Trains or planes: building a successful schooling system

Image by Holger Detje from Pixabay

The concept of how we develop a ‘world class’ education system is high on the agenda of Governments and education leaders from around the world. An obvious, and appropriate measure for this is based on measures of student performance and success – as illustrated by the approach taken by the OECD with its PISA studies.

I blogged earlier this  year ( about Andreas Schleicher speaking about some of the background and findings of the PISA studies. Schleicher challenges us to think about how this data might be used to bring about change at a whole of system level, rather than at an individual school level, and points out that the bottom line for where we put our energy and resourcing must be related to understanding what we value most about education.

What we value is closely aligned with the beliefs we hold about education, and the mental models we have developed as a result of these beliefs – which exist for all of us whether we are conscious of it or not. Often, these values and beliefs lie below the surface, the product of the modeling and ‘conditioning’ of our own school experiences.

When working with education leaders – at school or national level – one thing I find is that the language used to describe what they’re doing in an effort to bring about change reveals two quite different perspectives – what I call agendas for change.

The first is what I refer to as the ‘improvement agenda’, where the assumption is that what we are doing is fundamentally OK, but needs to be refined, adapted, modified in some way to improve it in areas of poor performance – a little like tuning a motor car to get better ‘miles per gallon’ in performance. The motor and the car it propels are essentially the same – but performance has been improved through adaptations to the way the fuel feeds through the carburetor, or with ‘spoilers’ added to the bodywork to improve airflow around the vehicle for instance.

The second is what I call the ‘transformation agenda’, where there is a conscious effort to question the existing paradigm and propose alternative models or approaches. The differences between these two agendas are illustrated in the summary table below – which I’ve blogged about earlier this year also (

To go back to my transportation metaphor – consider the difference between trains and planes. The fundamental problem they are seeking to address is the same – how to efficiently and cost effectively transport goods and people over long distances.

 Over many years improvements were made to the rail systems in countries around the world – from steam, to diesel to electric, from narrow gauge to wider gauge rails etc. All of which provided faster, more efficient service in the transportation of goods and people – provided they were on a rail network and bound by the geographical boundaries of the continent on which they were located.

The came planes. Not only could they do everything that trains could do, but they were able to cross the boundaries of continents separated by vast oceans, and could also change route to land in different places without the need for a rail system to get them there. Planes were transformational. In the world of air transportation we now enjoy holidays in Australia or Paris, and have food in our supermarkets from dozens of countries all over the world.

This is the challenge in our education system. In seeking to establish a world class approach, where learners are equipped to live and work as citizens in a globally connected, increasingly digital world, we need to consider how appropriate our current structures and systems are – whether they are ‘fit for purpose’ in the 21st century. Consider things like the hours in the school day, the division of tasks among teachers, the grouping of learners according to age and the building of schools as blocks of ‘egg-crate’ classrooms etc.

This is not an easy thing to do, as there is a lot of emotional attachment associated with what we’ve done in the past, and a lot of our sense of identity and worth can be tied up with that. But that’s about us – our focus needs to be on our learners  and their future.

We can focus purely on improvement – in which case we’ll end up with shinier, faster, more effective versions of our current schools. Or we can be transformational, and think more ‘out of the box’, imagining what the experience of education might be like if we simply removed all of the existing structures and systems we have.

The challenge is ours for building a 21st Century School System – will we be building trains or planes?

Leave a Reply