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Are you keeping up? Are we keeping up?

The dominant narrative about education says no. Teachers perpetually lag behind other more innovative fields, maybe by as much as a 100 or 150 years, depending on who you listen to. But there is no reason to believe such a narrative is true, and every reason to examine how it retains its hegemony.

In 1935, Oscar Campbell wrote in The English Journal:

“A time of accelerated social change like the present it always a time of exaggeration. The strain of constantly making new adjustments frays the nerves and distorts the judgment of nearly everyone. The liberals magnify the benefits and promise of innovations; and the conservatives lament, in a spirit suffused with fear and nostalgia, the abandonment of the tried and the familiar.”

It’s uncanny how well this still captures the sentiment of education reform movements and the lived experience of teachers.

Much of the dialog about change centers on the digital. In High-tech, hard work (2016), Neil Selwyn, Selena Nemorin & Nicola Johnson chart the “ambiguous presence” of technology in the work of high school teachers. They focus not on students playing Minecraft, but on the labor of teaching through the lenses of standardization, evidencing, intensification, and altered affect. Software algorithmically embodies demands that teachers input grades and attendance, automates decisions, and produces a trail of documentation, increasing the scrutiny teachers face. At the same time, teachers face pressure to check email and engage in PD at nights and on weekends. Digital technologies turn out to be “both liberating and exploitative, democratizing and disempowering”, and was “described in our interviews as a site of increased individualization of responsibility and individualization of risk – supporting shifts in the nature of teachers’ work that could be seen as weakening collective interests as well as institutional responsibilities.”

One educator suggests that the best way to create better teachers would be to require them to blog once a week, which promises empowerment and reflection, but also gives a “picture of what happens on a daily basis” in their classrooms, which he suggests “goes a long way in addressing accountability concerns.” Liberating and exploitative.

Are you keeping up? Are we keeping up?

I have been at my worst as a teacher when I flit from one new and improved idea to the next, never gathering my full attention. During one of my most productive Septembers, I focused nearly all my energy on teaching younger children how to choose a good book and find a good place to read quietly. My kids increased their stamina for quiet reading and we built a caring classroom culture. On a daily basis, I had to resist impulses to change so that I could build the routines that would let my students thrive.

We should all experiment and learn, but in a context where educators are told they are not changing fast enough, it’s not easy to keep our sense of change calibrated when we are told that “‘Today’s pace of change is greater than at any other time in history.”1Alberta, Inspiring Education, p. 13 Keeping up with keeping up becomes a game in itself, even when it is unclear exactly what we are supposed to keep up with. Ken de Heyer makes a compelling argument that we are misguided to believe we are living through a faster epoch of change than in the past:

“I can only imagine what our local [Alberta] Cree elders must think of such statements. Imagine the time period 1874–6–1892 which was, depending on where you lived on the Western prairies, when the buffalo stopped running and the very root of many successful cultures, economies, educations and spiritual life worlds ceased to exist. … So, in roughly 18 years, a whole set of self-sufcient rich cultural life worlds with diverse economic models completely and utterly changed, hardly the word that seems appropriate. We have had, in contrast, Google for 12 years. …To say that no one ever has experienced a pace of change like we are today is misguided. Worse, such views and statements shut our ears to those peoples who could teach us much about how not only to survive systemic denial of our coexistence but also build a preferable future for all Canadians.”2Ken de Heyer, The Case of Wondering ‘Its’: The Future as More of the Same in the Name of Change, p. 184-5 in The Precarious Future of Education ...continue

We must calibrate our sense of change and the future through a better understanding of history and of how the demands for change affect the labor of teaching. A perpetual sense that we are not keeping up only breeds a destructive sense of precarity.

References   [ + ]

1. Alberta, Inspiring Education, p. 13
2. Ken de Heyer, The Case of Wondering ‘Its’: The Future as More of the Same in the Name of Change, p. 184-5 in The Precarious Future of Education edited by jan jagodzinski. I use the same quotation from Alberta’s Inspiring Education report that de Heyer references.
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