The case for re-invention

Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

Our current system took shape almost exactly a century ago, when scientific managers were looking for ways to accommodate the huge influx of students into urban areas from migration and immigration, coupled with the spread of compulsory education, The primary goal was preparing students for manual work on farms and in factories, as factory and landowners sound efficiencies from the rise of assembly-line technologies and new model bureaucracies, Schools were developed to maximise the rule following rote learning and to minimise relationships. Only a small number of students were identified for access to the higher-order thinking skills needed for thinking work. Funding, school assignment, and tracking systems designed to allocate students to their ‘places in life’ were enacted within contexts of deep-seated racial, ethnic and cultural prejudice.”

Learning Policy Institute: Restarting and Reinventing School page 3 (emphasis mine)

This quote is from a publication I’ve just been reading. It’s from the Learning Policy Institute titled Restarting and Reinventing School: Learning in the time of COVID-19 and Beyond (pdf). At 111 pages it’s a lengthy piece, but it is summarised nicely in the diagram below:

Learning Policy Institute: Restarting and Reinventing School page 3

This framework builds on and recognises many other student-centred, equity-oriented frameworks that have been developed elsewhere, with an added emphasis throughout on the important role that engagement of children, families, educators and communities plays in creating and advancing a vision for quality and equity in our schools and school systems.

It’s the reference to the term ‘reinvention‘ that piqued my here. One of my key observations in the wake of responses to the COVID-19 situation in education systems around the world is the emphasis on changing structures and systems to accommodate the needs of learners and teachers in a ‘hybrid’ world into the future (referenced in my earlier post). As I look at what is happening and the contribution of many voices to this discourse I fear that the solutions being pursued have less to do with ‘re-invention‘ than they are about ‘re-organising‘ or ‘re-configuration‘. The latter being more akin to shifting the deckchairs on a sinking ship than fundamentally changing the ship’s design to make it less likely to sink in the first place.

It’s really time for us to be asking afresh the question of “what’s the point of schools and schooling?” This is a question not adequately addressed over the past couple of decades of emphasis on school improvement. No matter how it is dressed up, that focus has, in so many circumstances, led to actions and changes in our system designed to “lift achievement”, or “raise standards” etc. Such agendas, while well intentioned, build implicitly on the existing assumptions about how our system operates and how we measure its success. They do nothing (of any substance at least) to address the deep-seated racial, ethnic and cultural prejudice that fashioned those assumptions in the first place.

Re-organising or re-configuring what exists – even by shifting activity online – cannot address these systemic issues we face. This is why we must consider re-invention.

Reinventing school means focusing on authentic learning and equity and harnessing the knowledge of human development, learning, and effective teaching accumulated over the last century and needed for the next.


We know a lot more now than we did 100 years ago when the industrial age school was ‘invented’. Consider the advances made in our understanding in the following areas for example…

  • how people learn and learning science, including the benefits of personalisation and Universal Design for Learning (UDL).
  • the importance of productive relationships in supportive settings to enhancing a child’s development (including parents/whānau and community).
  • culturally relevant pedagogy and curricula.
  • redefining success, including through authentic, formative assessment.

Yet despite this new knowledge and understanding we have seen little impact of any significance on our education system as a whole. We continue to operate in the largely industrial paradigm upon which it was based – and the issues of inequity, racism and prejudice remain unaddressed, and indeed proliferate when left unchecked.

It’s not an easy thing to contemplate such significant change – particularly when we’ve spent decades building and defending the system we have. Doing so will require the development of critical consciousness, a pedagogical strategy developed by Paulo Friere that describes how oppressed or marginalized people learn to critically analyze their social conditions and act to change them. Friere argued that if people are not aware of inequity and do not act to constantly resist oppressive norms and ways of being, then the result is residual inequity in perpetuity.

This is what is at risk now. The COVID pandemic has raised awareness of the nature and degree of inequity that exists in our current system. It is something that cannot be ignored – neither can it be addressed by simply ‘returning’ to what we’ve done before and promising to do a little better. We must, as Friere argues, take more deliberate and decisive action. This is why, as the LPI paper argues, we must be looking to ‘reinvent’ our system so that those who have been historically marginalised can be liberated from the consequences of systemic racism and cultural prejudice – otherwise we’re simply bound to perpetuate the conditions that are patently failing a significant number of our learners.

So what are some of the ways in which we might re-invent schools and schooling? In my next post I comment on the four scenarios published recently by the OECD which provide some insights into some of the structural responses we might make.

Meantime, some things to consider are:

  1. look seriously at what is being reported in the research around our ‘lessons from lockdown‘ both here in New Zealand and elsewhere, and reflect on the extent to which these lessons are the case in your context
  2. consider in particular the areas of inequity that have been exposed in your context, and the impact on students affected. To what extent is this situation the result of systemic racism and other forms of cultural prejudice?
  3. what practical things might you do in your context to provide a more equitable approach for your learners – think beyond simply structural responses, to include behavioural responses that address wellbeing and cultural concerns.
  4. consider the things that we know about effective teaching and learning that have yet to be fully embraced in our system and in your context? Are any of the practices you are perpetuating in your context ‘out of step’ with what we now know? Identify the barriers to change here and what might be done to address this.
  5. How might you introduce the concept of ‘critical consciousness’ to your staff and community? What more do you need to know about this? Who might you ask to assist?

Finally, change must happen – the status quo is simply not an option. We must ‘re-invent’ schools and schooling to remain authentic and culturally relevant. Here’s a quote to finish this post that I’ve found helpful in the way it challenges my thinking…

“Nobody is free from ignorance, bias and error. It is therefore important to examine criticism carefully instead of rushing to dismiss it.”

Yuval Noah Harari

3 thoughts on “The case for re-invention

  1. Love this whole post Derek. Thinking about how to raise the level of critical consciousness for everyone is important work for all leaders. Totally agree that the use of formative assessment is how we can redefine success. The Yuval Noah Harari quote is powerful. Im going to make great use of that.

  2. While I’m fairly sure it’s well intentioned, this does come across as revisionist and (reverse) racist. So educators over the last 100 years haven’t cared about what they’re doing, and haven’t tried to learn and make it make things better? How far along the spectrum does change need to be to qualify as “reinvention”? And what’s any of it got to do with racism? If you fix the system for everyone, everyone gets fixed, not just this year’s on-trend group.

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