Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Wed, 29 Dec 1993

As I was walking this very brisk morning, I bumped into another early morning bird looking for worms, a man in his mid- forties. As we went along for a short way, it was obvious that we weren't birds of the same feather. There I was in my ratty, drab, frayed, gray sweats that I had gotten at a discount store, my head covered by my Carolina-blue UNC knitted hat, and my hands protected by stained brown gloves. Eclectic to be sure. He was decked out in the latest, wondrously colorful running haute couture obviously selected by Elsa Clinch, CNN's fashion reporter. Everything was color matched: running tights, jacket, hat, gloves, and shoes. I looked like a wrung out rat pigeon waddling next to a strutting peacock in full feathery display. And when that rare car approached, he looked like a moving Jean Miro in its headlights while I resembled something like a lump of cement. He told me that he had started jogging a few weeks ago.

"You're pretty serious about this, aren't you," I said.

"You bet. If I wasn't serious you don't think I would have spent all this money on these clothes do you?" Then, he jokingly pronounced, "Hey, you're out of style in your clothes; no real jogger would be caught dead in your outfit."

"I like being out of step, you might say," I matter-of-factly replied.

After a few long blocks our routes parted. But, after he went his way I started thinking about two dirty words. They are words which none of you in education will like, but they've been creeping into my psyche and troubling me. They are such popular, unprofessional words. These words lack an air of intellectualism; they are words of whim and superficiality; they best belong among the giggly teenagers, macho beach surfers and social snobs than among stable, thoughtful educators. But, I think these words might be apt descriptions of what is regrettably taking place too often in our educational system as we rush and stumble to meet the growing demands by the public for educational accountability. Fad and fashion!!! Those are the words: fad and fashion.

That's how we so often talk about teaching and learning. It seems that educational ideas and concepts appear more often than not in the trendy, sporadic, short life expectant way of fad and fashion: come and go; now it's here, now it's gone; it's the in thing this year, it's out the next; its today's rage, it's yesterday's craze. They go by different cuts and styles like hems and necklines traveling up and down in blurring speed. Everything is heralded as revolutionary. Everything is promoted as brand new. Everything has its own unique twist, its own name, its own initials, its own jargon, its own public relations campaign, its own publications, its own guru. Sometimes the progression of leaps and bounds smacks of a never-ending line of medicine men hawking their patent educational cures from the back of their peddling wagons.

The problem with fads is that they so often have us all running about without any concerted direction, except maybe in circles. They create a bandwagon on which too many of us unthinkingly jump, a craze that lacks a sustaining concept, theory, technique or approach. Proponents of each "fad" claim that theirs is different from everything else, a whole new and separate way of looking at education. Each theory, concept, technique, approach is promoted as the instant cure from which we expect much too much. Too little time is given to settling in, adjustment, adaptation; so much time given to technique; so little time given to explanation and training; so little time given to the complex human factors of affected teachers, students, parents, administrators, and public officials. I sometimes get the feeling that supporters of these miraculous formulae don't trust anyone to understand the complexities and don't take the time to explain, to answer questions, to dispel confusions. I think the "common folk" are smarter than many of us "experts" think. They could understand and might even support new approaches to education if their concerns were addressed, if they were spoken with rather than down to, if we used plain language. But, sometimes I get the feeling that the attitude of the proponents of a given idea is all too often: "Don't ask questions. Trust us. We're the 'experts.'" And when expectations aren't met, we hear advocates proclaim in their own defense: "The concept would work if it wasn't for people." And after the public invests its time, monies and confidence and the fad fails to produce almost immediately, we get despondent, abandon it, run for cover, in an apparent display of a lack of commitment, and cry out in disappointment, "back to the basic 3 Rs"--until another apparent craze, another wholesale solution comes upon us.

This ceaseless activity makes us look important, serious, prominent, professional when we see our reflections in the mirror or converse with each other or read conference papers to each other. To the public, however, it's too often foul-tasting, ineffective, and maybe dangerous snake oil that has to be spat out before it kills. That helter-skelter progression may be one of the main sources of the public's distrust of us experts. It certainly erodes our credibility; it makes us suspect of being pompous, arrogant, cold, isolated, unrealistic, and groping amateurs disguised in caring professional's clothing.

I am not sure I know why every new idea has to have a label and a jargon of its own--why we feel we need to make these self- proclaimed quantum leaps, these wholesale renovations. Why are we too often inclined to use the blare of imposed proclamation rather than the more substantial, subtle approaches of explanation, discussion, persuasion, acceptance. Why isn't it sufficient to say quietly and humbly that our experiences and research are incremental, adding in step by step fashion to our body of knowledge about teaching and learning, nudging us to look differently at students and teachers, suggesting we think a bit differently about teaching and learning, understanding that the human equation is far more complex than a simple theory or technique would suggest. Nothing dramatic; nothing monumental; nothing cosmic; no giant leap for mankind. Just small steps here and there by a person or two.

Maybe it's ego. Maybe it's a need to attract attention, to secure academic position, to secure grant support, to get an idea implemented. Maybe it's something in our culture that requires instant gratification, that our pronouncement be complete, perfect and professional. I don't know. I do know that we do ourselves and society a disservice. These fads distract from the serious concerns many of us have about the state of education, from the serious acquisition of new insights or ways of thinking and talking about teaching and learning, from the serious experimentation with thinking styles, learning styles, teaching styles, testing styles, personality styles. Maybe we should just step back, take a deep breath, relax and use our common sense before we trumpet the coming of the next supposed educational savior.

Make it a good day.


Louis Schmier  (912-333-5947)
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Valdosta State University          /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
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