Tag Archives: incremental change

More on Incremental Change in Education

In January, I (Clive) wrote about Mary Kennedy and her stress on incremental change in education – as opposed to “bold” innovation. Since then, I’ve come across an excellent book that takes a similar stance: Enlightenment 2.0 (HarperCollins, 2014) by Joseph Heath, a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto. Though decidedly progressive himself, Heath writes in support of Edmund Burke’s advocacy of cumulative improvement, the rationale for which he paraphrases as follows:

“If everyone insists on reinventing everything, we’ll never get anywhere, simply because no one is smart enough to understand all the variables and grasp all of the reasons that things are done exactly the way they are.” (p. 88)

Hence the title of his book: this is a second take on an “enlightenment” approach to social reform, one that builds on past practice in just the manner Kennedy recommends. But Heath raises a crucial question:

“[O]nce we acknowledge this, is the only alternative to fall back into an uncritical acceptance of tradition? Or is it possible to use this insight as the basis for a more successful form of progressive politics?” (p. 83)

I’ll continue to read the book and let you know about Heath’s alternative (that’s a promise!). Meanwhile, one solution that occurs to me in the education field is to give teachers more voice, so they can share their practices and fine-tune them. More opportunities for teacher dialogue are needed: in school settings, during PD events, in university classes, etc. In this way, teachers can help each other tinker with how they do things, rather than having some “expert” come in and tell them they’ve got it all wrong. There’s a place for outside input, but it should be used critically – and incrementally.

Teaching, teacher education, incremental change, Joseph Heath, Enlightenment 2.0.

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!