School Change: Palliative Care For a Dying Institution?

The pathology of … schools is that they know how to change. They know how to change promiscuously and at the drop of a hat. What schools do not know how to do is to improve, to engage in sustained and continuous progress.
– Marzano, Waters, McNulty

A regular refrain in much discourse surrounding schools today, at its simplest, goes something like this. Schools were created for a time that is long gone, yet continue to remain largely unchanged from that time. This reality had been true, it is suggested, even before new technologies provided us with a digital landscape capable of not only transforming our schools, but requiring it. Incremental change or improvement, it is contended, is not enough for these terminally ailing institutions. For those teachers who continue to be dedicated, hard-working professionals, one wonders is this constant refrain of doom and gloom a soul-destroying prophecy or a liberating opportunity to innovate?

I believe some of the hyperbole around this topic needs to be tempered with a reality that reflects one salient fact: teachers are not the problem in the scenario portrayed. Among the latest – and most insightful – contributions to this discourse is a new book from Will Richardson, From Master Teacher to Master Learner. Richardson echoes the perspective that the basic assumptions upon which the concept of school was based are growing increasingly irrelevant:“the debate is over: the potential ways in which we and our students can learn have changed forever, and we can no longer frame the education and schooling experiences we offer to our students through the lens of the education and schooling experiences that we ourselves had.” As a writer and blogger, Richardson has never shied away from being direct and articulate in his beliefs. He delineates the basic assumptions upon which the concept of school was originally based – assumptions which are now growing increasingly anachronistic – as follows:

  • Knowledge is scarce, and we need to bring students to the knowledge.
  • Teachers are scarce, and we need to bring the students to the teacher.
  • An education needs to be standardized, and controlled by the institution.
  • Schools are where the tools for learning are.
  • Schools are for preparing students for college and careers.

Teachers need to be given the freedom to be liberated from the constraints that bind them to the old certainties of traditional schooling. We need, at all costs, to avoid “unproductive learning” and recognise that our job as educators, “is to understand deeply what it means to be a modern learner more so than a modern teacher.” I would suggest that we need to grant ourselves the time for purposeful, sustained improvement and not panic at the need for a revolutionary change. As Ken Robinson has recently stated, “there is no permanent utopia for education, just a constant striving to create the best conditions for real people in real communities in a constantly changing world.” This constant striving, if it provides us with the conditions in which students and teachers will eventually flourish, defines a picture of school improvement – improvement for the right reasons – that is both healthy and constructive. Richardson suggests several places where teachers can begin to create these conditions right now:

  • Ask students for input into how they might achieve required curricular outcomes.
  • Make sure that your students’ work has an authentic place in the world.
  • Grapple with real questions that neither you nor your students know the answers to.
  • Encourage students to do work with a personal connection to their lives.
  • Whatever strategy you use, embrace it in your own practice. Be the change you want to see.

Few would argue with the notion that the traditional conception of school needs to be consigned to the past or that those institutions that cling to tradition need a radical rethink in the context of what we now know about learning and the possibilities available to us today. Richardson reminds us that, “we not only have to do better, we have to do different”. If teachers are provided with the permission to innovate, liberated from the drudgery of restrictive testing and bureaucracy, and trusted to bring their professional perspectives to life through support and time, they will flourish and so will our students. It may take time for policy makers, governments, and school leaders to come around to this thinking, but teachers – just like students – now have the tools and means to hack their classrooms, to not just change but – most critically – improve learning, with or without permission.

Evolution has been happening in good schools for quite a long time, but the revolution can’t be stopped. Schools are changing. The good ones have always been improving. As the bland report card comment used to suggest, perhaps they can do better. But great teachers have never waited for a revolution to do what is best for students and this continues to be true. Students now also have the potential to soar despite the restrictions that previously may have hindered their learning. As long as our schools are not simply changing, but always consciously and intentionally striving to improve – and ready to take the risks required to do so – the prognosis for the future is positive.