How Well do Schools Reflect the Culture they Serve?

Excerpt from Becoming a Win-Win Teacher (by Jane Bluestein, Ph.D., Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Publishing, 2010). Chapter title adapted for this site. The material shared here was taken from the manuscript from this book. The actual published chapter may be slightly different. All links were working at the time of publication.

We are living in exponential times.
—Karl Fisch, Scott McLeod, and Jeff Brenman

Our students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.
—Marc Prensky 114

It’s hard to expect any significant change in the outcome if there is no significant change in the process and sadly, education often seems to favor institutional familiarity and self-preservation over change, especially of the bleeding edge variety.
—Retired administrator, John MacBeth

To get what we’ve never had, we must do what we’ve never done.
—Mark Twain 115

A few months ago, I was working with a very bright 25-year-old manager for one of the seminars I was presenting. At one point in our conversation, she mentioned that for all of the research papers she had written in high school and college, she had only used an actual book once. She didn’t understand why the teacher insisted that the students use at least one book for that project. What was the point? Although a voracious reader, she was completely lost in a library, and beside, everything she needed for her papers was available online.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, all but my first few books included email surveys and Internet research, and it’s been years since my manuscripts went back and forth between my editors and me on actual paper.116 Things are moving so fast anymore, that it’s not surprising that so many of us feel like the contributor who complained, “I’m running as fast as I can to not get too far behind!”

So let’s talk a little about change and what’s happening these days—in the world, with our students, and in our schools. Because all of these factors will have an impact on your experience in the classroom, and why you may find that a lot of what you are expected to do may not work quite as well as it once did.

The World Has Changed and Schools have not Kept Up

In the Middle Ages, change happened so slowly that people had lots of time to contemplate technological, political, and social advances that would affect their lives—if they noticed or considered them at all. That’s no longer the case. The same amount of change that used to take hundreds of years to unfold, now happens in a matter of weeks.117 In all likelihood, this pace will continue to accelerate, with no signs of slowing down, much less going back.

Each advance seems to spread faster than the last. It was 38 years before radio reached a market audience of 50 million people. Television hit 50 million after only thirteen years, and the same number of people were using Facebook within two years of its release, up to 200 million active users worldwide in the following three years.118 Think of the technologies that have emerged in the past few years and how they have affected our habits, our thinking, and even our vocabularies. (It wasn’t that long ago that every student in school would know what you meant when you talked about “winding the window down,” “dialing the phone,” or “sounding like a broken record.”)

In terms of information alone, examples of acceleration boggle the mind. Consider the fact that, according to a 2008 video researched and designed by Karl Fisch, Scott McLeod, and Jeff Brenman, you and I will come across more information in a week’s worth of New York Times than people in the 18th century would encounter in an entire lifetime. This video reported that there currently is “more information generated in one year than in the previous five thousand years.” It also noted that “the amount of new technical information is doubling every two years. For students starting a four-year technical degree this means that… half of what they learn in their first year of study will be outdated by their third year of study.”119 And it’s not just technical information. A 2002 book by Peter Kline announced, “The amount of available information in all fields is growing at more than a billion times the rate it was in 1950.”120 In this context, the notion of a “body of knowledge” seems pretty absurd.

A few years ago, Education Secretary, Richard Riley predicted that “the top ten in-demand jobs in 2010 didn’t exist in 2004.”121 Fisch and friends stated, “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”122 But are we preparing them? In recent decades, educational demands have increased dramatically in the workplace. Authors Kenneth Wilson and Bennett Daviss reported in 1994 that even the least-skilled jobs in the new millennia would “require a command of reading, computing, and thinking that was once necessary only for the professions.”123 While an 8th-grade education may have been adequate for many jobs in the past, even a solid high school education won’t go far today. Journalist Bob Herbert affirmed, “We are now in a time when a college education is a virtual prerequisite for achieving or maintaining a middle-class lifestyle.”124

Twenty-first century jobs increasingly require technological literacy in all fields, as well as the flexibility and commitment to keep up with constant changes and developments in this area. “If we simply train a new generation of students in the math, science and engineering skills in demand today, by the time they graduate, the global economy will have new requirements,” wrote educator Michael Bassis. “A formal education that just teaches us to understand today’s technology is, in an age of rapid change, just another example of planned obsolescence.”125 Author Thomas Friedman agreed. “What you know today will be out-of-date sooner than you think,” he warned.126

The rate of change and acceleration can be pretty disorienting. But if you want your head to stop spinning, you only need to go back into a typical school, where things really haven’t changed much since the 1700s when education, in western culture, hit its own market expansion, granting access “to larger numbers of children from increasingly diverse segments of society.”127 This was the time when many of the systems we see in schools were established—which would be fine and dandy except for the fact that the world into which our current schools deposit our students is radically different from the world in which these protocols came about.

The most recent cultural and economic shifts are described in different terms by different people, but all point in a similar direction. Friedman talks about the world going “flat,” with the latest version of globalization connecting individuals in ways that previous transitions once connected countries and companies. The notion of a flat world includes an economic reality in which workers around the world are now in a position to compete for work previously done in more developed nations. As manufacturing jobs have been moving overseas, now information jobs are following a similar trend. “Everywhere you turn, hierarchies are being challenged from below or are transforming themselves from top-down structures into more horizontal and collaborative ones,” he wrote.128 Well, globally, perhaps, but hardly the model to which many schools adhere.

In this context, Daniel Pink presents a case for an increasing need of right-brained thinkers in what he calls the current Conceptual Age.129 As we move farther from factory-era models, players in the newly emerging economy will be the creators and empathizers, with right-brain strengths such as “forging relationships rather than executing transactions, tackling novel challenges instead of solving routine problems, and synthesizing the big picture rather than analyzing a single component.”130 Friedman concurs with the need for creativity and interpersonal skills. He concluded, “No matter what your profession…, you better be good at the touchy-feely service stuff, because anything that can be digitized” is likely to be outsourced.131

Win-win teaching requires an appreciation for the context in which schools exist, and win-win teachers strive to keep up with changes occurring in the culture and economy schools serve. Educators Lynne Gerlach and Julia Bird challenge 21st century educators “to move from outside to inside, from provision to learning, from facts to meaning.” They also stress the value of learning to learn, as well as the importance of living intelligently, being able to manage paradox, live with contradictions and uncertainty, and demonstrate creative resilience within complexity.132 Unfortunately, these skills—and others, such as social and interactive competence, humor, creativity, ingenuity, imagination, holistic thinking, gut instinct, and emotional climate—all of which gain importance the farther we get from left-brain directed models—tend to be undervalued and marginalized in schools, if not ignored altogether. Back-to-basics is fine as long as the basics are relevant to the needs of the 21st century workplace. Today’s economy demands kids with information literacy, as well as good people skills, good communication skills, good networking skills, a knowledge of the global community, an appreciation for cultural diversity, creativity, innovation, the ability to think outside the box, and, as one CEO requested, “vision and attitude.”133 Bickart shared, “I really wish someone had told me that [teaching] is more about changing attitudes than imparting facts.” But according to educator and author John Gatto, even in the best schools, “the logic of the school-mind is that it is better to leave school with a tool kit of superficial jargon derived from economics, sociology, natural science, and so on than with one genuine enthusiasm.”134 And authors Claudia Wallace and Sonja Steptoe warn that the way schools are currently configured, “an entire generation of kids will fail to make the grade in the global economy because they can’t think their way through abstract problems, work in teams, distinguish good information from bad, or speak a language other than English.”135

Looking at schools through this lens can be fairly disconcerting. In attempting to prepare children for accelerating change, it hardly makes sense to try meet future needs with curricula and practices developed to serve the past. But those traditions persist in most schools today. Educator Allan Ilagan agreed, noting that education “is not changing at a rate even close enough to keep up with the need for change.” Wallis and Steptoe imagine Rip Van Winkle awakening in the 21st century after a hundred years of sleep and is “utterly bewildered by what he sees,” that is, until he walks into a schoolroom. Our schools, they claim, “aren’t exactly frozen in time,” but they’ve certainly been outpaced by the rate of change in other areas of our lives. “Kids spend much of the day as their great-grandparents once did: sitting in rows, listening to their teachers lecture, scribbling notes by hand, reading from textbooks that are out of date by the time they are printed,” they continued. “A yawning chasm (with an emphasis on yawning) separates the world inside the schoolhouse from the world outside.”136 Educator Sarah Guthrie, also commented on the difficulty schools have had keeping up. “We don’t teach what students need to know in order to succeed in this modern world,” she wrote, criticizing current efforts “to teach a set of mostly unnecessary skills to students who are less and less open to outdated, meaningless, inapplicable tasks.”

Few educators would deny that the knowledge base is expanding at increasingly unprecedented rates, that there is more and more to know every day. But unfortunately, the response to this phenomenon has been to simply cram more curriculum into each grade level, introducing content to kids at younger and younger ages, developmental appropriateness be damned. Colbert was surprised to discover, when she returned to teaching after taking off five years to have her children, that the content she had been teaching to first graders was now being taught to kindergarteners. Author Sue Ferguson observed that the term ‘school readiness,’ once referred to kids’ ability to separate from their parents for a few hours without too much fuss and go to the bathroom by themselves. The same term, she said, now refers to their mastery of early numeracy and literacy skills.137 And one first grade teacher related that kindergarten “has gone the way of the little red wagon and mud pies.” We no longer give children time to learn how to use a tricycle or wait their turn on the swing. “These were important skills,” she added, “vital to success in the grades to come.” But current mandates favor worksheets and take-home books as expectations expand at each grade level, leaving many of her students behind.138 And while probably most obvious in the younger grades, I’ve heard similar stories from a number of secondary educators, including several middle school math teachers, for example, bemoaning the fact that they are now pushed to teach content once reserved for ninth-grade algebra classes.

Cranking up the speed on the curricular treadmill is devastating this profession. Cesar Delgado, a beginning preschool teacher described feeling “left out from the education system, and incompetent before veteran teachers.” He described his desire to really connect with his kids from the first day of teaching, “but the overload work, due dates, and lesson plans… kill you, leaving no strength to inspire students.” It is understandable how dedicated teachers can feel a sense of personal failure for not being able to keep up with unrealistic demands. And truly, the expectations in some settings are pretty wacko. We don’t know what kids will need to know in a couple of years. We can never cover it all.

“If all of the standards were taught, schooling would move from a K-12 structure to a K-22 structure,” wrote Robin Fogarty.139 Be aware of the likelihood that you will be expected to teach far more than can reasonably be taught in the time you have with your students. Several of the books for beginning teachers that I reviewed try to help, but I was frankly unnerved by advice to plan content according to the testing schedule, presumably so that you will have presented everything by the test, or to break down your curriculum by month, week, and day, to be sure that you get through the books. This may well be the expectation in your school, but don’t for a second confuse this approach with actual teaching. Instruction without regard for individual students’ needs, experiences, and abilities will surely become a huge source of stress and frustration (and yes, failure) for all concerned.

If we’re going to really make education work, we need to start with the kids— who students are, what they know, how they learn, and what makes them tick. We will shift our attention from facts and content to process and passion, and more importantly, learning how to learn. Bassis wrote about the problem with current reforms being their focus “on what students know, not what they are capable of learning. Knowing is important. But it cannot be an end in and of itself. What we know today will be outmoded tomorrow… It isn’t enough just to learn anymore, one must learn how to learn. How to learn without classrooms, without teachers, without textbooks. Learn, in short, how to think and analyze and decide and discover and create. That is the ultimate test of good education.”140

Kids are Not who They Used to Be

There’s an article in the morning paper about thousands of high school students in my state alone who are going for their GEDs rather than staying through four years until graduation. While students chose this route for a number of reasons, the ones that caught my attention were those who opted for a GED because they were dissatisfied with the instruction they were receiving in school. “I was given facts, and I was meant to memorize them and spit them back out on paper,” said one of the students interviewed. “I was never really fond of that kind of learning. My soul was hungry, with nothing to learn.”141

A few years ago, while researching a book for high school kids, I heard similar complaints from kids, over and over again. “I’m already not in a good mood knowing that all I have to look forward to is going to a class to learn about dead guys and math formulas that I will never use again,” was how one 15-year-old described the start of his day. Another contributor lamented, “I wish my school system had encouraged the art of thinking and learning, as opposed to memorizing and regurgitating.” One freshman advised readers, “All you have to do is play the teachers’ games. Do what you got to do and then get out.”142 The problem is, a lot of students don’t have the patience to “do what they got to do” and with something like seven thousand students dropping out of U.S. schools every day,143 it’s pretty clear that somewhere along the line, we are failing to connect with the instructional, curricular, emotional, social, or behavioral needs of the students in our care.

“Students look at school as a place they have to go,” wrote one high school contributor. “It is not an option. They don’t come to learn. They’re here because the have to be here.”144 Now certainly there are kids who enjoy school and look forward to being there, but how often do their agendas focus on factors that have little to do with academics? “While learning might be the priority of teachers, students have many other reasons to come to school. For some, socializing, sports, and extracurricular activities are at least as important as learning,” reported researcher Robert Blum.145

On the other side of this equation, listen to what teachers have to say. The primary concern I hear from school personnel at every grade level focuses on the lack of motivation and increasing indifference they see in their students. And the gap seems to be getting wider as students become less and less dependent on adults to give them information about how the world works and increasingly intolerant of instruction that feels irrelevant and poorly matched to how they learn, while teachers feel increasingly hamstrung by overwhelming content loads and bureaucratic regulations and requirements.

Many of us are further foiled by the expectations and beliefs we bring to the classroom, especially when our students don’t match up. We come to the profession shaped not only by our desire to teach, but also by our experiences as a student, our observations of the educators we’ve encountered, and our personal biases that define concepts of good teaching and how students should behave. “I loved school and I loved learning as a kid,” said one contributor. “I never expected the resistance and indifference I found—and this was in an elementary classroom!” Fourth-grade teacher Catherine Nguyen-Ho found that “the children are very needy and often show no effort or desire to learn.” Kim Wilson had a similar experience. “How difficult it is when you have students that are not achieving at their potential. I went into teaching thinking that everyone was going to do his or her very best and always try, but there are students that need more encouragement, and more support.”146

Further, our experiences as students don’t necessarily correlate to our successes as educators. Elaine Anderson observed, “I really wish somebody had told me college grades would not dictate how great an educator you can become.” In fact, some of the teachers who have the hardest time in the classroom are those who were well-behaved and high-achieving as students—and expect their kids to come to class with the same level of commitment, readiness, and support from home.

The Students we Were Taught to Teach

Traditional policies, materials, and instructional strategies are geared for teaching students who are left-brain dominant, strong in linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences, academically on grade level (not too far ahead or behind), who prefer working in a quiet environment, are at their best in the early morning, afternoon, who have a limited need for interaction, can handle highly structured environment (seated in chairs, sitting up straight, not rocking or fidgeting), have low mobility needs, and a limited need for intake (food, drink, snacks, or gum). We are trained to teach students who are strong in their auditory and visual modalities, have low tactile or kinesthetic modality needs (limited need for touch or movement), and high verbal skills (able to respond immediately when called on rather than needing time to process quietly, internally, before responding).

We expect eye contact, little talking or movement (although note taking is okay as long as it’s in linear, traditional form) from students who are high in adaptability, persistence, and regularity, and low in distractibility, intensity, and sensitivity to sound, light, smell, or touch. And we’ve been taught to gear our lessons toward concrete thinkers who are logical, rational, organized, prompt, and able to follow rules and procedures.147

Does this sound like your students? These descriptions match only a small percentage of individuals in the general population. If you teach early childhood, special education, or alternative classes, the percentage will be closer to zero.

Many parents are also frustrated with what’s happening in schools, some of them opting to pull their children out of the school system and teach them at home. The trend to home-school kids has grown in recent years and, as journalist Susan Saulny reported, some parents seek to actually unschool their children. This philosophy “is broadly defined by its rejection of the basic foundations of conventional education,” with adherents dismissing the type of instruction that would stifle children’s natural curiosity and love of learning.148 Their concerns that schools are not engaging students’ interests, integrating content areas, or allowing adequate time to pursue subjects—not to mention issues of physical and emotional safety—are worth noting.149 The hunger for more personalized curriculum and a sense of community attracts more and more families to magnet schools, charter schools, and private schools committed to these values. And in an era when online classes and resources are becoming increasingly available, and the wider the distance between what kids need and what they get in school, the more tempting alternative routes become.

The sad fact is that schools could be the kinds of places that teachers, parents, and kids want, but we have some serious catching up to do—starting with the kids themselves. Simply looking at young people through the lens of technology reveals a big piece of the explanation for the frustration so many people seem to be feeling. A conference paper by educator Mark Prensky observed that students today are “‘native speakers’ of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.” On the other hand, he refers to those “who were not born into the digital world but have, at some later point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology” as Digital Immigrants by comparison.150

Of course there are also those in education who resist information technology altogether, but even those most committed to assimilating into a digital culture face discrepancies in the skills, characteristics, and needs of the Digital Natives. We need teaching strategies that will engage kids who “have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age.” These students “are used to receiving information really fast… They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite.” Clearly, there are serious educational implications when dealing with kids who “grew up on the ’twitch speed’ of video games…” who “are used to the instantaneity of hypertext, downloaded music, phones in their pockets, a library on their laptops, beamed messages, and instant messaging. They’ve been networked most or all of their lives,” Prensky added. “They have little patience for lectures, step-by-step logic, and ‘tell-test’ instruction.”151 To those of us who did not grow up with these skills or experiences, the behavior of these students not only looks “totally foreign,” but is often interpreted as hyperactive, inattentive, or disrespectful.

“The new reality for kids demands that teachers take a close look at the old lesson plans and the other methodology,” advised author and consultant Ron Nash. “The content in the average language arts or economics classroom may not have changed substantially over the years, but what is needed to manage process and keep students engaged certainly has.”152 How many policies and decisions in education today are based on the assumption that what worked once will work now? “But that assumption is no longer valid,” insisted Prensky.”Today’s learners are different.”153 An article by Claudia Wallace agreed, reporting that at the college level, longtime professors have noticed that “kids arrive on campus with a different set of cognitive skills and habits than past generations.”154 She, too, describes students who come to school wired with an expertise for multitasking, finding and manipulating information, and analyzing visual data and images. However, instructors are now also dealing with kids who have a low tolerance for quiet and “discomfort with not being stimulated,” as well as a frustratingly short attention span, low tolerance for ambiguity, and aversion to complexity.155

But if these students learn differently from their predecessors, they certainly are learning nonetheless. Interestingly, many participate in activities on their own that are developing skills that are useful in the workplace. A study of 2500 video gamers discovered that these kids “are smart, savvy new thinkers who are climbing the corporate ladders using the same problem-solving strategies they used to come out winners in games…”156 Not only do gamers defy the old stereotype of being loners and isolates with few social skills, the research, instead, found them to be well-adjusted people who “interact intensely with others,” although “they are more comfortable with communication, education, and training online and need less face-to-face interaction.” In the workplace, their talents show up as a willingness to “jump in and try things rather than gathering lots of information, doing lots of analysis and then making the decision.”157 Hence the recommendation that we capitalize on the skills and preferences these kids bring to the table, and leverage our instruction accordingly. In response to students’ evolving learning preferences, needs, and experiences, some University professors—as well as classroom teachers—use “film, audio clips, and PowerPoint presentations to play to their students’ strengths and capture their evanescent attention.”158 As Prensky noted, “there is no reason that a generation that can memorize over 100 characters with all their characteristics, history, and evolution can’t learn the names, populations, capitals, and relationships of… 101 nations in the world. It just depends on how it is presented.”159

While unsettling to some educators, others are responding to this challenge with creative, clever, and engaging strategies. Veteran teacher Lydia Aranda shared, “Students are generally much less motivated than they were when I started teaching nineteen years ago. In light of this, I feel more than ever, that acting is a very important skill for a teacher. You have to become more interesting and intriguing than any video game or TV show that consumes most students’ waking hours outside of school. You will have to over-dramatize everything, even to the detriment of your reputation as a well-educated proper member of society. You must do things that you thought you’d never be caught dead doing, like singing the spelling words opera-style to your class or putting on a [funny] accent to keep their attention piqued.”

Understandably, some educators balk at the degree to which kids interact with technology today, blaming anything that looks like a decline in the current system on these developments. But there have always been educators who resisted advances in technology, 160. Computers and iPods didn’t break the system; they are just a part of the evolution of our culture with which our systems are having a hard time keeping up.

For better or worse, technology is very much a part of our world. By 1991, ninety-eight percent of the schools in the United States had at least one computer; the ratio of computers to students in now one to four.161 One of my favorite quotes comes from a former principal who like to remind teachers, “Our job is not to teach the students we used to have, the students we wished we had, or the students we should have. Our job is to teach the students we do have.” We can complain about students not fitting in to outdated standards or we can start looking for ways to build systems that will educate kids in a context that makes sense to them. Make peace with progress. There is no going back.

The Challenge of Change

A friend told a story about an experience her son had in fifth grade. His teacher had put the students into groups and posed a question: “If you have a drawer full of an equal number of black socks and white socks in a dark room, how many socks do you have to take out of the drawer to be sure you have two of the same color?” The students were instructed to brainstorm ideas and after a minute or two, when she asked the students how they would solve this problem, this young man responded, in all earnestness, “Turn on the light.”

How often do kids get in trouble for thinking outside the box, for having an opposing opinion, for having a different “right answer”? Although these are exactly the skills that many employers seek, they are still so often discouraged—if not outright punished—in schools. How do we teach kids who will have already sliced through the Gordian knot 162 before we’ve finished handing out the directions for working with it?

Kids have changed. Our culture has changed. Is it any wonder that so many teacher complain about kids who do not see the importance in following rules, have trouble listening, and—neurological and developmental implications notwithstanding—can’t sit still? It’s time that our entire concept of education children changed as well? But look what we’re up against.

We’ve seen the need for right-brain processes increasing for the past few decades, with a greater emphasis on process over product. We recognize that the sheer volume of factual information makes it impossible for anyone to get much depth out of a fact-based curriculum. We’ve known for decades that certain management strategies work better than others for inspiring commitment and cooperation. We’ve witnessed an enormous acceleration in social, cultural, economic, and technological changes. We have brain research to support developmental and physiological suggestions that have been around for years. And if that weren’t enough, the feedback we receive on a daily basis from our students’ behavior, attitudes, and achievement should be a reasonable barometer of just what is working and what isn’t. So how is it that our schools remain so steadfast in their attachment linear, measurable, product-oriented approaches to working with children?

Years ago, a colleague at the university came out of a day-long restructuring meeting shaking his head. “All they’re doing is moving stuff around. They’re stacking stuff in different ways and calling it by different names, but it’s still the same old stuff!” he said. I’m still seeing old formulas and cheap advice that never worked all that well being recycled and presented in new products and programs that don’t work any better. And yet we’re surprised when the end result of doing what we’ve always done is the same. Or worse.

Even if you are one of the Digital Natives now entering the field, and even if you are very familiar and comfortable with what drives your kids, you may discover that much of the mentoring, supervision, and professional development you receive will do its best to steer you back to existing traditions and in-the-box approaches to challenges you encounter. Regardless of your relationship with technology and how well your classroom is stocked and wired, in all but a few rare cases, you will feel pressure to acculturate to the demands of traditional practices and priorities. If you do, you are not alone.

Resistance to change has always been a bit of a trademark of education. Most changes that do occur tend to be superficial—adding smartboards, computers, and wireless networks (if we’re lucky), while long-standing hierarchies, win-lose power dynamics, and standardized curriculum stubbornly persist. School handbooks and policy manuals from 2009 look remarkably similar to the ones we were handed in the early 1970s, expanded perhaps to include newer communication systems and references to a wider range of student infractions.

Individually, I see teachers resist change because for some, new ideas just represent more “stuff” to squeeze into an already overburdened schedule. Others don’t trust that they will be supported by their administrators and colleagues, no matter how much research or apparent encouragement is behind the ideas they would like to try. For others, change requires stepping too far outside of their comfort zone. (Even if old strategies aren’t working well, there is a certain satisfaction and ease in their familiarity.) And frankly, it will always be easier to complain or reject an idea than to change a well-entrenched—and long-supported—teaching behavior.

This theme played through a great deal of the data I collected from interviews and surveys. One middle school social studies teacher wrote, “New teachers who have just experienced working with new research are often hushed and told to go with the ‘old way.’” Veteran kindergarten teacher Anita Scherer reported, “I have been teaching for twenty years. My greatest challenge is battling past old mindsets!” Even with administrative support, she noted, “I can adapt and be successful, but the staff will fight change every step of the way.” I hear this resistance in every “yeah, but…” response that comes up in seminars and classes (including the ones I conduct as well as the ones I observe or attend). You will need to watch out for these attitudes; they can be toxic and infectious. Columnist Dale Dauten cautioned, “The ‘it’ll never work’ presumption kills not just ideas but the creative impulse.”163

Freedman urged new teachers to continually reinvent themselves. “Don’t keep using the same methods if they do not work,” he wrote. “I have seen a lot of good teachers go bad… I hear them say things like, ‘It worked twenty years ago. It isn’t my problem if it doesn’t work now.’ Good teachers are always trying new things.” Even the possibility of increasing student success, engagement, and achievement doesn’t always dislodge people from their attachment to old, familiar ways of doing things. Frank Champine, in reporting on the need for differentiating instruction to reach larger numbers of students, described the “old dogs” who were “trained to teach one lesson to the entire class. They would just as soon take a pay cut as develop multiple approaches to content, process, and product, or figure out how to blend whole-class, group, and individual instruction.”164

Looking at the process of change, it’s also easy to understand how hard it can be to get schools to budge. “Really good ideas break a rule,” insists toy developer Reyn Guyer, the inventor of Twister and the Nerf Ball.165 Now filter this quote through the largest segment of a school population, one that includes “planners and organizers,” people who prize correctness, loyalty, stability, and the ability to follow rules and procedures, and are most upset when others question authority or don’t follow rules, act disrespectfully, come late or unprepared, or don’t take things seriously.166 In a population that attaches such importance to following the chain of command, the notion of breaking rules is sure to elicit a few gasps.

“Change is hard,” says Thomas Friedman. “Change is hardest on those caught by surprise. Change is hardest on those who have difficulty changing…”167 For decades, I’ve been hearing people talk longingly about the “good old days.” But even if things really were better back in some other time or place, learning to keep our focus grounded in present realities—and future possibilities—will serve us far better than idealizing the past.

“If constructive patterns were all that were necessary for creative new ideas, we’d all be creative geniuses,” said Roger Van Oech. “Creative thinking is not only constructive, it’s also destructive. Creative thinking involves  breaking out of one pattern in order to create a new one.”168 In a world often ruled by black-and-white thinking, this statement is sure to raise a few eyebrows as well. Clearly we need to go farther than just rearranging the “stuff” we’ve always had, used, and done. Breaking or discarding the least effective (and most destructive) policies will be unavoidable.

One more thing, and it’s a big one. We, as a culture, have a hard time focusing on the big picture and wrestling with the multiple dimensions of complex problems. We focus on isolated pieces of big issues—math scores, gum chewing, tardiness, clothing, swearing, even bullying—instead of looking at the multiple dimensions of a school’s character and culture. Consequently, we end up with a lot of superficial, quick-fix, short-term, narrowly-focused, and two-dimensional “solutions” that, in the long run, often create more problems than they solve. Kenneth Hodge, a sixth grade social studies teacher in his third year of teaching, has already noticed the tendency for schools to use “the latest gimmick of the day to try to improve problems” like achievement and student behavior, regardless of the lack of results.

But what gives me hope—and what has always given me hope—is the fact that there have always been teachers who know what really matters, and who accomplish near-miracles on a daily basis, regardless of their political and bureaucratic surroundings. I see people teaching as if test scores didn’t matter and manage to coax extraordinary achievement from their students. I see people at the state level working to incorporate the importance of school climate into policies and goals. I see what Prensky calls “Future Content” (including software, hardware, robotics, nanotechnology, and genomics, as well as the ethics, politics, sociology, languages and other things that go with them) starting to show up alongside “Legacy Content” (reading, writing, and arithmetic, along with the rest of our more traditional curriculum).169 I visit schools that are become increasingly brain-friendly, adjusting their curriculum and environment to ensure developmental and neurological appropriateness, and I see research that supports good practice reaching larger segments of the general population—which also needs to be brought up to speed in order to minimize opposition to necessary changes.

Despite the tenacity of old systems, teaching is actually a fluid and dynamic profession, influenced by, as well as accountable to, changes in the context and cultural environment it serves. It is also a profession prone to getting locked into rigid, repressive structures, obstructed by competing political agendas, and choked by restrictions and timetables enacted by people who presume expertise on the basis of having once been a student. As a beginning teacher, your energy, talents, and perspectives are the lifeblood of the profession. Don’t let the system stifle your sense of win-win possibilities. Learn how things work in your school, district, and state, and keep hold of your intentions. “Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible,” said author and business leader Paul Hawken, “Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.”170

113 From “Did You Know” video researched and designed by Karl Fisch, Scott McLeod, and Jeff Brenman, updated in 2008. Available on YouTube (various URLs, including): and
114 Marc Prensky, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” from On the Horizon (NCB University Press, Vol. 9, No. 5, October 2001).Available: Mark Prensky’s Web site:,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf
115 I found this quote on dozens of Web sites and blog pages. Only one included this attribution, which I found on a Conflict Management Quotes site at
116 This is the first book I’ve written that includes comments posted by Facebook friends.
117 Paraphrased from a lecture by Ian Xel Lundgold, “Secrets of the Mayan Calendar Unveiled,” on video, Sept. 6, 2003.
118 Fisch et al
119 Fisch et al.
120 Peter Kline, Why America’s Children Can’t Think: Creating Independent Minds for the 21st Century (Makawao, Maui, HI: Inner Ocean Publishing, 2002), xii. The italics are mine.
121 Allie Osmar, “Richard Riley: ‘The Top 10 in-demand jobs in 2010 may not have existed in 2004.’” Available: The Creative Corner Web site:; also the “Did You Know” video. Osmar noted on this Web page “When I started college in the fall of 2003, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Digg, Yelp, and Twitter didn’t exist yet. MySpace and WordPress were brand new.”
122 Fisch, et al.
123 Kenneth G. Wilson and Bennett Daviss, Redesigning Education (New York: Henry Holt, 1994), 11.
124 Bob Herbert, “The Lost Children,” The New York Times, Jan. 30, 2006.
125 Michael Bassis, “Students Must Learn how to Learn,” Mar. 22, 2004. Available: Deseret News Web site:,5143,595050795,00.html
126 Thomas L. Friedman, The World is Flat, Release 3.0. (New York: Picador/Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007), 309.
127 James D. Pulliam and James Van Patten, History of Education in America, Sixth Edition (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1995), quoted in Bluestein, Creating Emotionally Safe Schools.
128 Thomas L. Friedman, The World is Flat, Release 3.0. (New York: Picador/Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007), 1-40, 48.
129 Pink describes the Information Age in terms that are very similar to the ones I’ve used in my previous works to describe the Industrial Age or Factory Era, and where I stated the need for greater creativity, networking, and non-linear thinking as a product of the Information Age (which, certainly compared to the assembly-line thinking of the Industrial Age, is quite reasonable). Pink takes this transition one step farther, identifying another transition to a right-brain-directed thinking Conceptual Age. Similarly, many of the talents and needs he describes as necessary for a Conceptual Age economy overlap the characteristics of what I have, in previous writings, called the Age of Connectedness (Jane Bluestein, Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, chapter 9), and what John Naisbitt identified, in 1982, as a “high touch” balance to a “high tech” environment. (John Naisbitt, Megatrends [New York: Warner Books, 1982], 39.) Clearly the direction is very similar in each of these examples.
130 Daniel H.Pink, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers will Rule the Future. (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), 39-40, 49. And not to be totally cynical here, but chances are, as schools (hopefully) start to reckon with the importance of these right-brain talents, you can be sure that somebody will be working very hard on finding ways to measure them!
131 Friedman, 15.
132 Lynne Gerlach and Julia Bird. “Feel the Difference: Learning in an Emotionally Competent School.” Paper presented at the Centre for Child Mental Health conference on emotional health in schools. (Sept. 2005): 3.
133 Jane Bluestein, Creating Emotionally Safe Schools (Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc., 2001), chapter 9; Claudia Wallis and Sonja Steptoe, “How to Bring Our Schools Out of the 20th Century,” Time (Dec. 18, 2006), 52-53.
134 John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2005), 2.
135 Claudia Wallis and Sonja Steptoe, “How to Bring Our Schools Out of the 20th Century,” Time (Dec. 18, 2006), 52.
136 Wallis and Steptoe, 52.
137 Sue Ferguson, “Stressed Out!” MacLean’s (Nov. 22, 2004): 32.
138 M. Jones, “Children Have to Grow up Too Fast,” April 2008. Available, Edutopia Web site:
139 Robin Fogarty, 10 Things New Teachers Need to Succeed (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2007), 22.
140 Bassis.
141 Juan Carlos Rodriguez, “Fast-Track Diplomas,” Albuquerque Journal (June 16, 2009).
142 Quoted in Jane Bluestein and Eric Katz, High School’s Not Forever (Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc., 2005). We heard from many students who described their high school experience in positive terms, however the issue of boring and irrelevant classes and assignments came up repeatedly.
143 “High School Dropouts in America,” Alliance for Excellent Education Fact Sheet (Feb. 2009). Available: Alliance For Excellent Education Web site: About 1700 high schools are “dropout factories,” where 60% or less of the students who enter as freshmen make it to senior year, according to “One In 10 High Schools Gets An F,” Parade (December 16, 2007): 10. This article noted that “lack of funding is part of the problem: Even though the dropout factories overwhelmingly are in the poorest communities, only about 25% receive the federal assistance for low-income schools that they should be getting.” Bob Herbert reported that minority students are underserved by our current system of education. (“The Lost Children,” The New York Times, Jan. 30, 2006.) “Nationally, just two-thirds of all students—and only half of all blacks and Latinos—who enter ninth grade actually graduate with regular diplomas four years later,” he wrote. “Far from preparing kids for college, big-city high schools in neighborhoods with large numbers of poor, black and Latino youngsters are just hemorrhaging students.” He quotes Harvard Professor Gary Orfield: “Only about a twelfth of the Latino kids and maybe a sixth of the black kids are getting college degrees.”
144 Bluestein and Katz.
145 Robert W. Blum,  “School Connectedness: Improving Students’ Lives,” Journal of School Health, (Sept. 2004): 13.
146 Even basic assumptions can be challenged. Erin Beers wished someone had told her that she would be teaching sixth graders how to read. Elementary principal Jacie Bejster Maslyk was surprised to find “that a lot of first graders are not truly potty-trained! I never imagined that so many kids still wet themselves.”
147 Studies show other factors such as gender, culture, socioeconomic status, appearance, popularity, membership in highly valued groups or teams, for example, to also be relevant to teachers’ expectations. Quoted in Bluestein, The Win-Win Classroom (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2007). These characteristics of “ideal students” have been collected from a number of resources and were also reported in Chapter 13, “How Does Your Garden Grow? More Diversity, More Discrimination,” Bluestein, Creating Emotionally Safe Schools.
148 Susan Saulny, “More Choosing to ’Unschool,’” New York Times (Early 2008). [Article sent to me with no date.]
149 Issues addressed in the mission statement on the Family Unschoolers Network home page: The statement concludes, “We believe these aspects of learning are limited by the traditional implementation of a curriculum, and we choose to homeschool as a way to circumvent those limitations.” Also Jennifer Thornton-Cullen and Tricia Ryan, “Home Schooling,” May 2, 2007. Available, Jen Cullen’s Online Research Portfolio Web site,; also Brian D. Ray, “Research Facts on Homeschooling,” July 10, 2006. Available, National Home Education Research Institute Web site,
150 Prensky.
151 Prensky. In Generations at School: Building an Age-Friendly Learning Community (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Publishing, 2007), Suzette Lovely and Austin G. Buffum suggest “For teachers, presenting the same material in the same fashion in which they may have learned it can lead to a cycle of boredom, especially as schools face such stiff competition for students’ attention.” (xiii)
152 Ron Nash, The Active Classroom (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2009), 102.
153 Prensky.
154 Claudia Wallis, “The Multitasking Generation,” Time (March 27, 2006): 52-54.
155 Wallis.
156 John Gaudiosi, “Gamers Aren’t Weirdos!” Sky Magazine (Sept. 2005): 86.
157 Gaudiosi. Note: Prensky reported, “Today’s average college grads have spent less than 5,000 hours of their lives reading, but over 10,000 hours playing video games (not to mention 20,000 hours watching TV).”
158 Wallis.
159 Prensky. Note: Culturally, even the way we use our memory has changed. While we once depended on what author Joshua Foer referred to as “internal memory,” we are now inundated with new information, and very little of it makes its way into memory. We now rely on technology to keep track of the data in our lives. (I noticed this phenomenon while the first time I had to look up my own mother’s phone number after dumbly staring at a phone that didn’t have her on speed dial.) “We’ve gradually replaced our internal memory with what psychologists refer to as external memory, a vast super-structure of technological crutches that we’ve invented so that we don’t have to store information in our brains,” he wrote. (Joshua Foer, “Remember This,” National Geograpic [Nov. 2007]: 50.)
160 Karl Fisch, “What If?” PowerPoint and video available on Fisch’s Web site: Note: I remember when Sesame Street first aired in Nov. 1969. I was starting out in college, and by the time I got into my first education classes in college, there were already courses and seminars to help teachers come to terms with what they saw as the competition, and take advantage of television programming as an instructional tool.
161 Tamim Ansary, “Computers in School: Are We There Yet?” 2009. Available: Column on the MSN Encarta Web site:
162 Remember the story of Alexander the Great? The legend goes that there was this knot that nobody could untie. Taking on the challenge, Alexander didn’t do any better with the usual attempts to untie the thing. So he basically said, “The hell with it,” and sliced the knot in half. He not only didn’t get detention for his unorthodox approach, but according to the story, he got to be the king of Asia as a reward for his creative thinking. Ha!
163 Dale Dauten, “The Corporate Curmudgeon,” Albuquerque Journal (Aug. 16, 2001). More about self-protection and self-care in later chapters.
164 Frank Champine, “Teachers Should Be Given Tools to Excel in Diverse Classrooms,” The Philadelphia Inquirer (July 28 2004).
165 Quoted in Dauten, Dale. “The Corporate Curmudgeon,” Albuquerque Journal (Aug. 16, 2001).
166 From Bluestein, Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, 197. This information is based on the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory as well as the work of David Kiersey (“True Colors”). This group accounts for 38 percent of the general population, with about equal numbers of males and females. In high schools, 43 percent of teachers and 45 percent of students are in this category; these numbers are even higher among administrators.
167 Friedman, 21.
168 Roger Van Oech, A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You can be More Creative (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2008), 47.
169 Prensky.
170 “Paul Hawken Commencement Address University of Portland,” with reference to the challenge of saving the planet. Available on Heartland Circle Web site: With thanks to Stephen Haslam for the reference.

Excerpt from Becoming a Win-Win Teacher, by Dr. Jane Bluestein, © 2010, Corwin Publishing, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Related Links:

Industrial Age Classrooms vs. Information Age Classrooms
The Discipline Trap: Catching up to the 21st Century
Brave New World: The Changing Role of the School

Also: American Schools in Crisis by Diane Ravitch

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One thought on “Understanding Schools in Context

  1. Hi colleagues, its great article regarding teaching and entirely explained, keep it up all the time.

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