Changing Schools: The Devil’s Advocate

I always enjoy conversations with fellow educators about learning, but I am often somewhat bemused when Satan makes his usual, predictable appearance. While the constant, inevitable trend in education is towards change and the need to provide the learning environments that our students indisputably deserve, there often seems to be a point in a dialogue about doing what is best for students when someone will inevitably say, “But, hold on, let me play devil’s advocate for just a minute here. That may all be well and good but …”

Hearing all sides of a story is, of course, very important. Considering the impact of proposed changes on teachers who are already working to capacity should be a priority in every school, but sometimes I am disheartened by this rush to represent the devil, to throw down the easy obstacles that prevent meaningful change from happening. Our path should be governed by one question: what is best for students?

Of course, a true critical, informed advocate can play a valuable and crucially productive role in decision-making, helping to guard against groupthink, asking the tough questions, refining and focusing strategy, even convincing others to push a particular strategy further than previously conceived. But a true advocate is not the devil’s advocate in the sense I have come to know that familiar beast. The devil’s advocate is most likely representing himself, quite often simply resisting change, frequently not thinking of what is best for students or his colleagues.

I find the story is usually different with great teachers – the ones I have the good fortune to work with – and invested, dedicated parents. For them, the message is always the same and the unspoken question is, and always should be, “But, hold on, let me play the student advocate for just a minute here …” We need to ensure that this is the voice that we listen to in schools today.

I no longer believe that the devil needs an advocate. There are enough demons out there holding back necessary changes that are essential for students and the lives we are charged with preparing them for.