Overcoming a “That’s The Way We Have Always Done It” Mindset in Schools

Ryan L Schaaf

Editor’s Note: This is Part One of a New Monthly Series, The Brief History of the Future of Education.


It is truly astounding how people can embrace doing things the way they have always been done without contemplating where and when the original decisions were made. We just accept a pre-existing mindset because it is the path of least resistance. President Woodrow Wilson said it best, “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.” Humans often prefer to remain mired in the mundane and find comfort in the status quo rather than head towards the undiscovered country on the unknown. This preexisting mindset is often defended or at the very least justified by the excuse of That’s The Way We Have Always Done It, or TTWWADI for short.


Examples of TTWWADI in History

Have you ever stopped to wonder about some pre-existing, taken-for-granted ideas that have long been a part of not only your life but the lives of humans for centuries? Why are there 60 minutes in an hour? Or 60 seconds in a minute? Why does each consist of 24 hours? Why are there 360 degrees in a circle? Wouldn’t it be easier to have these systems of measurement based in tens? For example, why isn’t the day 10 hours long? Why aren’t there 100 minutes in an hour, or 1,000 degrees in a circle?

The decision was made 4,400 years ago in ancient Sumer. The Sumerian math system was based in 60, and it could not handle fractions. The number 60 could easily be divided by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, and 30, so Sumerians avoided the need for fractions. The decision to have 24 hours in a day was made about 3,500 years ago by the ancient Egyptians. Then, about 2,200 years ago, the Babylonians (using the same base 60 system) divided the hour into 60 minutes and the minute into 60 seconds.

As fascinating as this dive is into mathematics and ancient civilization, the real punchline is that humans still use these practices and measurements to this day. That’s TTWWADI!

Fire up Google and explore some of these TTWWADI hands-on activities:

1.    Why are traffic lights red, yellow, and green?

2.    Why do some countries drive on the left and others on the right?

3.    How did breakfast, lunch, and dinner develop into a typical meal pattern?


The TTWWADI Mindset in Schools

Let us preface this message by starting with a disclaimer. Educators are hard working professionals that make magic happen every day, in classrooms that are incredible spaces of thought, inquiry, and intellectual pursuit for learners, residing in schools that act as the heart of their communities. However, today's public education systems were created over a century ago in a time before computers, before televisions, before airplanes, before cellphones, before radios, before the Internet, before satellites, before equality, before brain research, and entirely before electricity was available in anyone's home.

The system of school was modeled after the assembly line factories of a century ago, with teachers seen as the workers, learners as the products being produced, principals as the managers, and schools as the production line. Schools tried to make students one-size-fits-all regimented “learning machines” so that they would be equipped to play decisive roles on the assembly lines of the day; performing clearly defined routine cognitive tasks over and over again with accuracy and precision as rapidly as possible.

However, the world that today's learners face is entirely different from the world in which this current education model was created, and it continues to change even more each day. Today’s learners are growing up in the Digital Age where information is available anytime and almost anywhere.

Access to information on everything from world events to the latest research in any area of human endeavor is available from a digital device. While easy access to enormous amounts of information holds profound implications for students, workers and citizens alike, the impact of the technological revolution does not stop with improvements in communication. Development of even more powerful technologies will bring about enormous changes to our lives in the very near future. Biotechnology - the marriage of electronics and biology - is just beginning to hit its stride. Big data, artificial intelligence, automation, robotics and nanotechnology are either disrupting or poised to disrupt just about every market, changing the workforce altogether. If schools must prepare learners for their future, why do they teach to the past? The main issue is that many schools maintain a fixed, TTWWADI mindset. After all, specifications, bureaucracies, institutions and systems have a natural tendency to solidify in their ways of doing things, often requiring people to do things in the same way they have traditionally been done, despite the fact the world is always changing around them.

As educators, it is possible to overcome a fixed, TTWWADI mindset. Some suggestions include:


•    Never quit learning

•    Question every new idea you learn

•    Be open to new ideas and experiences

•    Read a ton (books, web articles, blogs)

•    Challenge pre-existing practices

•    Embrace change


About this article: This post is a part of The Brief History of the Future of Education series. Based on the newly-released book, this series will explore the TTWWADI mindset in schools, examine school’s challenges of teaching in the Age of Disruptive Innovation, traverse the new learning attributes of the digital generation, predict what learning will look like 20 years from now, observe the essential next-generation skills schools must cultivate in its learners to prepare them to survive and thrive in the future and consider the new roles educators must adopt to stay relevant in the profession.


Ryan Schaaf is Associate Professor of Educational Technology at Notre Dame of Maryland University and faculty member in the Digital Age Learning and Educational Technology program at Johns Hopkins University. His passion is working with educators to explore the potential of gaming in the classroom, the characteristics of modern-day learning and learners, and exploring emerging technologies and trends to improve education. Follow him on Twitter @RyanLSchaaf.


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