Moving Forward While Romanticizing the Past?

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We often look to our past through a lens of  ‘that is how things should be done today’.  This past week I have read a few articles and posts about how we need to return to the old, better ways of doing things and how ‘kids these days’ are lazy and have such a sense of entitlement.

New math equals trouble, education expert says – Canada – CBC News (via David Wees – see David’s response here)

Inside the entitlement generation – The Globe and Mail

There are very few things that get me more frustrated than when I hear stereotyping of our future generations and the criticism of the new way of teaching.  Cale Birk (@birklearns) wrote a brilliant post in response to the Globe and Mail article title “Uphill Both Ways in A Snowstorm” that is a must-read.  In it, Birk states:

In my opinion our students of today are as intelligent and motivated as students at this age have ever been.  I would also say that students are much more well-rounded than I ever was–they are more socially responsible, more globally aware, and more tolerant than any generation before them.  When graduates cross our stage at commencements, I absolutely marvel at how involved they are in their academics, the arts, athletics, the school, and community issues.  I wish I went through high school with the same verve and alacrity that our students do and have done.

The belittling of our students and the newer forms of pedagogy does not help with the intergenerational relationships nor does it help with our sense of community.  Are some people trying to get our kids to fit in a box that no longer exists?   I wonder how many of us look back at “the way things were” and remember all the great things but possibly forget some things…well… not worth remembering?  How many of use try to move forward by romanticizing the past?  Do we criticize the new way of doing things because it is foreign to us and we fear the unknown?

Last spring, our district held a forum around 21st Century Learning that included educators (elementary, secondary, post-sec), community members, parents, and students.  At one point we were discussing the way things used to be.  A parent and a teacher spoke of how things were when they were growing up 20-30 years earlier.  A student then spoke – he said,

When I was a kid, we played all day long…  pick up football, baseball, biking, swimming.   We didn’t wait for adults to organize stuff for us. We would play until the street lights came on.  We weren’t so wrapped up in video games like kids are today.  We got off our butts and did stuff.  We weren’t always on the computer talking to each other, we were out there meeting with each other.  It’s a lot different now.

Then, with a whispered question from my assistant superintendent at the time, Scott Benwell (@sbenwell1), it hit me.  This student was barely 18 and he was saying the same things that other generations were saying.  So I asked the question, how often do we unintentionally forget about some of the less productive things we did and portray our childhood as something that is a bit different than it actually was?

I began to reflect upon the number of video games I played as a child – Commodore 64, Tandy, Coleco, Atari, Nintendo – I played it all and my parents were ALWAYS on me to get outside and play.  Do I ever talk about the glory days of playing Blades of Steel or Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out? Nope!  According to my stories, my childhood only existed of building forts in the bushes, mountain-biking in the trails, and playing street hockey with the hose-running so we could get a drink and then complaining about having to go in when it was dark.  I have been part of MANY conversations where I have romanticized my past as something that was close to perfection and failed to mention the ‘less constructive’ activities in which I was involved.

Last weekend, I went for a jog around my community (and believe me, I do not run very far) and here is what I saw:

  • kids reading in the park outside the public library
  • a mountain bike track with kids waiting to get on
  • a lacrosse box full of kids playing ball hockey
  • a mom and 3 daughters jogging with their dog
  • 3 elementary aged children on the climbing apparatus outside the school
  • a skate park FULL of kids being active

Have things changed? Indeed they have.  Do we have different challenges? Definitely…. but slamming our current practices as well as our future generations by labeling them as lazy and less educated because they have learned to do things differently does nothing more than drive a huge wedge in our relationships.

Can we actually move forward as a society by romanticizing the past?  We definitely need to learn from our past but the key is to make sure that we are realistic about what actually occurred during these times.  Personally, I don’t think my generation and those before me have done a bang-up job of creating a clean, peaceful, and equitable environment for our children so maybe we need to be careful on how we remember our earlier years.  Should we actually be moving toward a traditional “back to the basics” model of education that may or may not have created successful students of previous times or should we continue working toward creating an environment for our students to be successful now and in THEIR coming years?  Eric Hoffer wrote:

In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.

In order to move forward, we need to support the future generation in a way that we create an environment of learners rather than those that have learned.  Education never ends for us; there is no point when we suddenly become educated and stop needing to learn. We need to be careful when we judge new ways of doing things as being inferior to ways in which were done when we were at that age.  So, as Cale Birk wrote:

…the so-called ‘entitlement generation’ is THE generation that is going to lead us over the next several decades in technology, innovation, research, and global issues.

Are we going to support them by romanticizing our past, stereotyping, and telling them they need to be like we were 20-30-40 years ago or are we going help them move forward by learning from our past and working with our students to create an environment for them to flourish NOW?

Thank you to Scott Benwell, Cale Birk, and David Wees for inspiring this post.


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Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls and a son. Currently working as the Principal of Shortreed Elementary School (K-5) in Aldergove, BC, Canada. Passionate about instruction, strengths-based education and leadership, reconciliation, assessment, and human motivation.


  1. I totally agree with you Chris. First of all, Blades of Steel was awesome. I played it all of the time. Well not totally true, I used to actually watch as much Wrestling as possible. I hated Hulk Hogan and would go to no end to cheer against him. Funny thing was that I was so addicted to watching wrestling that I spent all of my money on magazines and even once got in serious trouble for phoning a “1-900” number about 50 times in a month to hear a pre-recorded message from the WWF (in the good old days it was WWF you know, not this WWE stuff) wrestler of the day. I know…stupid wrestling addiction. This all happened in one month and obviously, I doubled up on some of my favourite messages.

    I also played sports, hung out with friends, biked around town, played tennis, did whatever, but I wasted a lot of time just doing stuff I liked because I was a kid. That is what kids sometimes do. If you think about it, as the author criticizes kids in the article, aren’t they really criticizing parents? My mom would always say that things I do represented her and I would believe that still holds true to this day.

    As much as I was frustrated with the same article, I just chalk it up to there always being a “Get off my lawn” contigent of society that would rather complain than do something positive. In fact, shouldn’t the author have been on a bike ride or soaking in nature instead of sitting in front of a computer to write the article? Shame.

    Thanks for the post. I had to comment as soon as you put the words “Blades of Steel” in your post. You can actually play it online now. Ahh…the good old days!

    • Thanks buddy, it is much easier to write people off and blame others than to actually work toward change. In my high school years, I spend all of my university savings on hockey cards and tickets during the 94 Stanley Cup Run… one day those cards will make me millions…. or so I attempted to “teach” my parents that. I also used to drive my parents crazy by cranking the volume up on the start of Blades of Steel just to hear the announcer say the title.

      And yeah, Hulkamania didn’t really take over our household – guess i didn’t take my vitamins like he told me too. Jake the Snake, Macho Man, Brett the Hit Man… now those were the dudes I would have paid to see (and we all know, wrestling was real … haha).

      Thanks for adding the WWF touch to the post!

  2. Chris,

    I recall that meeting and the conversation that followed. I too struggle to understand the seemingly popular indictment of today’s youth. I have had the privilege of working with students that have a far more sophisticated view of the world than I ever did at the same age. I’m seeing individual and group action by our youth that is both extraordinary in its demonstration of understandings at a very high level and inspiring in its hope for the future. The so-called indulged generation is showing amazing ingenuity and care for things I never even dreamed of as a youth. I’m energized and excited about the journey to maintain our relevance in education within their hopes and dreams for a better future.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Scott. Your mentorship always encourages me to reflect deeply into our words and actions as educators. I am sure your new role, as superintendent, will give you even more opportunities to spread this to others. Thanks again.

  3. Chris,

    I enjoyed the post and it is a good reminder – Hoffer’s distinction between “the learned” and “the learning”.

    However, I think that we shouldn’t put those who provide necessary critiques of today’s students/society into one basket of “old school”, or overly romantic. You fall into the trap of the same kind of unhelpful generalization. There is room for valid criticism of today’s generation. Also room for those who want to look at the past and be unromantic about (and we need more of this – it wasn’t all good!).

    But overall I’m with you. Let’s be proactive and look at students without labels and with possibility framing each one. It’s an exciting time and that should translate as energy into our schools/classrooms.


    • Thanks, David. I rewrote this post a number of times to avoid just what you called me on (I guess I needed another re-write… haha). Generalizing previous generations does not help either… I have seen many examples of youth helping elders and vice versa. Thanks for adding this thought!

  4. From a parents perspective, I appreciated the comment not to blame the student, it is key. When a student becomes so overwhelmed in class they begin to struggle most parents will not be able to tell why or when to step in and have to rely and depend on those within the system to be fair and see various causes in order to get to the bottom of the debility. Students would benefit more from their schooling years with strong literacy levels and a requirement to not just identify students as struggling but to accurately identify the cause earlier through specific skills achievement tests. Any type of negative perception and decision to blame and code a student because they began to struggle is unfair and demoralizing. This is cultural, written into policy and action plans and may be what is holding many students back. With this attitude and structure, arrangements, strategies and supports may not benefit or work when literacy levels deteriorate. Our public schools have the resources and the know-how to help each student acquire, use and leave school with stronger literacy levels.

    • Thanks Brenda… support is key. We must support each child in the areas in which they struggle while also encouraging them in the areas of their strengths. This is a huge challenge but one in which we cannot back away from but keep fighting to get more support for our kids.

  5. I didn’t read the articles your referred to in your post but have encountered the same sentiments over the years. My view is very different.

    “This fall something special is happening in my life. My two oldest granddaughters start school. They are beginning a journey that will continue on the generational journey that is wondrous and part of the gift of being born in Canada. My grandfather arrived in North America from somewhere in Asia Minor with an unknown education. My father, growing up in the depression, left school after grade seven. I grew up when it was becoming more common to not only finish high school, but also to continue on to university. Both my wife and I did, and we received an effective public education. My two daughters finished secondary school, university, and post-graduate school. As I participated in and witnessed their education, I recognized that they received the gift of an even better education than I had received. Now as my granddaughters, separated by one month, begin junior kindergarten, I know they will gain an even better educational experience than did my father, myself, and their mothers.”

    How do I know this? Because my work gives me the opportunity to see what is happening with educators and teachers in schools from across the county. The bell curves that represent learning in Canada continue to rise above the x-axis.

    • Thanks for adding such a personal side to this post, Martin. I, too, am excited to see the learning journey of my infant daughters… both in and out of school.

  6. Good article, Chris. I agree with much of everything you say, and know each day the frustrations you mention often in your articles about the uphill battle to change education.

    However, when you state in this article that, “[t]here are very few things that get me more frustrated than when I hear stereotyping of our future generations,” is it not obvious that we, as “innovators” and concerned teachers actually do a lot of stereotyping ourselves?

    Salon.com recently ran an interesting, well-researched article entitled “The Creative Class is a Myth,” which shows that the tech jobs and other “creative avenues” for young people just are not panning out the way we predicted. Basically,the factory owner has just been replaced by whoever owns the server farms and online retailers (aka Google, Amazon, Apple, etc.)

    So, when we say that these kids learn differently, and are being denied a good education that will prepare them for where they are headed (a future of constant change), are we not stereotyping them?

    I ask my grade 12 students all the time if they would rather read a book or play in a small group setting or as a whole class, and they always report that they want to read together as a class. I asked them just this week if they wanted me to look for more modern, perhaps even online books or graphic novels for our reading this year, and they – to a person – voted for Jane Eyre, Lord of the Flies, 1984, Oryx and Crake, Anna Karenina (800 pages), and The Odyssey (more than 2000 years old).

    This is in-the-field action research (to use buzz words I swore years ago never to use – I apologize!). My students are well aware of the world that awaits them, and we use a lot of technology – from email to Facebook, Youtube, blogs, etc. – in my classes. However, they know innately, it would seem, that their world of Facebook and Google limits – and even actively denies them – access to the big ideas and skills they truly need as active citizens, NOT consumers: the ones Daniel Pink always talks about – attention, autonomy, etc.

    Thus, can we all – as teachers who want to participate in, and lead change – please stop the Alfie Khonesque throwing out of the baby with the bath water? (Kohn is infamous for his, “If you don’t do _________, you are actively damaging children” silliness, which gets us nowhere and never has).

    We are convinced! We’re on your side (I’ve been on your side for 18 years (or maybe that means you have joined me? I don’t know how many years you’ve taught). But let’s do both: stop being selectively nostalgic about our pasts,and foisting these imaginary romanticisms onto our students; but also, let’s stop pretending to know exactly what they need for a future they, nor we, can really predict.

    My students want me to stop pandering to them, and are demanding instead that I allow them some access to what their homes nor their media are giving them. I plan to do as my students want me to do (again, Daniel Pink’s autonomy and mastery), and read and discuss the great ideas; create new ideas from the old; and work together toward becoming better global citizens.

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