The challenges we face in education

Apparently it’s not politically correct to discuss our current education system as being in ‘crisis’ – after all, the days of COVID lockdown are behind us and we’re now focused on ‘returning to normal’. However, it goes without saying that we are facing considerable challenges in our education system at present.

Across all contexts, from the local school to the national organisation – and to the global context – discussion forums, reports and working groups are emerging, addressing things such as teacher workload, the engagement of learners, the decline in achievement for many students, the increasing inequity affecting groups of learners and the relevance of what is being learned in preparing our learners for an uncertain future (to mention just a few!).

While none of these things on their own may represent a crisis, looked at collectively there is certainly a level of deep concern we must have about the very foundations of our system and its ability to remain ‘solvent’ (to apply a business metaphor) into the future.

The focus on ‘solving the problems of education’ was certainly high on the agenda of the various political parties in the recent election, and it would seem like we’re in for yet another round of the ‘solutions’ that have been tried in the past or in other jurisdictions – all of which adds to the sense of ‘overwhelm’ that is a key part of the issue.

So it was with interest that I read this morning the latest report from NZCER titled Secondary Principals’ perspectives from NZCER 2022 National Survey of Schools. It provides some useful insights into how our secondary principals are feeling about the current sate of play within our schools and system.

NSS report cover

Not surprisingly, the issue of workload and job satisfaction is identified in this report as a key issue, with 80% principals saying they enjoy their job, but only 9% thought their workload is manageable.

Twenty-two percent thought their high workload prevented them from doing justice to their school. 76% of principals believe that too much is being asked of schools, and 80% of principals would rather have more time to focus on educational leadership, and 73% want more time to reflect, read, and be innovative .

Aside from concerns about workload, the main issue facing schools reported by principals is providing support for vulnerable students (see list on page 29) – followed by the difficulties in recruiting high quality teachers and keeping up with changes in curriculum etc. These themes are familiar to any of us working in education – both here in NZ and internationally, for example, the post-COVID reports from the OECD that highlight similar issues in member countries.

The identification of these issues aligns completely with the findings of a survey conducted earlier this year, recorded in the Roadblocks and Drivers report available on the FutureMakers website.

In this report one of the ‘meta-trends’ identified was ‘overwhelm‘ – describing a state of being mentally or emotionally unable to cope with a situation or demand due to feeling excessively burdened, stressed, or pressured. (Sound familiar? Seems around 91% of secondary principals feel this way!)

In this report the following issues were identified as either drivers of change in our education system, or roadblocks preventing the change from happening:

Politics/policy (mandated change)
External influences
Addressing existing issues
Future focus/building agility
Responsive practice
Individual qualities and attitudes
Disconnect (relevance, authenticity)
External influences
Leadership (lack of or quality)
Teachers (supply and capability)
Roadblocks and Drivers report, page 5

Unlike the NZCER report which simply provides a robust and objective reporting of the feedback from the secondary principals surveyed, the Roadblocks and Drivers report attempts to provide some practical suggestions – based on the feedback of survey participants – as to what could be pursued in your context in order to address some of these things. This could be a useful start point for readers of this post.

The key point I’d want to make is that the long term solution won’t be found in simply ‘fiddling at the edges’ with what we’re already doing. That’s the very thing that’s causing so many of the problems in the first place, and as the oft-quoted line goes, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting things to change!” We need to see transformative change, but not ‘imposed’ as a transformation initiative – rather, transformations that occur within local contexts, supported through a climate of positive support for risk-taking and experimentation, and with further support to scale and sustain the things that are successful.

One danger is that we regard transformation as a ‘programme’ to be implemented. We look to implement large-scale, top-down changes, often in the form of a model or idea that has been tried somewhere else, but without the substantive evidence to demonstrate it will work in a different context (assuming it has worked in the original context.) While I’m the first to endorse the idea of looking broadly for ideas and inspiration from other jurisdictions and contexts, in my experience, there are no silver bullets. Too often we see models and ideas imported from elsewhere, which, even with the best of intentions, end up serving the needs of certain groups of people and further disenfranchising those vulnerable and underserved in the first place. The idea, for instance, of establishing a new school outside the parameters of the existing school network may prove an effective way of demonstrating how change may be achieved, but too often it ends up simply privileging those who are able to attend that particular school (whether through financial contribution – i.e. fees – or by luck of geographic location), with no plan in place to further scale the things that work to benefit the broader population of students in our network of schools.

My thoughts on this can be summarised as:

  1. Many of the solutions we are seeking already exist somewhere in our system – they’re just not widely recognised, resourced or valued yet. Further, our persistence with top-down, bureacratically-driven models of change mitigate against learning from the innovation at the ‘chalk-face’.
  2. The people most likely to be able to contribute to solution-finding and development are those who are closest to where the solutions are required – i.e. teachers in classrooms and leaders in schools. We need to find ways of engaging them in processes that release these ideas and energy, to build solutions for the future. Basically we need to learn to trust our teachers – and they need to trust the system. It’s a fundamentally symbiotic relationship.
  3. As long as we remain compliance-driven we will continue to act in obedience to the top-down models of change that prevail in our system. We need to allow all educators to operate with a sense of agency, empowered to make choices and act on those choices in how they work with students – but recognise that agency also has a collective dimension, so this isn’t about promoting individualism, but collectivism as an outcome.
  4. At all levels of our system, we need to learn the skills of negotiation – of being active in the process of collective decision-making, and then being committed to the decisions that are made.
  5. Rather than pursue the traditional approaches of designing a solution (programme) to work for all and then mandating it across the whole system, we need to encourage the development of culture of experimentation in our schools, where innovation is a focus and risk-taking and learning from failure is encouraged. This isn’t about a ‘free-for-all’ approach with no responsibility – it’s about learning from the practice of the science community, and applying a rigorous approach that is guided by key principles of scientific inquiry, but at a very localised level to address localised problems. This is the significance of the quote at the top of this post!
  6. Lastly, we need to ensure that from the beginning, we build into our approach the mechanism(s) that promote the rapid sharing of ideas and inspiration, and provide resourcing and support to ensure the scalability and sustainability of the things that are successful. This approach remains highly iterative and provides the best chance we have of successfully changing faster than the pace of change.

These ideas I’ve been mulling over for some time now, and have been implementing them in small scale projects in different parts of NZ, and overseas. They form the basis of the Friction-free Transformation Platform that I’ve been developing with a colleague, Harry Mills. I’m always interested to hear your thoughts on this, and how we might work more effectively to address the challenges we see in our education system.

3 thoughts on “The challenges we face in education

  1. Agree. The answers are already with us. Sometimes, during change, I find helping parents to understand the change the most challenging.

    1. Good point – ensuring our parents/whānau are fully involved as partners in the learning process is an important aspect of how we manage change in education.

Leave a Reply