Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Case of the Trend-Followers

I am going to have to brag for a minute in order to talk about something that might not be taken well by those who read this. You see, I have been really lucky that the work I do in my classroom (which I shout about on twitter and on this blog) has led to a decent number of people asking for my advice, challenging my views, and engaging with me in meaningful conversations about purpose and pedagogy. Grade reform is a big one that I find a lot of people want to talk to me about and it is because in the circles I am a part of I have pushed my way to the center of those conversations. Edtech is another area where I often find people asking me for advice or have people sharing with me their worries and concerns. If I had to make a HuffPost listical about these conversations it would be the 4 types of conversations teachers have when they try something new. This is obviously a gross generalization but it will allow me to talk about a problem that has been bothering, a problem that weighs on me when I share my work with others.

There are two ways I love having these conversations go: the first is the person has been reading and researching on their own, they've been trying new things and trying to learn but they just have questions they need to work through. Maybe those questions are more philosophical in nature, sometimes they are nitty-gritty practical how-to questions but either way, they come from a person who is searching for answers on their own, a person who is trying to grow professionally. Those are my favorite conversations. This person could fundamentally disagree with me and those would still be my favorite conversations because this person is inquisitive, this person is searching for answers, this person is not just following a trend blindly. 

The second conversation I love is someone who is witnessing the change and has done a lot of reflecting on what they already do in their classroom. This person has already spent countless hours trying to ensure that the actions they take in their class align with their beliefs so maybe they don't see a need or purpose in looking into anything new because what they do is effective and impactful. This type of teacher usually has a lot of questions for me and is able to compare my answers to the work they already do in their class. I love these conversations because they often challenge my beliefs and challenge my work by presenting alternatives that are not only working but have data and research to support them. This person is not cynical but they are often skeptical and because of this they often ask the really important questions that need to be asked when trends happen in education.

There are two conversations I hate. The first is in the cynic. A cynic has their mind made up so their goal is not knowledge or understanding, their goal is to prove you wrong. I hate talking with cynics. Some might even twist your words back at you in ways you never intended as an attempt to prove you wrong.

But the second conversation I hate is almost worse than the cynic. The fourth conversation is with the trend-follower. The trend-follower will adopt whatever they see on Twitter, or Instagram, or Pinterest in their classroom without considering how those things align with their own beliefs or educational philosophy. The trend-follower will often come into my world all smiles, ask for all of my work (which I am always happy to share) and attempt to use it all without thinking about what the lessons or the planning templates or the grading practices or the classroom management systems fundamentally mean. 

I often look like a trend follower because I am so willing and excited to try new things but I cannot stress enough how much I think about practices, management systems, and lessons before I try them out. Trend followers see others do them and assume that if it's out there and it is being done, that is enough reason to try it. They don't think about how it does or does not align with their beliefs about teaching and learning. While there is something really wonderful about this desire to try all things new, it makes the profession look bad if you do this consistently without considering what your educational philosophy is and if these changes align with that. 

I have met with various versions of the trend-follower in person, via e-mail, on Twitter. Most of the time, the trend-follower wants to know about flexible seating or a lesson that looked good in pictures. And while that might not seem like a huge issue because flexible seating is just comfy chairs and bean bags - you don't realize that I have thought a lot about how I have changed my stand-and-deliver teaching practices to be more about collaboration and communication because students now sit in a classroom that encourages those things. And the trend-follower doesn't realize it either. They just saw the pictures and want to try it and while there is a part of that desire that is really wonderful - the lack of consideration as to what these changes pedagogically mean terrifies and at times offends me. 

Last year, someone asked for all my work and templates on grading practices. I was excited and thrilled to share this with them. I was hoping to have conversations about their beliefs and hoped they might challenge some of my own. I had assumed they would spend some time looking it over and then we would talk about it because they had told me they had not really looked into it yet but wanted to know more about it. 

The next day they were using my Standards-Based Reflective Grading in their classroom. They were using all my forms and templates and just made changes for it to work with what they were currently teaching. They changed nothing else about their classroom, had never read any grade reform research, did not ask me any questions about it. 

Their attempts to grade using my work failed and they told everyone who would listen. I was beyond upset by the situation, so many of the things that had caused it to fail would have been resolved if we had just engaged in a few conversations about what this type of grading means, the challenges you face, and what else has to change to align with it. But they had seen a trend, people were buzzing about grade reform and they wanted to try that trend while it was hot.

I want to make clear, I don't think the trend-follower is a bad human being but I do think they may benefit from more reflective practices and from understanding their own "why." Why do you do the things you do in your classroom? Why do you try new things? Why do you work in the field of education?

When we put our "why" first and foremost, it is harder to just be a trend-follower. Will you still try new and innovative things that end up no being better than what you used to do? Absolutely! I've totally been guilty of this. But you are more likely to understand how one thing is better than another for kids if you are reflective and focused on your "why" as opposed to blindly following the masses.

I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter
- Kathryn Byars

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