Fads and Memes

My defense of eclecticism in teaching generated a strong positive response from teachers, perhaps because I articulated a widely held resentment about the fads that blow through the educational landscape. But interesting questions were raised about what I wrote. In my last post, I tried to clarify my views on math education research. Today, I continue thinking about other points that were raised in relation to my original post.

Patrick Honner wrote: “Oddly, this seems a bit like a defense of edu-faddism. We can always learn something from fads, so keep them coming!” I certainly didn’t intend to say that, but it is absolutely true that I have learned something from almost every one of the fads I listed in the post, and from some I did not list. So yes, I have learned to coexist with the fads. None of them have all the truth, but most have some piece of it, and I’m open to that. Like I said, I’m eclectic, and I reject the defensive and cynical stance that rejects any and all new ideas. Keep’em coming! I trust myself and my colleagues to separate the useful from the ridiculous.

The reality is that fads will always be with us. Consider their life cycle: researchers uncover an important idea about how children learn. They care about this, and find ways to spread the word about their discovery. Sometimes their discoveries are the result of questionable studies, but even if the results are valid, they can be misinterpreted or overgeneralized. In any case, they gain further traction as administrators want to spread them into their schools and districts, usually with the best intentions. Some consultants tap into this phenomenon, and become the carriers of that gospel, until the next fad comes along. I see no way of stopping this. Many people want to help teachers, without being teachers themselves, so they contribute to one or another link in that chain. I appreciate their efforts, even if I don’t buy their often naive claims.

In addition to these grand fads, we also have teacher-initiated memes, which I unfortunately lumped together with the fads in my post. Those are often more useful and less pretentious, as long as we avoid the temptation to see them as more than what they are. You can get acquainted with some of those on the excellent #MTBoS homepage, though it does not include some of the most successful memes, such as Dan Meyer’s “three act” lesson format.

As it turns out, Dan Meyer was the attendee who had criticized my workshop for lacking an overall pedagogical framework. After my post, he elaborated on Twitter: “Loved the workshop. I wasn’t asking for more fads, though. The opposite. The Internet is awash is interesting math lessons. I’m interested in the bigger ideas about learning that undergird them, that survive fads, that generate more lessons.” I too am interested in such ideas, but I stand by my call for eclecticism. Teachers have little time for theory and are happy to collect interesting lessons from the Internet, from conferences, or from colleagues. I am happy to contribute such lessons on the Web, in my books, and in my workshops. I have been prolific, and my curriculum creations over the decades have varied widely. I am certain they cannot possibly all fit within a single framework.  Nor should they: trying to stay within such a framework would have paralyzed me.

Still, I have managed to write about pedagogy. My most coherent contribution at that more general level may be my idea of a tool-rich pedagogy, which incorporates manipulative, technological, and conceptual tools under one theoretical umbrella. (See: For a Tool-Rich Pedagogy, Math: Visual and Interactive!, A New Algebra, What Are Themes, Tools, and Concepts? plus who knows how many articles about specific tools, such as the Lab Gear, function diagrams, graphing technology, the interactive whiteboard, etc…) 

The idea of a tool-rich pedagogy is a fertile foundation for curriculum creation, more so than the more specialized memes and fads mentioned above, because it covers so much ground. It does frame much of my output as a curriculum developer, but it does not and cannot encompass all of it. By staying in the classroom for 42 years, and by teaching just about everything from counting to calculus, I have come across widely different teaching challenges, which have led to widely different pedagogical responses. This is true of all teachers: we don’t have the luxury of constraining ourselves to a single theory, because our work does not allow it. We get ideas from many sources, and evaluate them by using them. The best of those ideas end up in our repertoire. We have no choice but to be eclectic.

I’ll let others theorize, and I’m sure I will learn something from what they come up with!


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