The ‘how’ agenda

This year, I’ve had the privilege of being able to speak at education conferences both here in Australia and abroad. These experiences give me the opportunity to share with other passionate educators my ideas about schools and learning. There are so many people thinking differently about learning. I come away from these events excited and challenged by what others are doing, and how they are reimagining what schools can be.

My experiences this year have reinforced in my mind that the focus has clearly shifted from ‘why’ schools need to do things differently to ‘how’ we go about transforming schools.
The ‘how’ question was the theme of a two-day symposium I attended recently, hosted by the NSW Minister for Education Adrian Piccoli, on the future of schools. The conversations at the symposium were robust and engaging, but for me, the messages are very clear:

  1. The challenge is to transform not reform. Transformation is all about root-and-branch change. The reform agenda focuses on what has been; transformation is all about what could be. The transformation agenda looks forward to future possibilities and requires deep cultural change that impacts on every aspect of schooling. The profession needs to lead this transformation.
  2. Learning is the work! No-one said this was going to be either easy or quick. As Richard Elmore observed, teaching isn’t rocket science, it’s far more complex than that! We cannot rely on quick fixes or standardised solutions. We learn the work by doing the work; we transform the work when we can evaluate the impact of it.
  3. “Begin with the end in mind”. Transforming schooling requires a sustainable and substantive narrative because transformation requires widespread cultural change. School communities need to be regularly engaged in a dialogue on what success for each learner and transformed learning and teaching looks like. Parents and students also have to be part of the conversation.
  4. Everything has to change or nothing will change. Too often, the improvement agenda is focussed on a single silver bullet. High-stakes testing, barriers to teacher selection, narrow measures of achievement, prescriptive appraisals come and go. We need new mindsets, pedagogies and processes that support change, not hinder it. We need to restate our educational narrative in terms that are relevant to today’s world. Measurements of success have to be authentic.
  5. Start with the child, not the curriculum. Schooling is currently organised the wrong way around. The curriculum becomes the structure for the learning and is delivered via a timetable. Yet we know that every child is different so there cannot be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to schooling. Learning and teaching should be designed around each child’s learning strengths and needs. In this way, the curriculum is the reference point, not the blueprint.
  6. Creating collaborative communities. As Michael Fullan points out, the goal in schools is not to ‘innovate the most’ but to innovate with coherence. This means working through a process where everyone finds collective meaning in and a commitment to doing things not just differently but collaboratively, and ultimately better.

Transforming schools is not change for change sake, but a response to needs of contemporary learners. If we are prepared to allow our schools to remain what they have always been, locked into a learning model created for another time and place, then our students miss out on the opportunities and experiences that can prepare them for their world. We have a responsibility to not let them down. This responsibility is a leadership imperative. As Martin Luther King observed in a different, but relevant context that demanded change “We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now”.

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