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EdCan Network, Leadership, Opinion, Promising Practices

Avoiding the Parable of the Boiled Frog

We must find ways to authentically engage the public in a discourse about gradual and significant change in public education

I think that I have lost count of how many school closure consultations I have been involved in. Not all schools closed during these contentious events, but the processes unfold in similar ways: The “system” presents its case; a small, passionate segment of the public listens, voices their discontent, and then, over time, final decisions are made. I would say that meaningful dialogue gave way to divisive debates from staunchly held and well-fortified positions.


I think that I have lost count of how many school closure consultations I have been involved in. Not all schools closed during these contentious events, but the processes unfold in similar ways: The “system” presents its case; a small, passionate segment of the public listens, voices their discontent, and then, over time, final decisions are made. I would say that meaningful dialogue gave way to divisive debates from staunchly held and well-fortified positions.

One of the things standing in the way of significant change in public education is our inability to create new ways to engage the public to ensure that concerned parents and the public really have a chance to understand the nature of the challenges school district administrators face.

I learned during these situations the difficulty of constructing a truly engaging, meaningful public discourse in the face of complex decisions. One of the things standing in the way of significant change in public education is our inability to create new ways to engage the public to ensure that concerned parents and the public really have a chance to understand the nature of the challenges school district administrators face. How do we manage to speak and listen to not only to organized, connected and informed groups, but also to those who are disenfranchised, disconnected and discouraged? How can we demonstrate that our institutions are engaging, listening and responding in different ways? In essence, how do we go about constructing and creating a new dialogue about the need for change in education? 

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Photo © 2010 J. Ronald Lee.

The parable of the boiled frog states that if a frog is placed in a pot of cold water and the temperature is gradually increased, the frog is unable to detect the change and will eventually boil and die. This metaphor is often used to describe a system’s inability to response to gradual and significant change. The accuracy of the parable is debated in science today but the metaphor is instructive for education. Our educational institutions and their governance structures are under enormous national and international pressures, yet we have not significantly changed our institutionalized approach to education, particularly in the secondary years. We recognize and speak of the pressures, some of which include:

  • Existing funding models and their ability to sustain our levels of success;
  • Impact of the global economic context;
  • Looming skills shortage;
  • An aging population which needs increased health funding;
  • Global competiveness in the information age;
  • Impact of technology on knowledge distribution; and
  • Emerging open market (and source) competition for learning on demand.

Our educational institutions and their governance structures are under enormous national and international pressures, yet we have not significantly changed our institutionalized approach to education, particularly in the secondary years.

The collective impact of the above challenges to our education systems is substantial. If we do not address fundamental issues rooted in the battle between health care and education for public funding in the face of significant global economic pressures, then we may be simply sitting in the pot watching the water temperature rise. 

In our current public consultations on the need for change, we typically hear from those who are engaged, connected, and who mostly have been successful in school. We don’t often hear from the disenfranchised, disconnected, and discouraged. For a system with an 80% completion rate, I wonder if one of the major challenges we face in making change is building a sense of urgency for the needs of the remaining 20% for whom the system was less successful. 

As the pressure mounts on districts as a result of funding, demographics and our changing society, we must find ways to authentically engage parents and the public in a discourse about change in public education. This discourse should include the use of social media to connect to distributed networks in the community. We need ways to balance the pressures of connected and influential lobby groups with empirical research supporting what we know is right. We need leaders who are excellent communicators and who have the courage, vision and foresight to plan for a future, design how to get there, and the develop wraparound support for moving along the path together with the community.

For a system with an 80% completion rate, I wonder if one of the major challenges we face in making change is building a sense of urgency for the needs of the remaining 20% for whom the system was less successful.

If there is to be meaningful, significant and sustainable change in education, it has to include a public process that looks different from anything we’ve seen before and includes the tools of today balanced with the techniques of the past. The process must include political will, public support and legislative changes coupled with leadership that does not simply reverse the changes by re-creating structures of the past. A new vision needs to emerge to align our values, our purpose, and our processes, and the outcome should follow. Our children are counting on it.


This blog post is part of a series of thoughtful responses to the question: What’s standing in the way of change in education? to help inform CEA’s Calgary Conference on Oct 21-22, (#CEACalgary2013) where education leaders from across Canada will be answering the same question. If you would like to answer this question, please tweet us at: @cea_ace

Meet the Expert(s)

jordan tinney

Jordan Tinney

Dr. Jordan Tinney is currently Deputy Superintendent of Surrey Schools, which is British Columbia’s largest school district and one of the largest in Canada. Previously, he has served as Deputy Superintendent of the Vancouver School District and Superintendent/CEO in Comox Valley School District on Vancouver Island. Dr. Tinney’s passions include the uses of technology to support learning and in exploring the complexities of leadership and organizational cultures. A frequent presenter on leadership and culture, as well as technology as a tool for transformation, Jordan enjoys writing on cultural and educational issues in his blog, Ed Praxis - Philosophy in Education. In January 2014, Dr. Tinney will assume his new role as Superintendent/CEO of Surrey Schools.

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