“Don’t buy that one. I already have it.”
As back-to-school advertisements and Halloween decorations begin to flood airtime and store aisles, respectively, I find myself repeating the same phrase again and again. With the first day of school on the horizon, my partner, Victoria, and I have been reviewing our university’s textbook lists for the fall term. I must admit, though: I am a little embarrassed. Not because we are eager beavers, but because her required books are the same texts that I had to purchase nearly six years ago. In the past few years, Victoria has taken courses which I, too, was enrolled in during my own undergraduate studies. In some cases, the course instructor or professor was different but, unfortunately, the course itself—its syllabus, tasks, texts, and teachings—remained unaltered.
Though Victoria may save a (hundred) dollars by borrowing my textbooks free of charge, I fear that she, in many ways, has been shortchanged by the fact that she has been participating in unoriginal courses that merely spin the wheel which we, as educators, are often advised not to reinvent. One of the most important purposes of instruction, for me, is to reflect, critically and consistently, on one’s professional practice, and to continually build upon one’s curriculum and pedagogical approaches to facilitate, among all students, new insights, skills, and perspectives. If we, as teachers, are to be lifelong learners and practitioners seeking meaningful professional development, how can teaching the same course, in the same manner, year after year, afford us any sort of opportunity for growth? If we, ourselves, cannot—or do not wish—to grow, how can we justify wanting or expecting our students to do so? Instructors, some of whom have been adopting the same practices and resources for decades, tell prospective teachers and practitioners that innovation and improvement are key. The irony is indeed palpable, but apparently invisible.
A former high school teacher of mine once offered me resources for my practice. The lessons, printed on laminated, overhead projector sheets, were coated with inches of dust and disinterest. How can educators, physically and mentally, teach the same material in the same manner term after term? Just the thought of regurgitating the same information year after year exhausts me. Do instructors not get bored of their own lessons? I imagine a comedian, here, relying on the same act, and recycling the same jokes, show after show for years at a time. Teaching, I think, is one of the most open, creative, and flexible professions, one which demands that teachers use their agency and imagination to produce engaging lessons with enduring takeaways. Why, then, is there so much repetition? Educators, especially those who teach into part-time contracts, do not have the time to plan transformative lessons because, understandably, they are concurrently teaching numerous courses—at different schools—simply to make ends meet. These instructors, naturally, may rely on the notes, plans, and resources of other teachers who have previously taught the same courses. The precarity of part-time employment makes it nearly impossible to plan original content for a course that is often offered just a few days before it is set to begin.
In an effort to perhaps make planning easier, professors often ask students to purchase textbooks that they, themselves, have authored. Such an approach may be productive, especially if the instructor is an “authority” or “expert” on the subject area being studied but, by the same token, working with and from a single textbook may be reductive and prescriptive, providing students with a distinct, unilateral, and often unchallenged lens. The more pressing issue, for me, though, manifests when teachers at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels teach similar lessons, from the same book, in the same method, term after term. Learning, I think, should be both exploratory and evolutionary; it should not be stagnant nor recycled. In what is a time of increased plagiarism, would it not be advantageous, for both students and their professors, to create unique formative and summative tasks that have never before been completed? I am not asking that teachers, each semester, start from scratch and develop a wholly new curriculum but, with similar objectives and expectations, variations in tasks—which, ideally, would be planned with universal design in mind—are possible. Whether a change in topic, question, or structure, assessments, and lessons can be changed to be more engaging, for both students and instructors.
I have yet to meet a practitioner who believes that his or her courses are truly perfect, that they have mastered the art of instruction, and that they no longer need to reflect on how to improve or diversify their teaching. Professors, particularly those within Teacher Education, encourage their students to think, profoundly, about their practice, with the aim of making it continually more engaging, accessible, relevant, and valuable for students. When, though, should we begin to listen to our own advice? When might we begin leading by example and breaking the Do as I say, not as I do stigma? As I compare my own course syllabi with Victoria’s identical ones, and hand over yet another textbook, I question whether we, as educators, are more secure simply turning the institutional wheel. I lament, often, the fact that, at the elementary and high school level, English teachers, in particular, have been reading the same books that their parents—and grandparents—read as students. Certainly, there is a great deal of value and importance in Lord of the Flies, 1984, To Kill a Mockingbird, Romeo and Juliet, and The Giver, for example, but to what degree do we, as educators, continue teaching the same texts because the process is, quite simply, easier? Resources are readily available and have been passed from teacher to teacher for generations. Shakespeare, unquestionably, is a vital figure in the study of literature, but what of the hundreds of other playwrights who have made a paramount contribution to their society and culture? If you are struggling to think of their names, you might begin to understand my point.
We rely too often and too heavily on the familiar. We fear the foreign and dread what is different. I have heard, many times, teachers discuss a “groove” of sorts, which comes about when one has fully planned a course and taught it numerous times. Confidence and comfort are important factors for classroom teachers at all levels of education, but at what point do these positive feelings begin to supersede our desire to be innovative, to search for new knowledge? As an English teacher, I know that a text can indeed be timeless. But does that mean that we have to turn to it time and time again? Can we not find the time or the effort to engender and embrace the new, the non-canonical? I am not an “out with the old” type of person (my growing collection of precious antiques can attest to that), but I worry that the abhorred banking model of education continues to thrive because we let it. At the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the greater question is not how can we stop the cycle but, rather, how can we stop ourselves within the cycle? If we are to usher students into the twenty-first century, new story of education, should we not be contributing to its novelty through innovation? If we are to engage with the same books in our practice, should we not change the way these texts are approached, discussed, and analyzed? With identical course outline, we seem to be selling ourselves short.
September is a time of transition and opportunity. As we grow ever more excited for the first day of school and the leaves begin to change on the trees around us, should our educational practices not change with the times, too? How can we colour our classroom with our own transformation?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gianluca Agostinelli is a K-12 Teacher in the Niagara Catholic District School Board. He is also a Professor of English and Communications at Niagara College and an Instructor at Brock University, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Educational Studies.