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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Trends in Education: How They Come and Go

Stephen Hurley

Grade Eight Teacher, Group Moderator, Facilitator/teacher arts@newman

Over the recent holiday break, I took advantage of a free afternoon to organize my bookshelf. A friend who had read my blog post about my not fitting the ideal teacher personality thought that it might be fun to gift me with an electronic labeler.

I'm not the most visually organized person in the world, but I love toys. So, I cleared the bookshelves in my study, grabbed the labeler and started categorizing my collection. After just one hour, I had a shelf for language resources, sections dedicated to the arts, technology, mathematics, visual arts and drama. I even had a section dedicated to fictional books about the teaching profession.

At the end of the process, however, I had several books that resisted categorization.

Looking at them carefully, I tried to remember the circumstances surrounding their acquisition and what role they had played in my professional life. It wasn't until I took a break and came back to the room that the light went on.

I grinned a Grinch-like grin and punched the title into the labeler: "Bandwagons." All of the books that remained un-shelved were books acquired as part of one of the many bandwagons that have rolled through my school district during the past 25 years.

In Today, Out Tomorrow

In a sense the collection is part of the story of my own teaching career, for I have never been one to shy away from the excitement and hype that has traditionally accompanied new initiatives. In fact, there were a couple of bandwagons where I served as both pilot and cheerleader.

My bandwagon collection included books on mastery learning, portfolio assessment, cooperative classroom structures, technology integration, backward design, multimedia projects, personal learning paths, authentic task development and, most recently, differentiated instruction and integrated curriculum.

Your professional library at home or school may reflect some of these same initiatives and you would likely be able to add a few more of your own.

Interestingly enough, most of the philosophies that ground these approaches have a good deal of validity, and a great deal of potential to affect change in our schools and districts. Some of them may actually be alive and well where you teach. In my own professional life, however, their fate has been affected by what I will call, for lack of a better phrase, the bandwagon principle.

Here's how educational bandwagons work: In an effort to create energy, excitement and buy-in, a great deal of initial human and financial resources are directed towards an idea, initiative, or strategy. A community of followers is collected around the initiative and a significant degree of fervor gives the project a sense of purpose.

Why They Don't Last

There a several problems that eventually force the bandwagon back to district headquarters, in order that it might be retrofitted for the next great thing that is going to lead us to educational salvation. Here are some of my own observations about some of the projects represented in my collection of bandwagon books:

  • The level of resource allocation required to get a bandwagon out of the garage and rolling down the main street of our districts is unsustainable over the long term. The cost of ongoing training, networking, and succession are often ignored in an effort to get things moving.
  • Quite often, the hype and flash that are part of an initiative precedes efforts to secure the support of those that will, ultimately, be responsible for implementation. In the case of schooling, classroom teachers are often not part of the decisions to pursue a large-scale project.
  • They are seldom started by classroom teachers. Implicit in bandwagon development is the idea that expertise and working knowledge needs to come from outside of the organization.
  • Resources for good quality, ongoing and unbiased research are not always part of the initial plan. Without the assessment feedback that research can provide, the effective growth of an initiative is always tenuous.
  • Bandwagon initiatives often include a book or a piece of software that must accompany the project. And, more often than not, an educational expert, or "guru," is involved.

As a result of these and other factors, it is unusual to see real change come from bandwagon initiatives. Oh, they may get conversations going but it has been my experience that, before long, the energy will have shifted, and the district will be on the hunt for the next best thing.

Making Something Stick

I have a feeling that bandwagon approaches to educational change will be with us for a long time. So how do we leverage the energy and enthusiasm that emerges as part of these projects so that authentic, lasting change result? A huge question, but here are a few ideas:

  • When a new project is rolled out, ongoing and clear communication from the decision-makers to school personnel is essential. It is not likely that the district-level folks are going to begin to hand over any more control to schools, but there is room for more authentic, ongoing talk at all levels of the organization about what is working in schools and classrooms.
  • A requirement that prior to their rollout, all new initiatives that require significant funding be vetted and connected with a university-based researcher for the life of the initiative. Interim and final reports should be mandatory.
  • A full support plan needs to be in place, one that includes strategies for spreading the word to those in subsequent phases of project development.
  • The employment of a variety of strategies for participants to communicate with each other during the life of the initiative. New Web-based tools provide some powerful options for keeping ideas flowing.
  • Lasting change takes time, and, if we're going to disrupt thinking and practice with a new initiative, we need to commit to being involved for the long haul.

So, here I sit, an organized bookshelf before me, with a special section dedicated to the bandwagons that have moved through my own life as a teacher. But what to do with it? I imagine your bandwagon books are at home gathering dust as well.

With that, what suggestions might you offer to administrators and policy makers out there about the problems and pitfalls of silver-bullet trends and bandwagon initiatives? Here's an opportunity to give your two-cents on the matter!

Stephen Hurley

Grade Eight Teacher, Group Moderator, Facilitator/teacher arts@newman
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Comments (4)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Denise's picture

I totally agree. Although I have been teaching for only 13 years, we have sampled various concepts as well. I think the problem is that the more parents expect us to do to teach and train their children, the more administrators try to find ways to make the students responsive by changing the way we teach and assess them, which seems counterintuitive to me. Administrators and the others "in charge" need to find a way to address students and parents and societal issues. Students who are successful academically will almost always do well no matter how they are taught or assessed.

Dr. Mike Todd's picture
Dr. Mike Todd
Chief Learning Officer

If leaders follow research it will point them away from the magic program or the next big thing and direct them to hire the best, contiue to develop those that are willing to learn, and support; support; support. Good people inherently want to do good things and be part of a team that is heading in the same direction. It is the leaders job to create a colleagial culture where the stress is on people, development, and support and not programs.

teacherintheroom's picture

Education trends, like fashion, change all the time. And like bell bottoms, "mall bangs", and the leisure suit, some trends just don't stick. Mostly because we eventually figure out that they don't work well on the average person.

Education should be like a good pair of jeans. Practical, useful, well fitted to the individual, comfortable for the user and timeless.

But that doesn't mean we can't improve what we do. Change is necessary to forward development but it should be integrated into existing proven methods, not be a complete "redesign of the wheel".

My advice to districts and administration is that change should come from the ground up, not the top down. Teachers AND students should have input into changes that directly effect them. I'm not suggesting that "the inmates run the asylum" but certainly, those who are going to be most impacted should have the final say.
Nobody likes change. The idea of "if it's not broke, don't fix it" and the phrase "we've always done it this way" drive me crazy. I feel that it impedes progress and change is good. But nobody likes change if it isn't their idea OR if they are not completely convinced that it is a change for the good.
If districts try to implement change and they find it meets with considerable resistance, then they need to take it off the table and figure out what is going wrong.
I also believe that before district wide or even statewide changes are made, pilot programs should be mandated so individual districts or towns can see the feasibility of the change as well as the success. Sufficient time should be allotted for success as well.
And finally, I would say that decision makers should not be afraid to "dump" a program that isn't working. Sometimes the bigger problem is that once there is a financial commitment made, decision maker think it is necessary to keep the implementations even if they clearly are not working. In this case, if it is "broke", then definitely fix it!

LJ5's picture

As a third year teacher I have yet to see the rapid change that is mentioned. However, even in my three short years I have noticed many changes and have spoken to my colleagues about the changes they have witnessed. I think it's very appropriate to compare education to fashion trends... everything comes back in style at some point! Throughout the new initiative my district has put in place I have embraced each one with pleasure. Some may comment that it is because I am non-tenured, but I personally enjoy learning as much as a possibly can. I mean, aren't we all supposed to be life-long learners like the students? For example, this year I joined a group to pilot a new writing problem. Will the program stick.. Who knows? But I was excited to learn about the new program and introduce it to my class. Overall, trends in education are constantly changing and evolving. I feel that it is a good thing. Change is needed and important to improve learning. I understand the saying "if it isn't broke, don't fix it" - but sometimes strategies and procedures need some fixing even if it isn't broken. Throughout the rest of my teacher career I am eager to see the changes and overall challenges that lie ahead.

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