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Learning Trends vs. Permanent Disruptors

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Teachers are used to hearing about new ideas in education -- changes in instruction, technology and curriculum that are going to fix what's broken.

The trouble is, these changes are so difficult to trust. Many changes are based on ideas that have gained traction through very limited and poorly researched beginnings. One district might see success with a "program," and soon superintendents and principals are sent scrambling to duplicate that approach in their own district, without a full understanding of both data and circumstance.

On the flipside, other changes are based entirely on "data," products of number-crunching from funded studies that keep telling us what we already know -- technology makes new things possible, socioeconomic status matters, and literacy skills are everything. Changes here produce clinical, lifeless curricula that mean well but lack the ambition to reach for students' imagination.

Redressing Learning Trends

Of course, there are liars, damned liars and statisticians, as Mark Twain put it, and veteran educators who have seen education trends come and go understand this. They recognize that many "new" ideas are repackaged approaches they've seen before. What's old is new again, and minor redressing of previous strategies can limit credibility with teachers and administrators alike -- affecting what many call "buy-in."

The standards movement, the social-emotional learning movement, the literacy movement, the whole child movement, the testing movement, and now the technology movement all indirectly undermine their own success due to both the frequency with which they arrive and their divergence from what came before. Unifying it all would require the intellectual, professional and human leadership that we continue to lack.

But now, in late 2013, we have a significant challenge unlike those seen in the past. While education struggles to agree on what needs changing and how to make it happen (and why, it should be asked, do we have to agree?), the culture around us has exploded, detonated by technology.

Technology as a Permanent Disruptor

With the rise of technology in culture, students connect to data, to media and to one another in ways that would have been hard to imagine even a decade ago. And it's not just the way students interact. It's the scale and frequency with which they send a text, watch a video, listen to a song, or share a link via social media. This constant barrage of stimuli has created a student that is wired to survey, connect, evaluate ever so briefly, and then delete.

And this connect-and-delete approach to data interaction collides rather spectacularly with an education system that has been trained to resist change, often for good reason. That leaves us at a bit of an impasse, with technology as perhaps a permanent disruptor in education.

So what's the takeaway for us, as teachers?

Well, the students have already changed. Learning trends are no longer about preparation, but about mitigation, about reducing the erosive effect of pairing connected students with disconnected learning environments. Coming to terms with that is important for both teachers and other change agents. We're chasing, not leading.

This would seem to suggest the need for either incredibly powerful and compelling singular leadership, or diversity -- a million different approaches that all play their role.

This would require abandoning the pursuit of a "best way" to educate -- whether it's a "program," a scripted curriculum, or even a set of preferred instructional strategies -- in favor of a mosaic of pedagogical and heutagogical approaches to learning that begin with the student, and work backward from there.

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Gail Poulin's picture

Sometimes you just want to say enough is enough already. Today our principal shared a program for texting with parents. That echoes your message about trending and how it can make our day more confusing than it already is while failing to improve performance in the long run.

Paul Steffan's picture
Paul Steffan
Grade 7 English Teacher from Baar, Switzerland

An interesting take on what the future might bring whether we like it or not. "A scripted curriculum" is comfortable from governing bodies all the way down to the teacher in the classroom. It soothes those who are uncertain about their own pedagogical strengths and enjoys the predictability of top down outcomes that will most probably have little relevance when the student slams face first into higher education and the work place.

We need fresh approaches and educators who are not just willing to go against the status quo, but be willing to stand up to the criticism that will most certainly follow. This disruption does not need to wait for administrators, superintendents, directors and those who likely are not up to date with technology and how students interact with it. Teachers in the classroom experimenting (and getting things wrong) with technology so that we stop talking about the future and start preparing for the future.

What do we do?

The dissenters and the naysayers have already lost the argument. While it is quaint and romantic to go on a horse and buggy ride through the park, it is not the way we travel anymore. We take the car for a reason. It gets us from point A to point B faster and better. We need to examine those methods and practices that are horse and buggy types and relegate them to the nostalgia bin. Not because we don't like horses, but because tech horsepower gets us to the future faster and better. Efficiency, through innovation, is the key.

TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


Call me cruel. Call me old school. But here it is the 36th day of school and I've finally gotten around to showing a dang movie.

You can imagine how they hooted and hollered when they walked into The Cozy Room of Learning and saw a big TV on top of the beat-up red metal cart I borrowed from Old Burrell since he shows a movie about every day.

When they came in the TV was already turned on and the screen is that bright blue and on top of the TV is the box for the video I propped up there and on the front of a box is a picture of an etching of a serious dude in a white wig and above that it says "The Founding of Georgia. 35.5 minutes." I believe the dude with the wig is James Oglethorpe. I still can't fathom why they wanted to look like female impersonators back then, but looking back on our ancestors and making fun of them is real easy. I don't make fun of our ancestors in front of the kids, though. They do that on their own just fine.

Anyhow, they hooted and hollered until I told them that on the chapter 7 quiz this week there'll be questions about the movie ... about ten or fifteen of them.


Dang right. So pay close attention ... and enjoy! Take notes if you like. I pressed the start button.

Here are five revelations learned after only five minutes into the movie about showing the first movie of the school year in Georgia history class:

1. During the showing of a movie, never, ever blurt out that that part's important to remember. They don't like it when you do that

2. During a showing of a movie, never, ever, ask them if they understand that last part

3. During the showing of a movie, never, ever ask them if they remember when we talked about that exact same stuff a few days ago

4. They like the lights turned off and the window blinds closed. They're real freaky about that one

5. After the movie, if you ask them questions about the movie and most of them don't have a clue what you're talking about and you offer to show the movie to them again they don't want to see the movie again

So ... fascinating revelations. One of my little historians said Savannah's a real nice place now. Forrest Gump lives there.

Heather Thomas's picture

The idea of starting with the student and giving them a choice of approaches from which to learn holds a lot of weight with me. This is one way that we have begun personalizing learning at Greenwood College School. Using technology and blended learning approaches, we have developed material to supplement the traditional classroom for a variety of courses. Students in these courses can choose the method they will use to learn material (through peer discussion, a mini lesson, a video lesson or other technology-based resources), how they approach the material and sometimes they even choose a theme or lens through which to view a concept. Some students complete the online assessment for a certain lesson at the beginning to determine if they already know the material or where their gaps are. In our blended learning courses, we are using technology to support the personalized approach to learning and to support the teacher-student classroom interaction. Check out what we have been doing with blended and personalized learning at

Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educator, Blogger, Southern California

Now there are so many tools identify student levels and to differentiate instruction there should be no excuse for forcing any student into a mold, even while following the Common Core.

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