Copy and Paste

Image source: Derek Wenmoth

There’s something very appealing about taking something we see and admire and then copying it for ourselves, expecting it to look the same on us or have the same impact on our lives or context. This is a pattern of how we operate in so many areas of life – it is how changes in fashion are perpetuated, or the latest craze on tik tok or in home decorating etc. None of us is immune from the influences of the ‘copy and paste’ behaviour.

There are some downsides to this however. Like the time I bought a jacket because I thought it looked good on someone else – only to find it really didn’t suit my physique which was completely different from the original wearer. Or when you see a style of house you think you’d like to replicate only to find it isn’t a good ‘fit’ for the section you’ve purchased. A copy and paste solution may be very appealing, but seldom works as we’d hoped because of the lack of time spent considering context and need.

Changes in what’s fashionable confront us regularly as educators too. The latest approach to teaching literacy, the ‘new’ forms of inquiry, the focus on wellbeing are just some examples. Such initiatives are often led with an evangelistic fervour, with arguments made about the problems they provide solutions to and the benefits they will provide. Some become ‘movements’ as a result of popular acceptance, while others are ‘imposed’ because of political ideology.

The common thing about all of these things is that they are generally grounded in some deeper, philosophical positioning – proven or unproven. All too often, however, the urgency around adoption means that engagement with and testing of the deeper thinking behind the change is ‘left to the experts’ and the process of adoption at the school level becomes more of a ‘copy and paste’ exercise.

I recall this challenge a decade or so ago when the move to embracing modern learning environments became the fashion. I was very involved in this thinking at the time – and remain an advocate for what they enable educators to do and achieve. The concern, however, was the level of ‘copy and paste’ mindset I encountered. I was frequently approached by educators who were in a position where their school was being remodelled or rebuilt to provide them with examples of MLEs in other settings that they could take inspiration from.

Those making the inquiry fell into two camps from my experience.

The first were those who were genuinely interested in touring examples of MLEs so that they could engage with the principals, teachers and architects to better understand why they had designed things the way they had. Now that sort of inquiry I can support. Indeed, I was involved over a period of a couple of years of conducting tours of MLEs in Australia for NZ Educators. On those tours, working in conjunction with Australian consultant Dr Julia Atkin, we always had space in our programme for debriefing what we had observed and digging deeper to understand exactly why it had been designed that way. On the whole, these tours proved extremely beneficial for those who participated and the understandings they brought back with them to apply in their NZ context.

The second type of inquirer were those who were simply looking for something they could replicate (or not.) Among this group were the skeptics who were wanting to be shown proof of what could be achieved, and others who were a little like the crowd at a fashion show – looking to find examples of specific features of design that they could simply replicate in their own situation, believing that if they do that they’ll get the same benefits. Without deeply engaging with the philosophical thinking behind the design that would truly help them to apply the thinking to their own context, the process became more like a lolly shop scramble, picking out the things that appealed most that could be ‘copied and pasted’ in another context. The result, a lot of new school building and refurbishment that incorporated these features, but failed to meet the needs of the educators working in them because of the lack of buy-in around the ‘why‘.

And so today we continue to have fierce debates about MLEs with people taking adversarial positions on a continuum of support from enthusiastic embracers to skeptical deniers and defenders of the status quo. Such positional advocacy is difficult to resolve due to the copy and paste approaches that have been used and the lack of deep, grounded and tested engagement with the philosophical underpinnings.

It seems to me we’re at the same point in our evolution of systems thinking with the current focus on hybrid learning (something I’ve been thinking and writing extensively about here). The case for change is compelling given the disruption we’re experiencing currently in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is affecting educators at all levels of the system, and so the desire to find solutions is driven by an authentic need.

The response to that need, however, is too frequently expressed in a ‘copy and paste’ manner. The time frames are too short and the urgency to meet the need too demanding, that many educators simply want to be shown solutions that they can replicate.

The problem is that, without engaging deeply in the conversations about the why behind some of these solutions, they are treated simply as a short-term ‘band aid’, intended simply as a solution to ‘get us through’ the immediate term until the pandemic is over and we can get back to normal.

Like the introduction to MLEs, embracing the practices of hybrid learning requires a significant change of mindset for the long term. There are all sorts of consequences of making the sorts of changes that are being advocated – both intended and unintended. It cannot be treated as a simple copy and paste exercise based on the premise that it worked somewhere else so it will work here too.

Now I’m not suggesting that looking for ideas and inspiration from elsewhere isn’t useful. Indeed, I’m currently supporting the Ministry of Education in creating a collection of resources that do this very thing. The point is that they must not be regarded as solutions that can simply be copied and pasted to your own context and therefore work. Most of the stories gathered so far demonstrate the benefits of years of pedagogical development and learner centred approaches well before the pandemic broke out.

In summary, here’s my quick guide for how to approach the introduction of hybrid learning in your context…

  • Understand the drivers – Engage deeply in understanding the environment we’re currently in, and the short, medium and long term implications. Identify the drivers – at a global/national level, and in your own context.
  • Engage with the research – there was a plethora of data gathered from many contexts, both national and internationally, during the lockdowns, all of which revealed findings we need to be taking notice of. For so many issues identified there was a continuum of responses made, illustrating the need to be focused on both the pedagogical drivers and needs in local context as we design solutions.
  • Engage with other educators – become a part of the conversation in a Professional Learning Group (PLG) and hook into the conversations being held in other forums. Share ideas of what is working and what isn’t, and seek to understand why.
  • Engage with your community – find new ways to more fully involve your parents/whānau and community with two goals here. First, to create transparency around any change you may be introducing or advocating for, and ensuring their voice is included. Second, to more deeply understand the context and needs of each of the families in your community so that what you design with them will be appropriate and ‘workable’.
  • Engage your learners – current patterns of learner behaviour in our schools and kura suggest there are many ways in which our current learning environments and ways of working aren’t working for them. The current rates of truancy, classroom disengagement and distraction, and mental health statistics clearly point to this. Involving learners in the conversations is therefore an essential part of this process.
  • Learn from other contexts – there is now a growing list of case studies and examples, both nationally and internationally, of approaches being taken. Seek to understand the principles these are based on and the conditions that existed before the change was made. Understand the philosophical underpinnings before attempting to copy and paste what you see.
  • Create a plan – document your ideas, articulate your vision and beliefs, set short, medium and long term goals. Identify your champions, establish accountabilities and measures of success. Maintain communication with all stakeholders.
  • Experiment – as you identify strategies that could be applied in your context, treat them as an experiment – establish your hypothesis and be clear about what you are looking to achieve. Keen the timeframes short and be accountable for what happens. Be prepared to discontinue what’s not working as well as scaling what does.
  • Sustain your hybrid approach – systematically build your approach to hybrid learning based on the successes of your experiment, all the time ensuring alignment with the core beliefs and philosophical frameworks underpinning this. Find ways of ensuring an ongoing connection with and conversations about these things so that the practices don’t become simply the ‘traditions’ of tomorrow.

Two key principles to be observed throughout:

  • Keep everyone involved – relationships are the pivot on which all of this activity rests. Maintaining opportunities for two-way communication at all levels and empowering agentic behaviours is key.
  • Avoid ‘copy and paste’ at all costs!

One thought on “Copy and Paste

  1. A very useful guide on how to approach the development of hybrid learning in the context of a particular learning ecology.-or for fostering meaningful engagement in any change process.

    Well before Mrs Beeton, Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery (1747), gave other cooks good advice re preparing rabbit or hare stew, stressing the need to “first to catch the hare.”

    Initially the focus needs to be on clarifying and defining the particular challenge, issue or initiative before turning the heat on your vision, strategy and plans. .

    Microwaving pre-cooked solutions imported from a different environment is not the same as being open to learn from the experience of others but starting from scratch with a slower but more effective process of your own.

    Incorporating the ingredients in this post will fully engage your own colleagues in evolving your own recipe for successful change..

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