Beyond the Rhetoric of Change: Where Do We Find the Time?

A consistent message repeatedly expressed about schools today is that the need for change is urgent, compelling, imminent. This change, it is suggested, is so long overdue that a gradual recalibration of our school systems is not enough. As Ken Robinson suggests, we need a revolution, not an evolution. I tend to largely agree with this sentiment, but very much take the side of teachers when it comes to how we will make this happen. The implicit suggestion would seem to be that teachers do not want what is best for students, or that they are simply, by some perplexing nature, an entire profession of diverse, talented people, instinctively opposed to change. I don’t think this is the case. I don’t believe advocates for change really believe this either.

I read an excellent piece by Brett Jacobsen recently in the Leadership+Design network. In it, Jacobsen articulates the rhetoric of change that so many of us identify with and often applaud: “Ultimately … I cannot be interested in red tape, fixed mindsets, 20th century expectations, and blending in. I have to cultivate a community of solution seekers, creative thinkers, collaborators, and innovators. Students don’t have time for adults to catch up. They deserve it now. Let’s give it to them.” I like that sentiment – students don’t have time for adults to catch up. But how are we, the adults in this equation, expected to catch up? We’ve always been flying the plane while building it, but now we are dealing with a much faster, unpredictable mechanism. The potential jeopardy in Jacobsen’s statement – and clearly not his intent – is that we fail to listen to our teachers. We can implement all the change we want, but if teachers are not heard, not allowed to help design the way forward, the intended outcomes will not happen. This should not surprise anyone.

I work with a dynamic, forward-thinking, hard-working, open-minded and intelligent faculty. They not only embrace change, very often they are the ones who advocate for it and make it happen. There are days when I am trying to slow them down. A group of us have decided to meet occasionally, over a Belgian beer, to share ideas informally about the potential of our networked, global learning environment. We share ideas on Twitter and Facebook, we have a community on Google+, we exchange ideas about things like Diigo, Delicious, Feedly and whatever else we encounter that has learning potential. We bravely try to blog. This is a group, for instance, committed to coding and blogging for all students. These are things we are currently implementing. But when we meet, we have to remind ourselves not to become overwhelmed with all of the possibilities. Not to lose sight of the right now of student learning and the need to have lives beyond the digital. Time is the true enemy of change, not resistance to change.

I very much admire Will Richardson’s short work, Why School? – How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere. Richardson is unequivocal in his views, and he is largely accurate when he states: “By modern standards, most of us are illiterate… It’s now easier than ever to communicate, create, and collaborate with others from around the globe who share our passion to learn. This changes just about everything when it comes to being ‘educated’.” Many teachers today are “illiterate” because they don’t come from the same world their students do. The same is true for parents, many of whom feel locked out of the world their children inhabit. But I don’t think we can bring about the changes we want and believe in for our students through revolution, not unless external examinations and the often absurd expectations of college admissions are suspended for a year or two, not unless parents agree to keep their kids home, and governments and school boards agree to fund a massive investment in teacher training. Our task will remain incremental; evolution, not revolution.

But where Jacobsen is absolutely right is when he says, in particular, that he has little time for fixed mindsets and 20th century expectations. Given the well-documented challenges that lie before us, such human obstacles may need to depart the teaching profession and we should enable those who need to, to do so without recrimination or blame, fairly compensated for the reality that the job they trained for has changed utterly, irrevocably. If we possess the correct mindset and a willingness to learn, we can and will take schools to where they need to be. I suggest that the first mindset and 20th century expectation that needs to go is the archaic thinking about professional development, the view that, every time we try to move schools forward, we must spoonfeed the learning to teachers. This is not how our students learn and it is time that we adults started to model a new mindset. As Richardson puts it:

“It’s understandable that schools still offer blogging workshops, but the fact is that teachers don’t need a workshop on that. There are thousands of how-to’s for every possible blogging platform (or wiki platform, or Twitter, or video tool, and so on) that will take you step-by-step through the process. These days, the only such tutorial we really need to be giving is a ‘how-to-learn-almost-any-tool-online-on-your-own’ workshop.”

I respect teachers when they say they are overwhelmed with change. I feel empathy for those locked into government systems that emphasise testing, school league tables, and the need to become Finland. I admire those who speak openly and say that they, just like me, need some guidance and support. But I have little time for those who reject the need for change, who cling to the way they have always done things. We need to find a higher ground that is driven by what our students demand. In a few weeks, “the largest learning event in history” will take place. Our school will participate. The theme is articulated in terms of a small chunk of time, reflective of how busy we are. Is it enough? Is an hour of code really enough of a commitment at a time like this?

How do we take schools to where they need to be for our students today? What are the things we do in schools today that we need to stop doing tomorrow? Beyond the rhetoric, where do we find the time?