5 Reasons “Traditional” Education is a Fiction
I am just as nostalgic as the next guy perhaps even more so especially when it comes to education. However, as I reflect on my childhood educational experience and try to glean lessons that I could apply to my 21st Century classroom I quickly discover that the traditional model of school I had revered so much in memory is a fiction–a fabrication of a mind that is quick view the past through rose-colored lenses and fast to blindly praise a system that produced me. See, I turned out ok, I’m educated, I tell myself. However, upon further examination I discovered other factors that perhaps played a bigger role in the outcome such as family support, household stability and access to books. Therefore, it is erroneous to uncritically praise the system that one experienced simply because the end result is satisfactory. When most people talk about “traditional” education they tend to mean the educational experience they themselves experienced growing up–because that was their “normal.” Normal doesn’t exist, neither does the reality of what we consider “traditional” education.
Here are 5 reasons our notion of “Traditional School” is a fiction:
1. Technology in education has always existed.
Many people put the notion of “traditional” education at odds with terms like “technology” implying that technology didn’t exist in the traditional system but is only a recent gimmick seeking to do away with our beloved tradition. Just as in every other sphere of life, technological advances have taken place as innovative people try to create a more efficient way of doing something. Imagine how your life would be different without factory made clothing or simple household appliances such as the washing machine. Every innovation is first viewed with skepticism then later embraced as a necessity. The field of education is no different. However, when many people use the term “technology” they are talking about the latest technological innovation and neglect to consider all of the older innovations that they use unconsciously. There was a time when the reel to reel projector was considered technology, so too the VHS player, Scantron machine, copy machine and even the overhead projector. These too were undoubtedly met with skepticism when they first arrived on the scene but later became accepted due to their efficiency. The white board replaced the chalk board and the video projector replaced the overhead projector. Every innovation in education has always had its proponents and its critics in every generation.
2. Teacher-Centered Learning is not necessarily “traditional” or better
When we think of traditional education many of us imagine a single teacher guiding the entire class through their lessons. Perhaps we imagine a quaint one room school house where all eyes are locked on the teacher as they delivered the content. Then we imagine our own experiences of teachers teachers reading to us in the primary grades and perhaps lecturing to us in middle and high school. However, we tend to downplay the learning stations or the small group communities or the partner work we engaged in. We forget about the packets we completed and the busy work that was dumped on us at every level. We block out the wasted class time and the unending lectures, all of which were a dreadful byproduct of what we consider “traditional” education. In the secondary years we may have had some positive lecture situations but I would challenge you recall some of the content you retain from these experiences. I remembered the fact that I sat through a lecture every day in world history class. I remember being bored by most of it (and I love history). However, I vividly remember (22 years later) the content surrounding our trial of Louis XVI. I don’t even remember the format or content on our tests but I vividly recall our group presentation on John Calvin and the multitudinous factors that brought about the Protestant Reformation.
3. Applying the term “traditional” to the way we were taught downplays the innovation of our teachers.
Because we standardize our own experience as typical or “traditional” because that is all we have known, we fail to grasp how our teachers were breaking with the past and trying something new. I would argue that each generation of teachers not only reflects the recent trends in education but also contains a variety of innovators that have employed unorthodox methods or used different strategies to reach their students. However, if this is all the student has ever known then they will see it as normal or traditional. The generation of teachers I experienced were trained to use the textbook and for many grade levels the textbook was the bible for better or worse. However, I had a sixth grade science teacher who threw out the textbook and had us outside building model rockets and launching them off in front of the whole school on designated day. I had no appreciation for how unique this was at the time and was shocked when I found out that other 6th graders at other schools were not doing this.
4. Old methods are not necessarily better because they have been around for a while.
Education has always been in a state of flux. Trends come and go. What was tried 30 years ago and abandoned is sometimes resurrected years later under a different name. Furthermore, what worked once is not guaranteed to work again for another generation. Good teachers know this and will continually implement their lessons, reflect upon successes and failures and adapt then make adjustments for next time. This should be an ongoing process based on the assumption that perfection is unattainable that one should strive for it anyway. What we experienced as students was simply a moment in time–a part of a single teacher’s journey and growth (or decline) as a professional. Maybe next year their lessons were better, or maybe their methodology stagnated and eventually became ineffective.
5. Only teaching the way you like to learn is like preaching to the choir.
There are several students in your class that already love learning for its own sake. They will complete whatever work is given and they will learn it because they enjoy it or want to master it for the sake of earning a good grade. Frankly, it doesn’t matter what you do, these students will learn the content. There is a good chance that if you are a teacher, you were one of these kids. Therefore, teaching your own students they way you were taught doesn’t mean that they will learn it that way. They may not have had the support at home that you had or maybe they just don’t like school for whatever reason or, heaven forbid, find it boring. It is a selfish teacher that only teaches they way they had been taught or the way that they learn best. I know, I used to be one. I initially loved teaching primary because I really enjoyed talking about The French Revolution and World War II. I loved the content and really believed I could make everyone else love it just by talking about it with passion. It worked–for about 7 students per class. Now, I strive to use a variety of student-centered methods to reach as many of my kids as possible rather that simply providing a platform for myself to talk about content with the 7 students who want to listen.
Is the history of education worth studying? Absolutely. I’m not advocating a break from the past or anything we consider “traditional.” However, I am calling for a realistic examination of the past to glean lessons for the future. I am calling for an examination of the present to prepare our next lessons. A byproduct of this will necessarily be a less than perfect portrayal of our childhood experience. But the lessons gleaned and the process of critical reflection itself will pay dividend for our students today.