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Magic Bullets and Sacred Cows

Today's guest post is written by Jennifer Marten, Gifted and Talented Coordinator/Online School Coordinator for the Plymouth Joint School District in Plymouth, Wisconsin.

If you've ever sat through a staff meeting where a new initiative was being rolled out, you've heard at least one veteran teacher comment about how they've done that before and that the pendulum in education always swings back.

I remember being annoyed by that as a brand-new teacher - how dare they question the latest research? Then I taught a few more years and realized, to some degree, they were right. Some things in education do come in and out of fashion, and some administrators tend to glom onto to every next new thing.

I see three major problems with the pendulum theory (and jumping on the bandwagon).

First, when leaders push a 'new' initiative, they don't remove an old one.  In conversation with a veteran teacher last fall, she said that we plant new things but never weed the garden. I think that is a very apt description of what happens too often in education.

Second, we jump to the next new thing expecting it to be the magic bullet that fixes everything in education. Then, when it isn't, we either toss it before we've really given it a chance to take hold, or we stubbornly keep using it because we invested so much money in it.

The third, and in my opinion, most pressing problem is that if we buy into the pendulum theory it gives us permission to keep doing the things we've always done without considering the possible value of a new initiative.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't hold on to the methods we know work in our classrooms, but I think we have to challenge ourselves to truly reflect on why we want to keep doing them.  

Peter's recent post on who knows what's best for students (read it here) talked about going below the surface: "Before we chase the shiny new toy, we need to make sure that our needs assessment says we should be playing around with that toy in the first place." The flipside of that is that we should be assessing not only the shiny new toys but the well-worn old ones.

I just finished my 28th year of teaching, and there are things I still do that I did that very first year. There are also practices I'm too embarrassed to own up to doing. One thing I've learned is that I need to constantly be reflecting on my practice. To borrow a phrase from John Hattie, I need to know my impact.

Too often I think we're guilty of  holding onto strategies because they worked for us as students (I loved diagramming sentences), they give us a piece of data that we believe tells us something important about students (reading logs, timed math tests), or they've become habit after so many years of doing them. I'm not suggesting we need to throw everything out, but we need to make sure we are doing them for the right reasons.

Not every old method is bad. Not every new initiative is good. Rather than holding on to sacred cows or embracing magic bullets, we need to work together within our schools to figure out what is best for the students we teach. 

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