Resolutions, Reforms, and Incremental Change in Education

Clive BeckNew Year’s resolutions are notoriously poorly kept. At our local gym, the regulars joke about the “resolutioners,” who sign up for a year but barely make it to the end of January. Sadly, a lot of proposed educational “reforms” are like that.

Clare, Lin Goodwin, and I (Clive) are working on a chapter on teacher education reform for the next Handbook of Research on Teacher Education. In reviewing the literature, we came across a wonderful article by Mary Kennedy called “Against Boldness” (Journal of Teacher Education, 61 (1-2), 16-20). In it, she makes a plea to avoid taking a “bold” approach to teacher education reform. The article has important implications not only for teacher education but for teaching in general and even everyday life (as in trying to keep fit). Kennedy remarks:

[B]old ideas are part of our problem, for by definition they are unrealistic, out of range, over the top. Ultimately, bold ideas fail because they don’t take real circumstances into account or because they expect too much from people. Eventually, each of us runs out of gas, gets tired and disheartened. (p. 17)

In my view Kennedy isn’t a pessimist or anti-idealist: she thinks substantial improvement is possible and should be pursued. But she believes we must pursue it by (a) acknowledging and building on present achievements and (b) proceeding incrementally (like the tortoise that finally won the race). She says:

What we need in education are ideas that develop slowly and that build on what we already have, not ideas that develop excitedly or that deviate markedly from current practice…. [B]old ideas…hinder our progress toward real improvements by distracting educators and making it more difficult to concentrate…. Every helpful idea requires teachers to make adjustments. Every time we help teachers, they have to stop thinking about how to wrap their students’ minds around a concept and instead turn their attention toward accommodating the new innovation…. [T]here is no doubt that we need to find ways to improve teaching and teacher education. But [instead of pursuing bold ideas, we should be] studying our practices closely and deliberately, deepening our understanding of the circumstances in which we work, and finding small and sustainable ways to improve. (p. 19)

As the JTE editors rightly point out, Kennedy’s position is itself bold! Indeed, it is radical in today’s climate. But it is productively bold, offering an alternative to the myriad high-sounding, contradictory, and often damaging measures, frequently promoted for political reasons rather than out of genuine concern for improvement. Let’s be systematic and effective in our renewal work, not “bold.” How’s that for a New Year’s resolution!

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