Courage and collectivity

Photo by Maja Kochanowska on Unsplash

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.

Albert Einstein.

Educational change has been a hot topic across the globe over the past decade or so. There are now libraries of books on the subject, and post-graduate degrees specialising the area. But despite all of this, achieving change seems a daunting task.

There are a couple of important things to consider here. What change are we trying to achieve, and (more importantly) why?

A quick look at the discourse around change in many countries (including NZ) would suggest that a key driver is improving the outcomes for learners – arguably a fundamental goal of any education system. The logic seems to run along the lines of… “national or international data suggests our kids are falling behind (in math, science, insert own topic here) so we must change things up in order to get better results.”

A typical response to how we can achieve what is required might involve one or more of the following:

  • increasing teacher professional development – to make our teachers better, so they teach more effectively.
  • provide better resources and better assessment approaches so that we are measuring progress better.
  • introduce a new (better?) curriculum with clearly identified standards that ‘raise the bar’ and help hold teachers and schools accountable for meeting these expectations.
  • provide more specialist teachers and assistance to support those who aren’t doing as well.
  • etc.

Such responses are all too familiar to those of us who have worked in the education system for a while. All too often they come with expectations of seeing improvement in very short time-frames (usually associated with the term of political office). All very unfortunate as the problems being addressed have often taken a generation or two to develop, so solving them is not likely to happen quickly. (Consider the issue with mathematics teaching over many generations for example.)

It’s not as if this is the first time we’ve faced such demand for change. Our educational system has responded to great challenges in the past. It has navigated the transition from an agricultural to an industrial society. It has responded to the challenges of the digital age the increasingly futures that young learners will face. But no matter how much effort we put into making this change happen, it never seems to be sufficient, or happening fast enough. Probably because the drivers are relentlessly changing is scope and scale!

The global COVID-19 pandemic has pulled back the curtain on what our students are doing at school and exposed weaknesses in many of the philosophical understandings that guide our work (both explicitly and implicitly), and in the structures and processes that define how we work with our students, and the expectations we have of them as learners.

While some are expecting a ‘return to normal’, others argue that we must use this opportunity to critically examine some of the deeply held beliefs and traditions of our schooling system. How might we need to think differently about how schools are organised? About the curriculum we provide? About the roles of teachers and learners? How do concepts such as learner agency, learner voice and transferrable skills fit within our vision of education for the future?

One area for certain would be a rigrous examination of our curriculum, to ensure that the emphasis on what we are teaching is indeed aligned with what our young learners need in order to prepare them for the future – a point well made by the OECD’s Andeas Schleicher in a recent interview:

But here’s the issue – our current system isn’t particularly well designed for this sort of approach. We’re much more comfortable with the ‘stable state’, where the future is more predictable and the outcomes we aspire to more determined. So while we may celebrate wonderfully aspirational vision and mission statements adorning our school charters, the actual work on the ground often fails to live up to these things – particularly at secondary school where meeting the demands of high stakes assessment so quickly displaces any future focused aspiration for many teachers.

Th importance of taking a transformative approach is captured well in a report from the Education Review office that emphasises the role of leaders in this:

Effective leaders have a clear vision of the transformation they wish to bring about, identifying what the key skills and learnings are that will best equip their learners for their future. They are effective change managers, managing the significant change necessitated to transform pedagogy and maximise the benefits offered by modern learning environments and digital technology. Leaders have to take their school community with them, so they appreciate why change is happening and can support it, and make sure the change is sustained.

ERO – Innovative learning in NZ schools (2018)

The key thing about this statement is the emphasis on taking the school community with you – that includes everyone; staff, students, parents/whānau – and anyone else that has a stake in the outcomes of the school and its operation. Leading change cannot be left to individuals – it is a collective enterprise. Whether you are a positional leader (e.g. principal, head of department, chair of a BoT etc.) or leading by virtue of the responsibilities you hold in guiding and nurturing our young people (e.g. teacher, parent, teacher’s aide etc.) you are involved and need to be included in this collective endeavour.

Michael Fullan has led the thinking and action about change in education for more than two decades now, emphasising the importance of collectivity in all of this if we are to achieve what we want or indeed, need to achieve…

‘The interface between individual and collective meaning and action in everyday situations is where change stands or falls.’

(Fullan, 2006)

The fact is that no government, Ministry of Education or even private corporation can effect meaningful, sustainable, scalable change as a matter of decree and ‘top down’ decision making. Sure, these groups are vitally important in creating and supporting the conditions for change, but the real work happens at the ‘chalk face’, the daily interactions within schools – between and among teachers, students and parents/whānau. That is where the magic happens – but it’s also where things can become ‘choked’ by the lack of collective buy-in to a mutually agreed vision and purpose and by the overwhelming-ness of the need to meet the ever increasing demands of a bureaucracy that is attempting to compensate for a perceived lack of movement towards some of its goals.

There’s the impasse – and it’s not new. Too much being ‘done to’ and not enough ‘doing with’.

We all have to see addressing change as a part of the responsibility we share – and not leave it to someone else to figure out. It’s all about having courage, and demonstrating collectivity.

One thought on “Courage and collectivity

  1. Great article Derek and very timely. The research on education system transformation is rich but there remain big questions about how the collective impulse may be sparked and harnessed. If the government agency cannot do this via new curricula or policy as this would be inherently top down, how do the “leaders from the middle” generate collective coherence when the sector is so fragmented?

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