Did Critical Skills Kill the Status Quo? Does it need to?

This post on Eduwonk from guestblogger Ted Kolderie of Education|Evolving raises an interesting point.

Think about most any field: Something new appears, the ‘early adopters’ pick up the new model, those uncomfortable with the change stay with the traditional model. Nobody is coerced into change; nobody is prevented from changing. Both models run along side by side. Over time people move as they are ready. Tractors replace horses; computers replace typewriters. (The country has just finished its transition from analog to digital television, right?)

Gradually one system after another evolves; some new model replacing the old. Often the transition is not without political controversy. But the policy of gradualism, tolerance, holds the conflict to a minimum. We could do this with K-12, too, couldn’t we?

Can innovations like Critical Skills co-exist with the status quo? Why should it be necessary for the status quo to give over to the new- be it Critical Skills, SmartBoards, or differentiated instruction? Can’t the early adopters do their thing and get started, resting assured that others will come along as they see the positive impacts of something like Critical Skills? We’re all logical, thoughtful people- right? Shouldn’t logical, thoughtful people be able to look objectively at the efforts of others and make a logical, objective choice to either change or not- based on the evidence?

Ah, if only that were the case. The answer, put simply, is no. Well, yes- we should be able to. Unfortunately, logic flies out the window when we start messing around with classroom practice. You see, teachers don’t say “I teach” when you ask them about their day jobs. They say “I’m a teacher.” It’s who they are- not what they do. So anytime we start suggesting that they could do something differently- perhaps even better, then they may be hearing us say that who they are should be different- perhaps better.

Now we’re getting onto risky ground. If I’m a teacher and I believe I’m a good teacher (’cause really- who believes otherwise?) and then something comes along that threatens that belief (’cause if there’s a better way to do this and I haven’t been doing it, then does that mean I’m not a good teacher after all?). If I’m given the choice between this difficult and painful reality (“I’m not as good a teacher as I thought I was”) and the easy comfort of denial (“this is just a fad”) then I’m going to do what I have to to preserve my reality and protect myself.

Unless it was my idea to begin with- if I noticed something wasn’t quite right, did a little poking around and then made changes because I recognized a problem. That makes me not just a good teacher, but a great teacher! This is why Ted Sizer’s admonition many years ago that schools “Go so far, so fast, that there’s no way you can go back” is so important. There can’t be room for early adopters and late adopters and so on. If we’re going to change schools and change the lives of children, then we don’t have time to wait around on folks to get really comfortable with the new idea- because they never will. We have to be willing to acknowledge that we’ve all been doing the best we can for many years, but that the status quo just isn’t working for all kids- and that it needs to change.

This is why the two things- the old and the new can’t just get along. You can’t stand in the middle of the road, can’t do the old and the new at the same time, can’t keep your foot on the dock and also onboard the ship, blah, blah, blah. It’s time to stop continuing to do what doesn’t work simply because it’s familiar and comfortable and already planned. It’s time to start finding things that work for the kids we have today- not the kids we had in 1979 or 1989 or 1999. The days of Random Acts of School Change are over. We need to get past the one-day workshop that provides a few new ideas and the polite relationship we have with our peers which keeps everyone happy but doesn’t push anyone to do better. We have to turn over our pedagogical rocks, shine the light on the beasties and bugs that hide there, and find solutions. Now. Together.


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