Why is transformation difficult?

Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash

“Transformation is a process, and as life happens there are tons of ups and downs. It’s a journey of discovery – there are moments on mountaintops and moments in deep valleys of despair.”

Rick Warren

My previous post on transformation vs reform has attracted lots of feedback in a variety of forums, so I thought I’d follow up with this one, posing the question, ‘why is transformation so difficult?’

On the face of it there appears to be growing agreement around the need for transformation in education. The UN Transforming Education Summit in New York last month brought people together from around the world to work on ensuring that education can be, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres put it, “a source of personal dignity and empowerment and a driving force for the advancement of social, economic, political, and cultural development.”  The five themes for action emerging from this conference will resonate with education leaders at the school and system level, and should be the focus of our current efforts in educational transformation.

Another international initiative, launched by Big Change UK, the Brookings Institution, and the Lego Foundation is asking people to join the Big Education Conversation which aims to stimulate millions of conversations globally to transform education.

Despite such calls it would appear that in a number of jurisdictions (including New Zealand) the focus remains on activity designed to improve or reform the existing structures and ways of doing things rather than transformation. This approach appears to be driven by the need to remediate what the data reveals as falling and/or highly variable levels of achievement among learners. Now on this I agree. It should indeed be a focus of any education system, and I fully support that. Both system and school leaders should be concerned about the impact they are having on learners and their learning – and this will mean looking at the evidence of test scores among other things.

The cause of such declines is a matter of intense debate. Lack of investment is one argument put forward – World Bank recently reporting that two thirds of poorer countries are cutting education budgets due to COVID-19. In developing countries such as New Zealand there are frequent calls for higher pay for teachers in recognition of their workload.

On the other hand we see blame laid at the feet of teachers, with calls for improving the quality of pre-service teacher education programmes and changes to pedagogical practice – often resulting in a greater emphasis on direct instruction and prescriptive teaching methods in an attempt to remediate what is perceived to be a lack of trust in the professionalism of individual educators. Aside from the concerns about teacher quality, it would seem that the expectations of the job now exceed the ability of most teachers to deliver on, with reports of increasing teacher shortages as teaching becomes a less attractive profession.

The there are examples of decisions being made about the future of schools based on their impact on the economy, such as in Australia where there are calls for education to be made a national priority, based on the argument that education is the most important key to sustainable recovery from current global crises.

Other forms of political idealism can also come to play. For example, in Ontario, Canada, a release from the Chiefs of Ontario reveals cuts to Ontario’s new elementary science curriculum where Indigenous science and technology has been struck from the curriculum for the 2022 school year.

These are just some examples of the things that demand change in our education system. The challenge comes with how they are addressed. Simply improving or reforming the current state may not be sufficient – particularly given the the fact that it is the current state that presents us with the concerns we see escalating. With the exception, perhaps, of some tried and true, ultra-traditional schools who have the privilege of serving a select group of students, the evidence suggests that the challenges across our education system have become increasingly complex and not easily be resolved by simply doing better what we’ve always done.

Here are five reasons I can see that make the pursuit of a transformation agenda difficult:

1. The end-game isn’t certain

A programme of transformation isn’t about steadfastly pursuing a pre-determined ‘future state’. Rather, it’s about setting a trajectory towards a desired end-state, and being prepared to adapt to and leverage the things that work and/or emerge in the process. It requires short cycles of experimentation with a rigorous process of evaluation and sharing of ideas. And it can’t be captured in the ‘box’ of a typical politically-determined change cycle. Our traditional approach to large-scale change programmes so often follows the conventional process of determining the future state, establishing goals, defining outcomes and then working in defined ways to achieve this. Transformation doesn’t work this way. The future state is less clear when you begin, and is determined through trial and error as new information is gathered.

2. It is difficult to measure.

It can take a long time for substantive change (higher level results) to materialize and we don’t necessarily know exactly what it will look like, how to measure it and, indeed, how to capture our contribution to it. Measuring system transformation and the path towards it is really difficult. Furthermore, the paths towards deep and broad change in a system are rarely clear (and never linear), and this makes it difficult to know if we are on the right track and whether activities and early results (e.g. tangible products and new skills) may generate substantive change further down the road.

3. It challenges the status quo.

Humans, by nature, are creatures of habit. We are most comfortable working and living where things are familiar and (relatively) predictable. This helps to conserve our brain energy by putting certain parts of our brains on autopilot. Breaking these habits requires energy, and we are hardwired to manage our energy very carefully.  Life is hard, so once we have achieved some form of stability, status, material belongings and predictability, most people generally want to keep hold of it. The future state is usually so radically different to the current state that the people and culture must change to implement it successfully.

4. It requires different skills and methodologies

A part of our comfort with the status-quo is the fact that we can are able to use the knowledge and skills that have served us well to date. When involved in transformation we have to learn different ways of doing what we need to do. This is because the methods we are familiar and comfortable with no longer achieve what’s required, or worse, they become a ‘handbrake’ to what we’re doing. We have to embrace different approaches to change, and value and learn different skills on the how skilled are we, as a collective, to deliver transformations. In particular, we have to understand the power of the collective, and embrace short-cycle, experimental approaches to exploring solutions that work. This requires letting go of the traditional hierarchical approaches to leadership and ways of working and recognising the power of distributed and networked leadership. Everyone has transformation potential however, who has the “playbook” and are we taught it through our careers? 

5. It’s a long game

Transformation requires a commitment to achieving a long-term aspiration. Disruptions may accelerate the process, and even reveal or create new opportunities, but we need to be always driven by the aspirational end-state that is based on principles to do with the benefits for humanity and our planet. Transformational thinking and activity is difficult to sustain in an environment where short term results are prioritised over long term gains, where leaders are incentivised to deliver short term results over long term growth. It takes a strong sense of collective commitment to break this pattern of activity which has become prominent in our modern societies where short-term, personal gain is prioritised over the good of the collective and of future generations.

One thought on “Why is transformation difficult?

  1. We could all probably learn a lot from agile software development where the end game might not be well defined but iterative cycles of design and development allow for regukar inputs from stakeholders along the way and the opportunity to change course without a whole lot of sunk cost and effort

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