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What’s Standing in the Way of Change? It Better not be Culture.

This content has been reposted from Scott Slater’s personal blog at http://scottslater.org/2014/05/17/culture-of-change/ and does not necessarily represent the opinions of his employer.

The CEA’s What’s Standing in the Way of Change in Education workshop series across Canada brings together a variety of stakeholders and innovators including students, parents, university deans, teachers, trustees, K-12 and university administrators, superintendents, and Ministry of Education administrators, and tasks them with determining what is standing in the way of change in education, and how to work around or eliminate the barriers.

In the Vancouver session, which I had the privilege of attending on Wednesday May 14th, it seemed most participants agreed on three challenges in particular.  Below, I share what I took from these discussions.

1. Mindset

Those who are in positions that can implement change may not have the mindset to do so.  They may be married to what they currently do, either to maintain tradition, to please parents who might resist change, out of fear of the unknown of might lay ahead, or fear that adopting new practice will make “old” practice and the practitioner look bad.  The idea of “best practice” is not helpful.  It suggests that there is one best way of doing things and switching the term “best practice” to “effective practice,” is perhaps a small but important step in inviting change.  Bruce Beairsto noted this Mindset is not so much a barrier or roadblock in the present or future, but an anchor dug into the past that slows or halts change.


2. Process

The BC Education Plan articulates many important goals for education:  personalized learning, flexibility and choice, learning supported by digital access, etc.  Even if the goals of change were understood to mean the same thing and agreed upon by all 40 000 teachers in BC, as well as administrators, School Board Office staff and Trustees, there is no clear process to implement change, and the process might look different depending on what form of change it is.  One of the strengths of education in BC is that teachers, schools, and districts, have a high degree of autonomy to personalize and contextualize learning experiences to best meet the needs of unique students and communities; needs that might be different elsewhere.  Interestingly, this strength is a weakness in implementing change rapidly.  This decentralized system is thus designed to satisfy context-specific needs, but also makes implementing systematic change difficult.

Further, innovators have relatively small spheres of influence.  An innovative teacher in a classroom has a huge impact on the many students they teach, and a district with a culture of innovation has a major impact both on students and educators, but classrooms, schools, school districts, and even universities, are relatively small spheres compared with the system as a whole.  For systemic change, who is to bridge these spheres?  The Ministry of Education’s Education Plan makes no connections, that I am aware of at least, between K-12 education and university, and coordination, particularly with respect to changing assessment practices, must occur between grades 11 and 12 and university entrance requirements. There is a separate ministry, the Ministry of Advanced Education, responsible for Universities.  Who is responsible for bridging the gap between K-12 and University?

While there are great benefits to a decentralized, diffusion model of change (described by Chris Kennedy here), it does not promote the quick implementation of systematic change.  In my opinion, it is better to do things well than do things quickly, so if speed is the cost for well-implemented, personalized and contextual change, perhaps it is worth it.

Peter Drucker noted that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and Jordan Tinney has written on this topic in relation to the hit television show Downton Abbey, explaining culture’s inescapable role causing change. The show shares the change of the place of the aristocracy in the UK, including how an aristocratic family interacts with each other and with servants and other “commoners.”  There are some major events like World War One that accelerate change, but for the most part, change happens in small decisions:  a daughter’s decision to wear certain clothing or disagree with her father, a butler’s tolerance of certain behaviour, a decision to marry a commoner, and for the family to slowly accept that commoner into their circles.  Occasionally, important laws such as female suffrage cause major changes, but it is for the most part, small decisions happening among relatively small actors that slowly shift and are then shifted by culture.  In a decentralized system, culture, more than process, shapes change.


3. Support

A third inhibitor of change is that many believe there is not sufficient support for educators to develop their skillsets, perhaps in inquiry, assessment, and self-regulation.  This support might include time for professional learning, support from collaborators or mentors/coaches, or learning resources such as books or technology tools that support professional learning or student learning.  Further, if class composition is becoming more challenging, even if an educator hones their skillset, there is, or might be the perception, that educators cannot make full use of their skillsets because they simply do not have enough time to offer their skills to such diverse learning needs.  If educators do not feel supported, financially and with sufficient human resources to meet the needs of learners, this third inhibitor of change – Support – can lead to the development of a mindset resistant to change.



It seems clear to me that if mindsets, process and support are identified as challenges to change, it is absolutely vital that classrooms, schools, districts and the Ministry of Education in general, must support a culture of innovation, written about by Chris Kennedyhere.  Culture shapes mindsets, it permeates all spheres of influence, and it inspires educators to overcome limitations of support.  In a Downton Abbey model of change, which we seem to have, all innovators with influence must develop their convictions and take action if they wish to be leaders. And as this work cannot be done alone; educators must work together to develop shared convictions and take shared action to implement change.

For more information and to get involved in CEA’s ongoing What’s standing in the way of change in education? national conversation, please visit http://standingintheway.ca and follow @cea_ace and #CanEdChange on Twitter.

Meet the Expert(s)

scott slater

Scott Slater

Scott Slater is a teacher and Vice-Principal at Bowen Island Community School in the West Vancouver School District.  In 2012, he helped found an environmental education program for Grade 6 and 7 students called outside45 that blends learning in the classroom with frequent experiences in natural and built environments.

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