Education Trends

Learning Trends vs. Permanent Disruptors

October 17, 2013
Photo credit: Profound Whatever via flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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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