Reform Clutter, Part III: Is it a bad thing?

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Reform Clutter, Part III: Is It a Bad Thing?

This is a question that will never be answered because it’s ultimately a question about the nature of teaching and learning.  But we can’t throw up our hands quite yet.  If we dig a bit, we can understand the roots of this question; and, having understood precisely what there is to disagree about, we can disagree productively and respectfully.

There are undeniable benefits to consistency within a school.  I don’t think anyone would argue that basic tenets of the dress code should apply whether you’re in math class or in the lunch room.  If you’re not allowed to run down the stairs when Ms. Green is the hallway monitor, then you oughtn’t be allowed to run on Mr. Grey’s clock either.  Organizational norms of conduct are just that, organizational.  That is, they’re intended to apply throughout the organization.

Furthermore, there are pedagogical advantages to consistency within a school.  Students transitioning from grade to grade (or even from subject to subject within a day) have an easier time making connections to prior learning (and across content areas) when there is consistency in curriculum and vocabulary.

Finally, consistency within a school just makes sense in terms of efficiency.  For example, if the kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grade teachers all use a similar guided reading procedure, then kids don’t have to spend the first several weeks of each year settling into a new routine; they know the drill, they can hit the ground running, as it were.

All of this makes a strong case against reform clutter and illustrates why it’s good to “have everyone on the same page”.  There’s another side of the coin, though.  Simply put, everyone’s different.  Teachers are individuals, with varying personalities, styles, philosophies of teaching, particular strengths, levels of experience and expertise, backgrounds, types of professional training, beliefs, etc.  A given reform, be it a new curriculum series or a new approach to behavior management or a new protocol for recordkeeping, will naturally be a “better fit” for some teachers than for others.  It would be short-sighted to argue that teachers should only embrace policies that happen to sound fun to them: a reflective and improvement-minded teacher should be able and willing to adjust her practice in order to refine and improve it.  But it’s worth recognizing that a one-size-fits-all approach may fail to capitalize on (may, in fact, stifle) brilliant classroom practice that arises from the individuality of teachers.

For example, I taught with a woman whose approach to establishing classroom culture was to front-load heavily.  She would spend a lot of classroom time during the first few weeks of school in critical class-wide conversations, replete with role-plays and examples.  The students would create posters to illustrate their norms of conduct, and they would practice peer-consultation (a student-to-student discussion protocol to respond to peer behavior outside of those norms).  Having established such a solid foundation, this teacher spent very little subsequent instructional time dealing with disruptions to the learning environment.  A reference to a particular poster or a peer-consultation was usually sufficient to get everyone back on track.

I mention this example because it illustrates a unique system, designed by a particular teacher, which was inarguably effective.  Should all teachers in the building have been expected to adopt this system?  If a new, uniform system (one that was less effective for that particular teacher because it didn’t align with her belief that children should manage the culture in their classroom) would have compromised that teacher’s ability to teach, should she have been required to adopt it in the interest of uniformity?  In short, is it possible that reform clutter is sometimes the healthy and natural state of affairs that arises when a common goal (the education of students) unites a group of uniquely gifted practitioners?

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