Opinion, Promising Practices

The Source(s) of Innovation

Resisting A Simple Answer to A Complex Challenge

There’s an interesting juxtaposition in the latest issue of Education Canada. Flanking Roland Case’s helpful reflections on the debate between a “back to the basics” stance and an “inquiry model” of curriculum design are two articles presenting two different perspectives on the Challenge to Change within Canada’s education systems. 

On the one hand, Simon Breakspear argues that educators need to be afforded the creative space to develop the type of responsive curriculum that is meaningful for them AND their students in their particular context. It is an attractive vision that calls for a shift in the way teachers on the ground see themselves and the work that they do:

To enable systemic innovation, we must support educators in adopting new identities as learning designers. Innovative change can only come from frontline educators forming insights, learning, and experimenting with new ideas and methodologies – in partnership with their students. Leading innovative change in schools is thus not a question of finding the right idea to implement, but rather harnessing the creative talent of educators and students(emphasis added)

On the other hand, Michael Fullan calls for a concentrated effort to strengthen “the middle” by building the capacity of districts and networks of schools to respond to the demands and challenges facing the modern school system:

Leadership from the Middle can be briefly defined as: a deliberate strategy that increases the capacity and internal coherence of the middle as it becomes a more effective partner upward to the state and downward to its schools and communities, in pursuit of greater system performance. The goal of LftM is to develop greater overall system coherence by strengthening the focus of the middle in relation to system goals and local needs.

As someone who has worked at a variety of different levels within a large district in Ontario, I have to admit a sense of affinity for both perspectives. As a classroom teacher, I found myself working (sometimes struggling) to assert my own creative individuality in order to make a difference for my students and, admittedly, myself. There was something very exhilarating about introducing a new idea or approach to my practice. The ability to “think different” became part of my identity as a teacher. 

On the other hand, in those periods where I was called to work from a broader systems perspective, I began to understand the need for a sense of coherence—a type of sticking together—when it came to vision, practice and even resources. 

On their own, the Breakspear and Fullan articles seem to present opposing responses to the challenge of how to build systems that have the most impact for the greatest number of students. While it may be tempting to simply choose a side, framing their perspectives in an oppositional way masks some of the important dynamics that are at play both inside and outside of the 21st century school system. At the same time, it’s way too easy (and not very helpful) to say, “well, they’re both right”, without opening up the floor to a conversation around the ways in which both perspectives can inform our efforts moving forward.

In both cases, there is a danger that we’ll continue to reach for clean, well-defined solutions to very messy, complex challenges. Instead, I think that we need to read between the lines and discover what is not that well-defined and what is not being made explicit. So, I would encourage you to take a look at both articles. Read them on your own. Read them with your colleagues. Read them in the context of the work that you are currently doing Read them from the perspective of someone who plays a different role in the system: a teacher, an administrator, a parent.

Some of the questions that are emerging for me:

What are the assumptions that the writers bring to their perspective? How do they connect with the assumptions and beliefs that you have about purpose and approach? 

What has been left unsaid or uncontested in the articles? How can what has been sidelined in the conversation help us to move deeper into the conversation?

How can we imagine and build systems that honour the need for individuality and the desire for coherence? 

I’m off to pour myself another cup of coffee and take another look. I’ll meet you back here! 

Meet the Expert(s)

Stephen Hurley

Stephen Hurley

Education Consultant, Catalyst, voicED Radio

Stephen Hurley is a recently retired teacher from the Dufferin Peel District School Board in Ontario. Stephen continues to work to open up public spaces for vibrant conversations about transformation of education systems across Canada.

Stephen Hurley est un enseignant récemment retraité de la Dufferin Peel District School Board en Ontario. Stephen continue de travailler à ouvrir des espaces publics pour des conversations dynamiques sur la transformation des systèmes éducatifs partout au Canada.

Read More