While traveling this summer I toured an old Victorian jail at night. Very spooky!
The lights were turned out and an actor, in character as one of the original jail guards, took us through the jail. He told horrific stories of how the prisoners were treated. The conditions were so bad that when they opened the cells each morning convicts would burst out and try to kill themselves by jumping down a three story drop.
After the tour was finished I wandered around, reading more of the history of the place. I was amazed to learn that when it was opened the jail was in fact hailed as a model of progressive rehabilitation. This was an improvement on prisons where inmates were clamped in irons and tortured. This “new” prison was designed to use the most modern, most effective methods.
The people who were doing horrible things to people were, in their minds, being progressive and cutting edge. No doubt they were criticized as “do-gooders”, soft on crime by conservative, back to basics advocates. I’m certain they persevered, firm in their belief that what they were doing was right. Now, decades later, they look like monsters.
This is how knowledge and understanding works. When Newton wrote “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants” he was confirming the truth. Anything we know and believe now is the result of a past mistake that we, collectively, learned from. We must also accept that we are unknowingly making the mistakes that pave the way to the future.
If you’re a parent you understands this all too well. Before a newborn arrives you diligently study the latest parenting advise to make sure that you are doing the best for your child. But as soon as the child’s grandparents come to visit you quickly discoverthat that how we parent has changed a lot just in one generation. What we often fail to realize is that all too soon we’ll be the asserting old-fashioned beliefs.
And so it is with teaching.
Very few people go into teaching just for the money and benefits. At it’s heart teaching is an act of hope. It’s a belief that we can make things better, today and tomorrow. And because of this most teachers are passionate about how they teach. It’s hard to change a teacher’s fundamental beliefs about how they teach because they are deeply personal expressions. How we teach says something about us. Who we are and what we value.
But as with all knowledge, all of our deeply held understandings and practices are wrong. No matter how up to date and current we strive to be everything we are doing is eventually wrong. Sometime in the future someone will share an insight that will explain how the best lesson or the most effective activity is completely wrong. All our understandings come stamped with a best before date, we just don’t get to know what it is.
Our real challenge then, as educators, isn’t in deciding if we are right or wrong, but rather in deciding when it’s time to let go. When is it time to admit that what we are doing isn’t as effective as it could be, and move on to the next thing?