I suppose I must have sat through dozens of talks over the years suggesting that schools need to change, have to change, or must change. There have been various waves of concern such as the lack of computers in schools, then the need for personalisation and latterly the switch to an on line world where empowered independent learners take full advantage of the best that the web can offer. Allied to these exhortations have been economic concerns about international competition, the rise of the Asian economies and the need to modernise. Faced with this blizzard of activity from politicians, pundits, technology companies and education gurus, what is remarkable is how little has actually changed. A fortune has been spent but why have we seen only quite modest changes in schools around the world? Yes the factory school needs to be replaced but when will this happen at scale?
There are many answers to this thorny question. First most punditry operates at the uber global level and talks about changes to systems rather than focusing on change at the actual school level. Understanding ‘system wide reform’ focusses educational bureaucracies on the design of various rewards and punishments to corral schools to make a variety of changes deemed necessary to improve the exam performance of pupils. Such multiplicity of agendas and targets only serve to confuse people running schools. One reform effort is quickly overtaken by another so the best strategy maybe to only commit to some new approaches in a modest way as it is well known that politicians are fickle and short lived in their evident quest to make a difference. Most of these approaches are piecemeal at best. No one seems to talk about a more joined up approach to remodelling the work of schools fit for the twenty-first century. Of which more later.
The second reason for comparative lack of change is that organisations only change for very distinctive reasons. These tend to be one of three: economic reasons (less cash around), legal reasons (increasing the age of school leaving or mandating a curriculum), or technological reasons (the arrival of computers). Steven Pinker puts this well in The Better Angels of Our Nature : ‘People are embedded in a culture and find meaning in its myths, symbols and epics. Truth does not reside in propositions in the sky, there for everyone to see, but in situated narratives and archetypes that are particular to the history of a place and give meaning to the lives of its inhabitants.’ (page 186)
Whilst Pinker was not thinking about schools the analogy holds as schools exist pretty much on their own as isolated institutions who find meaning and purpose in their daily activities. Consequently any approach to change within schools needs to understand this and consider how local meaning and culture might be adapted and changed to meet a new agenda. More significantly perhaps advocates of change either suggest rather breezily the advantages of some total system and school redesign without giving much in the way of specifics, or they advocate something rather smaller which may be equally difficult to integrate into the life of the school.
A third difficulty for schools globally is that few of them are masters of their own destiny. Most do not manage their own budgets but depend on an educational bureaucracy to do this for them. Bureaucracies are naturally slow and have complex rule structures that ensure their own existence. They are anything but agile. In one country I know of the decision to take a demountable wall down to create a larger space has taken over a year and went to the minister at one stage for deliberation. The issue remains unsettled.
A Better Way?
We have to stop people talking about ‘propositions in the sky’ and focus on how individual schools can make changes. But it is not institutions that make change: it is people. The steps necessary for such change are not impossible but they are rarely spoken of. The three components of change are the nature of the work that schools do – that is how teachers work and how students work; the use of space within schools – perhaps not small classrooms but larger more flexible spaces; and the use of technology. Underlying all of this has got to be an economic model whereby the school manages its own finances. To embrace the large scale changes here schools will need to look at how they can stop doing some things and start doing others. We can enable the whole organisation to be much smarter by incorporating technology to measure and manage the work of the school. Additionally we need to develop these ideas alongside those who work in schools and show the advantages of embracing new technologies for learning and ensure that the whole enterprise is properly supported.
My next three blogs will show how change at the school level can happen.