Reform resistance

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

In his article titled A Fundamental Puzzle of School Reform, Larry Cuban poses the question “Why do schools and classrooms resist repeated and sizeable efforts to change them?” That article was published in 1988, but I’m certain is just as important to ponder today as it was back then.

1988 was just a year before the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms were implemented in New Zealand. These reforms dramatically changed the governance, management and administration of our schools, establishing each school as an independent, self-governing entity within the system as a whole. I was a primary school principal at the time this was happening, and can well remember the consternation this caused among my colleagues as they were required to adjust to an overnight change in the way they had been used to operating for decades prior.

A review of Tomorrow’s schools has recently been undertaken, with several recommended changes now being worked on. This includes a re-designed Ministry of Education with the establishment of regional educational service agencies to be known as Te Mahau, and a refresh of the NZ Curriculum determining where the focus of teaching and learning should be in our schools and kura.

Already the ripples of concern are becoming evident through the education system as educators and communities prepare themselves for this next onslaught of change. Various forms of ‘positioning’ are becoming apparent as individuals and groups seek to ensure their particular interests or perspectives are included. Some see this as an opportunity to address key ‘wrongs’ they perceive in the current system, some are cynical about whether this will actually change anything at all, while others are simply waiting for it all to happen and will ‘go with the flow’.

A key problem, as I see it, is that we have difficulty understanding or are confused about what the roles and responsibilities are of those in our current system, and where the boundaries are between those things.

Government and Ministry of Education

To begin, the Government and Ministries of Education have a responsibility for the guardianship of the system as a whole. They must be responsive to the vagaries of whichever political party is in power at the time, and have the job of ensuring the appropriate legislative conditions, policy frameworks and resourcing are maintained to support the work of educators in the system. However, Ministries of Education have never had a great reputation for leading change in the sector. Too often driven by political idealism, and pushed to meet politically determined timeframes (usually linked to election cycles), their well intentioned efforts to bring about change in the sector is often plagued by complaints of lack of consultation, poor communication, lack of clarity, over-emphasis on accountability and lack of resourcing to enable the implementation to be fully realised.

Local school and community

Then we have the educators, the school leaders, Boards of Trustees members and local communities who are responsible for what is happening, day by day, in classrooms, schools and kura around the country. Noone is more knowledgeable about the needs of the learners who are in their care. Educators have the pedagogical knowledge and skill to design a localised curriculum that will work best for their learners, equipping them with the knowledge, skills and dispositions that will enable them to thrive into the future. With the support of their local communities, they are in a position to provide the very best for their learners. However, the current climate has encouraged that focus to be primarily at the local school level, resulting in competitive interests dominating over collaboration between and among schools. Local leaders often lack an in depth understanding of how the system as a whole operates, or when they are active at this level, their focus tends to be more as an advocate for, or defender of, particular interest groups within the profession.

Support organisations

Finally we have the range of other organisations, individuals, community groups and companies that provide support for schools and educators. Among these are those that provide many of the teaching resources and equipment used by schools (furniture, technology, stationery, playground equipment etc.) Many of these companies have taken on a de facto professional learning role as a part of their sales approach. Then there are the specialist professional learning and development organisations (universities, for-profit and not-for-profit organisations and individuals). These groups provide specialist support that is aligned with current research-informed practice. Finally there are the groups and organisations that uphold the interests of the professionals working in the system, including the teaching council, teacher unions etc. Together, these groups and individuals often provide a ‘bridge’ between government expectations and the overwhelmingly busy context of the local school/kura. They are specialists in communication and growing the talent of leaders within the local contexts. However, in the neo-liberal context of our current system, the costs associated with accessing these services can mean that they are more likely to be available to those who can afford it, and not to those who might most benefit. Unfortunately also, there are some examples of such services pushing a particular methodology or philosophical perspective or ‘capturing’ schools with propriety products that lock them into particular ways of working.

Why the reluctance to change?

  1. Seems we’re wired that way

To a significant extent, the reluctance to change can be understood to be due to the way that we as humans appear to be wired. There is something that feels uncomfortable to the majority of people when face with change – perhaps evening threatening. For the most part, we appear to be more inclined to prefer what is familiar and shy away from anything that may upset this ‘status quo’.

Amy Webb, in her book The Signals Are Talking, captures this well I feel, when she describes the seven stages of new technology acceptance:

  1. cynicism
  2. skepticism
  3. ambivalence
  4. intrigue
  5. adoption
  6. enthusiasm
  7. evangelism

It doesn’t take too much imagination to recognise those responses in ourselves or those around us when we’ve been face with the introduction of something new into our work (or home) environment. The fact is, it can take time to shift people through this process, and unfortunately, that’s not something we factor into may of our reform thinking. Efforts to include a constructive change management process can often be overlooked when faced with unrealistic time constraints for example. Cuban (referred to in the first paragraph) identifies the lack of rationality in proposing and implementing planned change as the dominant explanation for reform reluctance presented by researchers and policymakers, but argues strongly that that may be only part of the picture.

2. We lack critical thinking

One only has to look at what is happening around us in New Zealand and the rest of the world as we face the consequences of a global pandemic. The voices for and against certain measures being taken can be alarmingly polarised. Often the motivation for a certain stance being taken is, not surprisingly, based on the impact it will have on the individual in the short term (loss of income, lack of food, inability to be with loved ones at critical times etc.) All of these things are indeed legitimate and completely understandable – but when faced with such immediate need it can be difficult to find acceptance of different points of view, or of views that are based on more strategic and long term outcomes being sought. This is where the ability to see things from multiple perspectives becomes a valuable skill to have.

Even more alarming is the influence of ‘fake news’ spread on social media, or the uncritical reports made from time to time via the mainstream media. The fact that such mischief is given credence over the voices of credible experts in agreement, supported by evidence in a variety of guises simply beggars belief! But it is very real for the people believing it, and as a consequence, can have huge consequences for everyone.

3. We’re dealing with new wine in old skins

Part of the reason that education reform is so hard is because the system was never designed to do what we ask it to do today. This is an entire topic in itself, suffice to say, much of what we need to pursue in changing our education system may not be reform at all, but transformation. We’re no longer simply preparing our learners for a world of work where compliance, certainty and conformity are required, and yet we continue with so many structures and processes in our system that resemble the foundations of the industrialised system that was designed for this purpose. The reforms of 1989 were certainly not intended to achieve this level of change – they simply shifted the locus of control in an order to create greater efficiencies in the system – continuing to do the old things but in new ways.

Our education system needs to be re-conceptualised – not simply improved. When the very foundations upon which it was put in place have been eroded or removed, the far bigger questions about the purpose, place and function of our educations system need to be given far greater scrutiny.

The reference to wineskins in my heading comes from the ancient practice of storing wine in containers made from the sins of animals (leather). After a while the skins became brittle and unsuitable for storing wine – and would often break apart when new wine was poured into them. We have to ask ourselves, is our system designed to do what we’re asking of it today?

What must we do?

This is probably the focus of an entirely separate blog post, and has certainly been the focus of some of my previous posts. For the sake of keeping this one short(-ish), I’ll simply list three things that I believe need to be worked on…

  1. Focus on our purpose – there’s a significant amount of ‘talking past each other’ goes on in debates around education reform. much of which can be traced back to a single issue – we’ve lost sight of what we agree is the purpose of education. Again, there are books written on this topic, but until we can collectively agree on this we’ll continue to talk past each other, and our efforts to reform will continue to be inhibited by personal interest and ‘lowest common denominator’ thinking.
  2. Understand systemness – few people I speak to have a comprehensive understanding of how our education system works. Not surprising, because each of us works within just a small part of it, and our ability to ‘helicopter back’ and see the whole is limited by our lack of personal experience across all parts of it. But understanding what the parts are is just the beginning, we need to collectively work towards understanding how the system ‘works’ and the impact that change in one part has on another part. This would be the ‘sweet spot’ at the centre of my diagram at the beginning of this post.
  3. Go slow to move fast – I wrote recently about this, using the quote from Abraham Lincoln on how he’d approach the challenge of chopping down a tree, using the first few days simply to sharpen the axe, so that the tree could be cut down on the final day with ease. This is where we need to devote time and energy on effective change management strategies, communicating effectively, bringing people on board, addressing anxieties and getting people excited about the vision – just as Amy Webb suggests in her framework.

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2 thoughts on “Reform resistance

  1. I would like to comment specifically on the paragraph, “Our education system needs to be re-conceptualised – not simply improved. When the very foundations upon which it was put in place have been eroded or removed, the far bigger questions about the purpose, place and function of our educations system need to be given far greater scrutiny.”

    It is interesting to think of the powerful influence of Christianity in the development of a universal public education system throughout the western world. eg major universities of the world have their origins based on Christian principles. The ideal of a free, inclusive education system for everyone arose from these principles and accompanying values.

    Given current political responses to the ideal of dealing with global population diversity these principles are being seriously challenged by large sections of western communities including powerful minority groups. Hence, we see a growing “charm” from traditional family / whanau backgrounds of “Home School” learning.”

    This is developing into a sort of rebellion against public education systems and the ideologies driving them where it is a cause for serious concern to greater numbers of families. Hence, a growing suspicion around “educational change” and where the pressures for change are coming from.

    I am personally wary of the acceptance of “change” as some sort of moral or higher order of intellectual ability. The values underpinning a “change” or change programme needs serious and widespread dialogue within communities. The current changes about to impact NZ education, I believe does not go far enough in this dialogue to provide the “scrutiny” needed for them to work effectively across the whole community. What does a “re-conceptulaised” education mean, what does it do to our kids, our whanau and community? Whose interests does it mostly serve? What underlying political, economic/business, religious/faith and cultural interests does it favour or not? How widespread across our NZ community are the foundations of the “change” accepted with enthusiasm and honest drive for success? How unifying are the changes?

    Yes, ‘change” is part of life but it is not a value in itself as high level moral imperative to be accepted without scrtiny.

    1. Thanks David for a very thoughtful response. I believe we may be well aligned on this one. My provocation for a reconceptualization is to achieve what you suggest… which we can only do if we go back to a and critically appraise the foundations upon which we currently operate. So many layers have been added in and assumptions made over time that we in serious danger of lurching from one form of structural reform to another without actually providing a positive shift in outcome for the people or system exists to serve.

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