August 5, 2011
By Jennie Dougherty
* De futuro: of the future
According to W.W. Charters, a prominent education reformer of the twentieth century, the history of education is “a chronicle of fads.” Made back in 1922, Charter’s lament is still with us today. “Fads”, “frills” and “pendulum swing” metaphors began to ferment decades ago, and remain active and alive elements of today’s ed. reform discussions. Given our attention to these matters, have we learned how to predict whether the latest ed. reform with be a swing or a success? More to the point, how can we ensure that the current “boom” in ed. technology will be more than the latest ed. fad?
Historically, a reform is likely to succeed if it is supported by or at least consistent with the broad social and political forces in which schools are situated. In “Success and Failure in Educational Reform: Are There Historical ‘Lessons’?” Herbert M. Kliebard, a prolific author and scholar on the subject of curriculum, explains that “under favorable conditions, a reform requires an edict from a law-making body, a school board, a superintendent of schools, or simply a building principal” in order for it to be successful. However, even when implemented by a legislative body, a reform’s “success” is, more often than not, what I call a de jure success-having the appearance of success in terms of implementation, but not reflected by what actually happens inside the classroom.
An illustration of a de jure success can be found in Kliebard’s description of educational experts urging for teachers to organize their teaching by beginning with definite and explicitly stated educational objectives variously called behavioral objectives, performance objectives, and the like. Today, there are many schools that require teachers to turn in a week’s worth lessons with explicitly stated objectives at the beginning of each week. I myself believe in the power and importance of this strategy, and spend hours each week carefully crafting my own objective oriented lesson plans. According to Kliebard, however, there are others for whom “these lesson plans and the objectives that go with them are strictly pro forma…once inside the safe confines of their individual classrooms, teachers carry on their activities in happy disregard of what has been safely embalmed in the file in the principal’s office.” Insofar as the innovation is concerned, its success is more apparent than real-more de jure than de facto.
By taking this distinction into consideration, we can more carefully ask what it will take to make ed. tech. a de facto success. Considering this question, I came up with the following “mini-lessons” for ed. tech. entrepreneurs. Particularly those of whom I have not yet had the pleasure of working with.
One trait shared by many unsuccessful reforms is their failure to take into account the supremely contextual nature of educational practices. Reforms are, at best, doomed to de jure success when they are simplistically derived from research findings and force fed to teachers without regard for the teacher’s own sense of how teaching goes forward in individual classrooms. The way in which the technology is developed, is critical to its chances of de facto success. “Any reform will be thwarted at the point where so-called scientific results collide with the craft of teaching.”
To keep your technology from failing, you need to understand aspects specific to the structure of schools and classrooms that, in the unsweetened words of Kliebard, “disgorge even the most noble efforts”. There is a fatal mismatch between what much of ed. tech. tries to accomplish and what is necessary for the teacher’s success in the classroom. This disconnect exists because entrepreneurs under appreciate the conditions that underlie and regulate the educational situation. While you may already understand that one of my roles is to optimize my student’s learning, you may not realize that I am equally responsible for maintaining order. I, like 99% of people in this world, do not find fulfillment in controlling others; I did not become a teacher because of a passion for crowd control. However, until we adjust the way in which we evaluate a teacher, and make the classroom a space more conducive to risk-taking and disruption, any innovation, regardless of how many reports prove its ability to optimize student learning will continue to be valued according to its potential to change the locus of control, and threaten a teacher’s ability to maintain a precarious order. Kliebard argues that “only the very courageous (and tenured) are willing to risk the loss of control.” I do not see myself as courageous, but I can testify to the fact that my determination to bring innovations into my classroom, comes with a tremendous amount of additional anxiety and heartache because more often than not it was not formulated to help me in both of my roles.
In short, lesson 2 is this: until all those involved, researchers and practitioners alike, reinterpret the development of technology to include the particular circumstance in which the problem is imbedded, the purpose and standards inherent in the innovation will remain in conflict with the conditions that underlie and regulate the educational situation.
The Take Away:
For ed. tech. to be more than a fad, it must consider teachers as more than the compliant beneficiaries of technology passed on to them by others. Teachers are, after all, obliged to be interpreters of the way in which the innovations resonate with our own unique mix of students, subject matter, setting, and personal characteristics. Furthermore, the de facto success of educational technology is contingent on the extent to which it can be interpreted and adapted to those particular conditions. De jure reforms are those which “tend to fail once it crosses the threshold of the classroom door.” Innovations should be developed in concert with the particular context they seek to improve. De facto success is not won by passing the “threshold test”; it is earned by those who remain centered in the classroom centered and therefore beyond the point of entry.
 Success and Failure in Educational Reform: Are There Historical “Lessons”? Herbert M. Kliebard
Peabody Journal of Education Vol. 65, No. 2, Programmatic Responses toward Contemporary Teacher Education Reform (Winter, 1988), pp. 144-157) Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1492792