Monday, April 18, 2016

The Things That Unsettle Us

When I woke up this morning I had been sent this article from Will Richardson.

It’s the third time in the last week I've been sent or tagged into this blogpost, all by people I completely respect in the field of learning, education and schooling, all by people trying to do something different in schooling, all by people that at times struggle to do this within mainstream education practices.

The posting is centred around the things that unsettle us in schooling. The things that upset us because they are not really talked about but we know that they should be addressed. Reading this article re-inspires in me a fire. 

When I get frustrated at the glacial pace of change in our schools (and I’m talking globally as much as anything closer to home) I am often told by mentors and friends to slow down, that its got to take time and to make any change effective we’ve got to take people with us. While I know all that, while I know and have lived the theories around change management and about effective changes in schools, frankly I’m a little tried of slowing down and waiting. 

The main questions the posting provokes for me?

Why are we still splitting learning into discrete little packages based around ‘subjects?

Who really says what our young people need to learn about? Before you passionately defend the content of the curriculum strands of our curriculum documents how much do you really understand about the history of curriculum development? Who actually made the original decisions that that content is the most important to learn at that age? And why? What was the purpose? Is it still valid?
Why are we giving learners technology, but not letting them utilise its capabilities? Why do we give them technology but not let them study the things that grab them wherever and whenever  they want/can/are able to?

Why are we still splitting learners into manageable little groups of the same-age?
How many high schools still run a separate programs for each year group? And apparently there are still intermediates out there who operate a Year 7 and a Year 8 programme, and even primary schools operating single programmes for each year group. And when Ive asked for justification I get told things like “our camp programme works this way,” or “we can design isolated programmes for each year group that way.” When this is being said by the same schools that say they are responsive to individual students it makes me very worried for schooling in the future.

What is success? In life, not in school as a representation of grades but in real-life? How much of what we do in schools is really feeding into this? How much of what we consider successful is what we really focus in developing programmes in and reporting on? 

Why do so many people knock the efforts of schools, and individual teachers trying to find the answers to some of these questions by doing things significantly differently than the “acceptable norm.” Do these detractors live in such a closed world that they cannot see that although the world has changed in exponential ways and the ways we all live (including them) have changed alongside this, schooling hasn’t really changed much at all? Do these detractors feel the same level of discomfort about the things outlined at all? Or do the detractors acknowledge some of this stuff but give up because its just too hard to effect change on the scale that is needed

When I started working in significantly different ways quite a few years ago now, I remember hosting a parent focus group with a really serious comment from a parent being  “You cant keep doing this…you are making learning too enjoyable and too engaging for our kids and that’s not fair to them when they go to High school. You've raised their expectations about what they think school should be like and they are going to feel let down in the future.” Thankfully this was responded to very well by other parents in the room which saved my incredulous repose from being uttered, However for me the scary thing is this was 14 years ago and the changes we were discussing that had parents scared and worried then, are still the changes we are fighting for in schools today. That really is glacial change. I still find myself having to defend the same kind of learning programmes to parents, to educators, and even to young people who have had their expectations of what school should be like shaped by the system, and lost all the natural curiosity and thirst for learning they have as pre-schoolers.

I am fortunate that for the last five years I was able to teach and lead in a school where we were allowed and encouraged some latitude in meeting needs and responding to some of the questions outlined above.

I am fortunate that I am now working in a new school that is being led by a visionary Board of Trustees and Principal who are committed to continue answering some of these questions and doing things differently in a brand new school from the start. 

Yes, I am fortunate. 

But I am still unsettled by the lack of wider change I see. Unsettled that “changes” I see in schools are really only ‘tweaks.’ The whole Innovative Learning Environment/Collaborative practice/Flexible spaces paradigm in New Zealand schools provides a great platform for significantly changing the way learning and school can look. But in many cases I see schools taking the old paradigms of subjects, and age groupings and  organisation and imposing those over the top of ILE’s.
Schools being responsive to parent demands of ‘the old ways were good enough for us,” but being completely unresponsive to learners individual needs. If we were being really responsive to individuals we wouldn't be pigeonholing them into set age groups to learn within and set ‘packages of learning’ to learn about. I remain concerned that those educators I see really trying to do things differently are those that are often then isolated in schools, who in the end either give up justifying their different programmes and ‘fall back into line’ or give up all together and leave the profession. We need to stand up and stop this happening.

What can we do to help the wider population understand why things need to change dramatically within schools? What can we do to celebrate those schools and educators that are pioneers? Rather than knocking them, how do we highlight them in positive ways? How do we effect system change rather than change on an individual or school-wide basis?

A lot of questions here.Not many answers but I’m going to spend the next couple of weeks of school break time pondering them. 

I might be fortunate in my individual work but what can I do to help system change rather than accept its glacial pace? 

Thanks to Will Richardson (, and those that have been discussing and sending this posting around over the last week for once again reigniting my fire.


  1. For what it is worth here are my thoughts... in terms of the 'glacial' change there is no need for you to slow down - someone has be the ground breaker, the leader of the new and improved and if not you, who?
    Yes, change is happening and it is slow but at every stage that I see this, the kids are happy and engaged. Working alongside the kids and giving them a voice still scares many and perhaps this is why change can be slow. In my experience co-constructung with your students is a powerful agent in change.

  2. Where have you been all my life?
    I think the worry is:
    Others are not able to carry on the work that you started
    And two: teachers need order and consistency. What you are proposing is going to challenge the very core of educational values I.e. how do we measure success?

  3. Where have you been all my life?
    I think the worry is:
    Others are not able to carry on the work that you started
    And two: teachers need order and consistency. What you are proposing is going to challenge the very core of educational values I.e. how do we measure success?

  4. I read this at pace knowing you wrote it at pace!

    "Why" you ask? Because society has a picture of what school is and what it is for, regardless of what we can see happening in the world. Every week we hear about more things we should be teaching, as part of the "stuff it into them and they will know it" model of schools: NZ history, safety around dogs...the list is never ending.

    There is safety in keeping to tradition and fear of the unknown. As a race, we suffer from genetic Ludditism, which only changes when we recognise genius in an idea that surfaces a generation or so after the instigator's death.

    We have a need to keep to the road we know just in case we are ostracised for being different, and just in case we are proven wrong.

    But small sparks in the darkness can end up as forest fires. You are lucky to be in a school which ignites and nurtures these sparks. Be a beacon to the rest of us.

  5. Hi Karyn, I came across this post via MindLab G+ and avidly read both this and the link about the elephants (and wandered off to read the link from there too) in the classroom. Totally inspiring! Then I realised who I was reading and why it all sounded so familiar! Why are the changes so slow? (because school is not a business perhaps? no one is making money out of it). Keep asking questions! How ridiculous that parents might be afraid that their children will enjoy learning too much and raise their expectations. Keep raising the bar!!
    Hope you are enjoying Chch. Look forward to catching up next time you are in Gizzy.

  6. Kia Ora Karyn,

    Thank you for blogging a response to Will Richardson's article. It seems that the glacial pace of change in the education system has significant relationship with the purpose of the state system itself to maintain a model linearity, control and the hierachy of power, in it's broadest sense and because this system has been so effective in maintaining that purpose the impact of change seems so doldrum -ised. However, as I was thinking of your reference to glaciation in relation to the pace of change it occurred to me that like global warming and it's effect on glaciation, the effect of the Christchurch earthquake is somewhat similar, in that it creates astounding mass disruption. With that not only has the community of Canterbury had to change, adapt and be in the uncomfortable place of uncertainty within that there's a dissonant reverberation of the what we have known. The emergence from this is, as I see it, an acceleration of change in the education space here and that has happened through the brokenness of the environment from the earthquakes. The emergence from this is the creation of the new education space of Haeata and alongside this other schools in Canterbury. What this tells me is that to have increased rate of change in such embedded longterm structures that significant disruption is necessary. For teachers such as ourselves who have been anticipating these changes for the better of Education, finally, something, has happened that feels like the resonating impact on the existing system could be significant.
    With all this in mind the challenge then is how do we work with the system we have that still requires a very distilled process of measuring student learning outcomes, such as national standards, and the over emphasis of compartmentalising cm. Because these two seem to co-exist together, it is these that can impinge on the advocation for true agency. My experience of enabling such agency, which is in the space of democratic education is, that when any real time authentic learning happens, it is difficult to predict, assess and anticipate the outcome of it, in relation to highly specific learning goals. The big question for me as an educator who wants change is how do we do both without diluting the learning experience, access and culture of the individual and the collective? My thinking is that one of the most powerful things we could do to enhance student agency is to identify, as educators, the dispositions for learning that enable curiosity, creativity, emotional and social wellbeing and dissolve as many of the existent boundaries that define the construct of the current industrialised model of education in the space of the learner, so that the learner becomes empowered to define their boundaries, parameters and dispositions for learning and living. We we have achieved this I imagine momentum could accelerate.

  7. Thought provoking article. Teachers need a paint by number ILE system or basic guidelines if it is to work. If the community is also able to significant research that outlines the benefits then change could possibly occur.

  8. Excellent questions and I'd like to add a couple more with educators in mind. When a paradigm shift happens in education, and 21st century learning is a massive shift, why is it that we never drop anything out at the bottom of the educational funnel? We seem to always 'stuff' things in but rarely drop anything out. Isn't it time as educators we said enough is enough? Maybe it is time for educators in schools to collectively start unclogging the educational funnel to speed up this glacial change. I believe most educators are not adverse to change, they just don't want to see the system growing this huge bulge (translated more 'work') and nothing else being discarded. The move towards 21st century learning is way too important. We must start dropping outdated pedagogy to assist educators to develop their own place in teaching for the future.