Toward a School Culture of Instruction Instead of Just Innovation

I was minding my own business reading grad school materials when a sentence jumped out at me and my head almost split open:

“It is clear from the writings of (researcher name and researcher name) that (grade level) students are not getting enough time in (skill, subject matter) and it is affecting the quality of what they can (do in skill in subject matter.)  ”

This is what I’ve heard innumerable times over the years, from administrators, from text books, from professors, through articles from researchers.  “Spend more time on X!” they say again and again.”  But Mr. or Mrs. Administrator, Mr. Superintendent, Mrs. Board Member, we only get five and a half hours of instructional time each day.

This problem of the limited school day was addressed in the early 2000’s by teachers being told to assign more and more homework, until some parents were overseeing three to four hours in a single night and parent rebellion was in the air.   Homework, then, was not the answer.  We’re still human beings with only 24 hours a day.

How can we make the day more efficient?  The economy of scale in factory production, where producing more widgets is more efficient an cheaper, is mimicked in schools by the economy of repetition of various instructional components in the classroom.  Repetition of any known effective routine or practice  saves time.  There’s a reason why we schedule the day.  There’s a reason why lunch is always at the same time.  Can you imagine the chaos that would result if we switched the lunch time every day?

By the same token, time is lost when we switch curriculums and teachers have to sort through them all over again and “find out what works.”

Why can’t we develop a culture of instruction, based on what teachers have seen in the past, and using what works for us, to make the school day more efficient? Then we would only have to search out new practices and curriculum for actual student needs in our own schools.   Not everything we do is a failure, some of it is already quite good!  If we are allowed to repeat our past successes it will be and accrued gain. Yet every year teachers are told to abandon successes of the past in pursuit of something that might be better — might — while time is lost in transition and translation.

Certainly we need professional development.  Teachers should be learning and improving their game all through their careers.  Textbooks should be updated and when technology changes we have to innovate and evolve.  But  we should be building on what we know, not replacing it wholesale.  Forcing massive adoptions of new and often untested practices and curriculum on teachers who already know what they want to do and how to do it is courting … well not disaster, but slow academic progress.

And researchers who make the impossible demand that we “just need to spend more time on (insert academic subject here)” without metaphorically goring any other subject’s ox are unrealistic.

If we can do that, we’ll next be ready to fit a camel through the eye of a needle.

2 thoughts on “Toward a School Culture of Instruction Instead of Just Innovation”

  1. “…We should be building on what we know, not replacing it wholesale.” I am getting tired of making this same argument, Sonja. This will be third time I am recently forced to reiterate: It is entirely possible to honor and preserve what has worked in the past, alongside embracing new ideas and considering fresh perspectives.
    Plus, the innovation you reference in your title is rarely innovative. Often, it is merely change for change’s sake and a repackaging of what was foisted upon us ten years ago, didn’t work, and was promptly abandoned. I refuse to use my students as educational guinea pigs.
    Thank you for calling these researchers, school boards, and textbook companies on their crap!

    1. I think, Robert, that we need to keep beating the drum on this one. The more we say it and the better we do, the more chance it has of being heard by someone who can promulgate it more fully. Fight the good fight!

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