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Learning to Change: Teaching Beyond Subjects and Standards

reviewed by Rosetta Marantz Cohen - 2002

coverTitle: Learning to Change: Teaching Beyond Subjects and Standards
Author(s): Andy Hargreaves (Editor)
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0787950270, Pages: 224, Year: 2000
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American educators are apt to forget that their long, and often frustrating history of school reform is not unique to this country alone. For decades now, cycles of top-down educational reform have challenged practitioners in many countries, including Canada, Japan, Israel, and much of Western Europe. In countries where curriculum is largely disseminated on the national level, implementing periodic school reform mandates are an accepted part of teachers’ working lives. In Japanese schools, for example, where curriculum gets overhauled on a regular, ten-year basis, schools have long developed a culture of compliance, where teachers respond and adapt to changes with little struggle or complaint. Such ready compliance is less typical in the west.

As the authors of this new study of standards-based educational reform point out, the attitude of teachers towards educational change remains the critical variable in the success of any reform agenda. This fact is of particular importance in countries like Canada, Israel and America, where recent educational policy is moving towards what Hargreaves (et al.) calls a "new orthodoxy," characterized by higher standards, centralized curriculum, aligned assessments and accountability. Such mandates, now so familiar to American practitioners, have created in other countries besides our own predictable tensions for classroom teachers; tensions between compliance and integrity, between high stakes accountability and the art and science of good teaching.

Learning to Change: Teaching Beyond Subjects and Standards documents how those tensions are resolved by a group of twenty-nine Canadian middle school teachers. The teachers whose work is discussed in this study are charged with implementing and adapting a series of educational reforms issued by the Ontario Ministry of Education and Training in 1995. Though the reforms under consideration here are top-down, they are not in themselves pernicious; rather, they are wide-ranging and complex, and make unprecedented demands on the teachers in the study. The Canadian curriculum, for example, calls for teachers to develop integrated curriculum, to design by themselves a new range of assessment tools, and to achieve prescribed outcomes without specific guidelines or resources. The purpose of the book, write Hargreaves et al., is to investigate how real teachers—real, excellent teachers—adapt to these challenging mandates, and what conditions and supports were necessary for them to do so.

Unsurprisingly, Learning to Change describes many outcomes that are very similar to those found in other studies of school reform. Teachers here are confounded by familiar forces—by overwork, by the ambiguities of assessment, by the difficulties of integrating disparate subjects. The study also charts the complex ways in which personal perspective influences the teachers’ view of curriculum. Using Habermas’s (1972) dimensions for human action ("technical", "cultural", and "political"; and adding "postmodern" as a fourth category) the authors outline how good teachers, coming to their work from various perspectives, struggle to meet the contradictory demands of the change process. Policy-makers, they contend, must be concerned with all of these perspectives and must provide ongoing supports for teachers, whether technical or emotional, if reforms are to succeed.

For the most part, the teachers in this study did indeed have those supports, and as a result, things worked out well for them. Though integrating the curriculum is taxing and intellectually challenging, the rewards of the work are manifold. Though innovation is emotionally draining, it is also uplifting. Hargreaves et al. show how standards-based reforms, when enacted by intellectually engaged practitioners under supportive conditions, can yield exceptional results.

The last part of the book outlines, in some detail, the conditions that make reforms successful, stressing the emotional dimension of teaching and learning. The recommendations are balanced and modest in their scope. The authors assert, for example,

  • That standards and outcomes should include social and emotional goals for student learning as well as strictly cognitive ones
  • That standards and outcomes should not be so numerous and detailed that they squeeze out time and discretion for teachers to develop emotional understanding with their students
  • That schools’ structures need to be redesigned so that teachers can develop sustained relationships with their students that are at the basis of effective emotional understanding.

Teachers also spoke about the need for a supportive teacher culture, an environment that fosters professional learning, a savvy school leadership and some modicum of professional discretion. These seem like reasonable expectations for any teacher charged with the task of implementing significant curricular change.

The authors of this book acknowledge that the teachers in their study do not represent a regular cross-section of the Canadian teaching population. Not only were they all teachers of a particular grade level (grades 7 and 8), they were also teachers who had been identified by their administration as motivated and serious—that is, as prime candidates for study. That they emerged from the study having successfully implemented this complex series of innovations is inspiring, though somewhat less than surprising. One cannot help wondering whether a cohort of ordinary teachers—say one that included cynical veterans and overwrought novices—would thrive under the same albeit supportive conditions.

Ultimately, Learning to Change is most useful in that it articulately reinforces lessons that change agents should already know, but often seem to forget: No matter where in the world it is happening: 1)educational change is difficult 2) teachers’ voices must be heard 3) and relationships are at the heart of the teaching/learning process. In an era of increasingly rigid standards and frameworks, of high stakes testing and accountability, these are important truisms to remember.

Habermas, J. (1972). Knowledge and human interests. Boston: Beacon Press.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 104 Number 1, 2002, p. 94-96
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10757, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 1:04:25 PM

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About the Author
  • Rosetta Cohen
    Smith College
    E-mail Author
    ROSETTA MARANTZ COHEN is Professor of Education and Child Study at Smith College, where she teaches foundations courses in the history and philosophy of education. Her interests are in the history of the teaching profession and in the work of John Dewey. She is currently at work on an ethnographic study of a large, comprehensive high school in Connecticut.
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