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Resistance to Learning from Other Countries' Best Practices

Editor's Note: In today's education reform landscape, there is an emphasis on learning from what's happening in other countries. However, as David Andrew Tow, English and Social Science teacher at Terra Linda High School and the Marin School of Environmental Leadership in California, explains, not everyone wants to implement these best practices. Here are his ideas on getting buy-in for international ideas.

By guest blogger David Andrew Tow

I had developed an annoying trait. In emails to colleagues about some new protocol or curriculum idea, I often began my reply with, "In Germany...", or "In Israel...."

During meetings tasked with exploring instructional goals or defining assessments, I'd interject with, "Well, when I was in Finland...", or "My friend who teaches in Singapore suggests...."

Maybe I'm imagining it, but whatever followed was met with held breath or rolled eyes and a polite but direct return to the subject at hand. And I was left to chew on my thoughts on Finnish classroom management or Israeli multicultural education or Singaporean collaborative methods on my own.

david_tow.pngBefore I became exposed to, and ultimately, invested in, international education, I was also somewhat resistant to lessons from other countries. I think there is a natural hesitancy to incorporating best practices from international education for many reasons. While part of it might involve innate feelings of American exceptionalism, many of the objections I hear emphasize the contrasts between the United States and other countries, framing those differences as unconquerable hurdles to any mimicked reforms in American education.

Some skeptics point to contrasts of scale—what works in a tiny country like Singapore could never work in the United States—and others point to demographics as destiny, claiming that a homogenous country like Finland cannot teach multicultural America any lessons on plurality—never mind the falsehood buried in that premise.

Most recently, however, the objections I've heard involve a more abstract ideological difference—that since the United States is founded on a different philosophical point of view than most countries, it's hard to translate best practices, which are themselves implicitly ideological. 

As a result, I suggest that those who are interested in international education consider reframing policies not just to make them more palatable to those resistant to or skeptical of reforms, but to allow those advocates to understand that, while the national origin and context of an idea is generally interesting, it's the ideas themselves that are the most important. I no longer start my sentences with "In Germany," becoming less annoying and more able to clearly emphasize the strategy rather than merely its origin. Below, I offer ways reformers can start by first reforming the way they present best practices from other countries.

Leverage the Strategy

When presenting new ideas, whether to a school board or administration team or even a few collaborating teachers, emphasize reforms in terms of one key strategic change rather than the origin of the larger model. Furthermore, underscore this change in terms of what specifically will look different in the classroom, rather than how it can be a part of a larger systemic change.

When I returned from Finland as a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher, having spent my time researching how Finnish teachers used school structures to encourage and reinforce civic identity, I was excited to dramatically remake my teaching environment and work towards having the school reflect the sort of nation I wanted to see America become, until I recognized that not everyone had seen what I had and were not as eager to start over as I was. Reform is hard, and it is easier to change one thing than everything.

Read It

One of the things teachers miss when they enter the classroom is the opportunity to talk about material as equals, rather than as the learned sage and resident expert. A way to feed that desire is to use a reading group to introduce some best practices or theoretical frameworks. Even if it's two colleagues reading about German Gemainschaftschulen instead of one just explaining, the results can produce some incremental change.

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker last year about the difficulty of integrating new information into existing systems of belief. The takeaway is that the only way to change your mind is by the careful and unemotional exploration of information, clearly stated, with an emphasis less on being convinced than on mutual understanding.

Avoid the Administration

I've been blessed with having administrators throughout my career who have been supportive of almost any idea that my colleagues have brought them. I'm sure the same can be said of many other administrative teams.

Nonetheless, the most sustainable reforms tend to happen far from the front office. In true American tradition, top-down programs tend to be greeted with more skepticism by teachers than reforms that are led by the teaching staff. Granted, without administrative support, a program is less likely to flourish, so it is important to get them on board early.

Assemble working groups with other teachers to talk about new ideas and get the ball slowly rolling. It's far easier to approach administration with the beginnings of consensus and ask for help in implementation—and there is the significant possibility that the best practices could be bettered with at least a dash of local input.

Speak with Students

Almost every suggestion I give colleagues involves soliciting input and eliciting feedback from students. Personally, I'm of the opinion that, although parents and their fellow taxpayers are our constituency, the true client is the student—it is their best interests we serve.

In that spirit, I suggest dedicating some valuable class time to see what students think about potential reforms. Not only are students more struck by the romance of learning internationally, but I also think the decade-long emphasis on growth mindsets has finally managed to produce dividends. They are able to quickly evaluate new and strange-seeming ideas, engage with those ideas in a candid conversation, and integrate them. If having an all-class conversation seems impossible or unwieldy, consider offering an afterschool Socratic seminar as a way to recoup lost participation or homework points, and engage in some critical reflection in the process.

Avoid Panaceas

In the broader political context, there's a keen desire to find a single solution to a whole menu of problems. Especially in considering lessons from abroad, it's remarkably appealing to discover a single strategy, policy, or shift that would alleviate a whole host of woes in American schools.

It is also incredibly unlikely, if not impossible, that one magic move or silver bullet will suddenly fix everything. And in order to convince the skeptics, reformers oftentimes invoke the magical language of panaceas. The unintended side effect, however, is that expectations become unreasonably high and the strategy can do naught but fail. Instead, focus on the strategy and its hypothetical modest but sustained change. One can argue that steady change trumps paradigm shifts anyway.

Aim for Integration

When looking for the practices that best fit in your classroom, school, or even would make for compelling discussion, try to identify those that work with the systems already in place. If part of the hesitancy to reform is the wholesale upending of familiar systems, it adds palatability if the new idea fits nicely with the old.                                                

This is true for both teachers and students, both of whom are unlikely to toss out entire systems based on some sheets of paper describing successes in a faraway country. Looking for ways to make the practice fit will also help you understand better how American education can actually benefit from other countries, rather than remaking itself in their image. For example, while it's unlikely that my suburban district will build a comprehensive vocational and apprenticeship program like I saw in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, we can try and leverage opportunities like career technical education (CTE) programs in technical writing and computer technology or Regional Occupational Program classes in medical tech through a partnership with Kaiser Permanente to reach outcomes that are similar.

TANSTAAFL

Lastly, an old acronym, which I learned from science fiction writer Robert Heinlein but has been around longer than him: There ain't no such thing as a free lunch, or TANSTAAFL. International education and best practices aside, there's a natural and welcome skepticism if something seems too good to be true. There's nothing, especially in education, that doesn't cost anything—time, resources, energy, or even a trade-off of not doing something else. It's all an even exchange. Thus, when framing and offering strategies, don't oversell it.

Give teachers reasonable strategies that can accomplish modest gains, support the case with practical support and just enough context and data to make it compelling, and let them take the idea for a spin. After all, it's almost the same as what we expect of students.

We don't want students taking every word as gospel and every idea as truth. Instead, we want them to remain skeptical and critical, needing to be convinced both by an effective argument and by compelling facts, and finally change their mind when they've gotten enough first-hand evidence to come to a reasonable conclusion. If that's what we hope for students, I imagine it's what we would prefer in our teachers and administrators.

Connect with David and Heather on Twitter.

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