Reform vs Transformation

Image: Centre for Strategic Education, Victoria

“We need transformation, not reform. Reform produces a better version of the current system, transformation produces a different system”

(Dr Asmaa Al-Fadala
Director of Research, World Innovation Summit for Education)

I’ve just been reading the latest WISE All-in Report: Number 2 – Education Reimagined: Leadership for Transformation – Leading into the Emerging Future. It contains 23 brief case studies with lessons learned, research evidence and findings. These showcase innovation in leadership, policy and practice on how emerging models teaching and learning can be developed and led from the inside-out—and demonstrate the power of distributed empowerment and transformative leadership

The following notes are from the email I received introducing me to the report:

 Numerous crises are going on in our world today: health, climate change, and access to quality education, and this was already true before COVID-19. These crises affect how we teach, what we teach, and the skills we’ll need now and in the future.

As a result, there is a growing global movement for educational transformation and an international agreement that young people need to be prepared for a complex and dynamic future. Because of this, we require a transformation agenda rather than a reform strategy. We must reconsider the design of what we teach and how we teach, by involving educators and learners as co-designers of learning.

Since 2017, WISE Agile Leaders of Learning Innovation Network (ALL-IN) has had the privilege of bringing together a global community of people who share a commitment to supporting schools and systems in their transitions toward resilient and future-thriving learning environments that maximize learner outcomes and wellbeing. 

As a result of these efforts this all-new report has been created, highlighting the need for transformational leadership to be part of the education agenda. 

This is a welcome publication at a time when our world’s future may seem increasingly uncertain, volatile and complex – and when we are also able to increasingly benefit from the insights and impact from pioneers exploring effective strategies and pathways to new learning environments and educational ecosystems for our modern world.

The concept of transformation has been referred to in a lot of educational literature in recent years, but almost always (at least from my experience), two key problems emerge.

Firstly, the lack of transformational leadership. As stated in the report, leading for innovation is about what might be possible, leading for transformation is about how do we get there. Which leads to…

Second, when left to traditional bureaucracies to change, the implementation approach falls back into patterns of ‘reform’ or ‘improvement’ which we’ve seen ample evidence of in past decades.

When referring to bureaucracies I recognise the role they play, however, the success rate for large, bureaucratic change efforts is alarmingly low as highlighted in a 2018 McKinsey survey of nearly 3,000 public officials across 18 countries that found around 80 percent of government efforts to transform performance don’t fully meet their objectives.

Of course, the distinction between transformation and reform/improvement isn’t new. Back in 2013 I wrote about the two agendas driving education which included a table comparing what I thought, at the time, was a way of understanding the differences between the two. In that post I said;

The fundamental difference between the agendas is – on the one hand, the improvement agenda is looking at taking what we currently do and making it more effective and efficient. On the other, the transformation agenda starts with questioning the very nature of what we are currently doing. 

The time has come for courageous leadership in our education system. High speed networks won’t transform it. Better trained teachers won’t transform it. Better curriculum and assessment methods won’t do the job. Neither will heaps of iPads, interactive whiteboards or wireless environments. (Although some or all of these things may be present in a transformative approach).

System transformation begins in changing minds, changing attitudes, and filling people’s imaginations with visions of what can be. It’s not about starting with systems and structures, but about vision and values, and dreams of where we want to be. And there’s no pre-determined model or answer – it must be created through the collective experience and wisdom of all involved. 

Almost a decade later I still hold the same view.

Clearly, the need for transformational leadership is key. Across the cases in this report, the authors identify the following insights as catalysts for transformative leadership.

  • The impact of role modelling and a transformative teacher must be supported in their ‘whole’ development, just as a leading teacher moulds
    a student in various aspects of life, such as intellectual, emotional, social and technological perspectives.
  • Training and development are essential elements to equip teachers to adopt teaching pedagogies, such as play techniques, experiential learning and empathy-based pedagogies.
  • Teachers need to understand diversity and recognise their biases, which in turn help to inspire creativity, unlock empathy and nurture life skills amongst their students.
  • Collaborative teaching and the use of ICT are essential to support transformative practices.

These are the qualities and characteristics we must be looking for in the leaders in our schools and our system as we seek to address the complex issues that challenge us. No amount of improvement or reform is going to achieve that.

I found the list of questions asked in the final chapter particularly useful as prompts that could be used for personal reflection as leaders, and to promote meaningful conversations within school communities or among education leaders at a regional or national level:

  • What is your innovation strategy?
  • How does leadership development in your context contribute to the transformation of learning?
  • How am I supporting our school culture to embrace and leverage an innovation mindset?
  • How might we empower our teachers, learners and community to be the lead innovators,
    and help design and implement our innovative pathway to learning at our school in 2022 and beyond?
  • What tangible steps are you taking to intentionally cultivate Transformational Leadership – through cultivating new capabilities, teacher and team resources, and external networks and alliances – in your organisation or system?
  • What stands in the way of that?
  • Who can you collaborate with?
  • What is one thing that makes you hopeful about the future?

2 thoughts on “Reform vs Transformation

  1. Thanks for these questions Derek. Cannot wait to reflect on what this means for my leadership and how I ‘hopefully’ continue to be transformative.

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