Thursday, March 31, 2016

Dear Consultants and Educational Thinkers: Stop Telling Teachers to Stop Doing Things; Instead, Start with Trust

Reflecting over my experience as an educator, there’s been a lot of mixed messaging when it comes to proper professional development as well as implementing effective teaching practices. In 10 years, I’ve worked at 3 schools, and at all three campuses, I have yet to meet a colleague who fits so cleanly a single category of teacher-types: “the sage on the stage”; “the guide on the side”; and. so. it. goes. However, when attending certain sessions or presentations or keynotes, the categories serve as the very ontology for various experts’ theories on what’s wrong with teaching/teachers and how to fix it/them. And we can shift the focus from “teaching” to “learning” and say we’re not talking about making teaching better and that, instead, we’re talking about making learning better. However, in the context of the history of this conversation (see below), this shift in rhetoric has the tendency to efface the invaluable role of teachers all the more. True, it’s about improving learning, but to get there, we have to trust teachers, which means doing the hard work of recognizing that no teacher fits one category of pedagogy. The teachers I work with, on a daily or weekly basis, implement a variety of styles, and some are more student-driven while other styles remain more teacher-driven. It depends on the situation and the demands of praxis, not theory.

I like Will Richardson’s work and he published a post earlier this month titled, “Stop Innovating in Schools Please.” I have to say, the title bugged me a little and I’m not sure what to think about the conclusion. Here’s a sample of how it read at the end: 

Innovation in schools of any type needs to start with the idea that the goal is not to force kids to abandon their passions and interests for our curriculum when they come to school, which is what we currently do… Which is why despite the shiny new tools or the seemingly unending string of new learning approaches (flipped, blended, collaborative, personalized, project-based and on and on), nothing has really changed. Kids are still bored in school. We still assess the stuff that’s easy to measure at the expense of attending to the more important stuff that isn’t, things like creativity and curiosity and determination. Our cultures focus on teaching, not learning, and very little ‘innovation’ as it’s currently constituted has impacted that at all.

Will Richardson’s article is worth a read, and there’s a lot there that I agree with. However, there’s a troublesome arc to the story of 21st century pedagogy and its progress, and the declaration of Richardson’s title got me thinking about it again. The arc goes something like this: 

(1) Edtech ambassadors entered the scene equipped with passionate rhetoric about the digital revolution coupled with pejorative dismissals about “the sages” of yesteryear.
(2) Teachers were told to attend pd sessions filled with almost-frantic declarations about the future of schools and the outdated quality of last decade’s teaching tactics.
(3) Feeling the push and acting on the desire to do what’s best for the students, teachers tried new things, implemented tech and new practices, and waited to see the results.
(4) Edtech consultants returned to the scene to declare “it’s not about tech; it’s about student-centered learning,” (which instructors have known from the beginning) while teachers now read headlines demanding that they “stop innovating.” 

There’s something troubling about this narrative trajectory because it feels like something very important is missing in both statements (1) & (4): namely, the trust a teacher deserves.

Photo by @rondmac
My main priority as a teacher is the student and her sense of empowerment, and that’s always been the case. Over the years, I’ve done a lot to “innovate” my approach to what Richardson describes as “amplifying student learning.” What’s bugged me over the years, however, is a lot of the rhetoric in the blogosphere or the conference circuit which depends upon categorizing types of teachers only to invalidate one instructional method (categorically and divorced of context) for purposes of promoting some other idea of what makes learning work better. It’s always bugged me when edtech evangelist disparage the classroom teacher whose use of tech remains minimal to none, but just as much, it irks me when education thinkers do the same to a teacher whose taken the risk to integrate chrome books in his class, as if he did so for its own sake. Both scenarios distrust the teacher’s judgment, and I think once the dust of rhetoric settles, we’re left with a situation that, from the perspective of the classroom teacher, feels something like this:

-"Digital Revolutionaries" don’t trust teachers’ intentions or reasons for using “traditional” methods for learning
-"Digital Skeptics" don’t trust teachers’ intentions or reasons for using technologies as tools for methods for learning

In other words, the situation remains the same: we don’t trust teachers as much as they deserve to be trusted. I have no doubt that Will Richardson trusts teachers; he does a lot of work that communicates as much. But the rhetorical punch of his article's title could be read to the contrary. He says that “nothing has really changed,” and that’s because we're not taking the risk to trust the intentions of teachers who have always cared first and foremost about the students’ learning as well as their passions. I agree that “our cultures focus on teaching, not learning” but this is because we don’t trust teaching and that’s a problem. I think where we see this most prominently is in all the pd sessions that ask teachers to “sit and get” in order to learn that bad pedagogy in the classroom relies too heavily on “sit and get” methods. We need to stop telling teachers what they’re doing wrong and start trusting their intentions to get it right. 

Come to our classrooms; we’ll show you what we mean.


  1. Thanks, Jared! I can certainly relate to the difficult balance you strike here--like all good teachers, you're eager to hone your craft; like all good teachers, you've sat through some PD crafted for teachers at their worst (unimaginative, uninspired, complacent, etc.). The PD that I've enjoyed most is the PD that guides teachers through self-reflection, not that compels them to change. I remember a speech by Daniel Pink that was relatable and adaptable, about the qualities of mastery, autonomy, and purpose. Those principles, rendered in his gentle manner, have inspired me more than loads of "quick fix" pedagogical testimonials.

  2. Thanks Joel for commenting! I love the idea that good PD "guides teachers through self-reflection,[but does not] compel them to change." Meaningful change does not happen through compliance, nor through the rhetoric of binaries. Instead, successful growth comes through self-discovery in an environment of trust and affirmation.

    Thanks for sharing Joel!