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EdTech & Design, Opinion, Promising Practices

Necessary Disruption (Part 7: Making the Change)

21st Century Learning that animates the 3 R’s through the soft skills of communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking requires us to tackle the difficult challenges of removing curricular bloat, deepening learning through inquiry and refocussing time and attention from summative evaluation to formative assessment.  What will it take to make this happen?  Is it inevitable, impossible or conditional?

There is always lots of change in schools but traditional behaviours are amazingly durable and, in the end, schools seem, for the most part, much more similar than different over the 56 years since I entered Kindergarten.  Perhaps the biggest change I have seen is greater inclusion of students with exceptional needs, but this change has been more of an addition to schools’ services than a change in their fundamental nature – and even in this case inclusion in secondary schools has been seriously hampered and limited by traditionalism.  The transition to 21st Century Learning is even more radical than inclusion.  It involves not only new services but different behaviours, not only refinements but also substantive changes,not only incremental improvement to the way things are done but also entirely new ways of doing them.

In addition, these fundamental changes must occur relatively rapidly to avoid weakening of the public education system by private schools and for-profit institutions that move more decisively to restructure their services for the new era.  We could be easily left behind in this transition – sort of the Nokia of public service if you will.

Frances Westley, J.W. McConnell Chair in Social Innovation at the University of Waterloo, suggests in her interview with CEA on the landing page for this site that schools are inherently conservative because experimentation is dangerous and “we followed all the rules” is the best defense when you are being held accountable for many things over which you have no control.  Perhaps that’s why innovation usually occurs in isolated pockets and seldom spreads throughout the school system.

Disruptive innovation that seeks to install a new pattern rather than merely enhance an existing pattern cannot succeed through grassroots enthusiasm alone.  Mind you, like all innovation it cannot succeed without it either, but bottom-up energy is not sufficient.  It also takes top-down initiative to create an environment that is hospitable to the innovation in the first place and, when innovation proves to be effective, it takes top-down intervention to recognize, enable and promote the innovation if there is to be broad adoption.  School systems have generally been inconsistent on the first count and failed outright on the second.

This may be due in part to Ms. Westley’s observation, but I think it also the result of a flawed understanding of Professional Autonomy.  Teachers actively defend their right to decide how to provide instruction and assessment in their classes, as they should.  This autonomy is the flip side of their responsibility to do whatever it takes to enable the learners in their charge to succeed.  Without Professional Autonomy schools cannot be responsive to the needs of learners and Canadian students would never have achieved such impressive world-class results.  That, however, does not mean that there is no place for systemic expectations, and even insistence, on occasion, that individual teachers change their pedagogy to include necessary innovation and to be compatible with system-wide changes.  This may mean something simple like doing away with textbooks, or something slightly more complex like providing a web page for students and parents, or something quite fundamental like “flipping the class” to provide instruction on-line and tutorial assistance in class.

When there is a demonstrable need and a proven response, it is ethically and professionally irresponsible to ignore it.  I do not mean to suggest the existence of a silver bullet – there are no such panaceas in education – but it seems clear to me – as argued in the six previous blogs in this series – that there is a need for change and that there are clear examples of successful responses that have been demonstrated in pockets of innovation around the world.  Isolated excellence, however, will not do in this case.  Effective practice needs to become the common practice.

Therefore, I believe that the innovators cannot be left to convince their colleagues on their own.  Systemic forces must also be applied in order for disruptive change to occur.  These include provincial, district and school-level actions to enable change (for example, by addressing curriculum bloat and regressive assessment practices), to insist on teacher participation in change (for example, by deeply embedding assessment for learning in every teacher’s practice) and to support teachers in making the change (for example, by supporting professional learning with time and resources).

Perhaps I am wrong.  Perhaps, as Peter Hennessy says in his blog, “school reform is seriously underway and,like termites in the woodwork, cannot be easily stopped,” but I doubt it.  The change has clearly begun and it has momentum, but whether it will spread far enough, fast enough and deep enough is conditional.  Perhaps it won’t stop but it may drift rather than surge ahead as it should.  The forces of preservation run deep in all organizations and certainly in school systems.  I fear that they are set to once again buffer, isolate and minimize the forces of innovation.  Good, as Jim Collins tells us, is the enemy of great and complacency is its faithful sidekick.  Can the moral commitment to maximizing the life chances of our students and the courage to step outside our comfort zone defeat them?  We’ll see.

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Bruce Beairsto

Retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University

Bruce Beairsto is a retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

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