27. Pendula

People occasionally talk about a pendulum that swings back and forth, indicating the philosophical trend that is in style. There’s an educational pendulum, a political pendulum, and I’m sure that people immersed in theology, sociology, and other disciplines have their pendula. I don’t like the image, and don’t accept it. Our species is not where it was a century ago, and will not be there next year. And effective and sensitive education of children is not dependent on fads or styles.
So why do people talk about the swing of the pendulum? I think adults get tired of growing – tired of encountering new ideas. For one thing, we may be afraid that the new idea will require extra work, or extra thinking. And any new idea may give us the scary feeling that we’ve been doing things “wrong” for a long time. So it’s easier to think of a new idea as an old idea in new clothing.
I reacted that way to cooperative learning. I avoided cooperative learning workshops, because I didn’t want to think I’d spent twenty-four years not doing something that could have been very effective. I preferred to think that I had already been doing it, and that the rest of the world was simply catching up to me, and labelling what I had been doing. Now, I call this problem the “veteran teacher syndrome” – the mindset that reacts to each new idea by saying, “What goes around comes around.”
It’s also common to “try” a new idea half-heartedly, find that it doesn’t work, and quickly go back to the old way. I remember reading a study about Words in Color, a dynamic, though strictly phonetic approach to teaching reading. The designer of the study seemed out to prove that the approach could not work. Experienced teachers used Words in Color, and new teachers used a basal reader. “Surprisingly,” the new teachers had more success. I suggest that the results could have been very different if experienced and inexperienced teachers had been mixed, or if only new teachers had used Words in Color. I believe that the “veteran teacher syndrome” was a factor.
I am not suggesting that teachers should be put out to pasture when they have too much experience. Experience can be a great teacher. It can provide a great repertoire upon which to build. Mistakes are great catalysts for learning, and you can’t make them all in college, no matter how devoted you are. Claudia Schmidt says, “How do you get good judgment? Experience. And how do you get experience? Bad judgment.” I’m not sure whether she is quoting someone else, but until I find out, I’m quoting her.
I am suggesting that we adults should work to avoid visualizing a pendulum. When something new arises, we ought to look at it as a possible opportunity to become even better at what we do, and not immediately reject it as something we tried twenty years ago. The truth is, we probably didn’t try it in its present form. If there are aspects of it we have tried, perhaps it has been improved. Perhaps it is more appropriate for today. And perhaps we are more skilled than we were 20 years ago.

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