Is Our Education System Mired In Outdated Beliefs?

Well I am closing in on my first Friday of the school year and I survived. Ok I more than survived. I had a great week! So great I am able to sit down and peel off a new blog post on our preseason Pro D event.

Every year the Thursday before school starts; our School Board brings in some highbrow intellectual, to bestow us teachers with some tid bits of wisdom that we can take with us as we navigate another school year. It is generally a pretty good show as Keynote Speakers are always top-drawer. Some of the A lister’s who have graced the stage of our school theater, include the likes of Sir Kenneth Robinson, Alfie Kohn and Stewart Shenkman, to name a few. I have forgotten the names of the others but they were big names, I swear! So good are these speakers, I even learn a thing or two each year. (insert dumbfounded slack jawed look here)

This years Keynote was Jennifer James, a renowned anthropologist from Seattle. I obviously don’t go to Seattle enough because up until last Thursday, I had never heard of her before but I have to say she was every bit as good as Sir Ken.

The topic this year was about change and James discussed how we (society) use cultural myths and belief systems to make sense of the world around us. Up until recently our world has changed slowly enough that we could seamlessly adapt these belief systems and myths to accommodate and make sense of changes in our world. Today however, technology is changing things so fast, that we can no longer adapt our beliefs and myths quickly enough. As a result, we are seeing conflict between what we believed to be true and the realities of the modern world.

James went on to imply that the education system is based on an outdated belief system, which is simply not adaptable to the modern world or the modern student. She went on in a round about way to say that, we (teachers) need to change if we hope to continue making positive change in young peoples lives. As much as I hate to admit it, she made a ton of sense but then again I am easily convinced. I have been lead down the garden path before because of a good keynote, as my brief association with AMWAY would suggest… but I like to think I am much older and wiser now. 😉

but James is kinda right.

In the past 20 years, technology has kicked the stuffing out of our education system and left those of us who work as educators bruised and bewildered. As a result, we have come to a crossroads in the world of education and quite frankly, no one seems really know which way to turn. The only thing that is certain, there is no going back.

The problem with moving ahead however, is that we need to let go of the belief system and cultural myths which built the education system we have. The way we teach our children is so culturally engrained that any change, regardless of how small, is going to cause some level of duress for someone whether it be teachers, parents or students.

A perfect example is changing the school calendar. The one we currently use is based on the needs of an agrarian society. In North America, the majority of us are no longer living on farms or harvesting crops but suggest changing the school calendar and all hell breaks loose. Education is a part of culture and cannot be seen as simply a service that can be adapted on a whim as the demand changes.

When we take a look at resistance to change in education, the assumption is that the resistance resides solely within the ranks of the educators themselves but that is a simplistic view.

Yes teachers frequently view the discussion around change in education as an affront to what it is they do. Some have been in the game for as many as 40 years and much of the talk around how the education system needs to change, is downright disrespectful to good people who have have spent a career doing a great job. To tell them that what it is they are doing is wrong, invalidates an entire career. To many it seems like the powers that be, simply want out with the old and in with the new. You can’t blame teachers for getting edgy at the mention of spring thaw and south bound ice flows.

Parents are a funny group when it comes to change. Here you have a situation where the majority of people’s concept of what education is like, is their own school career. Using that frame of reference, they view their own children’s educational experience. Obviously parents want what is best for their kids and that includes the latest and greatest in technology and pedagogy. If for some reason they feel their child isn’t getting it, there is hell to pay.

The irony in all this is that, while teachers are on the line for being current and school districts are expected to provide the latest and greatest in facilities and technologies, when things go bad the most common laments among parents go right back to their own experience in school. “School isn’t what it use to be!” “Teachers aren’t as good as they once were!” “We need to get back to basics and start teaching what really matters!”

Talk to a parent and you quickly realize that parents are as stuck in the past as teachers.

For the kids, well… They are the pawns in all this, trapped between what was and what could be but kids are resistant to change as well. Many kids are still anchored securely in the old ways of teaching and learning, just like their teachers and parents. Every year I will have kids who just want to know “What will I be tested on?” and “What do I need to do to get an A?” Ask a kid to think for themselves and they are lost. “Uh… What is the answer?” They are as stuck in the teacher centered model as the rest of us.

Of the three groups, the students are undoubtedly the most receptive to change, then I would say teachers are next and surprisingly perhaps… parents are the least receptive to change in school system. The reason for this is that parents are frozen in the past. Change that they cannot gauge or measure against their own experience is frightening. It is a classic case of, better the devil you know then the devil you don’t.

The other reason I say parents are the most resistant to change is that, it always comes back to the ultimate question. “What is my child’s mark?” Parents want to know how their child is doing and their concept of success is based on old school measures of performance. Anecdotal descriptions of what their child can or cannot do are meaningless to many. “That is great! I am so glad my kids is outstanding at working collaboratively but what is his mark?” In the end, teachers give parents what they want. Marks based solely on content knowledge is a thing of the past but who are we to argue with a parent.

Yes James is right, we need change and resistance is futile but there is more than enough resistance to go around but it essentially comes down to this. As long as our education system is a slave to the culturally engrained belief that education is all about the mark, we will never be able to build a new belief system for our Education System.


  1. Chris Wejr

    Keith – great thoughts here. I have been wondering a lot lately – what are your thoughts on this: the reason some parents are so resistant to change is that they have not been included in the WHY of change but only told the WHAT of change.

    As always, I look forward to your thoughts.

    1. Post

      Well Chris, as I said to Sheila (in a round about way) inorder to make change we have to give teachers the opportunity engage with parents, admin and government.

      In many ways teachers are in the same boat as parents. We get told the WHAT and the why does not always make sense to us.

      Change is needed but there needs to be a better way of going about it.

  2. Sheila Stewart

    I always enjoy your posts, Keith…lots of conversation starters!

    Good point too, Chris!

    What I have been concerned about lately is that there are parents who are making great efforts to get informed about the issues and the ‘why’…and want to advocate beside educators, but can still feel quite excluded….and “powerless” to be a part of change. Is the “system” going to be okay if they feel better to just walk away?

    I find all the “shoulds” that are suggested for parents in education might offend more than engage or solicit support for change.

    I recognize that our views are all impacted by the particular groups of parents we interact with as well. It can be difficult to conclude much about “parents” in any broad way really. What do you think?

    1. Post

      Thanks for the Comment Sheila, I think you are my biggest fan! 🙂

      I think the problem is this. Parents want to help, they want to understand and they want to advocate for their children. What people seem to forget is most teachers are parents too and want the exact same things.

      Where we are having issues is in the getting together piece so we can get on the same page.

      If you look at my wife as an example, my girls and I have hardly seen her since school started. She is at school between 7:30 & 8 am and stays until 6pm every day and that is the norm. She does not have time to sit and plan the future of education with parents, administration and government. She is working at the job she already has.

      Most teachers are not given the time to change the system. They are also not given the money to get the professional development or the tools to change the system. They are also slaves to a curriculum which demands old school teaching tactics, more often then not.

      I on the other hand, have been given the time and the technology by the powers that be to change my teaching practice but most do not have that luxury.

      Before we can change the system, we need to acknowledge the realities of the job a teacher does and go from there

      1. SStewart

        It is great to share these realities and each other’s “worlds”. I think much could be accomplished with more understanding and respect. I am glad that you mentioned how teachers have limited time and opportunity to participate in change. I worry about that too. I think many parents often feel that way too. For those who do have the opportunities, I hope they reach out to other partnerships and possibilities too. Do you think that could be realistic ahead in any way?

        It does seem that we are just waiting for something to “give” soon…but what will it take? And what ‘is it’ ?

        Deep for a Sat. morning, huh? 🙂

  3. Tracy Bachellier

    As a parent, I have to disagree slightly with the over generalization that “parents are the least receptive to change”. I’m more comfortable with, both parents and teachers can be frozen in the past. And like Chris and Sheila, maybe the reason for being so resistant is that they, both teachers and parents, haven’t been included in the WHY or the HOW, just that “it is” what it is and has been for decades; aka: mired deep in an archaic, outdated system.

    Thanks for your great post, Keith, and for providing a platform for conversation. I’m proud to be part of an emerging group of teachers/parents and stakeholders in education advocating for change, one voice at a time.

    1. Post

      Hey Tracy, Thanks for your comment.

      Yes sweeping generalizations can be a bit misleading but it would seem they are the only thing people respond to. 😉

      You are absolutely correct in saying that parents and teachers need to be part of the discussion about “Why and How” of educational change. The problem is that our system is structured from the top down and we operate by decree rather than by discussion.

      There is some glimmers of hope recently but now we have to get people talking rather than preparing for battle.

  4. Colin

    Hi Keith,

    I enjoyed your post, but I would be cautious about the concept of “change”. The word itself is relatively meaningless; it merely refers to an alteration in direction, and does not imply a positive outcome. Thus, those who are “resistant” are not irrationally clinging to the past. They might simply believe that the “change” in question is wrong… and a step backwards. I’ve talked about it in more detail here:

    I would also argue that education is not a clash between old and new, but rather a clash between two long-standing and often antagonistic doctrines. For example, Ken Robinson doesn’t sound very novel to me; a lot of what he talks about seems to come straight from Rousseau’s Emile, a book that’s been around for 250 years and is an essential text of the Romantic view of education. I personally prefer a more liberal-arts approach that encourages, or obliges, young people to explore a wide variety of disciplines and courses, including ones they dislike. I’ve talked about these competing visions here:

    In any case, I enjoy your writing, and I’ll definitely be sure to come back. Cheers!

    1. Post

      Thanks Colin, I really appreciate your comment.

      You point out one of the things I love about language and writing. Words are powerful things and need to be used carefully.

      You are absolutely correct that the word “Change” is perhaps meaningless yet carries significant power in drawing out opinion and emotion.

      You are aslo correct in that what is happening in education is far beyond a simple use of the word “change” and that there may be good reasons of “resistance”.

      Personally I think we need a knock down drag em out donnybrook between all parties concerned. We spend too much time maneuvering and planning our next move. Discussions to date are more about gaining political favour and protecting fiefdoms then it is about moving ahead.

      Finally, I am also in favour of a liberal arts approach until at least grade 10 if not all the way through high school. Unfortunately we have reduced grade school education to a competition rather than a journey of personal growth.

      We have a long way to go BUT! At least we are talking.

  5. SStewart

    Good point about “change”, Colin. The words and phrases we use are important to consider always. Will check out those links!

    I recently wrote about/questioned how could parents could fit into “effective change”, but I guess that is still up for interpretation too!

    This is not an easy conversation, but yes Keith…there are pockets of conversation merging…I think…

  6. Donna Pao Phillips (@DonnaPhillips23)

    Fantastic entry! This reminds me of Larry Cuban’s work on school reform and why major top-down policies fail to have any substantive or lasting impact on education. There is such resistance in the field of education for change, it is unparalleled in any other field. Imagine the architect who refuses to use Auto CAD? Yet education somehow gets away with resisting change and denying the reality of what is happening around us. I am perpetually frustrated with school systems, educators, and parents, who demonize and vilify technology such as smartphones and social media and fail to see their educational potential. Teachers and education, if they is going to maintain any relevance in the lives of students, need to meet the students where they are, enter into their lifeworlds and not make students feel ashamed for using their technology. Embrace it, and become a player in the students’ technological lives.

    1. Post

      Thanks for the comment.

      I can appreciate your enthusiasm around technology and learning but lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is still some value in some of the old school ways. We would have never gotten here if there wasn’t.

      When I talk about technology I like to phrase things a bit differently. Rather than embrace technology, I would say master technology for your own benefit.


      1. Donna Pao Phillips (@DonnaPhillips23)

        Of course, of course. I remember being very reluctant to even begin using my whiteboard for fear of being chained to teacher centered instruction. Using technology in any form, for the first time, is a leap of faith into the great unkown. A harrowing experience for most teachers. There are dynamic, interactive ways to teach without any form of technology. One need only to think about what we do when the power goes out, or the server is down. Teaching and learning continue!

        I like the notion of mastering it for your own benefit. I think a lot of reluctance teachers have is that they are afraid they are behind the curve and so avoid it altogether. I’ve conducted some action research on this topic, if you are interested in seeing my findings.

        1. Post

          When I think of the time I have put in to master the tech I use, it is mind boggling but I love it. I can’t imagine putting in those hours if you don’t like it.

  7. Ruben Perez

    We will never change those things for which we fail to show value. If we want to increase “value” for tasks that do not fall within the list of training for a standardized test, then we must a) pay for it or b) assess its quality. As for the agrarian based schedule, I don’t believe it is all that simple to justify our resistance to change. Our basic need for family time is one key and critical component in our resistance for change. As important as education is, we sometimes fail to acknowledge the foundation laid out for someone when there is stable time and space for family. Balancing out homework, recreation, & family time is critical not a nicety. Asking families to cater to a change in schedule needs to have value and an understanding of how to maneuver before it can be accepted. The research supports the benefits to year round school but John Q. Public still wants to know how to balance out all the details. Just my thoughts.

    1. Post

      Not much to disagree with here. I am one of the parents who say “NO FLIPPING WAY” to the change in schedule. I live in a place where we only get 2 months of sunshine and if the kids were stuck inside for one of them, THAT would be a crime.

      As for change in the academic side of things. I still feel foundational skills such as reading, writing and numeracy can all be done without any fan-dangled technology driven system. In fact my strongest kids are always those who have those foundational skills solidly in place and they all learned the old fashioned way.

      As you say why change that wich has value. What we should be doing is adding the education experience of our children, not necessarily changing it for the sake of change.

      Thanks for the comment.

  8. Spencer Capier

    I liked your summary of her talk, and the novel conclusion that it’s parents and teachers that resist change. I also disagreed with most of what the keynote speaker presented that day. A thousand years from now teaching will still be about people in the same physical space together talking. This model has been true for ten thousand years already and it has survived several great technological leaps forward. It was not lost on me that the thesis that the lecture is dead was delivered to me at a lecture, and that this speaker was not being paid to speak to us because she was technologically savvy. She was an engaging human being. Prone to rambling, but engaging.

    1. Post

      Hey Spencer, thanks for the comment.

      I personally think a good story teller is more entertaining then a piece of technology any day and many or our Keynotes embody that. They are engaging because they can tell a story and through that story communicate their message.

      I do not think this style of teaching or relaying information will ever die. What I do think is that those who do not possess the gift of being an engaging speaker, will be under greater and greater pressure to use technology to relay their message.

    1. Post

      Thanks Blaise,

      The link is great and adds a different angle to the discussion, although there is work being done in this area it puts curriculum more front and center.

      This is also connected to one of the biggest myths in education. The teacher is seen as the embodiment of the curriculum. There is little distinction seen between the teacher and the course, therefore people feel that to change the curriculum, you must change the teacher.

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