Don’t look up!

Photo by Eunice Lituañas on Unsplash

At this exact moment I say we sit tight and assess.”

Meryl Streep in ‘Don’t Look Up’

One of the things that being laid low with COVID does is provide the opportunity to catch up with watching a few movies or TV series. For me, it was an opportunity to watch the film Don’t Look Up, featuring a high profile cast, including Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio. If you haven’t seen it the trailer below provides a taste of the plot…

Regardless of what your view of the artistic merits of the movie are, it does highlight an important message about the impact of both incremental threats such as climate change as well as sudden and pervasive disruptions like COVID-19 on all aspects of our lives. Critically, in my mind, the film is a reminder of how important it is that we should be mindful of and monitoring local and global trends to better understand and prepare for their likely impact.

There’s a classic line early in the movie from Meryl Streep in her role as the President of the USA who, faced with the news of the almost certain devastation of the planet due to the impending impact of a comet, says: “At this exact moment I say we sit tight and assess.”

While humorous in the context of the movie, this sort of obfuscation and denial of the reality of the disruption only adds to any crisis being faced. This is true not only in the face of things such as climate change, economic melt-downs and global market adjustments, but also in the area of education where we are facing a range of our own ‘comets’ which are threatening our ability and capacity to address the needs of those seeking to learn within it – and the teachers also!

Consider these as some of the ‘comets’ facing our education system currently…

  • Declining literacy and numeracy rates across the board
  • Māori and Pacific student underachievement
  • Lack of student engagement
  • Inequity manifest in many ways
  • Decline in workforce capacity and capability
  • Increased teacher workload
  • Cyber-security threats and breaches
  • Increased truancy and non-attendance
  • Wellbeing challenges for staff and students
  • School closures due to pandemics, weather events, security concerns etc.

These things regularly feature on the agenda of gatherings of national associations, kahui ako meetings, staff hui and MoE consultation. Some of these things have been growing as concerns incrementally over several years, while others are felt as a sudden or immediate crisis. All are affecting our ability to operate effectively as schools and as a system to varying extents, and all have at least one form of strategic response involving the resourcing of a solution in some way.

Unlike an earthquake or similar crisis where the impact is immediate and often devastating, the impact of most of these ‘comets’ is accumulating over time. Like the president in Don’t Look Up, our system response has been more of a ‘wait and assess’ strategy, or at best, involves actions that address the immediate symptoms rather than deeply engaging with the root cause. To do that we need to be engaging more meaningfully and thoughtfully with the signals and trends that provide us with the foresight we need to be able to do something of more lasting value.

Earlier this year I published an Education Environment Scan in an attempt to draw attention to the range of broader issues, concerns and trends that are likely to impact in some way on our work as educators into the future. The image below summarises these things while you can download the document to read about each of these in more detail.

Education Environment Scan 2022

I regularly receive feedback on my blog posts and articles written – on the whole reflecting on how it’s been useful and helping inform action in local contexts. This this document, however, the feedback was a little different, ranging from almost silence at one end of the scale, to others who, while appreciating the work that I’d put into it, found the whole thing too overwhelming or confronting. And like most of us, when feeling overwhelmed or working in areas beyond our ‘locus of control’ the response has been to simply not engage with it and hope that somewhere, someone for whom all of this matters, is going to do something – meanwhile, we’ll just sit tight and assess.

What I’d hope is that we’d see some more critical and professional dialogue emerge, and that documents such as mine (and there are plenty of other, similar ones out there) might be interrogated by Professional Learning Groups as a part of their collaborative inquiries – at local school level, within communities, professional organisations and even the MoE. The end goal is to build a level of awareness, and to be able to engage in seeking solutions in an informed and broadly scoped manner.

It’s not a case of simply absorbing the information in the same way as we cram for exams. It’s about processing the information through critical analysis and discourse, and then to collectively use this to build a picture of future possibilities and impacts to then help identify and prioritise actions for the future.

These are the things that will affect the work we do as educators, the future of our educational institutions and, perhaps most importantly, the future that we’re ostensibly preparing our young people to grow up into and flourish! As their mentors, coaches and designers of future-focused learning experiences, we simply cannot afford ‘not to look up’!

Try this with some colleagues

If you’re looking for a way to work with these issues try the following:

  1. Print out a copy of the Environment Scan document and separate out each of the 8 areas.
  2. Assign each of the 8 areas to a group of colleagues (i.e. 8 groups) and invite them to ‘go deep’ into what is summarised in the area they’ve been given. Allow them to explore further by consulting other sources of information as required.
  3. Each group then identifies the 3-5 most significant issues in their dimension and lists these on a sheet of paper
  4. For each issue the group then brainstorms the ways in which this issue may/will impact on (a) the structure and operation of our schools/learning organisations and (b) the future lives of learners
  5. Invite each group to report back to the full meeting. Keep a list of all of the issues as they are presented so that everyone can see as the list grows.
  6. Once all of the feedback has been received (and allowing time for discussion) invite everyone to ‘vote’ on what they regard as the most pressing issues (noting that everyone will have different reasons for making her/his choice). This could be done by a simple show of hands, or you could be more creative by handing out small strips of sticky dots (say, 5 per person) and inviting them to place their dots beside the issues they believe are most important. (NB they can place all of their dots beside a single issue if it that important to them!)
  7. Once the voting is complete, identify the top 5 – 10 issues (depending on the time available and size of group) and copy these onto the template illustrated below and then make enough copies for sharing one between two people.

8. In pairs, use the template to complete the following:

  • In column one, list the trend/issue/concerns that were prioritised in step 6 above.
  • Column two – “Likelihood” – use a scale of 1-5 (1=low likelihood, 5=extremely likely) to illustrate how likely you feel this trend/issue/concern is going to occur.
  • Column three – “Impact” – again, use a scale of 1-5 (1=not significant, 5=devastating) to illustrate the impact this trend/issue/concern would have it were to occur.
  • Column four is where you can spend time discussing then the sorts of things you can be doing as educators or as a school to mitigate these impacts, particularly areas which rate both high in terms of likelihood and impact! In contemplating these responses consider actions that may be considered ‘reactive’ (i.e. fixing the problem as it presents itself) and those that are ‘proactive’ (i.e. designed to mitigate the future impacts and ensure preparedness for any eventual impact that occurs).

There are a whole lot of directions you can take things from here, and I’m sure the innovative minds among those reading this will be quick to think of them and take things further. The obvious next step would involve designing specific actions to be taken and assigning resource, time-frame and responsibilities. Some of this might lead to establishing collaborations beyond the school, or it might involve consideration of the ‘local curriculum’ design to ensure there is provision in there for students to develop the dispositions required to accommodate and address these things into the future.

I’d love to hear back from anyone who uses the Environment Scan in this way and of the response of staff. Similarly, if you’d like more personalised support to pursue this thinking further please feel free to contact me at
Meantime, when you find yourself in a meeting where someone suggests you should ‘sit tight and assess’, take the opportunity to look up!

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