What Makes Educators So Susceptible to Fads?
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.)
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.