I have spent many months over the past few years working with public servants in the Scottish Government on change programmes in the education sector. I wasn’t designing or leading the change – there were pedagogues to do that – but I was responsible for programme management of some workstreams.
Change in the education sector is difficult. There are a lot of deep-rooted interest groups – parents, teachers, unions (surprisingly, learners rarely seem to get a look in…). The change happens in classrooms, far removed from the design and political drivers of change. There is a very long time lag – changing a school curriculum means changing the assessment and exam system. And the political pressures to tinker can be huge.
So changing education is difficult and complicated.
I was therefore really interested in a recent debate at the RSA entitled “Education for Uncertain Futures”. This was held to launch the output of an RSA project, “Building Agency in the Face of Uncertainty: a thinking tool for educators and education leaders”. I haven’t read the pamphlet – yet – but the debate was interesting and raised a lot of issues.
There were four speakers: Keri Facer, who was co-author of the pamphlet (sorry – thinking tool…); Patrick Hazlewood, a head teacher who has been doing some work with the RSA; Carolyn Usted, an educationalist and former inspector of schools; and Dougald Hine, an itinerant thinker (and co-founder of the Everything Unplugged meetup I sometimes go to). A varied bunch, each coming from a different perspective.
It made for an interesting talk, but there was a lack of cohesion in the views and issues discussed. This is what some of the contributors talked about, and some thoughts of my own they prompted. (There was an underlying assumption in the discussion that mainstream education is the way forward. It might not be; but it probably will be the system that most young people work through, so there seems little point in challenging that assumption. Maybe that’s another post!)
The education establishment, like other organisations, faces lots of uncertainty – economic, environmental, technological – but the feedback in the system may take years. Governments and educators are designing the education system in a fog of data: and the educational environment is changing much faster than the system can. The policies being implemented now are not just unlikely to work in the future – they’re unlikely to work today, because they’re based on data that is now outdated.
Beneath this uncertainty, though, is a continuity: the purpose of education remains the same (if we can agree what that is – there seems to be no overriding philosophy of why we educate; we may not even share a common language to discuss learning). The daily business of teaching remains (more or less) the same. Against the background of change and uncertainty, what teachers do and try to achieve remains pretty constant.
The curriculum and its objectives has changed little: the early 21st century curriculum would be recognised by teachers from the early 20th century, though the tools and practice may have changed considerably. Teachers aim to get measurable results – so they “teach to the test”, and always have done (because that is how they are assessed). Teaching is generally a linear, sequential process (though learning may be recursive). Generally, we teach what we know based on the past, not what we may think will be needed for the future (the one thing we can be certain of predictions of the future is that they will be wrong).
Change may be a constant, but the rate of change – particularly technology and the way we use it – has greatly accelerated. Young people – the primary consumers of the education system – are at the forefront of that change, ahead (maybe way ahead) of their parents and teachers. Their access to information and other resources is far superior to previous generations’. Helping people manage the vast amounts of information available now, sifting value from the chaff, would be useful.
One thing that the education system could do is prepare young people to cope with this rate of change: to enable them to live with uncertainty and ambiguity, to improvise in novel situations. Society may come to rely on these skills as institutions – banks or universities or governments – fail. The gap between those in power and influence and those without – consumers of it, perhaps – is changing too, in ways the powerful may not understand (the Arab spring illustrates this, and it could happen anywhere).
Allowing educators to improvise and experiment – removing the yoke of management by results from them – to see what works and what doesn’t in their situation (and every school may be different) might add a lot of value. Teachers are the people who have to manage the change and pass it on to their learners: providing learners with skills rather than answers would be a good start.