“So how DO we get change?” These were the first words expressed to me by a friend and colleague when we met for coffee recently.
I have known and worked with him for some years now and we’d met to discuss a project we’ve both been working on. It’s a project with a transformative vision really, focusing on some of the profoundly difficult issues that are confronting us in education at the moment, and seeking to establish a way of connecting the dots between politicians and policy-makers, bureaucrats and managers, educators and communities, learners and teachers etc. It’s a complex scenario requiring complex thinking. After more than 18 months of thought and effort, involving conversations with many people who between them have centuries of experience in ‘systems’ thinking and development, the project is continues to founder as the group seeks to find a way of penetrating the invisible, and seemingly impervious, walls that constrain the thinking and action of groups within our system.
It’s a serious question and deserves serious consideration. I’d have to say that by the end of our chat together we hadn’t gotten any closer to an answer – but the issues we have and can so easily identify remain clearly in our view.
As I’ve reflected on this conversation since, I recalled a book I was once given by another colleague I’d worked with at the NZ Correspondence School (now called Te Kura) during a period of significant transformational change. The book was by Tom Peters, titled Re-imagine!: Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age, and I’ve regularly had it off my shelf to read and be challenged by. For those of my generation Tom Peters was one of those gurus of the business management world whose books and articles we read absorbed with great interest. By 2003 when this book was written he was 60 years old and had already written ten top selling books on business transformation – perhaps the best known being In Search of Excellence which had a significant influence when released in 1982 and is still referred to today in many business and leadership programmes.
The significance of this reflection is captured in the introduction to Re-imagine, where Tom responds to some jibes he’d had from friends and colleagues when he told them what he was doing, asking “why embark on writing yet another (11th) book when you could simply be laying back and relaxing after such a great career?” (or words to that effect). In his foreword Tom gives a simple four word response:
After a lifetime of writing and speaking about change and transformation, Tom was struggling with how little actual change or transformation had been achieved, and how persistent the old ways of doing things appear to be in business, government, and, yes, education – despite some very clear signals that different approaches were and are necessary.
Tom goes on to assert that he believes that all innovation comes, not from market research or carefully crafted focus groups, but from pissed-off people – and proceeds through his book to demonstrate how this has actually played out in a range of contexts in recent decades.
Of course, pissed off people can end up choosing to divert their frustrations and anger and do simply unreasonable things, as we witnessed in the recent riots in Washington DC. Such action can’t be condoned and is unlikely to achieve anything more than ‘venting’. I certainly don’t advocate such actions, although I do acknowledge that the situation we’ve observed in the US over the past four years has been the result, in large part, of a large number of pissed off people who were responding to the perception that the things that concerned them were reflected in the rhetoric they were hearing. Sadly, we have all learned there is often a gap between rhetoric and reality in the field of politics.
My take-away from Peter’s book is (a) it’s only when motivated by frustration and a determination for change that we’ll actually make a difference, and (b) to do so, we must find new ways of working that allow us to channel that frustration in positive ways, not conforming to the traditional ways of doing things but being liberated to Re-imagine how things could and should be. As the famous quote, often attributed to Albert Einstein says, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
The key here is a critical issue for education. We’ve grown as a system designed to promote conformity, consistency, compliance, certainty – the very qualities required of people who were being prepared to work in the factories of that time. And that approach served us well – for that time. The C’s have changed – we now live in times of complexity, change and un–certainty, and we require a vastly different way of thinking and acting – everything from the way we organise schools and classrooms, to the management of time and place and the organisation of the curriculum and assessment. As I recall reading elsewhere, we should seek not to be conformed to the way things are, but to be transformed – by the renewing of our minds – of the way we think.
So why is this so difficult to achieve? When the problems and issues are so patently evident, why can’t we agree on the solutions – no matter how radical?
A book could be written on this – and many have. Suffice to say, we are complex human beings who seem to have an extraordinary intolerance for change, particularly when we feel comfortable, and are more likely to conform to the systems that have been established to support us than to question them and change them when it is evident they are no longer fit for purpose.
An unfortunate consequence of an open, democratic system (which I happen to support and believe in) is the emergence of ‘interest groups’, where the interests of the particular group end up being regarded as more important that the interests of other groups for example. In my mind this is a departure from the real intent of democracy and is where the importance of ‘collective agency’ should be prioritised. And so we end up with one of two outcomes, either the interests of one group are privileged over the other, or everything turns ‘beige’ as we settle for the mediocre middle that does little to change anything for anyone. In other words, we lose sight of the issue that is needing to be addressed and satisfy ourselves with simply ‘scratching at the edges’ to give the appearance that we’re making change.
Take the NZ housing crisis for example. Everyone would agree that we are desperately short of good quality homes, and that this situation disproportionately disadvantages those at the lower end of the income scale, ensuring they continue to live in debt and poverty, while those who can afford to are able to invest in properties to achieve the personal gain that comes from being able to sell at a later date without paying of any form of capital gains tax. According to Bernard Hickey on this morning’s news story, if capital gains tax had been enforced on the sales of homes over the past four years New Zealand would now have zero national debt. Staggering thought – and yet we remain in this position of (a) a lack of housing and (b) an increasing divide between the haves and the have-nots. When challenged by the interviewer to suggest why it is that successive governments have not addressed this issue Hickey replied, “historically, renters don’t vote, while the multiple home owners and investors do”. In other words, renters don’t have a voice, or at least, choose not to express it, through the democratic process and so politicians, whose primary drive is to remain in power, pander to the voice of those who will vote them in.
In education here in New Zealand our democratic system provided the opportunity for the ‘voice’ of educators to express what they wanted to see happen to improve the educational opportunities for all New Zealanders in a series of ‘conversations‘ around the country. I participated in some of these and found them extremely stimulating and refreshing. The contributions were gathered up and shared – then turned over to those in the bureaucracy of education to work with – and much work has been done with this. Sadly, from my perspective, we’ve yet to see anything remotely transformational emerge – most of the solutions that have been announced are decidedly ‘beige’, the result of being put through the risk-aversion mill, and are simply a repositioning of old thinking on a different point along the same old pendulum swing.
Perhaps, like Peters, I’ve reached the age where, on reflecting on a life-time of effort to change and transform I’m also feeling pissed-off. But like Peters, I don’t want to be beaten, nor do I feel redundant. That is why I set up FutureMakers, to provide a platform from which to make a contribution to a more hopeful future for my grandkids and their peers – and to somehow influence the system that does and must exists to support this.
So my concluding thoughts for this post are really just some questions that I intend to do some more reflection on into the future and invite readers to do the same…
- how do we ensure the voice of the most affected is recognised, heard and addressed in our planning and efforts in education – at all levels from the kura/school through to the system as a whole?
- how do we recognise the value of evidence, research and educational theory, of world views and cultural differences in our reconceptualising for the future?
- what is our perception of a transformed system – one that is designed with a transformational mindset, with structures and systems whose focus is on resilience over stability?
- how can we accelerate the efforts to make ‘collective agency’ the norm in our expectations of staff and learners, instead of the current (mis) interpretation of agency as being essentially about what suits the individual – regardless of others?
- how might we separate the real issues of education from partisan politics, so that there can be a long-term, future-focused approach to achieve real change and address real issues?
- how do we give expression for all of this at a local level, and not simply lay the burden of it all at the feet of government – the face-less ‘them’ in so many of our discussions? And having achieved that, how do we promulgate what works through the system by sharing those successes and sustaining the impact for broader impact?
- and, for those of us who are pissed off, how do we turn that fire in our belly into a positive energy for change? Who do we connect with? How do we work together to develop truly transformative solutions?