Everything Old is New Again

Everything Old is New Again

I feel like I am stuck in an episode of the twilight zone doomed to repeat past mistakes. It is as if someone has put my professional life on a loop. I just can’t break out of the cyclical madness of educational programs and trends.

Let’s take a walk down memory lane. There are many terms, phrases and programs that keep reappearing in education. Below are a list of some that have appeared in recent times, though likely they are rehashed from a previous era, this is what I can recall from my grad school days and 20 plus years on the job.


  • Project Based Learning, Teacher as Guide, Guided Inquiry, Interest Driven- William Kilpatrick – 1930’s-40’s
  • Discovery Learning, Spiral Curriculum – Jerome Burner – 1930’s
  • Self-Directed Learning – Maria Montessori – early 1900’s
  • Universal Design for Learning- Ronald Mace -1998
  • Multiple Intelligences – Howard Gardiner – 1999
  • Differentiated Instruction, Understanding by Design – Carol Ann Tomlinson – 1999
  • Personalized Learning*


In this day of data-driven decision making and standardization, schools are looking for the elusive perfect solution to educate a large number of people to a specific standard in the most efficient (ie cost effective) manner.  But learning is not a group process; it takes place within an individual.  Only the individual can develop meaning and understanding for themselves.

Learning is extremely complex. Let’s start with the individual. Each comes to the learning process with different abilities, experiences, attitudes, expectations, goals, desires, varying states of physical and mental health, language skills and previous knowledge to name a few. Not to mention the variations in learning spaces such a classroom, classmates, distractions, teachers, materials, etc. Add the complexity of the content to be learned and there are just too many factors to name let alone control and regulate. With centuries of formalized education experience under our collective belt and the last century’s primarily based on research and study one would think if there was one program out there that was most effective we would have found it. But there isn’t, instead we move from one program or trend to another striving for a one or two point gain in test scores, to demonstrate institutional growth and progress.

The study of how memory and meaning are created in the brain maybe a recent science but I bet the biology of how they are physically and chemically built in the brain has not changed much over time. Evolution is not speedy. What has changed is the way we educate, the ever increasing amount of information we are expected to understand and the ways we deliver and interact with that information.

If we look back to before formalized modern education learning was a very individual and personal endeavor.  If you were rich enough you had private tutors to see to your education, or were apprenticed to learn a craft or trade, or learned beside a parent. But not everyone received an education as we would define it today.  As the need arose for a more highly educated work force there was an increased need to educate more people more efficiently; dame schools, community schools and Sunday schools arose.  These had very local control and a wide variety of standards. As the depth of the curriculum increased and more students needed to be educated, control and standardization increased to where we are today.

With the advent of the digital information age we are cycling back to the time of the tutor, all be it with a modern twist.  Individuals can tailor their curriculum with online content to meet their learning needs.  Classes, certificates and self-paced learning options abound. Except in the case of needing specialized equipment for certain areas of study why do we need schools in their current format? High schools and colleges cannot update their curriculums fast enough to keep up with changing information and career skills. College no longer is an end to learning; in many professions you must continue to learn, and relearn as jobs and industries come and go.  Yet in schools we are refocusing our efforts on traditional whole group instruction where students must learn the same information, in a specific time frame, to demonstration understanding using a common assessment. Those who are quick learners must wait; those who are not as speedy (or interested) are often penalized.  We talk about individualized, personalized or differentiated instruction but we can never really achieve it with our standards and testing regiment. We are just spinning our wheels.

* For a good look at Personalized Learning check out Yong Zhoa’s thoughts.

3 thoughts on “Everything Old is New Again

  1. It is so very difficult to keep up with all of the new educational initiatives. I appreciate your lists because only when they are listed out do you really recognize the extent of these new educational drives. It’s essential to stay on top of them but most important is to follow through with what works for our students.

  2. I appreciate your openness to discuss the constant change that is happening in the educational realm. It does seem overwhelming at time at all the programs and movements that tell us it is better for student learning, and while I like and implement most what is expected in my district, I don’t feel like I am meeting the needs of the all the students. Having been taught in a whole group instruction classroom I tend to sway toward whole group instruction with small group follow up afterwards. I use this small group time to check for understanding. Many times I find that during this time is where I can identify most misconceptions students had throughout the lesson. However, time as always is an issue and we don’t always get to our small group time. I think in general in my state of Missouri educators are frustrated and need guidance and direction as what the future hold for educators and students. Thank you again for your insight I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

  3. Thanks for a great post! As a teacher it is really hard to keep up with all the technology that is reshaping the classroom, the teachers and the expectations from students. I’ll try to integrate some of your points into my teaching. Talking about technology and integration, I’ve tried moodle http://www.moodle.org and Dugga http://www.dugga.se for digital examinations and I’m looking for more options. Anyone who has something to share on this matter? As far as I know there are many more options but which are good and which are not so good?

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