“Dynamic Conservatism” and Stability in Teaching

Why has the act of teaching in public schools (including charters) that serve wealthy, middle-class and poor children looked so familiar to generation after generation of journalists, researchers, parents and grandparents who enter classrooms? In short, why has there been so much continuity in teaching over the decades?

Surely, things have changed in classrooms. Desktops and laptops are prevalent in schools; teachers use the Internet for videos in lessons; students give PowerPoint presentations; teachers take immediate polls of student answers to multiple choice questions with clickers; new textbooks, some of which are online. Yet amid those changes, there is a commonness in the unfolding of a lesson, the activities that teachers direct students to do, and Q & A that characterizes the back-and-forth between teacher and students. How to explain that familiar continuity in teaching?

The organizational concept of “dynamic conservatism” involving both continuity and change to maintain a tenuous balance in classrooms and schools comes into play here. Institutions often fight and embrace change in order to remain the same. Families, hospitals, companies, courts, city and state bureaucracies, and the military frequently respond to major reforms by adopting those parts of changes that will sustain stability.

Consider, for example, school districts where administrators add new courses on critical thinking to meet reformers’ demand for 21st century skills. Or teachers urging students to bring their laptops to class to do Internet searches, take notes, and work in teams to make PowerPoint presentations to class. These teachers have made changes in how they teach while maintaining their usual order of tasks and activities in lessons. They “hugged the middle” between traditional and non-traditional ways of teaching. [i]

Reform-driven policymakers, however, dead-set on redesigning classrooms and schools scorn hybrid teaching practices. They want transformation, not some cosmetic changes. Institutional stability is dysfunctional, they argue. It keeps worthy fundamental changes at arm’s length. Such policymakers see schools as complicated organizations that need a good dose of castor-oil rationality where incentives and fear, not habits from a bygone era, drive employees to do the right thing in schools and classrooms. [ii]

When policymakers intent on improving schools err in viewing schools as complicated rather than complex systems, hurdles multiply quickly to frustrate the turning of reforms into practice. Too many decision-makers lack understanding of “dynamic conservatism” in complex organizations or understand it and choose to ignore it because they see these systems as ineffective, even pathologically unworkable, and in need of re-engineering.

In adopting reforms that will jolt the system sufficiently to substantially alter teaching and learning, policymakers have mistakenly grafted practices borrowed from business organizations onto schools (e.g., zero-based budgeting in the 1970s; “management by objectives” and “restructuring schools” in the 1980s; pay-for-performance and loosening credential requirements in the 1990s and since).

No surprise, then, that policymakers treating complicated systems as complex ones in adopting and implementing school reforms–have triggered both active and passive parent, student, teacher and administrator resistance.

Analyzing the idea of “dynamic conservatism” at work in complex systems leads to a deeper understanding of why teaching over the past century has been a mix of old and new, both continuity and change. Change occurs all the time in schools and classrooms but not at the scope, pace, and schedule reform-driven policymakers lay out in their designs for reform. Sadly, such policymakers fail to understand the complex interaction between stability and change in nearly all organizations. In this failure of understanding lurks the many errors that decision-makers make in repeated efforts to transform schooling, teaching, and learning.


[i] Donald Schon, Beyond the Stable State: Public and Private Learning in a Changing Society (New York: Norton, 1973). See Larry Cuban, Hugging the Middle: How Teachers Teach in an Era of Testing and Accountability (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009).

[ii] John Chubb and Terry Moe, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1990). Frederick Hess, Spinning Wheels: The Politics of Urban School Reform (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1999).


Filed under how teachers teach, school leaders, school reform policies

10 responses to ““Dynamic Conservatism” and Stability in Teaching

  1. Absolutely accurate and without a doubt true to my personal experience Larry. What concerns and often worries me, are the motives that fuel so many reformers and policy makers I’ve met. Because they are not (as they would like schools and teachers to believe) always benign or selfless.

  2. Gary Ravani

    Some years ago (the mid-1980s) I had a chance to sit down at lunch with Neil Postman, author of Teaching as a Conserving Activity. This book followed his book of a decade earlier, Teaching as a Subversive Activity.

    “Subversive” became the kind of (not so) “hidden curriculum” of those going through teacher training and/or Ed grad school of the mid-1970s.

    Within a few years folks began to develop a “hangover” from the tie-dyed culture that was beginning to tail off in those times.

    Postman joked that he could come back a decade after “subversive” to repudiate himself and as an added benefit write, and sell, a new book. I am not sure of the extent of the “joke.” Certainly others at the table who’d experienced the upheavals in education (much of it driven by Postman’s book) due to the code word of the day, that is “relevance,” didn’t seem overly amused.

    [Note: the contemporary code word du jour is, of course, “accountability.]

    Anyway, Postman’s newest thesis–articulated in “conserving”– was that education, as an institution, kept society on an “even keel.” When society stagnated (the 1950s) it was education’s duty to subvert the “system,” and when society was in upheaval it was education’s duty to emphasize stability and sustain norms.

    My sense was, behind his “joke,” was that he was writing more as a “protective parent,” concerned about the institutional conformity demands of school and its effects on his child (or children he encountered), during “subversive,” and then did a 180 degree turn when he saw the consequences of extreme non-conformity for “conserving.” Maybe it was the burning cars and clouds of teargas in the streets that did it.

    He pretty consistently, even then, cautioned about the abuse of standardized testing. He would be able to write a doozy of a book about what Gates, Broad, Klein, Rhee, Duncan, Mow&Chubb, et al, are doing to undermine education as an institution and teaching as a profession.

    I think Postman’s thinking would be entirely consistent with the idea of “dynamic conservatism.”

    • larrycuban

      Yes, Gary, I do believe, as you do, that Neil Postman would have had a a fine time in skewering the current standards,testing, accountability reforms along the lines you suggest. His is a voice I miss.

  3. I have been looking into the role institutional isomorphism plays in the ways educational institutions resemble each other to sustain socially constructed accounts of legitimacy. Dynamic conservatism helps to explain the emergence of resistance and opposition to change. Underlying these phenomena I think you will find the Santiago Theory of Cognition. When we look at these activities as autopoietic structural coupling to create a composite unity, it makes sense that people will do what they can to maintain connectivity, while concurrently maintaining their own sense of stability within these dynamic contextual conditions.

    • larrycuban

      Truthfully, I had to look up the Santiago Theory of Cognition and “autopoietic structural coupling” to get at what you were saying. I am glad that you found the concept of “dynamic conservatism” helpful.

      • It is a logical extension to the theory that educational institutions are complex life systems. Complexity arises through connectivity. If our institutions are complex, then, our human existence must also be complex, as we exist, and actually sustain, the institutions we participate in. It is the difference between thinking about our human existence as individualistic agents operating from some sort of transcendent consciousness, or thinking about our existence as webs of interactivity, as ecologies of cognition. Our educational institutions are also webs of interactivity, their emergence is also a composite unity of the activity of those who are participating in their formation.

        Forgive me. I am writing my dissertation and it helps to work these ideas out in conversation.

      • larrycuban

        No apologies necessary, Jenny. Thanks for the clarification.

  4. Pingback: «Conservatisme dynamique» et stabilité des pratiques enseignantes | Larry Cuban | Lyonel Kaufmann blogue…

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