Helping the Reluctant Learn from the Educational “Extremes”

Most people do not become educators because they love change, innovation and entrepreneurial efforts. Instead, it is usually because they love their content/discipline, they love teaching students and impacting their lives, they love schooling (as they know/knew it), because they want to make a positive contribution to society, or some combination of these. For the majority working in K-12 schools or higher education institutions, they are working in a largely traditional context, one that dabbles with trends and innovations, but remains largely consistent from year to year, decade to decade, some even century to century. Yet, many educators recognize that we are in a time of unprecedented educational change and innovation. That can be uncomfortable, and educators can struggle with ways to respond to these changes.

This is heightened when they are introduced to what they experience and perceive as radical changes. I am referring to things like MOOCs, online learning, digital badges for learning, self-directed learning, project-based learning, and competency-based education. When confronted with these ideas, they seem so radical that they are easily dismissed by those who see immense value in the traditional ways of doing things. And yet, I contend that most educators are open to incremental change, granted that they have time to explore, dabble, experiment, candidly discuss and critique, and have some final say on the extent to which they embrace it. Here are some of the potential barriers to educators engaging in such efforts.

A Heightened Sense of Fear and Uncertainty – This provokes fear for many, and in time of fear, we are less open to considering new things. Things tend to get more black and white and our responses can turn to a short yes or no, with no consideration for the grey versions of the idea. Read the early news about MOOCs and the first educators learn about it from the media is that it might replace higher education institutions, that it will jeopardize their jobs, and that there is an immense dropout rate. That is enough to scare many in education. For any of us who truly study MOOCs, we know that these are black and white claims, but the power and possibility is in the grays. While a sense of urgency can be a powerful lever for change in organizations (including schools), this need not be connected with creativity-stinting and flexibility-crushing fear tactics.

2. The Other – There is plenty of research to show that we are less likely to adopt new innovations or changes when they are championed by someone who we consider outside our peer group. If we see educators and other education stakeholders labeling proponents of a given innovation as the other, then we have our work cut out for us. Finding common ground with these innovators, experiencing them as real people and not straw men or caricatures, and discovering people with whom the educators or stakeholders relate can open us up to a more willing mindset about lessons from the “extremes.”

3. The Same Old Same Old – Those in education for over a decade have been bombarded with educational trends and innovations. Add a new one and it is tempting to dismiss it as just one more failed attempt at improving education. This requires a fair assessment on the new innovations. What is old? What is new?

4. The Hard Sell – Advocates of a new idea can come off as blind to any flaws in a new idea. They talk about it like it was their newborn infant, beautiful beyond imagination. This can lead to suspicion from others and sometimes and unwillingness to even consider the other idea. An alternative is to provide a more balanced approach. Recognize that all educational innovations and practices have benefits and limitations, affordances and limitations. Recognize both in the old and the new. This offers a chance to have a candid conversation about what is best for your learning organization and students.

5. One-Sided Media Versions – Mainstream news sources and even the more grassroots blogs are filled with misrepresentations of emerging trends and innovations in education. If you follow my blog, you’ve seen me respond to such misrepresentations about everything from MOOCs to the Common Core State Standards. I am deeply concerned that a health diet of these media misrepresentations will inhibit honest exploration and experimentation with these new ideas in a way that can help schools and learning organizations improve. We must develop a critical eye, take the time to review things from multiple perspectives, and recognizing that many (but not all) people writing about educational innovations in the web (especially the news sites) are often writing without a strong insider’s perspective, or often from a single insider perspective. Take MOOCs as an example. How many articles write about MOOCs as if Coursera and EdX were the only two providers out there. That gives a one-sided and flawed view of this much more diverse movement in open learning. If we are going to help people get comfortable with exploring new ideas, we have to find ways to offer more multi-faceted perspectives on the issues. Find people who are willing to critique as well as promote the new innovations.

6. Time & Interest – Educators are busy people with priorities in work and life. Not all (not even most of them) get energized by spending hours analyzing every new idea, especially when there are an overwhelming number of them. Innovation fatigue is real, even for those trying to be open to the trends and possibilities. This calls for a reasonable and understanding response. First, do we want every teacher to become trend-chasers and innovation-analysts? Or, are we better off empowering each to major in their strengths and passions for the sake of education? So, while it is reasonable to expect educators to stay current in their field, moderation can be a powerful tool for helping educators and others make progress toward analyzing and integrating worthwhile innovations. It is good to have a small core group that loves innovation scouting. Use them to share ideas with the rest for consideration, but don’t expect everyone to become a scout.

There are plenty of other things that might get in the way, but these are among the more common ones that I see in learning organizations. If you see others, please consider sharing them in the comment section.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.