Avoiding the Trends and Fads in Education

Thursday, 28 Oct 2021

There are good things happening in education right now and a dawning realisation that the profession (and professional) not so much needs to be guided by empirical evidence-based best practice (because it always has laid claim to that), but that fads and trends are being revealed for what they are - shallow ideas and fixes that have little educational benefit. I can see the pushback against these fads and trends but that doesn’t mean they have been entirely exposed nor has the influence of fads and trends disappeared completely. The Wizard of Oz is still behind their curtain to some extent but the curtain is being opened faster than before. 

There is no panacea in education and yet, not unlike many other domains (diets, health fads, skin treatments, mindfulness trends etc) there are always those who push an idea into the marketplace - often supported by ‘research’ - and adopted by a profession that is called upon to do everything from teach reading and mathematics to road safety to gender education etc. This has caused educators in the past to lose focus or to be deflected by the trend or fad that interestingly, to be honest, is often very intrinsically appealing.

I have seen this in products and practices, philosophies and movements. It is often undergirded by a market ready to flog a product to an unsuspecting or willing school. 

In ‘A Critical Thinker’s Guide To Educational Fads- a critical thinkers guide to educational fads’, the authors ague that the teaching profession needs its own dose of meta cognitive thinking. Trends and fads in education, often without any substantive thinking or analysis of efficacy, have littered the educational landscape for too long. What is meant be a fad or trend? Perhaps a simple formula can explain: 

Educational idea + no evidence = fad
Educational idea + substantive empirical evidence = systematic improvement

I have seen the trends and fads (often packaged and marketed with excellence) and certainly influential in areas such as:

  • Teaching reading programs and approaches 
  • Problem-solving programs and approaches 
  • Creative and critical thinking programs and approaches
  • Multiple intelligences packages, programs and approaches 
  • Mindfulness programs and approaches 
  • Left brain, Right brain packages and approaches 
  • Learning styles (kinaesthetic, visual, auditory) programs and approaches 
  • Bloom’s Taxonomy approaches 
  • Enquiry-based (or Problem-based, or ‘x’-based) programs and approaches and consequent misunderstanding of what personalised learning means
  • Growth Mindset 
  • Etc 

I recall in my earlier days being on the receiving end of professional development in Mathematics (delivered by very reputable organisations) whereby the presenter would give extremely difficult tasks to the teachers present and we had to somehow gravitate toward finding our own way of solving them. The philosophical underpinning of this was based on ‘enquiry-based, creative problem-solving’. When the teachers attending did not know how to solve the problem the presenter refused to give an answer believing that the only worthwhile answer was the one the teacher could ‘discover’ for him/herself. It seems almost unbelievable now, in 2021, when I reflect back on this. It left many, including myself, extremely frustrated and deflated. However, it was the 1990’s, and these beliefs in teaching methodology were strongly held by dogmatic exponents. Worse still, they imposed these dogmas on the profession with children being the ones who most suffered. 

The authors of ‘A Critical Thinker’s Guide To Educational Fads- a critical thinkers guide to educational fads’, argue that we need to adopt a more substantive concept of education. 

When students are taught using a substantive concept of education as the guide to the design of instruction, they learn to initiate, analyze, and evaluate their own thinking and the thinking of others (within all the content areas they study). They are able to do this because they have acquired intellectual tools and intellectual standards essential to sound reasoning and personal and professional judgment. Self-assessment becomes an integral part of their lives. They are able to master content in diverse disciplines.

‘When history is substantively taught, it is taught as historical thinking, the major goal: to give students practice in thinking historically. When science is substantively taught, it is taught as scientific thinking, the major goal: to give students practice in thinking scientifically. When mathematics is substantively taught, it is taught as mathematical thinking, the major goal: to give students practice in thinking mathematically. When literature is substantively taught, it is taught as literary thinking. The major goal: to give students practice in thinking analytically and critically about literary texts.’

If there is a single answer to human problems, disciplined, reflective, substantive thinking is that answer. And that’s what seems to be emerging more than ever before. Thankfully. 

There is no program that is going to teach the child a set of stand-alone critical thinking skills that s/he will generalise across all domains of learning. There is no mindfulness program that have efficacy unless the ‘Wait/Diagnose/Treat’ medical model moves to a ‘Promote/Practice/Prevent’ model. There is no enquiry-based approach that will guarantee a child’s capacity to be intrinsically inquisitive, curious, enlightened transferable across all domains of learning. There is no ‘visual approach’ that a teacher should adopt to accommodate the needs of little Jonny because “he is a visual learner”.  And on it goes. 

There is no substitute for the hard slog of great teaching built on the back of great connection to the student. What has changed? Why are we now more enlightened? I think there have been a few outstanding academics who have given the clarity that the profession has demanded - Hattie, Dinham, Harris, Yong Zhang etc - in addition to the substantial advances in neuroscience. 

This is a great time to be coming into teaching. It is more complex than ever and more challenging for sure - but we now have much better filtering of fads and trends and truly excellent educational bodies such as NESA (NSW Educational Standards Authority) and AITSL (Australian Institute four Teaching & School Leadership) which are giving the best direction one could ever ask for when entering the profession. 

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