education philosopher

What Makes Educators So Susceptible to Fads?

Posted in Teaching by KevinCK on July 9, 2009

In the 1970’s, “open space education” was the rage. In the ning, ’80’s, it was “whole language education.” IN the 90’s, “learning styles” and “multiple intelligences” were the buzzword. The last 10 years have seen “brain-based education” and several other fads hit the field of education with full force. (A disttrict in which I taught bought in, a few years ago, to the “Capturing Kids Hearts” program offered by motivational speaker Flip Flippen. It was junked within two years.)

A 1998 article for the Christian Science Monitor notes:

Even critics note these ideas have valid points. But they were often adopted without data – without balancing the claims of competing teaching techniques – and then taken to extremes. That resulting pendulum swings are prompting a reevaluation of how educators adopt new practices in the classroom.

One reason the author sees for the field of education’s quick trigger in adapting unproven fads, is that “[a] large number of unjuried professional journals let inadequate research pass uncritically. Key decisionmakers, like urban superintendents, typically hold jobs for three years and feel pressed to show results fast.’

I have several other speculations to add to the list in order to explain education’s peculiar susceptibility to the latest and greatest fads.

First, as a teacher myself, I know firsthand how overwhelming and “full tilt” a profession teaching is. Even the best teachers are often fighting uphill battles day in and day out, trying to get this student engaged, that student to catch up to the class, and this student to stop throwing pencils across the room. Now, imagine someone – a rhetorically savy speaker with a service to sell – telling us that they have the program that will save us the headaches and heartaches.

Of course, we are all a little susceptible to programs – weight loss, addiction, etc – that offer a magic fix. And education, being a field beset by constant uphill struggles, is rife with ready consumers. Just tell us what the magic pill is and we’ll swallow it.

The next reason I offer for why education is such a fad-heavy discipline is the nature of for-profit salespeople selling to public entities that, quite literally, are not accountable for their spending. Businesses can indulge in unproven programmatic fads – think six sigma – but, as they are spending their own money, they will likely be quite skeptical to part with their money too quickly. Education is under no such constraint: quite literally, boards of ed that sink money into programs like Flippen’s or Jensen’s are not spending “their” money, but “the taxpayer’s” money. If a program doesn’t pan out, they can always get more.

Third, we should not underestimate the fact that most of the fads pushed are pushed by “motvational speaker” types who stand and fall by how well they sell their service. Costly seminars, speaking engagements, books, and curricular guides are to be sold, and as such, Flippen, Jensen, and the like are polished salespeople.  (I informally interviewed a teacher who went to one of Flippen’s “Capturing Kids Hearts” seminars, and he described it as a “come to Jesus” retreat, where Flippen was obviously there to sell rather than explain.)

Lastly, the difficulty educators face in evaluating whether something is a “fad” or the “real deal” is that in order to get data, one must jump in head first and try the idea. If it doesn’t work, one has lost at least one school year in trying out the idea.

Unfortunately, I do think that educators should be aware, by now, that much of what they have been trying has turned out to be a fad, and this should make them much more cautious. But like I wrote previously, school boards and district administrations aren’t nearly as accountable for their money as businesses are for theirs, and this is likely to make them less critical and skeptical before parting with it.


5 Responses

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  1. Mark Pennington said, on October 3, 2009 at 12:33 am

    Education does have more than its share of fads. Check out a brief history of spelling fads and trends at

  2. KevinCK said, on October 3, 2009 at 6:30 pm


    Thanks much for the info. My vey tentative doctoral dissertation idea is to be about explaining why ed is so susceptible to fads. Your blog link will be a valuable resource for generating ideas on certain fads to hit upon. Particularly, it seems that, as you mention on your blog posts, many of the fads in spelling – like other areas of ed – have been geared around finding the “magic pill” that works for every student. Educators are desperate to find it, so they fall for many things (and they are desperate to find the ‘pain free’ forumal for reading instruction, hence the infactuation with whole language natural approaches, rather than memorization-based and phonics-based approaches.)

    Hope to see you again soon! Thanks for the info!

  3. Anonymous said, on February 13, 2012 at 12:50 am

    I was amazed to see this post including The Flippen Group process of Capturing Kids Hearts. I have been a teacher for twenty five years and know that this process is life changing. IT is not a fad…it’s a way of life. People who do not fully open their hearts and minds to any process, those who are uncomfortable with change, are limiting themselves and their students. CKH is about becoming the best that you can be as a district so that you can provide the best education possible for our children. When you believe, you achieve…not just in school but in life. Capturing Kids’ Hearts is the answer to what our schools need. It’s not a fad…it’s a way of life.

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  5. jacqueline elton said, on May 12, 2016 at 11:17 am

    Hi KevinCK,

    My own Ph.D. thesis, UK based, is about the way a group of teachers have responded to the fad of brain-based after receiving some compulsory training on it. I found your blog post via Nathalie carrier’s 2015 Ph.D. thesis.
    is your thesis completed & if so where could I find it to read?


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