Supply and Demand – the big issue for schools of the future

I’m currently attending the ConnectED conference of principals in the Newcastle region in Australia, exploring the theme of professional learning communities and enjoying hearing from speakers with a wealth of experience in this area including Alma Harris, Michelle Jones, Helen Timperley and Peter Goss. A constant theme in the presentations and workshops is change, and how, as educational leaders, we need to be disciplined in the ways we work with teachers to embrace and deal with change, empowering them through the process of inquiry and professional learning groups. Many times in the discussions with secondary teachers in particular the challenge of providing quality instruction in specific curriculum areas has been raised as one of these issues.

Today I read the article in the NZ Herald titled Secondary schools facing a ‘perfect storm’ as teacher shortage deepens that reports on the issue of high school students are being taught maths and science by teachers without specialised skills as schools struggle to fill gaps created by a worsening teacher shortage. The article quotes Secondary Principals’ Association president Michael Williams: “Schools were making do, but students were not getting the scope of curriculum they deserved. For instance, he had heard of one school dropping its robotics course in the senior school because the principal could not find a teacher to take it.” Sadly, making do isn’t good enough if you’re the student lining up for your ‘one chance’ to receive a quality secondary education in year 12 or 13!

The problem isn’t simply one we face in NZ. In his keynote speech at the COBIS Conference 2017 Mark Steed highlighted the growing problem of supply and demand of schooling worldwide and examined how technology and innovation may provide solutions to teacher shortages and a growing population. To illustrate his point he highlighted the statistic that 28 per cent of Physics lessons in the UK are not taught by a qualified Physics teacher. I’m sure there’d be similar statistics available if we were to explore the current situation in NZ schools in depth.

The Herald article quotes several education leaders expressing very valid concerns about the impact of this on our learners, and includes reference to the Minister of Education, Nikki Kaye, who has announced funding and new initiatives this week to help boost the numbers of quality teachers. This is all very good and commendable, and will hopefully go some way towards addressing the issue at hand.

There was one statement repeated twice in the article that caught my attention, however – “that the situation would get worse before it would get better“. Sadly, this is evidence yet again of the stable state thinking that Donald Schön makes the focus of his 1971 publication “Beyond the Stable State“. I love the way he introduces his book:

schonstablestateI have believed for as long as I can remember in an afterlife within my own life–a calm, stable state to be reached after a time of troubles. When I was a child, that afterlife was Being Grown Up. As I have grown older, its content has become more nebulous, but the image of it stubbornly persists.

Schön takes it as a given that things will never settle down. The appropriate response to any change, in his view, is to understand it, not to fight it or even to surrender to it: “The task which the loss of the stable state makes imperative, for the person, for our institutions, for our society as a whole, is to learn about learning”–to become capable, in other words, of making continual transformation a given rather than reacting to it as an anomaly. This is where using inquiry as part of a collaborative process of ‘inventing the future’ becomes important – not to ‘fill the void’ until things return to normal, but to give effect to that continual transformation.

I believe this is the case with our ‘perfect storm’ in the teaching profession. It’s not a case of putting in a number of measures in the hope that things will ‘settle down’ and return to ‘normal’ (whatever that is). The fact is that the very foundations of our education system have been and are being changed. It is unlikely that we will ever be able to provide the numbers of specialist teachers required – most certainly not if we expect every school to have a full quota of them, especially in our rural and remote schools.

I agree with Mark Steed that innovation is the key to tackling these problems, and that disruptive technologies will play a part in this – although I am less enamoured with his idea of education being offered at three price points according to preferences such as class size, facilities and the qualification of teachers!

For me the future lies in the sorts of innovation that we are already seeing in some areas, including the Virtual Learning Network that has been brokering connections between skilled teachers and students for nearly twenty years now, as well as the sterling work of Te Kura (The NZ Correspondence School) that caters annually for approx. 10,000 dual enrolled students. These very successful approaches, although not widely acknowledged as significantly as programmes offered in traditional, face to face schools, do cater for the preferences and interests of students first and foremost, allowing many to access their first choice subject options where otherwise they’d be denied.

Besides embracing this sort of online access to quality programmes as ‘normal’ (rather than ‘second best’), we need to be open to other forms of innovation that will enable our learners to have access to the subject options they desire – taught by specialists in those areas. This is likely to include far greater use of online, self-paced learning programmes, supported and reinforced by engaging and high quality tutorial-style sessions in face to face settings; engaging specialists in various areas to work alongside schools and teachers to ensure the quality of the subject matter expertise being offered; extending the school day to provide for ‘shifts’ of students and more flexibility for teachers; creating opportunities for learning ‘in situ’ with experts in the field (otherwise known as work-place experience, but with a greater degree of focus on the learning taking place – along the lines of programmes offered by the Big Picture schools for instance.)

To face the future we must accept that the stable state is simply an illusion, that things won’t ‘settle down’ once we’ve put a few temporary measures in place, just to tide us over! As educational leaders we need to be more courageous, more visionary and more disciplined in our efforts to create the future that will ensure our students get the education they deserve and that the issues of equity and quality aren’t lost in the process.

I’m sorry, but “making do” simply isn’t good enough!

One thought on “Supply and Demand – the big issue for schools of the future

  1. Nice post Derek. I had similar thoughts when I saw this article. As you recognise, the educational landscape is changing. If we are to be learner centred then we need to harness all the resources at our disposal to meet their needs. Schools cannot work as silos and they cannot expect to meet all the needs of learners internally.

    And then there are Communities of Online Learning on the horizon…

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