Schools, systems and change done to me

If you read, listen or watch to a certain sub-section of the media around schools and the education system more broadly it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that schools are broken and need to be changed. A couple of recent posts from the feeds I track have got me thinking. George Siemens recently described his belief that it is so broken that it needs to be changed from the outside, probably by entrepreneurs. George Couros, speaking from within the systems, has generated some discussion with a post reflecting on whether or not and why people don’t like change. He summarises some of the comments in this post.

The type of change that is being talked about within the education systems are, to me, examples of a wicked design problem. This is mostly because educational systems are human systems. As such they are not simple, ordered systems. Education systems are complex adaptive systems. Which, when you simplify it (potentially a bit too far), means that there is not one single answer. So, while the following questions some existing perspectives or approaches to change, I’m not claiming to have the single answer.

The deficit model of changees

This is one of my bugbears. It is one I heard again and again and again within a university context from people who were trying to change the system. It’s the practice of blaming the changees. That is, the reason why our wonderful plan for radically improving education failed because the people who had to change weren’t good enough.

It’s a common experience. Eric Johnson made the following as a comment on the Couros post

The ‘agents’ of change are usually outside of the classroom and if a teacher raises concerns they are slapped with a tag such as rigid or resistant.

The problem isn’t with the change. The problem is the deficiencies of the people who have to change.

Change done to me, not with me

There was a common observation at the place I used to work that the staff were, after many years of change, change weary. This observation was made in one of two situations. First, as a pre-cursor to the rationale for another change project. Second, as part of the post-mortem involved in examining why the last change project failed.

As someone who had been on both sides of the change process, I always felt that such comments showed a lack of understanding of the context and experience of the staff. From my perspective, it wasn’t change that the staff were weary of. They were weary of change being done to them. Rather than being involved in identifying requirements for change or helping develop options for change, staff were being put through change management processes designed to ensure that they appropriately implemented the change designed by someone else.

Problems with external change

In terms of the problems with change in systems being designed by someone else, Eric’s comment from above makes another important point.

The ‘agents’ of change are usually outside of the classroom

The people deciding on what change is to be done and how that change is to be implemented are increasingly from outside the system. Within the organisation I have the most recent experience, major changes in teaching policies, processes and systems are being implemented and made by people who have little or no recent experience of teaching within the system. This is a problem on a couple of fronts which are illustrated by a couple of quotes from a recent keynote from Dave Snowden (the quotes are foundations to his work, so appear quite often)

First, is the implications of the characteristics of a complex adaptive system on how you can change it.

You only understand a complex system….by engagement with the system. You can’t study it in abstract and decide what the right thing is to do. There are many different things. All of which could be right. Therefore you have to actually start to work within the system to see what is possible.

The fact that so much change is being identified and implemented by folk from outside systems, and perhaps more importantly outside individual schools (an individual school is, I think, a complex adaptive system), is the reason that so many people feel that change is being done to them. The external people driving this change do not have good tacit knowledge of the particular system so that their change tends to create a sense of disconnect from people who do have good tacit knowledge of the specific context.

Another quote from the same Snowden keynote about what he had to go through in order to be apart of the general manager track at an organisation.

I wasn’t even allowed to enter the general management program until I’d done a year in sales, a year in support, a year in production and earned my bonus in each of those years. Because until I’d lived the life of a salesman, until I’d lived the life of a support person, I wasn’t in a fit state to make judgements about their capability. Because my knowledge was explicit, not tacit.

Kathy Mann gets close to this idea with the following comment on the Couros post

They need someone who has been in the trenches, slogged it out, and can share the good, the bad, the ugly about where they’re going. Too often they get someone who’s just done the research or the book learnin’. There’s no credibility there. They need to hear the war stories.

It is in the war stories that folk can identify the shared tacit knowledge. The difference remains that some of the war stories from one school will not translate to another, there will be some differences.

Defining future outcomes

Underpinning much of what is talked about around change in organisations and societies is a set of techno-rational assumptions which lead to beliefs about the ability to engineer change and organisations. Snowden again

All of these methods are focused on defining a future outcome. Remember the 3-year plan, the 5-year plan, quarter….the assumption is that we’re dealing with a machine that we can engineer. Engineering is the dominant idea. So we define an ideal future state and we try and close the gap.

Which brings up the problems with outcomes-based measures, Snowden

Outcome-based measures. These days in the UK and the US. Teachers, and Australia as well, who actually inspire students get no reward. Teaches who fill out learning plans get rewarded.

The success of such teleological processes require conditions that simply do not exist within most human systems.

Change from within?

So, it looks like I’m arguing that change may be possible from within these systems. Maybe.

What I am thinking about is that the majority of the problems with the education system arises from that system not being designed to enable and encourage its participants to see change as natural. After all, what could be natural than an education system that is always changing through learning. The problem is that the current educational systems (at least those I’m familiar with) are too teleological and are unable to learn. They are unable to change.

This inability is what makes change so hard and a topic for conversation.

The biggest change from within I’d be pushing for is a change that frees schools and education systems from the constraints of techno-rational, teleological thinking. I don’t think that’s the type of change that entrepreneurs are going to make. They are going to create different systems and contexts. The best of these will be designed to learn and change.

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