George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

Trends in Education: How They Come and Go

January 31, 2010

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!

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