We in education have been stuck in a rut for a very very long time. We are constantly bombarded with educational fads that hold very little merit. We fall prey to entrepreneurs out to make a dollar. We are dazzled with slick presentations by people who have never taught in a classroom and for whatever reason we continually look to textbook publishers for our curricula. So why is education so prone to whim where other fields are able to resist?
One possible explanation is that educators (teachers, professors, researchers, etc) are unwilling or unable to claim a common knowledge base. Some say we need to be sharing our ideas and resources more, but this sharing is not fruitful if we cannot accept a common standard against which to judge ideas. I’m not saying all of education ought look the same, but education has to find some set of knowledge on which to ground itself or we are doomed to continue to fracture into unrecognizable bits with little, if any, coherence. If there is no coherence, there is no direction, if there is not direction, there is no common goal. Without a common goal we cannot align our efforts. By having a common set of knowledge we have a standard against which we can measure our efforts, goals, and innovations.
Now, like all areas of inquiry, this common set of knowledge will change and be refined over time so I am not promoting a static set of core “beliefs”. But we have to get past this notion of good teaching as a “style”. When we think good teaching is a matter of choice or opinion, we deprofessionalize education and our dialogue is counterproductive. Our dialogue is counterproductive because it has no reference point, it has not direction.
Natural scientists consistently compare new findings to accepted paradigms. If the new ideas do not fit with the current paradigm they do NOT create a new paradigm (that’s what we do in education though, resulting in many competing paradigms). Instead scientists will actually look at the research that produced the seemingly contradictory finding with close scrutiny. That is, scientists will actively look for mistakes in the new finding rather than question the established paradigm. Now, this seems like it is not objective (duh), but the paradigm is what helps scientists have a direction, have common goals and therefore, aligned efforts. Now, if the problem identified by the new findings persists, is repeated, or grows, the established paradigm may be modified or replaced, but not until a new system of knowledge seems to fit the new and old findings as well or better. Having a paradigm (or common knowledge base) is undeniably productive. It does not limit science. Instead, paradigm adoption actually provides the tracks for science to move forward. (for more on paradigms see: Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolutions”).
Education needs a paradigm.
Some of the fields on the periphery of education, such as psychology, have paradigms. Their knowledge base continues to strengthen, but our views on effective classrooms and teachers continues to be vague at best. Now, I don’t want to say that education researchers have no paradigms, but there seems to not be a coherent paradigm that bridges all of education.
Some might say that this is impossible as each educational situation is unique. I call shenanigans. Evolutionary theory bridges almost all disciplines within biology (cell, genetics, molecular, ecology…). Perhaps education is more complex than all of life on Earth, but I think perhaps we are giving up too easily. It is easier to say that each teaching situation is unique rather than investigate how they are similar. While it is easier to focus on the uniqueness, this focus in counterproductive. If every teaching situation is unique, why do teachers need to go to college? Why do PLN’s exist? Why do teachers share ideas? If every situation was unique, ideas and strategies would not transfer. Yet , we all desire to share ideas and hear what others are doing because we know that ideas DO transfer. We have an instinct that there just might be commonalities across teaching situations.
So, what should be included in our education paradigm. We need a system of understandings to which we can compare new ideas. Only by having this set of common ideas can we possibly prevent fragmented effort (if we all pull in different directions, our net movement is zero – which has been the case thus far). The common set of understanding can also help safeguard us from entrepreneurs out to make money and from educational fads. Also, if we have a common set of understandings politicians won’t be able to so easily shift our focus – they will be held to the same standards all ideas are.
Below are some ideas I think should be included in the paradigm.
-Common goals for students (you’d be surprised how most teachers have very similar goals, but few actually explicitly work toward those goals).
Michael Clough wrote an article that puts many of these pieces together. His framework provides an excellent way to conceptualize a useful education paradigm (yes it is heavy on science, but it applies elsewhere). Please notice technology appears nowhere in the proposed paradigm. If (as so many edtech advocates claim) technology is “just a tool”, its use ought be used in light of the paradigm, not be a part of the paradigm. Because technology changes almost whimsically, it does not belong in a foundational framework. Instead we should look at teachers technology use and compare the use to the framework. That is, the framework should guide our tech use, rather than let the technology dictate our framework.
If we are willing to accept a paradigm/framework, then our collaborations will be useful and our efforts aligned. Right now, our paradigm is so fractured and broken (of our own doing) that outsiders (politicians and entrepreneurs) are trying to assemble some sense of the pieces. No wonder they aren’t able to do so – we have only ourselves to blame.