Education and the Cult of the New


The start of the school year has come again, and, as is usual, our administration has made a great many changes to our policies and curriculum for the upcoming semester. This is now my tenth year in education, and I have observed over time that, within the educational community, the concept of 'change' is considered a good in itself. Rarely is there any means with which to statistically analyze this change and whether its outcomes are positive or negative. Usually those who succeeded in altering the status quo are content their amendments were adopted. They often do not go back to examine the consequences that followed.

The new is often a rehash of the old, but it is sometimes repackaged with a novel spin. The lingo may mutate but many of the concepts remain the same. During inservices we are bombarded with the 'newest' ideas and, because they are fresh, many staff consider them superior to what they used the day before. I firmly believe that those who attempt to modify everything have no inkling that change can exacerbate the problem you wish to solve. Change can make a good situation better, it can keep a good situation good, or it can make a good situation an utter disaster.

The law of unintended consequences is something many an educator simply does not recognize. A perfect example was during the past school year when our principal noticed that one of the secretaries was spending too much time on the internet. She disconnected her network service. End of story? Problem solved? Nope. The secretary took our phone fax line and connected it to her computer. For the next three months, we wondered why our faxes weren't going through. We thought the machine was broken. Her 'sorry' was accepted and she kept her job.

This year our biggest change is block scheduling. The entire district is attempting it. I have no previous experience with it, so I will withhold judgment until I see it in operation. However, during the last year, I heard nothing but positive reports about it from 'official' sources. All the research was favorable. Many times, who conducted the research, or what the research entailed, was not mentioned. I read only 50 pages on the topic, and it was not universally flattering.

I decided to give my colleagues a little diversity of opinion. During a lull in a staff meeting, I took out J. Martin Rochester's Class Warfare and read aloud his section on block scheduling. Laughter erupted when I got to the part where a teacher asks Rochester , during an observation, if he could suggest any movies for the class to watch. She complained that she had too much time on her hands with all the block scheduling. My attempt was not appreciated by my superiors, but it should have been, if the needs of children are tantamount.

The outlook of several people I know can be summed up by stating that they worship the 'cult of the new.' In 1997, I had a special education supervisor critique a behavioral rating form I was using. She didn't like the fact that it was from 1994 or 1995. She had one from 1997, so in her mind, hers was better.

'What difference does the date make?' I asked. 'How does that make it a better form?' She lacked the knowledge to really know. The form I was using had the company's latest norms and had not undergone revision [if it had outdated norms then she would have been correct in critiquing it]. Yet, this made no difference to her, as she reflexively thought anything new was better than anything old. I do not believe substantial information regarding human nature was discovered and incorporated into behavioral rating forms in the years between 1994 and 1997, but you'd never know it based on some of the people I've encountered.

Every year a new behavioral system seems to be marketed, and it is heralded as being superior to all else in the field. The key word here is 'marketed,' as it sums up who really benefits from the cult of the new. The makers of education materials profit greatly from the federal 'education buildup' over the past few decades.

I'm not all that old, yet the instruction devices that are being used today are completely different from what was offered in the '70s and '80s. I know this to be true, as I was asked by our administration to evaluate biology textbooks over the summer. What I saw was shocking. The books came with complementary CDs, workbooks for both teacher and pupil, curricular guides, lesson plans for those who block schedule, lesson plans for those who do not, posters, online links, and even prefabricated overhead materials for the various chapters. I couldn't get over the girth of it all. The most shocking thing to me about the complete 'packages' was the textbooks themselves. The pictures within them were majestic and the photography looked as if it came from the pages of National Geographic. I can still recall a two page close-up of a fly that contained a spectrum of colors and absorbed my attention for nearly a minute. The charts and graphs were of the highest quality, and I found myself reading the textbooks rather than evaluating them.

How is it possible that such complexity and beauty in daily instruction does not result in excellent achievement? Diane Ravitch, in a brand new essay, suggests some reasons as to why. She notes that the narrative content of textbooks are so non-offensive that it is deeply uninteresting to children (my experience over the summer did not clash with this; what captivated me was the charts and graphs, as opposed to the text itself. My job was only to evaluate if our students could handle the vocabulary within them).

Ravitch's use of the Harry Potter phenomenon is a very accurate example. Kids love a riveting story, and even the MTV generation is not incapable of attention if they are exposed to books with meaning. A great narrative, even if in fantasy or mythic form, can capture the imagination of practically anyone. Can't we relate to this too? As a child, I diligently read the Conan books, The Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis, and Lloyd Alexander even though I could have watched television instead.

Several years ago, I saw firsthand a lower functioning, misbehaving youth take great interest in a book' despite his barely being able to stay in the classroom for an entire period. He was a very troubled boy in one of the grade schools that I served. Few things motivated him, so I offered him a deal. If he did not receive any lunch detentions (we didn't have the after school kind) and no suspensions during a week, I would read to him part of The Hobbit on Fridays for a period. To my surprise, he responded favorably to this and asked me often on days other than Friday to read aloud to him, although I stuck to the terms of our deal. He hung on Bilbo's every act and displayed the type of attention that usually only Nintendo can produce. The sterility that is documented within Ravitch's The Language Police is not conducive to unrelenting intellectual interest. There appears to be little one can sink their teeth into in school that does not bear the charred brand of neutered political correctness. Reading classic fairy tales and fables is something that continues to benefit children, and it is something that should never have been exposed to change in the first place.

In about an hour, our staff will report for the official first day of work. One of the changes of recent years is that experiential education activities have been used for staff as well as for students. We will have a partial day's inservice, which will then be followed by the performance of neo-games as a way to bond and gel as a group. These are very popular with corporations as well.

Soon we'll split off into teams and do activities together. I've always hated it (at least for staff) and my low opinion of it was vindicated last year when the event nearly turned into fisticuffs. I was a bystander and the ruckus started over a game we were playing. The idea behind the game is for teams to race up and down the gym floor while intermittently stopping to stand on a blanket. One of our staff members on our team took off before most of us got off the blanket, and a fellow employee got dragged halfway across the gym floor. He got up and threatened the guy who began the charge. Our fearless leader considered the day a success, though, which isn't surprising, as she emits optimism like the sun emits ultraviolet rays.

The moral of my story is that one should be cautious and careful before attempting change. This used to be accepted, but now such a concept would cause one to be labeled a dinosaur. If that's the case, 2003, a Tyrannasaurus Rex I shall be. We know from many mindless government policies over the last 50 years that new ideas do not always have value. One must weigh the pros and the cons before attempting radical change, and we must remember that if it glitters; it could well be pyrite.

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Bernard Chapin's picture
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Bernard Chapin is a writer from Chicago.