Education Opinion

Conformity Thwarts Innovation

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 09, 2014 4 min read
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Education constrains itself. With our students, conformity is expected and taught from the beginning years, initially as a safety issue. We want all children to listen when we call for their attention. We want all children to walk quietly down the halls out of respect for the classes that remain in session. We want order to insure safety and to teach social conventions regarding public behavior.

With the adults, conformity comes in the form of adhering to laws, regulations, codes of conduct, expectations, schedules and contracts. Not unexpectedly, as a result, conformity creeps into classrooms in the form of lesson design that was adopted in classrooms across the country. Teacher led classrooms were thought to be orderly. Students sitting at desks, in rows, and receiving knowledge were observed by principals who tended to favor the order that teacher as “sage on the stage” offered. In this environment of conformity, innovation and change almost seem contradictory.

Stepping Away From Conformity
There is a tension between what we want for students’ learning and managing the present environment. It remains important to maintain safe environments in classrooms, hallways, and busses, in lunchrooms, gymnasiums, and auditoriums. Conformity to the social conventions is essential. But to pull away from present practice can feel like a strike against the very conformity that has been an essential basis of our work.

Over time, classrooms have gradually become more active learning places with leveled classroom libraries, computer stations, and writing stations. In some places, teacher led lessons have become mini lessons or problems after which students are asked to apply what they have just learned, but not everywhere and not in every grade. Some have moved toward a more active learning environment, yet the external benchmark assessments are still designed to measure the “old teaching methods” that was perceived to be necessary to measure the content covered. It could be a race to cover curriculum that will be on a test, or a principal that (whether it is true or not) is perceived of approving “old school” teaching practices, a belief that “the way I’ve done it worked why should I change?”, a lack of a systemic plan for implementation of any of these practices, or simply a lack of professional development, these are important to 21st century classrooms. But we are moving at a snail’s pace.

What kind of environment do we need in order to encourage teachers and students to engage in a dynamic, changing relationship of teaching and learning needed in this century? It will require new thinking and true leaders. Changes in practice are always on the minds of educators invested in the improvement of the students’ learning experiences. However, the pull away from doing the work necessary to embed any of these into practice is strong. Here are some of the emerging themes:

  • Critical thinking
  • Creativity
  • Innovation
  • Computers, tablets and handheld devices
  • Internet resources and social media
  • Authentic Experiences
  • Authentic Assessment
  • Collaboration
  • Inclusion
  • Differentiation

The ongoing public criticism of education can cause us to want to do something, anything, that can help us move forward and allow our good work to be recognized.

As Always, Leadership Matters
Is it the pull toward the urgent that trips us up, over and over again? Whatever the reason, the mental model we hold for schools is worthy of deep examination. And the mental model others within the community hold for schools needs to be transparent, confirmed or reframed. The irony is, in informal discussions, many can share visions of what they think would work better. But the move toward that vision is halted by the immediate and a belief that it can not happen given any number of barriers: state expectations, regulatory requirements, assessments, a lack of fiscal support, loss of power or fear of the risks involved.

Mind/Shift posted an article entitled, Why Academic Teaching Doesn’t Help Kids Excel In Life. In it, author Shelley Wright said,

Our school system doesn’t need to create kids who are good at school. Instead, we need to create an environment that engages learners, fosters creativity, and puts responsibility for learning where it belongs - with our students.

Who among us disagrees? It seems a long trip between believing this is true and creating the environment in which it exists. It seems we can describe what we envision but are less able to design and take the steps to get there as a school or district. The skills and abilities necessary for this move are the precursors to any of the movement required on this journey. As often is the case, we return to Warren Bennis for leadership guidance. In his classic book, On Becoming a Leader, he shares the thoughts of marketing expert John Sculley.

Leadership is often confused with other things, specifically management. But management requires an entirely different set of skills. As I see it, leadership revolves around vision, ideas, direction, and has more to do with inspiring people as to direction and goals than with day-to-day implementation....One can’t lead unless he can leverage more than his own capabilities...You have to be capable of inspiring other people to do things without actually sitting on top of them with a checklist - which is management, not leadership (p. 132).

If it didn’t happen before embarking on this march toward schools of the 21st century, then while on it, the leader might be called to wonder about her/his capacity to successfully embark on a lengthy change journey. While building the vision, the capacity to inspire people is central. Schools will not become new because the leader says they should. Schools change one teacher at a time, one leader at a time. “Leadership is first being, then doing” (Bennis p.134).

Bennis, Warren (2009) On Becoming a Leader. Philadelphia: Perseus Books Group

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.