“But … We’ve Always Done it this Way…”

Carol A. Hand

Did you ever feel like you were living in the wrong time? That somehow you had missed learning how to simply accept the fact that we should do things the way they’ve always been done? Wondered who had decided how things should be done initially, and who benefits from keeping things the same? Why so many people automatically react to any proposed change with immediate resistance by using the same old refrain – “But we’ve always done it this way”?

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The question I had to address throughout my career as a social work educator was whether I, like most of my colleagues at the time, should teach using paradigms and topics from the past, tweaking models that haven’t worked to improve people’s lives because they failed to take socio-economic causes into account. The message was to “Just teach students how to fit into the social welfare agencies where they will work in the future using new evidence-based methods.” Hmm. I must have missed something. Despite these individual pathology treatment methods, I don’t see much “evidence” that the structural causes of problems – exploitation and social marginalization – have improved as a result of decades of interventions. More importantly, I ask if we can afford such hubris and indulgence when we are faced with global unrest about growing socio-economic inequality and the escalating effects of global climate change. The populations most affected are, of course, the very populations with whom social workers plan to work in the future. Is it realistic to believe that the future we face will be any better served by using past methods that haven’t worked?

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Why not try something new? Isn’t that what education is supposed to do, to evaluate the effectiveness of past efforts honestly in light of what is happening now and what we anticipate in the future? Some students may be persuaded to voice the need to fit in with the status quo, but they’re quick to understand why it’s important to learn for the future. Most faculty and administrators are harder to convince. It could just be the challenge that motivates me to innovate.

It does take courage to walk into a classroom as the “teacher” knowing you don’t have the answers, and knowing no one has your back if you make a fool of yourself. Sure, you may have years of diverse experiences, but as Lisbeth B. Schorr (1998) points out, reinventing the wheel is important. Each group and community that wants to make a difference needs to figure out for themselves how to work together toward shared goals, to own the goals and the process through negotiation, teamwork, sweat, and tears. My approach to teaching research to undergraduate students this summer was an experiential experiment to see if students could conduct their own research studies as teams.

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I am pleased to report that the experiment “worked.” Yesterday, as each team of students stood together before the class with their Power Point ready to share, the atmosphere in the room was decidedly different than that of the first day. (Only two hands out of eighteen went up that first day when I asked how many were excited to learn about research – more than I expected.) When they presented their impressive work during the last class, it was clear that they had become “teams,” they shared the work, disappointments, and successes. They learned that research is not easy to do regardless of your methodology. They learned through the most effective way there is — by actually doing something themselves and thinking critically about their experiences. They could clearly articulate what they would do differently the next time!

Through participant observation, one team learned about the effects of changing weather patterns on local food production by weekly visits to a farmer’s market and conversations with the local vendors. Through surveys, another team learned about local views of climate change and contrasted those with views nationwide. The single subject design team took an inventory of the food in their cabinets and refrigerators and noted where it was produced. They planned to calculate the “food miles” and CO2 production that resulted from their buying choices. Over the next month, they took two more inventories to see if their buying habits changed as a result of trying consciously to reduce their carbon footprint. The photo voice and interviewing teams both focused on exploring the effects of the 2012 deluge and flood that affected Duluth, MN and the surrounding areas. Their experiences countered the common assumption that qualitative research is easier than quantitative studies.

I am so grateful that I had an opportunity to work with this adventurous and creative group of students. It was a fitting way to end my career as an institutional educator. The only thing I regret is that other faculty and institutional decision makers missed the student presentations. Imagine – what could the world become if educational institutions were inspired to explore ways to change how things have always been done in order to honor the earth and all life?

Work Cited:

Lisbeth B. Schorr (1998). Common purpose: Strengthening families and neighborhoods to rebuild America. New York City, NY: Anchor Books.

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

20 thoughts on ““But … We’ve Always Done it this Way…”

    1. Thank you, for your kind words, Skywalker. The students were really the ones who did the creative work, a wonder to observe for those of us who merely try to build the framework that allows others rise to the challenge by taking risks and exploring new knowledge.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Diane, I appreciate your kindness 🙂 .

      (On another note, for my next career, I’m planning on finishing the two books I have in process (Rescuing Children … and my mother’s story) and considering adding a third, putting some of the blog posts and other essays in a book about my life. The title, A woman of No Importance (one of my favorite books by Allen Crafton & Robert Gard), is already used by number of authors, so I’m thinking of calling it The Story of My Life – Pissing-Off People in Positions of Power. I value you perspective on whether this idea has any merit 🙂 )


      1. YES YES YES! Your perspective is absolutely necessary if we’re ever going to get this society going in the right direction. There is so much meat in your blog posts. (vegetarians forgive the metaphor, please) I love the title Pissing Off People in Position of Power. Maybe use that as the main title and include yourself in a subtitle? Something like A Life in Social Work and Education. ? Publishing these days is a nightmare, but I am thrilled you are writing books anyway. The more people who have access to your thoughts and experiences, the better for all of us. Write on!


        1. Thank you so much for your kind words and encouragement! I like your advice about the title. I’m sure publishing will be truly challenging, but that’s a long way off…


  1. Trying to cure poverty, malnourishment, child abuse, domestic violence, homelessness and joblessness by churning out more social workers is like trying to cure measles by cutting off the spots.

    Five decades of research show that income inequality is the primary source of all these problems. And as income inequality grows, so do these so-called “social problems.”

    The solution is to build broad based grassroots coalitions to demand a fundamental change in federal and state policies designed to make billionaires richer. And if elected leaders refuse to listen, workers need to take over these monopoly corporations and run them themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well-said, Stuart. I so agree! (I love your analogy comparing the absurdity of “churning out more social workers” as the cure for structural inequality and injustice to cutting off spots as the cure for measles!)


  2. Another powerful and insightful piece! I hear this all too often, and so many of us get caught up in that phrase, without examining whether what we’ve always done is effective and beneficial. Thanks!


    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Shery. I agree with your insight that it’s best to approach each complex challenge by examining options, some based on tradition, and some that are totally new and choose what seems to be the most promising, inclusive, compassionate, humane.


  3. “The only thing I regret is that other faculty and institutional decision makers missed the student presentations.” That statement made me really understand what you were dealing with (colleagues/staff). For them just a job. If you could see the change in the students over the course of the class, what might happen if they would have taken the time to observe? I admire your tenacity in spite of it, Carol. So much.


    1. Thank you for sharing your insights and kind words, Mandy. I’m sure it makes students feel as though they don’t really matter when faculty show little interest in their accomplishments, but honestly, faculty aren’t treated much better by administrators. These days most colleges and universities are primarily interested in maximizing their control of the market and the money they can make. The college where I taught is no different. The administrators are far more interested in the master’s program that generates more revenue because tuitions are higher, and the new satellite they want to open in another state where the college anticipates much higher enrollments than the site where I taught that serves primarily working parents and tribal students. It is hard to work for any business that charges exorbitant fees, treats its customers and workers badly, and provides inferior products.


      1. Yes, I see that in the schools around here, too, Carol. When cuts start taking place, the moral of the staff plummets. In turn, proper attention to the accomplishment of students suffers as well…


    1. Thank you for your kind words, Simona.

      There are so many things I would like to improve on the blog, but dealing with the technical aspects of WordPress is not easy for me. It seems you have already done a great job setting up blogs that look welcoming and easy to read, and you are so wise to take this course as you build your blogs. I look forward to learning more about Transylvania (I love your photos), and hearing more about how your experiences in Florida compare!

      Again, thank you for being so thoughtful.

      Liked by 1 person

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