Recombinant Education

Photo by Rohit Choudhari on Unsplash

Just as genetic recombination increases diversity by producing new forms of DNA, so too education recombination promises to bolster the learning ecosystem’s resilience, helping it withstand threats and make use of possibilities”


I recently had the privilege of helping facilitate two days of workshops hosted by the Education Partnerships and Innovation Trust (EPIT) in Auckland, where Valerie Hannon both inspired and challenged those present to transform what we are doing as a system. She referenced the five signposts from her recently published paper with Tony McKay, and used examples from school systems around the world that are illustrated in her book Future School.

These workshops provided a refreshingly different perspective on how we might address the challenges we are facing – by applying research-based design principles to enable schools to evolve into the future. More than ever we need to be looking out to the sign-posts that might guide us towards a future state that will ensure our young people can thrive in the future.

In my view the ‘back to basics’ political debates about the future of education in New Zealand are sadly lacking in thinking at a transformational level. So much is simply a re-hash of failed strategies of the past, or focusing narrowly on the ‘micro’ aspects of teaching and learning to ‘fix’ key problem areas such as lowering literacy and numeracy achievement, while side-stepping the ‘macro’ issues and to look at the bigger questions around what we’re trying to achieve in our education system in the first place, and whether our current approach remains fit for purpose?

The need to focus on our purpose was central to everything Valerie shared during these days. In her previous book, Thrive, Hannon advocates a new purpose for education in a rapidly changing world, and analyses the reasons why change is urgently needed in our education systems. In her paper with Tony McKay, she argues that that a new form of leadership is urgently needed to reshape our educational systems in a post-Covid environment. Hannon and McKay argue it is clear that leadership in education is entering a new phase. They say..

Leadership is more important than ever, but is faced with profound challenges: the legacy of health-related disruption; unacceptable and unsustainable growth in inequality; mental health problems amongst learners and teachers; leadership burnout; and difficulties in recruitment. At the same time, the rapid development of convergent technologies and the awakening of new sensibilities, taken together with new sources of power, offer the most astounding opportunities for humankind – if only we can grasp them.

Reflecting on the conversations that were had at the EPIT event reminds me that the future is not a fixed point – it is ours to create! But this doesn’t happen by simply sitting by and hoping. As Valerie encouraged us, we need to be actively scanning the environment for the trends and disruptions that are likely to influence that future, and then act accordingly – something I’ve addressed elsewhere with my Empty Seats and Environment Scan publications. 

I’ve been very drawn to the notion of an ‘ecosystem’ design for education for many years now – something that Valerie has also provided strong thought leadership about through her work as co-chair of the Global Education Leaders Partnership (GELP) of which I’m a member. For me, this sort of thinking – that maps and values all of the players and influences on our education system – is where we must start if we’re to succeed with transforming it. We can no longer be satisfied with simply looking at things in silos, and attempting to provide point solutions for the things we observe to be needing support.

Over a decade ago, KnowledgeWorks his relatively short publication from KnowledgeWorks titled Recombinant Education, providing a really useful breakdown and forecast of five disruptions that the authors predicted would reshape learning over the next decade. Like the work of Hannon and McKay, it summarises the challenge (emphasis mine):

An explosion of innovation has been transforming how we think about learning and how we organize talent and resources for learning experiences and has effectively unbundled “school” as we knew it. The tightly bound relationships and resource flows that used to deliver instruction, develop curriculum, perform assessment, grant credentials, and provide professional development are dissolving. Teaching and learning have become uncoupled from traditional educational institutions and are now available through and enhanced by a vibrant learning ecosystem.

Recombinant Education

What captured my attention here was the word in the title – Recombinant. If teaching and learning has truly become ‘uncoupled’ in the way they suggest, then the idea of somehow re-combining this myriad of new education innovations, organizations, resources and relationships in new sequences to create a diverse and evolving learning ecosystem.

This piece from the paper’s introduction puts it well:

At its best, recombinant education will discover diverse organizational forms and learning formats that find many ways to integrate talent, community assets, and global resources in support of student-centered learning. New ways of reassembling what seem like disparate pieces — and of incorporating new kinds of inputs — have the potential to usher in a world of learning that provides rich personalization for every learner throughout a lifetime.

Recombinant Education

The paper outlines five disruptions that the authors predict will impact our education system over the following decade – and considering this paper was published a decade ago, it’s worth reading today with the benefit of hindsight and consider the extent to which these disruptions have in fact occurred, and, how important it is that we continue to press forward to the a ‘regenerated ecosystem’.

I recommend you read the paper and consider in particular, the opportunities and challenges that are highlighted on the pages that detail each of the disruptions identified. Each resonates powerfully with what’s impacting our system right now, and the imperative to act hasn’t diminished.

The impact of COVID and the extreme weather events here in New Zealand and in other parts of the world (neither of which were a ‘thing’ when this paper was written) are examples of disruptions that have caused major disruption to our education system. They have exposed the vulnerability of schools as isolated entities, and an education system that operates in its own silo of activity. To achieve a ‘future state’ that is resilient and capable of responding to future disruptions, we have to do better at implementing an ecosystem response as suggested by Knowledgeworks, Hannon & McKay and others.

Bottom line is this – we have a choice to make. As disruption continues to impact our education system, are we prepared to make the tough calls and make the significant and bold steps required to operate as an ecosystem? Or will we continue to shift the deck-chairs on the titanic and put our faith in yet more cycles of ‘back to basics’ campaigns that will continue to fail our kids and their future?

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