Transforming education

October 10th 2018

There is no change without behaviour change. Education has never been more important. In fact, it is hard to overstate just how critical it is to get education 'right', given the point at which we find ourselves.

As the pace of change – technological, social, political –accelerates, and the challenges we face as a species become more complex and far-reaching, producing a generation of analytical and ethical thinkers is not just 'good', it is critical to human survival and flourishing.

But this does not mean education as we currently know it is what is important. I would argue that education needs to change quite a lot to serve us in the way we need it to. This should not be a controversial statement – the new world we are entering requires transformation from all of us!

Businesses must transform to meet the emerging demands of the 21st century market and stay relevant in an increasingly disintermediated and digitally disrupted environment. Governments must transform to function in a globalised and integrated world, and deal with supranational challenges like climate change, nuclear proliferation and artificial intelligence. And, so too, must education transform to ensure we produce engaged citizens, equipped to navigate and thrive in this new world (for their own sake!) and make positive contributions to make it better (for everyone else's sake!).

But just because it is plain to see change is required, that does not necessarily make it easy. Principals will know from experience that despite near-universal agreement about the need for change, the pace of that change in a school is often painfully slow. Often, as principals, there is a gap between our aspiration for change and our ability to practically make that change happen.

This article introduces three concepts that can to help close this gap.

Agreement is not alignment

The first concept is to understand the distinction between agreement and alignment in our teams. Agreement is an intellectual position; it is a measure of what you think. Alignment is a behavioural orientation; it is a measure of what you do.

Often change fails because we focus on agreement, but do not go the extra step of translating that agreement into behavioural alignment.

Consider the example of a focus on "student outcomes".

We work in over 4,000 schools per year, and I don't think I can recall a single principal, deputy, head of department or teacher who does it agree that student outcomes are one of the most important things we should focus on, improve and measure. Agreement is universal.

And yet, most schools do not have robust processes for giving individualised and actionable feedback to teachers about how they can improve their teaching performance in a way that improves student outcomes. Most schools do not even have an embedded evidence-based framework for quality teaching that maps to specific behaviours (behaviours like "setting appropriate, difficulty-calibrated learning objectives" or "making indicators of proficiency clear to learners") that would even make such a feedback process effective!

That is, there is agreement about the importance of student outcomes, but there is not alignment to the behaviours that are required if we are to translate our agreement into real change.

Organisations that change successfully tend to move quickly beyond finding agreement amongst the team and get to the much meatier question of what needs to happen to translate that agreement into action.

The key distinction here is the distinction between words and behaviour. Schools that measure themselves by what they say (their vision statement, their strategy, their - often Latin - credo etc) are far less likely to successfully transform than those who measure themselves by what they do. We must become critical observers of our own behaviour and find ways to align our behaviour behind the things we think are most important.

The experience paradox

The second concept is to understand the relationship between experience and baggage.

Imagine that we are entering a world where the fundamental skills required to function effectively are entirely different from those in the past. (Even if you disagree with this as a point of fact, approach it just as a thought experiment, for now).

In the case that the world required a whole new set of skills, schools would obviously need to change dramatically to maintain their relevance and effectiveness. They would need to change not just what they taught, but probably (as a direct result) also how they taught it. And if we were teaching different things in different ways, this would likely result in needing new structures, new people and new everything else.

Put simply: if the fundamental outputs of a system need to change, then the nature of both the inputs to the system, and also the operating procedures of that system, are almost certain to need to change, too.

Why is this relevant? It is relevant because that requirement to change will exist even if the system is very, very good at doing what it currently does. It does not need to be a failure of the current system that necessitates change, as much as simply a new demand of a new environment.

In the context of education, this represents the reality where even schools that are very highly accomplished at doing what they do today (who would be counted by themselves and others as exemplars of excellent and best-practice) are not insulated from the need to change and transform.

Let me put it very, very simply: being awesome at doing one thing does not automatically make you awesome at doing something else. If the world changes and you want to stay excellent, you might need to change, too.

Herein lies one of the most fundamental problems we face in successfully navigating change, especially when we're coming from a place of excellent. If we are a principal in a school that has, inter alia, a strong track record of student results, high levels of staff engagement, good integration of technology into the learning environment, quality relationships with parents and so on … then it is easy to let that experience cloud our thinking about the need for change. Our success can lull us into a false sense of security. In some ways, our experience can become our baggage.

We must undertake the difficult job of distancing ourselves from our past success to critically evaluate whether the things that have made us successful in the past are going to be the same things that will make us successful in the future. If not, we will be caught up in what Gary Kasparov famously called 'the gravity of our own success'.

Change is an act of humility

This dovetails into the third concept, which is to understand that change is not an act of courage or boldness or intellect, it is an act of humility.

We all have deep identities built up around the way in which we currently do things, and our experience and proficiency. A teacher teaching maths for 30 years will have a strong identity constructed (and reinforced) by their long experiences doing things in certain ways, and those methods producing results. A principal who has run a few different schools well and achieved strong results will have an identity built up around their qualities as a leader.

This is not a criticism, this is purely a statement of the reality of what it is to be human.

And so, to be asked to change is tantamount to being asked to admit that we, today, are imperfect. That our current methods are not optimal. That we could do better (which is to say, we are not doing as well as we could). A requirement to change is implicit admission that we have more to do and more to learn.

This is a very hard thing to admit, and it's particularly hard to admit when we're operating in generally unforgiving environments that demand near-perfection from our leaders. We do, after all, live in a world where for a politician, as an example, to say something like "I think I was wrong about this last thing I proposed and I've changed my mind" would be outright political suicide.

But if we can engender a sense of humility in our teams and an understanding that a requirement for change is not a dismissal of their past experience, rather a recognition of future needs, then we can lower resistance and accelerate transformation.

For further information on Dominic Thurbon or to enquire about making a booking for your next conference or event please contact the friendly ODE team

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