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GRAVES: Stopping the swing of the educational pendulum

One of the things I do not like about my chosen profession is its tendency to wander from its hallowed, proven traditions, a phenomenon teachers often call the pendulum effect.

Select any issue in education, any pedagogical method, any instructional goal or any student achievement measure and a veteran teacher can quickly describe how education has drifted from one extreme to another on it, much as the pendulum shifts from a central point to two opposing extremes. That the word pendulous, one of the definitions for which is vacillating, comes from educators' chosen metaphor is telling.

One of the other things of which I am not fond in my chosen profession is our stubborn unwillingness to change. About so many things, we are in a rut, which one wit described as a grave with both ends knocked out. Up until just a decade or so ago, we joked that only in the school house could Rip Van Winkle (or Socrates for that matter) wander in after a centuries- or millennia-long sleep and feel very much at home.

Yet, oddly enough, these two peeves of mine are contradictory. How can one fairly criticize one's profession both for its manic tendency to change everything every few years and its rigid adherence to "how things are done around here"?

The answer, I think, is in what things we are ever-changing and what we are everlastingly orthodox. In our mission, we tend to ceaselessly wander. In our methods, we are old-school. And this is precisely the opposite of what a good profession should be. In a high-achieving, constantly progressing profession, there typically exists a core mission which remains unchanged over centuries, while the methods of achieving that mission change as new developments prove themselves. The mission of medicine, for example, is to save life, alleviate suffering, enhance health, etc. While some would argue there have been aberrations even in this mission, it remains largely intact and the Hippocratic Oath still remains generally relevant after, probably, 25 centuries. But the methods of medicine have advanced, spectacularly so, as witnessed by modern health and life spans.

Not so in education as we fight endlessly over our mission -- liberal arts, the basics, practical learning, social progress, etc. -- while the results of educational research and innovations find their way into classrooms at a pace roughly equivalent to that of a tortoise on valium. (This worst of both worlds reminds me of an acquaintance who removed their investments in the stock market after the reversals of the Great Recession, having lost a large percentage of their previous net worth, and will re-invest only after they have seen a full recovery, thereby missing the benefits of that recovery. The motto seems to be sell low, buy high.)

The reason for education's counterproductive behavior are legion: a relative lack of competition in the education market, a tendency for educators to want to teach as they were taught, a lack of training or the time for training in new methods, the truly awful state of education research and a fundamental lack of agreement in our society -- for education does reflect what society desires as schools are the culture's servant -- over mission.

Yet, there is hope for a change in this untargeted stasis, and it comes in the form of technology. Through it, blended learning is quickly finding its ways into classrooms. BL -- the ubiquitous use of acronyms is one constant in education that will probably never change -- is the descriptor used for a combination of the traditional classroom for some coursework and online, virtual, individually-paced offerings for other coursework. The incursion of BL into America's schools is moving so quickly, in fact, that good data on its adoption is hard to come by and that in itself is something relatively unheard of in schools. The explanation for this rapidity is the loss of centralized control by schools of content and instruction. Parents and students faced with courses they find unchallenging, offered at a snail's pace or for whatever individual reason they might have, can now turn to other offerings. Don't understand a math concept? Click on the Kahn Academy. Finding your schedule too full to enroll in everything you want in high school? Take a virtual course over the summer. Prefer a home-schooled approach but physics a bit too much for Mom or Dad to teach? No worries; the Internet awaits.

Individuals and schools and educators will no doubt experience all sorts of stumbles as we enter this new era. But what seems clear, to me at least, is that the days of arguing over mission while throwing up barricades against promising innovation are over. The mission is quickly becoming whatever the customer (parent/student) says it is. The innovation will be adopted or the school/educator will be left behind. The era of the educational pendulum is over. Good riddance.