We've always done it that way

Experience shapes our understanding of the world and our responses to it. Our past influences our decision making and constrains our imaginations of what is and is not possible. Understanding this is a crucial step towards change; a first step towards discovering a better way to do things. Until we understand how our experience is limiting our imaginations we will continue to be restrained by the way things have always been done. 

For educators in particular there are important lessons to be gained by asking questions about the way we have always done things. We have in our histories an experience of being students and this frames our beliefs about what school should and can be like. Consciously and subconsciously we perpetuate models of education that are shaped by our experience even as we see that the changing nature of the world requires new thinking.

Schools are shaped by many forces. Some are a result of considered and strategic thinking, backed by research and aimed at delivering the best outcomes to our students. At their best our pedagogy and our curriculum demonstrate aspects of this considered and deliberate approach. At other times we see the fingerprints of our past experience shaping what we do. We cling to aspects of schooling such as homework in the elementary years even though we know it has little effect. We recycle approaches to literacy and numeracy even when we have seen them fail in the past and despite our knowledge that technology is driving new imperatives. We see that artificial intelligence is coming, understand that the workplace is changing shape and know that our students will live in a world vastly different to that which our current model of schooling was designed to prepare them for when it was first imagined at the dawn of the industrial revolution. 

At a structural level schools are shaped by forces which often have little to do with pedagogy. The daily routine, of bells and lessons, of movement from classroom to classroom, of lunches and recess breaks all timed to the minute, brings constraints in its rigidity. The silos of knowledge which are the disciplines we use to structure our students learning present a world where understanding is neatly divided. These structures make the process of managing a school somewhat easier and may have served our needs well once, but now prove to be obstacles more than supports. We want our students to be problem finders and solvers armed with diverse skills and the capacity to use what they know in new contexts and yet we continue to present learning to them in neat boxes. 

Our experience of school tells us that we forgot much of what we learned and make little use of other parts. We hoe our children will have a different experience of school to that which we had. We sympathise with Mark Twain when states that “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education” and smile as we read Einstein’s well worn exclamation that "Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.” Despite wanting something better for our students, a focus on deep understanding and life-worthy learning, we struggle to overcome structures for how we assess learning and consequently the learning that we value. We measure what is easily measured even though we know it is not what is most valued in the lives our students are likely to live. 

Our schools shape the future pathways taken by our students. We see this in the post school choices that they make and the elective courses they choose for their final years of study. Exploring the data we have on subject selections and post school pathways reveal gender biases*. We know that fewer girls choose STEM pathways and that boys are more likely to take on high level maths even though there is no evidence of gender differences in an individuals capacity for these subjects. We know that changing this pattern is vital for enhanced equity and we see these patterns reflected in the subject choices of those most impacted by social disadvantaged. We know that research points to connections between our pedagogical moves in these subjects, that an emphasis on rote learning, speed of recall, individualism (as opposed to collaborative learning) and procedural methods (rather than creativity and reasoning) combined with a scarcity of strong role models for those who are not white and male contributes to the inequities. 

We can change this but it will require our very best thinking. We must seek to clarify our purposes and understand deeply what our children most require from their time in school. In determine this we need to look forward to the world they will occupy rather than looking back at the forces, knowledge and beliefs which produced traditional models of schooling. We need to reassess all that we do from the most obvious pillars of our educational systems to the seemingly most insignificant elements. We need to align all that we do, believe and value with our purposes and measure their value against how effectively they drive us towards achieving our goals. 

The difficulty is that systems as old and as entrenched as those which shape schools are difficult to change. It would almost be easier to start afresh with the mindset and attitude of a young start up exploring new frontiers for the very first time without the baggage of our existing systems. And yet doing so ignores that there is much to be valued in our current model. Great teachers are those who build empowering relationships with their learners. Our education system is full of such teachers. Passionate teachers strive to understand their learners and act as role models for them to follow. Quality schools make connections with their communities, with industry, with educational researchers and are already asking the right questions about their purpose and how they might best achieve meaningful goals with and for their students. In countless classrooms and you see students engaged with powerful learning opportunities where they are challenged by choice, are drivers of their learning and are active participants in learning that matters to them now and into their futures. Teachers and school leaders who work within the system they have while gently pushing for change. 

Simon Sinek encourages us to “Start with Why”. His claim is that when we start with a clear understanding of why we do what we do, we are more likely to do it well and to achieve true success. For too long the answer to “Why?” in schools has been “Because that is the way we always do things”. The time for changing this is clearly here, we must always ask “why” and our answer needs to always be linked to the needs of our learners today and their tomorrow. 

By Nigel Coutts

*New South Wales, Australia found in 2001 that 19.7% of boys and 16.8% of girls went on to study a mathematics/science combination in the Higher School Certificate . By 2011 these figures had dropped to 18.6% of boys and 13.8% of girls (Mack & Walsh, 2013, p. 1 p. 8).