Recently I met with several fellow teachers for a book study group that was required by our district. The book, "The Differentiated Classroom" was an excellent book for starting discussions and is part of the latest trend or buzz word in education "Differentiation" - tailoring lessons to suit each individual learner. Two things stood out for me. One was that after reading many anecdotal accounts of well designed and differentiated classrooms our group talked about what we had read, and the first thing that came up was "Where are the students who throw their chairs against the wall?" "Where is the student who randomly yells or makes noises during class?" "Why are there no mentions of the six or eight students in the class who not only doing no work, but also breaking pencils or throwing erasers at other kids?" We were left to assume that the classrooms described in the book were either works of pure fiction or existed in some alternate universe devoid of special needs children or ones who choose for whatever reason to not follow expectations. Our take away was that it all sounded nice but since what was portrayed was so far from our reality it was hard to see how to make use of any of the ideas.
The book, which was highly touted by the district, talked of curriculum that followed the interests of the students and allowed for open exploration. One of the teachers in our group asked rather bluntly if we'd ever be allowed to do anything like this given that the demands on curriculum pacing are tied directly to testing and every student must complete the exact same classwork, the exact same tests in the same order and pacing as everyone else. The answer was an honest "No". Which obviously begs the question "Why are we reading something that explains a curriculum we can't actually teach?" Never mind the questions about whether or not the style of teaching is truly workable, or makes sense, we can't even begin to set up a system as described in the book. What was the purpose in reading this?
In my twenty plus in education I've seen many "latest and greatest" curriculums, theories and practices and that's not to mention the multitude of educational philosophies that appear in books and are the topic of deeply engaged conversation for the next day until replaced by something new.
Strangely enough, if my grandmother who taught elementary school seventy years ago could be transported magically into a fifth grade classroom at my school, apart from the laptop, she'd have no problem fitting in - "We're studying multi-digit multiplication, okay!" So little has really changed. And yet we're constantly bombarded with ideas and suggestions, many of which are promoted as the best thing since sliced bread while in most cases there's no chance that the ideas will actually be implemented either because it's impossible in the current structure of schools or because when push comes to shove those in authority don't really like the idea or don't understand what it implies.
When Writing Workshop was the hot new style of literacy instruction I took a job at an elementary school where they were thrilled that I had previously worked at the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University where the actual text books the school would be using were written. The principal was pretty much horrified to discover what Writing Workshop actually entailed once I got there. They had been excited to have an expert in the latest, greatest trend, the only problem was no one really had any idea about what they were promoting.
Do other fields have this problem? A constant bouncing about to the latest idea, shifting resources and energies back and forth only to come back to more or less the same model as before? Any study of history will show that the basic best practices of education haven't changed since the days of Plato. Of course a serious and honest assessment of that fact would cause panic in the education publishing field, but who are we supposed to be serving here?