Education needs to change.
That’s something I and many others, with a wide variety of values and backgrounds, agree on. Despite the way it’s sometimes framed, believing that isn’t an indictment of the educators or students who work and even thrive in a traditional setting. It’s not blaming the teachers, administrators, or policymakers for the way things are. Everyone has a shared responsibility for ushering in a new ways of teaching and learning, but it can’t be blamed on one group of individuals or one level of the complex education system. When something is as entrenched and longstanding as our current system is, it takes zero effort for it to stay the same and immense effort to make a difference. With this as our context, I wanted to take some time to reflect on my memories of my own traditional K-12 experience and my mindset when working with others who don’t feel the same sense of urgency to make positive changes to education.
First, a slight detour to what led me here. I was writing another post, entitled “What I Wish I Could Tell My Kindergarten Self.” The premise was that, since now I’m an adult and a teacher myself, I’d have so much to teach my younger self to make school more meaningful and less stressful. It’s an idea I still think could be fun, and an article I still may write. As I was writing it, though, the tone became negative and soap-boxy as I went through all the details of my seemingly awful elementary school experience, as if to imply my experience was bad because it was traditional. The weirdest part is that I actually enjoyed and have a lot of fond memories of my K-12 schooling experience in a traditional setting, and yet I was writing about it as if it were traumatic.
I realized then that when we’re talking about the importance of improving and even completely restructuring formal schooling, it’s easy to trap ourselves in black and white thinking, to assume old is bad and new is good, that in order to embrace change, we have to reject everything that’s come before. As I and many others past and present have stressed, major changes in education are both inevitable and necessary. As agents of change, it’s our responsibility to acknowledge what does work in our existing system, invite everyone to be part of making school better, and to respect that differences of opinion always arise in collaborative endeavors.
Saying education needs to change isn’t placing fault on the individuals who are part of the current system. I’m one of those people myself, and I would never have entered the field if I hadn’t had some amazing teachers who inspired me to do so. No one currently alive is responsible for the education system. It predates those who live and work within it and, in doing so, perpetuate it.
Reflecting back on my K-12 experience, I feel nostalgic for those days in kindergarten when I got to build Lego towers with my newfound friends; I miss the initial burst of confidence and self-actualization I felt in high school as I started to embrace my individuality; I even have some fond memories of middle school (though, like many others, most of my 6-8 experience feels like a compilation of cringe-worthy vignettes).
It’s important for me to remember, especially when my own thinking becomes black and white, to remember that pretty much all involved in education entered into it with good intentions and a passion for teaching and learning. This passion occasionally results in conflict, and that’s okay. Change brings up a lot of pain, whether it takes the form of nostalgia, insecurity, or something else, even in those of us actively working to make that change happen. It’s important to be empathetic of people on this journey, whether they’re on it by choice or by circumstance. It’s not us vs. them, old vs. new; it’s an acknowledgement that change is inevitable and sometimes painful, but that if we want a brighter future, we need to actively direct that change in ways that make learning more engaging and meaningful for our learners.