Confession: I said “the most dangerous phrase” this week

According to Grace Hopper, the most dangerous phrase in our language is ‘we’ve always done it this way’. This quote has been applied to education and, on multiple occasions, I have tweeted and retweeted it. I completely agree with the sentiment. Yet, this phrase spilled out of my mouth this week before I could stop it. Thankfully, my example is a trivial one with no great consequences, but the mistake made me want to revisit this topic and exemplify how the phrase can creep up on any one of us (yes, even a titled ‘Innovator’).


This week, it was Year 4 Camp. While the students were playing at the site’s Sky Garden (with a stunning view), I asked our Digital Literacy Coach, Ryan Krakofsky, to take a group photo of us down by the campsite entrance. Instead of moving 200 children to the much less picturesque location, Ryan asked the now-obvious question: “Why not do it here?” Then it happened. I said it.

“We always do it over there.”

I have been to the same campsite five times and we have always used the entrance area for the group photo because it was the nicest area that was large enough for all of us… until they built the Sky Garden a few years ago. The Sky Garden is now, by far, the most beautiful and most obvious location for such a shot. But, until Ryan, nobody had questioned our routine. As humans, we are just creatures of habit, I suppose. It took a fresh pair of eyes to point it out. Innovation, as defined by George Couros, is about doing things in new and better ways, but instead of questioning our practices, we often just continue with whatever has worked in the past. We must be continually and intentionally critical if we want to innovate. Like I said, the previous photo location (that was perfectly fine) is a trivial example, but it reminds me of this thought-provoking quote (that I first read in Kids Deserve It!):

“Good is the enemy of great.”

Jim Collins

The idea here is worth remembering. When something works, we don’t think to improve it. But we should continue to question even our most successful practices and seek practices that are even better. Teachers should keep Collins’ quote in mind when planning lessons and learning engagements. It’s easy and convenient to refer back to last year’s plans and simply repeat. This is particularly tempting if something was very successful in the past. This same principle also applies to school policies, routines and leadership practices. Let’s continually revisit and reconsider everything that we do.

The Grace Hopper quote is occasionally criticised because, as people rightly say, sometimes our existing practices are highly successful. We don’t always need change, they argue. While I agree, this does not conflict with the quote. To the best of my knowledge, she wasn’t suggesting that we should continually change things for the sake of change. Rather, we should continually consider possible improvements. There might not be a better way, but we should still question our practices, just in case. It’s easy to rest on good teaching and fall into complacency. After all, it works. But remember: good teaching is the enemy of great teaching. Our students deserve for us to reach even higher.

Are you teaching at the campsite entrance? Are you subconsciously dismissing the Sky Garden because your photo already looks good? Just like our photo location, better ideas are often right in front of us (we were already at the Sky Garden!) but they are easily missed if we’re not actively looking for them.

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