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Chapter 3: Bandwagons

What Are Bandwagons?

"Education, like politics, is too much influenced by slogans. Certain phrases or words become fashionable from time to time, and they may have a powerful influence on policy, and then they fade away in popularity. The astute educationist, whether administrator or teacher, learns to develop to the swings of fashion in the vocabulary of education." John Nisbet (1974)

The analogy of a bandwagon, on which people hop when they see others do likewise, is particularly well-suited to education. We have seen many bandwagons come and go, some of which are useless at best and harmful at worst. The majority of bandwagons, however, seem to be re-treads of old ideas, prompting veteran teachers to often comment, "Been there, done that!" The fact is, deciding whether a new initiative is simply another bandwagon or an important sustainable idea can be difficult and highly subjective. One person's list of educational bandwagons might look very different from another person's. We distinguish bandwagons as those short-lived attempts to solve large-scale problems that offer simple solutions that are not necessarily supported by research. The expression, "When all you have is hammer, everything looks like a nail" captures one of the inherent limitations of bandwagons.

Certainly, there are those who refuse on principle to jump on a bandwagon, but the majority of teachers, at one time or another, have been persuaded to jump aboard even though there was little evidence to suggest that it would work. Often, bandwagons are driven by well-paid, self-proclaimed experts or "gurus" who use emotional appeals and exaggeration to persuade teachers and administrators to purchase their proprietary resources and the often expensive professional development that follows. The goal of the founder of a bandwagon is to convince a large enough group of influential "believers" that "theirs is the way" so that counter claims and contrary evidence will not get in the way of hundreds, even thousands, of teachers climbing aboard. Then, once a bandwagon gains momentum, those who refuse to join in or who challenge the prevailing thinking are often marginalized for being stuck in their ways and for "not getting with the program."

Nevertheless, recognizing a bandwagon for what it is can be difficult. Educators need to be able to question the relevance and reliability of the evidence being presented to support a proposed initiative. They need to know enough about the history and philosophy of education to spot a "re-tread" and to understand the premises on which it is based. They also need to have a solid grounding in sociology so that they can recognize and understand the roles and motivations of individuals who seem to be leading bandwagons and the effect they are having on the social dynamics in schools. Therefore, we think that the skills that are learned in foundations of education courses can help educators know when it is time to jump on or off the bandwagon and be prepared to justify why they have done so.

Murphy and Sideman (2006) describe three distinguishing characteristics of education fads or bandwagons: "the fast growth trajectory, the tendency to promise more than they can deliver, and the intensity of reactions." (p. 293). Whereas scientific developments take time and tend to progress slowly, bandwagons burst on the scene fully formed and don't seem to evolve much once they do. Especially when associated with a single expert, bandwagons may be largely dependent on their founders' initial vision. Bandwagons' short-lived nature probably has something to do with the fact that they are often presented as "quick-fix" solutions and there are few problems in education that can actually be resolved easily. Although "true believers" may remain on a bandwagon long after it is prudent in spite of disconfirming evidence, strong detractors may refuse to jump on in spite of evidence that the ideas hold promise.

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List of Cases

  1. Alone in a Crowd
  2. Be the Change
  3. Let Them Eat Cake!
  4. The Future Is Now
  5. Blurred Reflections
  6. DEAR Me!
  7. A Test of Wills
  8. Teaching for Dummies
  9. Corporate Takeover
  10. Over the Rainbow