On Training and Change

The need to train and retrain teachers has taken on increased importance as digital computers have arrived in schools. As an undergraduate student enrolled in a course on teaching methods, I made an appointment with the staff at a small media office and had them sign a sheet confirming that I successfully threaded a film strip into a projector and had operated a video cassette recorder. (It was the instructor’s intent that no one could have the excuse, “no one ever showed me how” to use the technologies that were on their way out of the classroom and on the way into the classroom in the mid-1980’s.) Within years of entering the classroom, the filmstrips were long gone, the video cassette recorders had been replaced with video discs, and those were quickly replaced with compact disks with movies, and then with online video.

    As one whose career had transitioned from science and math to information technology, I was responsible for training teachers how to use each new generation of new devices. The rate of replacement of one technology with another led to the situation where I was showing teachers how to use new devices at the beginning of the school year, and new devices before the end of the school year. My focus had changed also from training researchers to use devices to encouraging teachers to develop their own curiosity regarding the devices and skills that could be generalized across the generations of devices.

I similarly trained teachers to use many generations of productivity software, including multimedia software. The transitions have also included stand-alone applications and students handing in assignments on diskettes to students submitting files to shared files on the local area network, to students collaborating and sharing files they create in the cloud.

While we learned to operate the technology in which we were trained, the changes in how we teach became much slower.  In my career, I have seen many generations of computers, but only a few changes in curriculum. Most point to changes from teaching about technology to teaching with computers, to now flipped classrooms as the few changes in technology teaching that have occurred. As we were trained in these new technologies, my colleagues and I recognized new teaching practices that were unavailable until the ubiquitous availability of media.

In general, educators are slow to adopt changes. In general, we believe that our existing instruction is excellent, and so we are hesitant to change. In some cases the reluctance to change can be attributed to the precautionary principle which holds one should change only when one is certain that the new methods are superior to the old. In some cases, the reluctance can be traced to personality flaws such as excessive laziness or narcissism (see essay on narcissism). Many of the information technology tools that have been perceived as useful for instruction simply replace those that have been around for generations. PowerPoint is used in much the same way that slides and acetate sheets on overhead projectors that were used by previous generations of teachers; and that still are used by some.

As slow as they were to adopt new methods, educators are even more reluctant to change (or even talk about) changing their philosophy of teaching. This reluctance is can be taken to an extreme; many concur with the conclusion that teacher abhor discussions of philosophy as nature abhors a vacuum. This is a well-entrenched aspect of the culture of teachers (at least in the populations within which I have worked), and we see traces of it in the complaining my undergraduate colleagues and I did in response to the reading assignments given by our education professors in the 1980’s. We perceived (accurately) that the assignments were designed to have us think deeply and critically about epistemology and teaching, but we wanted pragmatic advice about how to act and react when faced with a classroom full of students. In several decades of attending in-service workshops (as both a presenter and an attendee), I have observed the vitriol that comes from audiences of educators who are hearing about and being asked to think about their philosophy of education.

 Some educators, however, do experience a change in educational philosophy. In my experience, this change is usually something that can best be described as a traditional philosophy is replaced with a Constructivist philosophy; they no longer believe that education is about depositing information in the brains of students, and learning becomes a more student-centered activity in their classrooms. For most, this is a sudden transition; once a teacher understands the difference and connects with the new philosophy, he or she adopts it quickly and permanently.