The Pitfalls of the Pendulum

Anyone who’s been teaching ten years or more has most likely felt the pedagogical pendulum swing. New technologies are integrated into our teaching practice, new research is applied, and age-old philosophies take their turns to shine. Currently, the “progressive” approach to education has started to take hold around the world as buzzwords like “competencies,” “skills,” “student engagement,” and “learner-centred education” have become de rigueur. Why now – again? In Alberta, Canada, this swing of the pedagogical pendulum is not entirely unrelated to the boom-bust cycle of an oil revenue-dependent model of government.

After a rocky attempt to apply a standardized testing model in core subject areas in the 1970s, a provincial program for achievement testing was finally implemented in Alberta in the mid-1980s – one that looks quite similar even today. Economically, this was a time when Alberta was experiencing a “bust.” The petroleum market had crashed, the price of world oil was down, interest rates skyrocketed, and Alberta was plunged into a recession. When money is tight, people tend to be more conservative (not necessarily in the socio-economic sense) and to look for concrete ideas to which they can cling. Impressionistic notions surrounding things like education tend to be replaced with a desire for an almost hyper-realist approach. I would submit that it was it was due, at least in part, to this political and economic climate that standardized achievement testing in Alberta was born. People wanted facts, and they wanted to see a clear and, to some extent, quantifiable model of education that plainly reflected a system wherein the trajectory from a foundation of core knowledge to classroom learning to assessed achievement could be traced.

University Faculties of Education are often accused of being ivory towers that house educrats, most of whom are many years removed from the classroom. Dewey’s “progressive” philosophy, in all its contemporary incarnations, is integrated into most classes. After four years of arguable indoctrination, young new teachers venture into various school districts, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to inspire the children of the world. Within the first few years of teaching, they tend to balance their initial idealism with pragmatism, after having actually experienced the reality of a classroom and having been mentored by seasoned teachers who have seen the pendulum swing more than a few times. Hopefully, they maintain some of that youthful idealism until the end of their careers.

Back to oil and education as bedfellows: fast-forward ten years, and Alberta was on the rise toward a “boom” again. People were flocking to the province from all over Canada in the 1990s, and international immigration soared by the 2000s. Business was good, so schools were built, teachers were hired, and top-heavy organizational structures thrived.

So here we are in 2015 and all those bright-eyed teachers, hired in the “boom” of the 1990s, are approaching retirement. Some of them are gunning for various consultant positions, or they have their eyes on cushy senior leadership roles, whether at schools, or within the organizational structures of various districts. Some of them need to tow the current “progressive” line in order to advance, some of them are just riding out their last wave, and some of them are fighting for logic and reason as they employ common sense judgment and pedagogical practice in their classrooms.  But a new generation of young teachers, fresh from their training in the ivory tower that is the Faculty of Education, armed with agency, voice, and, perhaps over-inflated egos, are organizing “edcamps” and locking themselves in “progressive” echo chambers. Currently, there’s a historically disproportionate ratio of new teachers to experienced teachers due to the flood of new residents to Alberta, and therefore the need for more teachers, as well as the timing of more-than-the-average number of retirements. Unfortunately, we also now find ourselves in the midst of a collective “bad trip” as too many in the education establishment have drunk the “21st Century” Kool-Aid. Young inspired teachers and new ideas are the lifeblood of our future, but without experienced guidance based on a solid foundation of methods that have been PROVEN to work, they’re sometimes left to their own devices on a journey of discovery that is validated only by its own confirmation bias.

And here we are in the midst of another “bust.” Oil is below $50 a barrel and Alberta is approaching a $7 billion budget deficit. The logistical implications of this, from a budgetary perspective, are a whole other story, but increasingly, people are calling for concrete methods and measures of educational achievement as oil and gas companies are bracing for hiring freezes and wage cuts and Alberta’s economy prepares for the worst. Teaching students skills for a future that cannot be known sounds too wistful. After all, the future has never be known – it cannot be known. I mean, I thought I’d be driving a hovercraft to work by now. So we must focus on evidence-based research in our educational practice as we arm the next generation with the wealth of knowledge gained by humanity so that they can stand on the shoulders of giants and reach even higher, as civilization has always done.

As the amplitude of the pendulum swing increases, particularly in the “progressive” direction, students become the victims of bad ideas and “fuzzy” teaching methodologies. Often with the best of intentions, these practices are disguised in a model of liberal idealism that promises equal access to education wherein “no child [is] left behind;” however, the truth is that if we want to give all students a fair chance at a quality education, rigorous standards, proven methodologies, and a healthy dose of pragmatism are necessary.

Hopefully, we are on the cusp of another era where cooler heads will prevail as the pendulum swings back toward a more reasonable balance.

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