Beyond the Rhetoric of Change

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.

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.

Brett Jacobsen wrote an excellent piece for the Leadership+Design network in which he articulates the rhetoric of change that so many of us identify with: “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.

Teachers are the key to great schools.

Richardson is unequivocal in his view 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’.”

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. We should not describe the adult learners in our schools as illiterate. As long as they continue to be learners.

But where Jacobsen is absolutely right is when he says 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 continue to  improve schools.