“We’ve always done it this way”

In the recently published Really Useful #EdTechBook, a range of people from the educational technology sector each get a chapter to write about a chosen issue. It was an interesting read, especially as I have the same job as many of the writers. In some cases, they write about the results of some research they have carried out, while others use their chapter to reflect on how their role as a Learning Technologist has changed over the years.

I was interested to see one theme repeated three times in the book:

Rachel Challen, eLearning manager at Loughborough College:

“The SAMR model (Puentedura, 2014) takes the development and use of technology in teaching and learning from substitution to redefinition. Doing what we’ve always done but online (substitution) is not going to achieve a long term culture change, but thinking about how technology can bring a new dimension (redefinition) has a much higher chance of online learning being embedded in a meaningful and intended way.” (p59)

Sue Beckingham, Educational Developer and Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University:

“For some the use of technology is still seen as unnecessary, a threat or an inconvenience. Why change when we have always done it like this?” (p145)

Sharon Flynn, CELT Assistant Director, the National University of Ireland, Galway:

“When we examine our work as Learning Technologists, and the context within which it takes place, we can see that there are many cultures that affect what we do. Some of those cultures are certainly department/discipline based, where teaching methods and approaches have been passed from generation to generation. “We teach this way because we’ve always taught this way” or “We teach this way because that’s how X is taught” are common sentiments, if not always expressed explicitly.” (p200)

Later on Twitter, I saw this image by Sylvia Duckworth, an MFL teacher in Canada (check out the stubborn guy’s speech bubble)…

…which illustrates a blog post by teacher/blogger Tom Whitby, who says:

“Without a mindset for continually learning, or a limited view on what one is willing to learn, it will be difficult to change the status quo in education. Connecting with others may be a great idea that we all agree will make a difference in education, but what good does that do us, if a majority of educators are only comfortable doing what it is they have always done. Of course, it should go without saying that if staying within those comfort zones worked, we would not be having a global discussion on needed reforms for education.”

Then another teacher (unconnected) retweeted @therealbanksy posting this quote:

“The most dangerous phrase in the language is ‘we’ve always done it this way'”

With a bit of detective work (Google and Wikipedia) I managed to trace the phrase back to a quote by the early computer engineer Grace Hopper (pictured above):

“Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise.”

That’s when it hit me [narrows eyes].

We’re dealing with a meme.

It’s possible that this meme has caught on because it reflects a genuine justification that people give for maintaining traditional practices, whether that’s in teaching or some other field. This seems unlikely, because it really is a poor argument. It’s barely an argument at all.

More likely is that it’s an explanation for why other people resist change. That is, it’s not something a traditionalist would admit, but something that could be uncovered if we scratched below the surface.

I have to say that this doesn’t match up with my experience. Even a cursory conversation with an educational traditionalist reveals that they can offer plenty of good reasons to resist change. Arch traditionalist teacher-blogger Old Andrew offers this one:

“We often forget that the reason some teaching methods have lasted for centuries is because they work.”

Pithy, but he’s got a point. In this post, Crispin Weston refers to the fact that Socratic dialectic, surely one of the oldest teaching methods in existence, is still the basis for the seminar system at Oxford and Cambridge. I would guess the reasons for this go beyond blind adherence to what has gone before.

The more important issue that lies behind this is that anyone proposing change needs to listen to people who resist it. If the arguments in favour of the change are strong enough, you can win people over. If the arguments aren’t strong, don’t make the change. In any case, it’s a central principle of fair debate that we characterise people’s views fairly. I’m skeptical that the phrase discussed in this post points us in that direction.

Image credits

Grace Hopper

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