoned this style of teaching and are embracing and searching for new methods to engage and inspire their students to become life long learners. Rote memorization of facts will not be the prime quality that employers and society will be looking for in the near future.
These teachers are trying methods (flipped classrooms, 1:1 technology, differentiation, assessment for learning, inquiry models) that are showing some improvement in student learning and definitely get more students engaged in their own learning. There are a few problems with this, however. One of the biggest obstacles for teachers to engage in new methodologies of teaching is the fear of both the unknown and of failure. Most teachers enjoyed school as they moved from elementary to secondary to post-secondary and then to teachers’ college (a few did not, and some of their motivation for teaching may be to correct the historical wrongs that happened to them). Most teachers learnt in the traditional way and were successful. It is difficult to embrace uncertainty, with the possibility of failure, when you were brought up with the competitive nature of traditional schooling. Let’s imagine that teachers can overcome this fear and embrace new technologies, classrooms, and curricula (as most do every year in every classroom and school across the country).
Another big obstacle is the pervasive idea that everyone is an expert in the area of schooling. Although I believe that everyone (society) has a role in helping shape and guide what schooling means and why education is important for a progressive society, I do not believe that everyone’s opinion on the approach to learning is valid. Just because you have been to the doctor when you broke you arm, does not make you a surgeon and a director for the future of medicine. There are experts who have been studying the way students (and adults) learn, through social experiments, neuroscience, and scientific studies (both qualitative and quantitative). Peer reviewed papers, texts and resources have been put out with ideas on the best ways (not way, ways) to teach and the best ways students learn. Most studies come down to the fact that a well implemented programme or method of teaching trumps even the best programme, poorly implemented.
Changing one classroom, one school or even one district will not improve learning for all. Most of the great experiments in learning are going on because there are champions at the local level that push ideas forward, cheer when needed, and find resources through multiple means. Once these champions move on (as they most likely will, through retirement, or greater opportunities to affect change, or disillusionment over the system itself), the new technology, idea, programme will fall apart and the school/class/district will revert to what is considered the norm (traditional methods). I have seen this countless times when a great programme is implemented in a school that falls apart when the champion leaves. No-one is completely upset by this, because no-one else had the same level of investment as the champion.
Parents and the general public all know and understand the traditional school and most have the argument that “if it worked for me, it should work for everyone”. However, I challenge that notion: did the traditional schooling really work for you? Did you realize your full potential and those dreams you had in elementary school? (most studies suggest that after grade four, many students begin the disengagement that blocks them from learning to enjoy learning). Recently, a Florida school board trustee wrote the grade 10 standardized tests for English and Math. This successful, businessman with post-secondary degrees, including partial doctorate completion, failed miserably. If he had been in this school system when he was younger, he would have been put in remedial classes that almost guarantee drop out rates rising. But that argument is for another day.
The trust in school reform is not there, yet. That is the biggest obstacle for improving our education system. Parents do not trust the ‘new curricula’, teachers do not trust that they will be supported when trying new ways of teaching, and boards of education do not trust that they can implement change with the resources that they are given from the Ministry. The sad part about this is that the corporations are stepping in where the boards and ministries will not. Billions of dollars are at stake on the corporate side. Their trust in their methods and that the status quo on purchasing must remain is steadfast. Companies would not invest in selling textbooks if they believed that all schools were moving to e-books or no textbook at all (love that idea). Companies would not ‘donate’ laptops or tablets to schools and invest millions of dollars to create an army of teachers and educators to support their products if they didn’t think they would get billions in return. I do not blame the educators in this: they are thirsty for change and the only drink available is coming from the corporations.
This is all about the Public School System. We need to protect public access to education because education, as Malala Yousafzai has so perfectly stated: I will empower myself with knowledge. The public access to education for all gives everyone that power to change the world.