We all want trees – now!

Image: Geoff McKay on Flickr CC2.0

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

Chinese Proverb

Whether we’re talking about climate change, the health system, education or environmental issues, a common refrain in much of the current rhetoric is the urgent need for action. This sense of urgency belies the fact that what needs to be done should have been started a long time ago, but by ignoring the signs, we’re now faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges in terms of the scale and complexity of the problems that lie before us – and our children.

Consider the following:

  • Climate Change: extreme weather events affecting our ability to sustain food supplies, erosion of our coastlines and rising sea levels, rising temperatures making parts of the planet uninhabitable – these are just some of the signs of the impact of climate change. Experts in the field are warning that we may have less than ten years to put in place measures that will mitigate these things happening. Warnings of this change have been sounded for well over a century now.
  • Health: Increasing demand for health services, an ageing population, advances in care and many more people having chronic (long-term) health conditions combined with a shortage of medical professionals and the growing inequity of provision for Māori and low socio-economic groups. This 2004 paper highlights these issues being raised nearly two decades ago.
  • Environment: The environment that sustains our life on this planet is under significant threat from things such as pollution, deforestation, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, plastics and soil erosion and degradation to name a few. These things haven’t just happened overnight – but the significance of the impact is escalating. While there have been occasions through the history of the planet involving environmental degradation caused by purely natural reasons, what we are facing now is an escalation due to the impact of human behaviour, referred to by many as the Anthropocene.
  • Education: The already existing challenges within education have become a lot more visible with the global pandemic. The outdated educational approaches, growing rates of truancy, lack of qualified teachers, and widespread inequity in terms of access to digital technologies are suddenly out in the open. The downward trends in achievement in critical areas such as literacy and widely observed lack of engagement are key indicators of the problems we’re facing here. This recent Forbes article on the education crisis summarises the issues well, and provides some useful advice for action regarding teacher recruitment and retention for example.

Our biggest challenge is that, as these problems are now reaching crisis levels, we want to see solutions immediately. We’re wanting to see a forest before us, but we should have begun by planting the seeds 20 years ago, as the Chinese proverb says.

We’re wanting to see a forest before us, but we should have begun by planting the seeds 20 years ago.

While the problems may seem quite daunting (and they are), our most responsible actions must be on planting the seeds today that will become the full solution into the future. Otherwise we’re simply adding to the overhead of responsibility that our children and their children will face – and the prospect of them looking up at me in my old age and asking ‘why didn’t you do something back then?’ doesn’t excite me.

Increasingly I am concerned (and frustrated) by the huge inertia and lack of action at all levels. It’s easy to point the finger at governments and Ministries, and blame their lack of effective strategy and action, and use that as an excuse as to why we can’t do anything at the local level. While I’m not excusing governments and Ministries – they certainly are culpable – we can’t use that as an excuse for a lack of action in any way with things that are within our own locus of control.

Consider, for example about the issue of plastic pollution and its rapidly escalating threat to our environment. When you think about the pressure there is now on supermarkets and product suppliers to cease using single-use plastics, and the successes seen over a relatively short period of time, we can take at least a modicum of encouragement. It wasn’t governments or even the supermarkets that lead this change – it was the people, everyday individuals who exercised their voice and changed their behaviours because of the conviction of belief they hold. As a result, we’re seeing a response from supermarkets, suppliers and government (albeit timid) to introduce changes in policy, process and structures to ‘normalise’ the use of materials other than plastic in the bags, containers and wrappings used. Not a forest yet, but seeds germinating?

So what about education? Everyday we are bombarded via the media with stories of the numbers of kids not attending school (almost 50% in some of our main centres at present); the drop in literacy levels, problems with retaining good quality teachers in our school, issues of inequity and racism to name just a few areas of concern!

From the perspective of our bureaucracies it’s not for lack of trying. A quick skim of the Ministry of Education’s website reveals a portfolio of initiatives that address all of these things (and more) – and includes the full agenda of recommendations that were made in the Tomorrows Schools Review! So why so little change – or at least, why such slow change?

It seems our ability to respond quickly and appropriately is hampered by several factors:

  • a fundamental lack of belief among some (many?) of the scale and potential impact of these problems. Often these things are regarded as someone else’s problem and don’t apply in ‘my context’. Further, this results in actions that are continually responsive rather than pro-active.
  • a lack of clear identification of the problem, its causes and the ways in which it might be addressed.
  • lack of goal clarity – with so many issues confronting us we can end up setting too many goals which leads to ‘goal juggling’, and the result that with so many goals to pursue nothing actually gets done.
  • a lack of a clearly understood (and adhered to) change process. Instead, we have change that is directed and implemented from the top down, without sufficient ‘buy-in’ and where the significant barriers to implementation haven’t been identified and addressed. (This applies within institutions as much as it does in systems as a whole).
  • poor models of leadership at all levels of the system – not speaking here of individuals, but of the leadership paradigm(s) that we operate within.
  • lack of future-focused thinking – and where this does exist, it quickly gets subsumed within the tyranny of the urgent, the things that are demanding our urgent attention, but whose impact is short term compared to the long game here. Quick-wins, fire-fighting and keeping people happy all seem to be the dominant drivers.
  • established patterns of behaviour that are simply too hard to shift – and so they become self-reinforcing. “It worked for me, so why shouldn’t it work for my kid?” etc.
  • bureaucratic structures that simply aren’t designed to be agile and responsive – their focus is on ensuring success, not innovation. They’re structured for risk aversion, rather than experimentation. For example, a five year programme to design a new curriculum may have served us well in the past, but represents the lifetime of an entire generation of students in a secondary school, and thus, if our current curriculum needs to change and isn’t sufficient, we are failing them while waiting for the ‘complete’ curriculum to emerge.
  • competing political agendas, driven by the desire to remain in power over the drive to actually make a difference – resulting in lots of ‘dry-run’ change, addressing the cosmetic/surface issues and short-term gains, aimed and winning voter approval over long-term success for learners and for our education system.

If you’ve read this far it may all sound a little gloomy – but this is our present reality. It’s my grand-kids I’m thinking of here – and already the eldest of those are at secondary school with only another three years before they graduate!

Could a ‘citizens revolt’ (from educators) contribute to turning around some of these escalating issues we face? What might that involve, and how could it be managed to ensure equitable and sustainable outcomes? And what, then, might (or should) be the response of governments, educational institutions and the Ministry?

Call to action

There are a number of things that I feel worth considering in light of this dilemma, none of which are solutions in themselves, but all of which are pre-requisites for at least starting to plant the seeds we need to grow into trees. In making these suggestions I’m thinking about the response of individuals – like you – whether that be teachers, parents, principals, system leaders… the change begins with each of us.

  • Be informed – it staggers me just how many educators and in particular, educational leaders I interact with who are so poorly informed about some of these issues. Knowledge is power, and without that you’re conceding that power to others. As recently as this week I heard an education leader explain to me she was simply too busy to keep up to date with this stuff. While I can certainly understand the pressures she may feel, it is disappointing to hear. When this is the case it actually adds to the stress being felt, because every new thing that emerges comes as a surprise and can’t be anticipated.
    We can’t rely solely on the evening updates on the TV news to keep abreast of the issues we need to be engaged with. And we most certainly need to engage widely, be informed of a broad range of perspectives, and apply the critical thinking capability we believe to be so important for our learners to the process of forming our own views and thinking. The environment scan on the FutureMakers website might be a useful start – it has dozens of links to other authoritative sources of information, including the OECD, UNESCO, World Bank etc.
  • Collaborate – don’t take this journey alone! Find your tribe and become engaged in conversations about these things. Find a safe environment in which these ideas can be unpacked, challenged and new thinking emerge. A professional learning group provides an ideal context here – best if there are a variety of voices and perspectives at the table, so it’s not just a group of like-minded ‘yes’ people. Consider also subscribing to some online news feeds and/or Twitter feeds for example, as a way of connecting to the thinking of others. This can be especially useful when you feel confident enough to hit the ‘reply’ button to ask a question or pose an alternative viewpoint.
  • Identify your theory of change – If your approach to change, whether in your classroom, your institution or agency, isn’t founded on a clearly understood and articulated theory of change, then it will fail. This will happen because you’ll simply go about it the way you have experienced in the past – and that is likely to have failed also! Most often we see change happen as a result of someone or group having a ‘good idea’ or coming up with a ‘plan’ for doing something different – then ‘imposing’ that on those who are expected to embrace the change. A good change strategy will include ways of building buy-in and bringing people (including the difficult ones) onside. It will also address the potential barriers and roadblocks, identifying ways of removing them or at least mitigating their impact. And then comes the interesting part – instead of simply expecting the change to be implemented according to some pre-determined plan, the approach should involve a culture of experimentation, with a higher tolerance of risk and mechanisms for spreading the successful ideas that emerge from this.
  • Be the change you want to see – before imposing what you feel needs to be changed on others consider what you need to do to change personally. To use the plastics example earlier, it’s pointless undertaking a crusade to end the use of single use plastics if you continue to be a high user of single use plastics yourself!
    As an educator, don’t expect others to engage critically with information you pass on to them unless you’ve cultivated that capability yourself. You’re unlikely to succeed in helping your students to become more self-managing if you don’t possess those skills. And you’re unlikely to create the conditions for collaboration if you haven’t committed to working collaboratively with others yourself – and that includes working alongside those you find difficult to work with!
  • Experiment!! – don’t just wait for someone else to do something, commit to giving something a go – and ensure you learn from the experience. Truth is that we learn from experience – not data. Data can inform our decisions and also validate the results of our experience, but it is a poor teacher. There’s a popular phrase used within the innovation sector – ‘fail fast, fix fast’. The challenge is to start by trying something that will address a particular problem or concern you have, be intentional about how you approach it and keep short accounts so you are constantly reviewing and refining the solution you have created – and be prepared to accept that sometimes you’ll fail. There’s no shame in walking away from something you’ve tried – as long as you’ve learned from that and can carry that learning into the next experiment you try.

These are just some of the seeds you can start sowing straight away – the forest will grow, but we have to start planting today!

E tu kahikatea
Hei whakapae ururoa
Awhi mai awhi atu
Tatou tatou e

Stand like the kahikatea (tree)
To brave the storms
Embrace and receive
We are one together

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