Leadership, Opinion, Promising Practices

Tackling the Challenge to Change Canadian Education

‘21st century’ rhetoric aside, successfully transforming our education system remains elusive

From April to August 2014, CEA organized a series of regional meetings across the country so that educators and education stakeholders could answer: What’s standing in the way of change in education? We’ve received much praise and some criticism for daring to ask such a question – and for holding these provocative events – which tells me that this question is as invigorating as it is threatening depending on where you sit in the sector. But there’s no denying that this blunt question produced some very insightful feedback from participants at our events, which we will be sharing with the launch of a follow up report on October 23, 2014 in Toronto.

I believe that the lack of a sense of urgency and trust are very significant impediments to change in education, yet I often hear from school district leaders that this change has to be “managed” properly if it is to occur throughout the system. But this isn’t just a simple procedure of ensuring that the change conditions are either top-down or bottom-up that will make the difference. It will be by trusting the “Courageous Leaders” (teachers, principals, superintendents, directors, trustees) – the true change-makers that are found in our classrooms who are willing to take risks everyday; who prefer to beg for forgiveness rather than ask for permission, and who don’t tow the party line. Within the Canadian education system, these individuals not only exist, in some limited cases, are actually thriving. But overall, they risk becoming outliers within many school districts that are far more preoccupied with projecting an image of supporting innovation rather than actually scaling it throughout their schools.

Our research, Teaching the Way You Aspire to Teach, clearly demonstrated that innovative teaching was happening in our classrooms, but that the “system” simply tolerated it until it created waves of disruption. The result, as the research demonstrated, is that such innovative pedagogical practices are kept “under the radar”. If we then couple this research with that on organizational wisdom, which states that systems considered “not smart” value conformity, compliance and control, whereas successful organizations and institutions clearly value creativity, risk-taking and critical thinking are designated as “wise”, you can quickly understand the challenges that we face in transforming a system. We know, first hand, that our school districts are filled with brilliant people working within a fundamentally “not smart” system. How can we emancipate these individuals to be permitted to Teach to the way they aspire and Lead to the way they aspire? Start with trust! Less regulation and more trust!!

Sadly, the change rhetoric continues take precedence over reality. The significant amount of attention given to exploring 21st century notions in curriculum and assessment is at the forefront of many educational organizations. When I scan school district websites, I review the content, especially the Visions section and then I conduct the real “litmus test” by checking the schools’ websites within these districts and look for evidence of similar 21st century learning orientations. Alas, in many cases, I find little to no evidence the district’s vision and even less of such new learning or engagement, but plenty of emphasis on standardized scoring on literacy and numeracy. This too is not surprising since parents want to know about the rankings and how their school fares against others. Hence, we see increasing market-driven strategies that squeeze out any attempts at new learning and pedagogical strategies by teachers, new assessment rubrics that go beyond measuring 19th century skills and new school and classroom designs that we now know create better environments that are conducive to effective learning. (I won’t even mention a recent OECD report stating that the evidence is pointing out that market driven strategies to improve education are not working. That will be another blog post!) 

So this is the uphill road that we face – when image outweighs action. Most leaders I speak with will admit to me (after some prodding) that making change is a tough slog, and that they’re barely scratching the surface of where they need to be, particularly when many critics continue to dismiss innovative evidence-based practice, or the latest neuroscience findings on how the brain learns best as “mumbo-jumbo”.

So successfully transforming the education system remains elusive. As the honest broker in Canadian education, CEA is committed to ensuring that there are well-informed discussions and debates about how we develop conditions for change to flourish in our schools. Many of our regional meeting participants told us that they were already well aware of the barriers to change in the system and didn’t need to develop a vision – they wanted to get to ‘the how’, as in how the heck are we going to work together to change education to where it needs to be for all of our students?

Our upcoming Challenge to Change Symposium will focus on ‘the how.’ We have a very challenging day planned for our pan-Canadian group of participants. In fact, I’m confident that this will be a very inspiring and positive day for courageous educators who want to contribute to moving a true change agenda forward and I invite you to join our discussion in person or at #CanEdChange on October 23rd

Meet the Expert(s)

Ron Canuel

Ron Canuel

Ron Canuel is the former President and CEO of the Canadian Education Association. He has over 40 years of experience in the public education sector. As the former Director General of the Eastern Towns...

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