Why Some Teachers May Question ‘New’ Education Trends

| January 29, 2014 | 24 Comments
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Often frustration with the public education system is directed at teachers, even when they are following the standards and guidelines set out by the government. Everyone from politicians, to non-profits to parents tell teachers how to do their jobs better. So it’s no surprise that when the federal state education officials or school superintendents announce a new initiative that not all teachers are ready to jump on the new trend. Education has a long history of reform, each succeeded by another, and teachers have learned to pick and choose carefully where to put their energies.

“There is such a gap between policy talk and what happens on the ground,” said Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University and a former high school social studies teacher and district superintendent. Cuban, a respected voice in the education community, says it can take a long time for new policies to actually get implemented in classrooms, and as schools are gearing up, new policies often come in to replace the ones being implemented. It’s a frustrating cycle for teachers and often leads them to follow their own best judgement about what works in the classroom and ignore the winds of change that can shift so quickly.

“There are so many things that are given to us that are either time wasters or disrespectful to teachers.”

“They have history on their side,” Cuban said. He’s not surprised that teachers are reticent to immediately accept new trends in learning, especially if that trend is coming around for the second or third time. Take project-based learning, for example. It has become the catch phrase du jour, especially with the arrival of Common Core State Standards, but the concept isn’t new and many schools have been quietly practicing project-based learning since the time of John Dewey and Maria Montessori.

“It’s never disappeared,” Cuban said. Schools that were committed to a project-based learning approach continued to use it and made sure that their students also did well on state-mandated assessments. The practice has a history well over a century long — it didn’t arise just because new Common Core State Standards are now requiring similar skills, he says.

Even with other “new” teaching practices and ideas, “among teachers there are early adopters, so some teachers buy into it very quickly, and then when administrators pull back or funding dries up they’re stuck,” Cuban said. To avoid that kind of disillusionment many teachers have decided the best policy is to keep their heads down and continue to do what works — using trial and error to figure out how to reach kids, sticking to the textbook, and focusing on building strong relationships with students.


Technology is another hot button. Cuban points out that education has a long history of expecting new technologies to “revolutionize” the classroom. Thomas Edison believed the instructional film would replace the textbook, and radio was supposed to change how teachers taught. None of the previous technological inventions have fundamentally changed the purpose of school, he argues.

Similarly, computers have been in schools since the 1980s, but were rarely used. Now that the price point has come down and tech devices have become a ubiquitous part of society, there’s a push for that same change in education. But Cuban is skeptical that this new round of excitement about technology is any different from those that came before. He points out that technology is an expensive investment and an ongoing expense as devices quickly become obsolete. “When dollars get short, administrators bristle at that,” he said. If education funding gets cut, as it often does, he predicts the technology dollars will dry up and that trend will go the way of so many others.

But perhaps even more importantly, the transformative potential of technology has not yet taken hold. “In comparing [mid-1980s] and now … high-tech champions (and vendors as well) expected that teachers using these devices with students would shift from teacher-centered practices to student-centered ones. Comparing then and now, that shift has not occurred,” Cuban writes on his blog.

For Carrie Oretsky, a 40-year veteran public elementary teacher in Oakland, Calif., technology is “here to stay” — but she’s unsure to what end.

“This generation of kids is so much more hooked into it,” she says. But she doesn’t think tech would have made its way into Oakland’s public schools so quickly if it weren’t for the testing requirements under new Common Core assessments. “If we were just asking for the technology for any other reason, like to improve curriculum or books, we would never find the money for that,” Oretsky said. She’s seen co-workers use technology in exciting ways, but for her personally, it would take so long to feel comfortable with technology that she’s better off sticking with what she does well.

“The messiness of learning, which is so vital for the brain to make sense of it, might get lost,” said Oretsky. She worries that too much emphasis on technology in the classroom will deprive it of the unique social interactions that have made school special for so long. “There are so many amazing things that a teacher can do with kids in a classroom,” Oretsky said. “Negotiating, sitting down and figuring out a problem — I don’t know how that happens on a computer.”

“[Reformers] have a vision of instruction, where the teacher plays a coach kind of role, a facilitator role, but in a lot of schools, given standards-based assessment, that is impossible.”


Oretsky, who constantly reads about new ideas and challenges herself to think of better teaching practices, has seen her fair share of top-down education mandates in her many years of teaching. Not all the ideas imposed on teachers were bad ones, she said, but none have lasted very long. “Every time Oakland got a new superintendent we’d have a whole new approach to something,” she said. “Every time it happens we just cringe. There are so many things that are given to us that are either time wasters or disrespectful to teachers.” She says there’s something “icky” about having mandates come down from on high without any teacher input.

“That’s one of the problems with people leaving the classroom; they forget how totally difficult it is when you bring it to the kids,” Oretsky said. She knows. She spent one year splitting time between the classroom and work for the district. Even in the half time she wasn’t teaching she’d forget just how challenging it was to work in the classroom.

Larry Cuban agrees that dictating to teachers isn’t the way to get them on board with a new educational initiatives. “One idea that I’ve championed over time is to get teachers involved before the new thing,” Cuban said. “Teachers need a chance to say how this is going to work in classrooms.”

For her part, there are a couple of clear things Oretsky would recommend schools do to improve teaching and learning. She’d like to see more project-based learning in public school classrooms, where students have real choice about the direction of their learning. The rhetoric of student-driven learning is popular right now, but teachers worried about meeting standards often aren’t willing to spend the time project-based learning requires if they aren’t sure their students will ultimately perform well on the tests. Cuban says reformers who champion student-driven learning aren’t being practical about real classrooms. “They have a vision of instruction, where the teacher plays a coach kind of role, a facilitator role, but in a lot of schools, given standards-based assessment, that is impossible,” Cuban said.

Oretsky also wishes public education could develop authentic assessments of student learning. The current assessments aren’t just once or twice a semester; Oretsky says there are benchmark tests every few weeks. And each time they roll around, her classroom plans have to stop while the kids take tests. Some educators have hope that Common Core aligned assessments will provide a more authentic experience, but Cuban thinks the new tests will be more of the same.

“If we stop asking, Does this make sense, we’ve lost what’s its all about.”

Oretsky remembers a program in Oakland public schools called Subject Matter Projects: administrators hired subs, allowing teachers to collaborate with each other and university professors and develop innovative workshops and projects on specific subjects. She says that type of collaboration was exciting and effective. Teachers were willing to put their own time into developing these projects and learned a lot from each other about teaching that could be used back in the classroom. Predictably that program was stripped away after a few years. Oretsky wishes there was time for real collaboration between teachers — not the 20 minutes she gets now.

Lastly, Oretsky says she’d make sure that social and emotional learning is built into every curriculum. When No Child Left Behind was first instituted more than 10 years ago, the focus on those soft skills was completely eliminated. “Teachers realized within a month that they had to bring that back because kids didn’t even know how to work together,” Oretsky said.

Oretsky says she’s getting ready to retire (though she’s been saying that for a few years now).“I really feel like a frog that has been put into a pot of nice warm water and they raised the temperature and pretty soon it’s boiling, but you don’t really notice it,” she said. Time, money and respect for teachers have slowly been stripped away from education and it’s left many committed teachers wondering why they’ve stayed so long.

“I love change, it’s very exciting to me,” said Oretsky. But she doesn’t intend to change her classroom into something worse than what she’s already doing. “If we stop asking, Does this make sense, we’ve lost what’s its all about,” she said.



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  • http://www.dangerouslyirrelevant.org Scott McLeod

    “many teachers have decided the best policy is to keep their heads down and continue to do what works”

    With all due respect to educators, much of what we think ‘works’ in school is very outdated or, let’s be honest, has never worked but is the way we’ve always done it.

    It’s a digital world these days. Our information, economic, and learning landscapes are all digital now. We don’t prepare students for the world as it is and will be if we reject digital technologies in our learning environments because ‘it [will] take so long’ to get comfortable. We must recognize the relevance and importance of digital learning tools in students’ day-to-day learning experiences.

    The teacher in this article says that she’d like to see more problem-based approaches to learning and more authentic assessments. Digital tools can be powerful enablers of both of those.

    Dr. Cuban’s statement that student-driven learning is ‘impossible’ to achieve in many schools that use standards-based assessments is directly contradicted by his recognition several paragraphs earlier that schools have been doing problem-based learning for decades while also making sure that students do well on state-mandated tests?

    Dr. Cuban believes that technology is a ‘trend’ that will go the way of so many others Does this mean that he thinks we’re going to go backward toward analog learning?

    • Eileen D.

      You are 100% correct in your response (in my opinion)! My 5th grade students are “digital natives” who grasp technology with arms wide open. They even teach me a few things that I readily accept without getting my pride hurt. Getting kids ready for college and career means that we have to encourage the use of computers and applications to get them ready to compete globally for jobs. My daughter’s first job out of college almost two years ago was in digital marketing. Now that’s a 21st Century career that didn’t exist when I was a student!

      • Jeb

        If, as you say, your students are digital natives who “grasp technology” so well then why would it be necessary to teach their use in schools? It is a waste of valuable resources to focus so much on these technologies that are already ubiquitous. I say put the $$ into hiring more teachers and creating smaller classes of children. This would elevate stressors on teachers and children.

      • Coby

        Drank the 21st C Kool-aid, I see. I don’t see the aim of education as job preparation. I see it as critical thinking and the ability to communicate. I tried debate with my senior class last week. They were horrible. If you want to prepare kids for jobs, get their heads out of the virtual world and back into the real world–learning how to speak in public, with one another. I know a teacher that thinks it is so cool to connect with students across the world through blogging. I told her there was class of alienated international students right across the hall that are being ignored–are depressed because no one is building relationships with real international kids. The irony.

  • JohnLarmer

    Good ideas to remember as the 21st century PBL train speeds down the track! I too worry about whether teachers will be given the time it takes to plan good projects. Also worry about when teachers “keep their heads down and continue to do what works” because oftentimes those methods do NOT work, in terms of student learning, they’re just what works to get through the day.

  • Christina W.

    “One idea that I’ve championed over time is to get teachers involved before the new thing,” Cuban said. “Teachers need a chance to say how this is going to work in classrooms.”

    I think what is most frustrating for teachers is that with every new trend or magic solution that comes, no one asks us what we think is the best. I think, if asked, most teachers would argue that with the large class sizes, lack of resources, and lack of parent involvement none of these new trends will solve the problems of our schools.

    I think Common Core has great possibilities and completely onboard for integrating technology into my classroom, but I think that these basic problems that challenge many teachers need to be solved before either will make the impact proposers are hoping for.

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  • http://peterccook.com/ Peter Cook

    Glad you incorporated the views from both sides of the debate…Oh wait, you didn’t.

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  • Thom Markham

    It’s important to note that teachers have been doing ‘projects’ since the time of John Dewey–and likely earlier. But ‘project based learning’ as a more coherent and methodologically sound approach for teaching and learning in a modern environment that demands inquiry, teamwork, and a higher-level skill set is relatively recent. Project based learning is not just a rerun, as Dr. Cuban indicates, but a sophisticated response to try to redefine education in our present world. And any teacher who pursues a ‘heads down’ approach to their job these days is not doing their job.

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  • Sue Marron

    With the implementation of Common Core into our school, the
    most “common” words I am hearing from teachers is that they “can go back to
    teaching the way they used to.” We are digging in our closets and pulling out
    the manipulatives and AIMS lessons and brushing the dust off of them. A perfect
    example of the “frustrating cycles for teachers” and how we have come full
    circle in just 15-20 years. It’s no wonder that teachers are making their own
    decisions on where to “put their energies.” The gap between the “policy talk” and
    what takes place in the classroom is just widening in my district regarding
    CCSS. In-services are district lead without teacher input, which I feel would
    make the whole acceptance of a new policy easier to swallow. The district did
    not have a clear vision of where they were going (just towards the state’s
    (unclear) vision of common core) and without clarity the teachers could not
    even grasp the concept of the new change. We can’t hit a target that we can’t
    see. These “winds of change” are happening so quickly, that not only are the
    teachers not ready to get on board, we are ready to jump ship.

  • Ryan Patterson

    Trends and change are the only constant. We need to realize that every teacher is going to be great at some things and struggle with others. Just as our students will. Of course we want to incorporate as much technology as possible and teach students to utilize the modern world in order to be useful tools in society. However it is extremely difficult to keep up with the pace of technology. Remember MySpace? hardly used today and the students in my class can hardly stand facebook. There will always be some new trend however LEVI’s has stuck around and I would imagine some of the fundamental roots of education will always be here to stay. Reading, Writing, Math and good old fashioned practice on paper with pencils have always been like “Old Faithful” consistent, available, and affordable. Let the bureaucrats send down new curriculum the teachers always wed through it and use what works best. Is this all about using technology to teach? I’m not so sure, but knowledge is so abundantly available now… it is mind boggling to search through what is available. Should students learn to use tech and be savvy about what is truth vs. fiction of course. I am fairly sure students will be able to adapt when they actually get the technology in their hands but a key argument was monetary funding which continues to hold my district back from having the latest greatest gadgets for every student. I think our desks are even 20 to 30 years old when I need Idesks for everyone so they can research any topic I give, create and present information, blog and share knowledge as we are doing right now. It takes more than one computer lab per school or a handful of computers per classroom. We simply can’t afford to give every student what they need in order to be tech savvy so just we we adapt and learn to use the new technology available so will they when they get it in their hands.

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  • Cathy Velasquez

    I think this article really describes what most teachers are feeling at
    my site and within the district. I’m one for “trying on new things”
    if they work. This year has been designated the year of “trying on Common
    Core strategies and lessons.” So far, two types of Common Core programs
    and some trial textbooks have been delivered to my class. I went to one
    training for one program because there is no money to train everyone on
    everything. So, my district has recently suggested we go to after school trainings
    without pay.

    At these “so called trainings”, I’m being
    advise by coaches who have gone to one training themselves, and are using an
    existing Common Core Guide for Coaches to create a recipe of lessons.
    They can’t answer most questions and suggest we just have fun and “try it

    I’m now expected to show everyone on my site, how to
    use everything, including the things I haven’t been trained on. Hmm. Did I
    mention that my principal expects to see Common Core Lessons everyday?

    I have been “trying on new things” every six
    years, every time someone with money decides to think and make decisions for
    teachers. Most of it doesn’t work when I “try it on.” I consider
    myself a pretty successful teacher when I’m not using someone else’s idea of what
    “good teaching” is. I am successful because I made my own decisions
    of what I want to teach based on what works for my students. Students that only
    I really know. The moment someone steps in to tell me what to do, it is no
    longer my lesson.

  • Clyde Gaw

    Teachers and schools are still evaluated based on student high stakes standardized test scores. Teachers will teach to the test. This article is quite misleading.

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  • Bob Karman

    What strikes me in the article and comments is a standard approach to teacher training, finances for schools and collaboration between the developers of various innovations and those who are supposed to implement them. If these are not standardized, if some districts really train teachers others and other districts give scant training to one teacher who has scant time to train peers then results will be uneven, and Common Core or any other approach will be difficult to assess in a valid manner. That makes all the sophisticated student testing to assess outcomes invalid at best. Also when input on education from an experienced teacher eg Ms. Oretsky and input from someone who has taught less than a decade are compared certainly there will be differences. Senior teachers have seen programs come and go repeatedly and grow weary of the inefficiencies they see, wondering if the people in charge understand what they are doing. There are more methodical ways of approaching education but under the current system, the losers are students who then become our inadequately educated adults.

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  • Coby

    Plato said the ‘technology’ of writing would ruin memory. He’s right: my wife can’t go to the store without writing out ‘potatoes, baking powder, milk’. A colleague wants his students to connect with a group of kids from across the world in a blog; I tell him we have 30 international students across the hall that everyone in our school ignores. I’ve got a teacher that will spend hours writing e-mails to communicate with administration about important issues in the school: but she’s too scared to have a conversation with him in person. That’s called embracing typography and lacking an education in oral culture. It’s great to progress and move forward, but not when you are forgetting your roots that got you there in the first place.