The Rubber Wall

There is a point of view that the “open classroom” was a victim of the ideological wars that have beset American Education for decades. Many of us in the profession have often heard the back and forth support of this (and other) educational initiatives referred to cynically as a political pendulum. That is, over time American Education swings from “traditional” to “progressive” initiatives and back again ad infinitum.

I suggest there may be a more accurate simile that describes the herky-jerky application of educational practices over time: the predominant, delivery system of American Education, which is the same delivery system practiced for as long as four millennia, and that system is constrained by a paradigm that is like a rubber wall. The delivery system about which I write is this: the paradigm of teacher-centered classrooms where the teacher’s role is to transfer knowledge from the teacher’s brain into the brains of students, not unlike filling a pail with knowledge scooped from the well of knowledge contained in a teacher’s brain.

Periodically, for some reason —

(God forbid the reason should ever be based upon a preponderance of data about student learning, or the debilitating effects of decades of misuse of standardized testing, or the malpractice of American schools of education failure to expose their graduates to the decades of research on human motivation (e.g. Self Determination Theory), or Gallop polling that year-after-year indicates a growing majority of American students are disengaged with schooling in every manner of school: traditional, private, and charter.

— a moment in time when a movement will arise that is committed to the application of a progressive approach to education, an approach that relies upon what research has shown to be effective in growing student achievement. I think of these forays into progressive education as being analogous to a mass of concerned and informed educators running smack into the rubber wall that is the traditional delivery system, the system that is not only responsible for disengaging a majority of American students but is now disengaging American teachers and causing those who may have once wanted to pursue a teaching career to look toward other paths.

Well meaning reformers pushing against the rubber wall that is the predominant delivery system in American Education: the filling of pails.

The momentum of these zealous reformers and their numerous followers pushes against the rubber wall of tradition, which stretches into what appears to be a new position, but the rubber wall is still anchored to the paradigm of traditional education. The conviction of the progressive reformers keeps them pushing, and from a certain vantage point, it begins to appear that education is changing; unfortunately, it takes a great deal of energy to hold the rubber wall in its new position. Eventually, the reformers—who keep waiting for other educators, parents, academicians, and politicians to acknowledge how much more engaged students are becoming—get tired of pushing, and when enough of the reformers stop pushing, the rubber wall of traditional education snaps back to its original position. Sometimes the paradigm that is the foundation of tradition may move a tiny bit, but the millennia-long tradition of filling the pail remains.

In other words, there is no pendulum swinging back and forth between traditional education and something different; rather, there is only a somewhat flexible rubber wall with a persistent elasticity that overcomes all efforts to move the wall’s foundation. After the appearance of change, the rubber wall snaps back to its original position without mercy or appreciation of what reform may have achieved.

As a culture, we Americans seem to lack the collective will—and perhaps lack the collective wisdom—to do what is necessary to move the foundation of the rubber wall. To move the paradigm of the wall—and not just stretch the wall out of position temporarily—we have to change the individual paradigms of millions of teachers, parents, educational academicians, and policy makers, and is such a thing possible? Probably not as exemplified by what happened to Open Education.

The push against the rubber wall by American proponents of the Open Classroom could not be sustained—the foundation of the wall could not be moved—because, I hypothesize, the majority of teachers who were expected to implement it detested it, likely because too many (most?) teachers were insufficiently trained and supported.

Put into a situation where they did not know how to be competent, teachers reverted to the traditional approaches that had been used when they were students, approaches they had used in the past. This allowed teachers to rationalize not joining the reformers in stretching the rubber wall. Well before policy-makers put the final nails in the Open Classroom’s coffin, the rubber wall of traditional teacher practice had already begun to snap back with irreversible inertia.

There is one area of reform that is crucial if we are to address this existential American problem: Student Enthusiasm Falls as High School Graduation Nears. That crucial reform is related to the total immersion of American educators into Self-Determination Theory (SDT). It is not hyperbole to say that the future health of our nation depends upon moving the foundation of the rubber wall of our educational delivery system—which is totally dependent upon the proven false belief that the best way to get human beings to perform tasks is to reinforce their behavior with rewards—to the proven tenets of SDT. For more insight about SDT, please visit What happens to four-year-olds? and Children are not pigeons!