The past couple of weeks have reminded me how hard it is for teachers to consider change when they don’t have a context for it and, most importantly, when they don’t value it.

Case in point: recently I was working with a group of teachers trying to help them re-envision their curriculum in the light of all this “new” social technology that some of us have been swimming in for the last decade now. And I had one particularly interesting and, I think, compelling exchange with a teacher who was finding it especially difficult to see any value to changing what he was doing in his classroom. Briefly, he shared with the group that one of his most effective lessons was built around helping students understand the political drivers of redistricting by asking them to redraw maps of nearby cities in ways that would make it almost impossible for an incumbent to lose an election. The way he described it, it was a great lesson that challenged kids to research, think, and create in some important ways, ways that the teacher pointed out were necessary to do well on the state assessment.

I tried to move the conversation into what I think can be called “doing both mode,” as in finding a way to engage students in understanding the concepts for the test but doing so in a way that teaches them to think more expansively by using online tools to go beyond the paper and pencil and learn about connecting and creating and collaborating along the way. And some of the other teachers in the room provided some great suggestions, using Google Earth or Maps, and adding multimedia resources that could articulate the reasons for drawing the lines where they were drawn. And with a little prodding, others suggested using Skype to interview people involved in the real process, or maybe even connecting with schools within the districts they were redrawing to get some sense of what the effects of those revisions might be in real life.

Throughout, the teacher was nodding his head in assent, but when I asked him how all of that sounded, he paused, and then he said “Well, you know, sometimes I think technology just adds a lot of bells and whistles, makes stuff look good without really adding to the learning. I mean, they don’t need to do any of that to get the concept.” And he’s right, of course. Students don’t need technology to pass the test; they’ve been doing it for years without it.

But here’s the thing: that teacher didn’t yet see the value of having his students make those connections outside the classroom even though no one was asking or expecting him to do it. In fact, it took about another seven or eight minutes of back and forth before I think he finally came around to the idea that the connections might matter even though no one was testing for them or writing curriculum for them or demanding that kids understand them. That we may want to consider adding the “bells and whistles” because the world our kids need to be prepared for is opening up in ways that go beyond the long-standing goals and objectives we’ve set up for them. That it’s not just about map making any more.

My sense of it is that teacher is still in the majority, and as teachers get incentivized to do even more test prep and one-size-fits all instruction, he’ll remain in the majority for quite a while longer.

Here’s hoping I’m wrong.