Two agendas

As you can tell from my previous two posts, a lot of my current work involves dealing with the vexed issue of how we can provide an education system that is fit for purpose in the 21st century. As a part of this I've spent time reading the details of Education First, the United Nations Secretary-General’s initiative to ensure quality, relevant and transformative education for everyone. The combination of those three elements: quality, relevance and transformation, are key. It is the third of these, however, that is where my thoughts are dwelling. 

As I've worked with school leaders and government officials, it occurs that we are often talking past each othe The reason for this is that while we may be in agreement about the need for change, and the goals of quality, equity, relevance etc., we are actually driven by different underlying agendas – an improvement agenda on the one hand, and a transformation agenda on the other. 

I've tried to sum up what I see as the difference between these in the table below:


The fundamental difference between the agendas is highlighted in the first line – on the one hand, the improvement agenda is looking at taking what we currently do and making it more effective and efficient. On the other, the transformation agenda starts with questioning the very nature of what we are currently doing. 

The Global Education Leaders Programme (GELP) asserts that their work is based on the growing consensus that our education systems are insufficient for the dynamic conditions of the 21st century, and that system transformation, not school improvement, is required. I'd agree. 

Internationally we see a lot of talk about transformation and 21st century skills, but the rhetoric isn't matched by the reality, which reflects more of an improvement (called 'turnaround' in some places) agenda. 

In the USA, for example school improvement focuses on teacher effectiveness and the use of standards as a means of achieving high performance. 

In the UK, Ofsted, the agency responsible for monitoring schools, has implemented a regime of 'tough new inspections to drive improvements'. 

Both of these are premised on the notion that by implementing change within the current (broken) system, and improving what teachers do, what resources are used, what assessment approaches are implement, then better outcomes will be achieved. While these initiatives are laudable, it's rather like improving a 1920's villa – you can add a new kitchen, paint it in modern colours and furnish it with the latest furnishings, but at the end of the day, it's still a 1920's villa. It's unlikely to end up reflecting the best of modern architecture and have the range of features available in modern, eco-friendly homes for instance. 

The BusinessDictionary definiton of transformation reads:

In an organizational context, a process of profound and radical change that orients an organization in a new direction and takes it to an entirely different level of effectiveness. Unlike 'turnaround' (which implies incremental progress on the same plane) transformation implies a basic change of character and little or no resemblance with the past configuration or structure.

The time has come for courageous leadership in our education system. High speed networks won't transform it. Better trained teachers won't transform it. Better curriculum and assessment methods won't do the job. Neither will heaps of iPads, interactive whiteboards or wireless environments. (Although some or all of these things may be present in a transformative approach).

System transformation begins in changing minds, changing attitudes, and filling people's imaginations with visions of what can be. It's not about starting with systems and structures, but about vision and values, and dreams of where we want to be. And there's no pre-determined model or answer – it must be created through the collective experience and wisdom of all involved. 

Part of my reflection here is in anticipation of attending the CoSN conference which begins tomorrow in San Diego – with the theme of "Audacious Leadership" Their promotional summary reads:

Disruptive, innovative leaders are defining a new vision and are building 21st century learning environments.  The effective use of technology for transforming learning requires strong organization, leadership, and vision. At the 2013 CoSN conference, we will showcase Audacious Leaders who will share by example – they have led their schools and organizations boldly, daring to confront convention, and have inspiring stories to tell. We will engage in a conversation about moving beyond dreams to realize the vision, achieve ambitious goals, inspire others to trust the direction, and move forward to implement plans. Join in this thought-provoking conversation at the premier education technology leadership conference; engage your passion and pioneering spirit and prepare yourself to effectively evaluate, reallocate, and envision the system changes necessary to create compelling learning environments.

I'm looking forward to what I can learn from this experience!

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