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The Good Old Days

Ah, nostalgia . . . defined as "a sentimental longing or a wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations." It is comforting to look back and remember the way things were - back then, you know, in the "good old days." Memories have a way of soothing present day realities, and offer serenity in both the experiences endured and the truth that we somehow survived them. Frequently, in the face of current challenges, nostalgia offers safety, calm and even a desired course of future direction.

Nostalgia also creates a trap. Consider this story from the Urban Dictionary. "Once upon a time, a man was born in 1947. His childhood in the 50s wasn't that good, but when he grew older, he started to hate anything past December 31, 1959. Several years later, he had a child in 1967, who became nostalgic for the 70s, and said anything past December 31, 1979 was awful, while his father hated the 70s because of nostalgia. The son later fathered a son born in 1987 with his childhood in the 90s. The old man's grandson later said anything past December 31, 1999 was @#%!."

We've all seen this, whether in our own homes or in the reported recollections of others. A warning is needed here. This occurs everywhere in our society: music preferences, food, design and fashion, politics, architecture . . . virtually every element of American culture - including education.

"The Good Old Days." Let's take the phrase apart and analyze it. The term "good" suggests satisfaction, that something is better than average. There is comfort with being "good." It's safe, understood, and predictable. "Good" is acceptable, kind and often respectful. Who could argue with "good?"

"Old", on the other hand, suggests a harkening to the past. It implies a degree of agedness. (Given this definition, I am truly old.) It also suggests being out of date, past prime, beyond being relevant and being left behind. (Ahem.) Yet, even within this definition, "old" is acknowledged, and momentarily admired, but is frequently dismissed.

Bring this forward. What are "the good old days" within the context of American public education? I contend that "the good old days" reflect our current instructional practices. You read that correctly. What occurs in a majority of classrooms today resembles, mimics, harkens back to what happened 50 or 100+ years ago. I understand this is a bold statement. So, I challenge anyone to test my assumption. Think back on your own educational experience, whenever and wherever that happened. Think about how you were taught. Who was in charge, the dominant figure? Who did most of the talking? Who decided what was going to be studied and how the material would be presented? Who held the final word? Now, with these recollections firmly in mind, go visit ten classrooms and analyze what you see. I am willing to bet that at least six of the ten classrooms you visit will closely resemble the recollections of your own experience - teacher dominated environments, lecture/demonstration ("sit and get") strategies, expectations of compliant student behaviors and a reliance on paper and pencil assessments of progress. I concede that some of the tools may be different. White boards and markers have replaced chalk. Computers or tablets have replaced encyclopedias. But, the approaches elected by the teachers and the experience of the learners is remarkably the same as it was in the "good old days."

Curious. Why?

Recent calls for improvements or educational reform have been external, political/financial mandates. Mandates - as in authority, power and influence that may, or may not, hold any relevance to what is happening day-to-day, on the ground. Mandates are impersonal directives and frequently feel like attacks. Any number of these mandates, including No Child Left Behind (2001) and subsequent refinements have served to confuse the direction of public education, not define it. These mandates have been accompanied by numerous initiatives that have required the attention and energy of teachers and other instructional leaders. The pace, and implied consequences, of these initiatives has proven exhausting. And, in the absence of any proof that the effort would assure the desired benefit, practitioners have balked. They have hesitated. They have pushed back. They have quietly waited for this new wave of innovation to pass, relying, instead, on what they know - "the good old days." When one is exhausted and unsure, we rely on nostalgia. We reach back and teach as we were taught. Totally understandable and equally disastrous.

If the world today were to resemble the world of twenty, fifty or one hundred years ago, teaching as we were taught would be the rational choice. However, we know the world that the students occupying today's classrooms will inherit is remarkably, and startlingly, different from the "good old days." Change has happened everywhere surrounding the American classroom. Yet, these same classrooms have remained isolated, and detached, from these practical influences. It's time to rethink what we're doing, and why we're doing it. In the introduction of my book, The Education Kids Deserve, I quote the wisdom of Tony Wagner. I repeat it here.

“Teaching all students to think and be curious is much more than a technical problem for which educators, alone, are accountable. More professional development for teachers and better textbooks and tests, though necessary, are insufficient as solutions. The problem goes much deeper - to the very way we conceive of the purpose and experience of schooling and what we expect our high school graduates to know and be able to do.” The Global Achievement Gap, 2008

This is a contemporary problem. Not one where the solution is found in the comfort of the "good old days."

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