The problem with, “I already tried that.” in educational innovation.

Whether you are in education or any other field, you have no doubt experienced this. An administrator or professional development facilitator encourages (or maybe even required) a teacher to implement a new practice or strategy. They try it and run into problems. They go back to their previous practice. When you ask them about the new practice or strategy, they explain that they tried it an it doesn’t work. Logically, they abandoned the new practice and went back to the familiar methods of the past. Yet, I’m not sure that makes as much sense that it might seem to some. Consider the following four scenarios.

Physical Therapy Treatment

A person is recovering from an injury and the doctor urges the person to work with a physical therapist. The person goes the first time, and the physical therapist takes them through a series of stretches and strengthening exercises. It was painful, but the person persevered. The patient goes home that night and never returns. When asked why they didn’t return, they explain that they went, it was painful and didn’t do anything to improve their condition.

Piano Lessons

A person decides to learn to play the piano. The person finds a teacher, goes to a first lesson, becomes embarrassed because of how little he knows, then he quits. When asked why, the person explains that the lessons “were not working.”

Reading a Classic

You are in a literature class that is reading T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland. You read it through once, completely confused and then give up, explaining that this poem doesn’t make any sense.

Learning to Drive a Car

You start driver’s education and have your first day driving the car. As you start to pull out of the parking lot, the engine makes strange noises and shuts down. You try to restart it but no luck. You and the teacher check under the hood, but there is no obvious solution. So, you quite driver’s education, explaining to everyone that driving is not good because the technology isn’t reliable.

We read these examples and probably see the error in thinking. Of course you are not going to get better after a single physical therapy treatment. Of course you are unable to play the piano well after a single lesson. Of course it will take multiple readings and some research to understand a poem like The Wasteland. Of course driving works, but this person just had a bad experience. Yet, when it comes to educational innovation and educational technology, exploring new practices and methods, I’ve observed a similar line of thinking countless times. The person taking or teaching a blended or online course for the first time has a bad experience and uses that as evidence that all blended and online learning is bad, ineffective or the technology is too unreliable. Or, a person tries teaching a certain type of blended learning class, doesn’t enjoy it (similar to the lack of pleasure practicing piano before you can play a song), and quits, confident that it is a bad teaching method.  A person tries to design and teach their first project-based learning lesson and it bombs. They conclude that project-based learning doesn’t work with their students or maybe not at all. Someone invites a teacher to replace a lecture-dominant approach to teaching with a Socratic method. The questions are not well-crafted, the skill of socratic teaching has yet to be fully developed, and the class doesn’t perform as well on the first exam. The teacher concludes that lecture is clearly a superior teaching method to socratic teaching.

None of these are approaching the new method or strategy realistically. Implementing something new often takes study, practice, time, multiple attempts, reflection, revision, and ongoing adjustments. Of all people, shouldn’t educators be the first to understand this? A teaching method is not like a pill you take that instantly makes you feel better. It almost always needs to be combined with the development of new knowledge and skills. Even then, it is accompanied with ongoing reflective practice to hone the craft. Such an understanding is really a foundational element of being an effective learner.

Notice what happens when people approach new strategies, methods and models with an ongoing commitment to working hard at it, curiosity, reflective practice and an understanding that you don’t make a great surgeon by giving them a great method. You need a great method plus the accompanying skill before we see the great results. The same thing is true in teaching. It is also true in learning. We need educators why embrace such a mindset. Even more important, we need learners who know and understand this.