Against Boldness

Feb. 28, 2010

Source: Journal of Teacher Education, 61(1-2), p. 16–20. (January/February 2010).
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this article, the author challenges the notion that boldness is an inherently good thing. The author argues that bold ideas are part of our problem, for by definition they are unrealistic. Ultimately, bold ideas fail because they don’t take real circumstances into account. The author examines four versions of the concept of boldness and show why each ultimately offers false hope.

“Bold” as Full-Blown Change Rather Than Piecemeal Change

One definition of a bold idea is one that changes everything at once. By “full-blown,” the author means seeking an innovation that fixes the full range of problems we see in the system.

In teacher education, full-scale change would mean that we would alter not just one or two aspects of the system, but instead to alter the entire system fundamentally, including fixing all the little curricular anomalies in all the content areas. However, abandoning the entire system in search of an alternative means abandoning solutions as well as flaws.

The alternative to full-scale change is continuous tinkering, a strategy that acknowledges the multitude of constraints and compromises that bold ideas overlook.

“Bold” as Fearless Rather Than Hesitant

Another definition of bold has to do with how confidently or aggressively we pursue our ideas.
In fact, this version of bold is the very opposite of the kind of careful and thoughtful approach we need. A bold idea should not be one that disregards potential consequences, but instead one that has been thought through carefully and whose consequences have also been fully anticipated.

“Bold” as a Break From the Past

There is another version of boldness that refers to the unusualness of an idea. This type of boldness suggests that we should abandon everything we already know and have done in favor of a new, unique, or novel approach.
While radical departures are intended to correct myriad flaws we see in our current system, they also overlook the benefits of current programs.

“Bold” as a Committed Movement

Finally, there is a version of boldness that refers to a collective movement, a time in history when a group of people band together to advocate for change. In this case, it is the social movement itself that is bold, though the members of the group believe their goal is also bold in at least one of the senses described previously.

But there are two problems with movements as strategies for improving education. One is that they require such intense commitments that participants often tire of the idea and withdraw so that they can restore their former, more ordinary lives (Tyack & Cuban, 1995).
Movements may also fail because they often generate counter movements. As a result, the curriculum we use will be negotiated to satisfy these competing goals and we will continue as we always have, with a compromise program that fails to satisfy members of either side.


The author also argues that not only are bold ideas likely to fail, but they also are likely to hinder our progress toward real improvements by distracting educators and making it more difficult for them to concentrate.

The author concludes that instead of seeking bold ideas, we should be doing just the opposite: studying our practices closely and deliberately, deepening our understanding of the circumstances in which we work, and finding small and sustainable ways to improve.

Tyack, D., & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: A century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Updated: Mar. 14, 2010