COVID-19 forces educational and societal reform

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The last couple of weeks have been hectic around the world and the pace of change at all levels has been rapid and relentless. In Australian schools, leadership teams and teachers have been preparing for distance learning. Parents have been making decisions about whether or not to send their children to school. Worry in households and panic in shopping centres have reached climactic levels. School leaders are doing their best to remain calm and methodical while preparing their schools for what seems like imminent closure in the near future.

It is surreal to watch corporate and education reform happen at such a rapid rate. We are reforming the workplace and rethinking how we go about our work. We are reimagining how we interact and collaborate. We are reframing education and redesigning schooling on the fly.

Those who have been calling for the abolition of standardised tests and the rethinking of university entrance are seeing education systems transform before their eyes. The COVID-19 pandemic has meant the cancelling of standardised tests (GCSEs and A-Levels in the UK; NAPLAN in Australia so far) and the consequent abolishing of league tables derived from these tests. Those who have been calling for the end of traditional schooling are seeing the swift move to remote learning and the upskilling of teachers in learning technologies and online platforms.

Australian teachers and school leaders, whose jobs are already incredibly complex, are supporting increasingly anxious students and parents. They are communicating work to students who are not coming to school. They are preparing for a move to teaching remotely. They are considering how learning might look different, authentic and meaningful when done from home. They are considering issues of equity and access for their communities. They are worrying about their own children, parents, families, livelihood, groceries.

Educators are collaborating within schools, they are collaborating with other schools. They are sharing their distance learning plans and teaching resources, because as a profession and as a society, we are better together.

We are one society, one humanity. All of our jobs and job descriptions are now in flux. What does our workplace, our clientele, our society need now, at this moment in time? Grounded flight attendants stocking supermarket shelves? Military personnel assisting surgical-mask-producing and toilet-paper-manufacturing facilities? Consultants training teachers to use online technologies? Office staff filling bottles with hand sanitiser and disinfecting workplace surfaces? All of us rearranging furniture and staying at a distance from one another?

We are needed in new ways, and there is an almost wartime redeployment of labour and a need for banding together as whole workplaces, as a whole society and as a whole world.

This is a time for us all to think about what leadership means, regardless of title or position. We can reach out (from a physical distance) to others and support one another as best we can, even though isolation feels like it goes against our biology. We can consider carefully where we get our information, and how we respond to that information. We can all lead by example, by clear communication with one another, and by clarity of purpose and cohesiveness of action.

During the current crisis, Canadians began a ‘caremongering not scaremongering’ campaign. This week is Kindness Week, a week to think about how we move beyond fear and individualism to compassion and courage. Australia has not yet seen the full force of COVID-19 and its real, human ramifications. There is no more important time to be kind to ourselves and each other than right now. We are in a time of adaptation and evolution, by necessity. When we come out the other side, society, work and education may be reformed for good.

Innovation in schools

Today I’m home from a thought-provoking day of professional learning workshops: Jan Owen on building the education ecosystem and Peter Hutton on creating an adaptive culture for school transformation.

An ecosystem is a complex community of interconnected organisms in which each part, no matter how seemingly small, has an active, agentic part to play in the community. There are constant interdependent relationships and influences. The notion of an ecosystem of education resonates with Bob Garmston and Bruce Wellman’s third Adaptive Schools underlying principle of what they call ‘nonlinear dynamical’ systems: that tiny events create major disturbances. This principle reflects the way change often happens. The little things we change or do can have unexpected, chaotic, incremental effects that are difficult to quantify or not immediately noticeable.

As we consider the education ecosystem, to what extent is innovation needed in education?

Certainly, there is a case often made for the need for radical change in education and schooling. Often the future of work is cited, the jobs not yet invented, automation and artificial intelligence disrupting industry. Jan Owen today spoke of globalisation, the flexible economy, job clusters, the need for meaning and purpose in work, diversity, equity, enterprise skills, micro-credentialing and the need for ongoing workplace learning. The Gonski 2.0 report talks about individualised learning, tracking student data, increased emphasis on teaching General Capabilities, and community partnerships as ways to address ‘declining performance’ and improve apparently ‘cruising schools’.

Skills and capabilities are increasingly the focus of futures-focused thinking in education. But knowledge remains crucial. Chief Scientist Alan Finkel said in his speech to the 2018 Australian Science Teachers Association Annual Conference:

“I have had many, many meetings with employers, in my role as Chief Scientist and as Deputy Chair of Innovation and Science Australia; and 6 before that, as Chancellor of Monash University and President of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering; and before that, as the CEO of a publicly listed company. In all my meetings with people actually hiring graduates, no-one has ever said to me: ‘gosh, we don’t have enough people who know how to collaborate.’ No, what they say to me is: ‘we don’t have enough specialists in software engineering. We can’t find graduates who are fluent in maths. We have meetings where three quarters of the people in the room can’t critique a set of numbers without pulling out a calculator and slowing us down. They were asking for T-shapes, and getting flat lines – but the flat line wasn’t lifted up and anchored by that all-important vertical pillar.”

We need people with specialist knowledge as well as transferrable skills. As I say to my students: we need to know stuff and also be able to do stuff.

French artists around 1900 depict the future of school. Source: publicdomainreview.org

Those commenting on the need for innovation in education often shown slides of classrooms that have students sitting at desks in rows. The argument is made that we have an industrial-age factory model of schooling in which inflexible schools manufacture homogenised experiences for students with little regard for difference, readiness, prior learning, and the idiosyncrasies of the individual.

And yet.

My research into and practical experience of schools and education is that today’s schools and classrooms are not factory-esque machines focused on creating compliant workers and unthinking drones. Audrey Watters wrote in 2015 about the invented history of the factory model of schooling, which she argues is used to justify the need for an ‘upgrade’.

To accuse schools and teachers of rigidly and unimaginatively churning students through regimented, authoritarian, one-size-fits-one education, is to do teachers, schools and school leaders a great disservice.

As I wrote recently: education is not broken and teachers do not need fixing. Education is not operating in the deep deficit that is sometimes the subject of media headlines, reports or popular rhetoric. Teachers deeply know their students. They use a range of data to adjust planning, teaching and assessment to address their students’ needs. They are experts in their fields who know their content and how to teach it. They use a range of resources and technologies to deepen content knowledge and skills, and to allow individualisation and accessibility of learning. They give a range of meaningful feedback. They build productive relationships with students, parents, one another and those in the wider community. Our teachers are working hard every day to empower students and develop their capabilities, relationships and citizenship as well as their knowledge and skills.

Yes, we can consider how to better structure schools and build in further agility. Yes, we can develop the ways in which we harness technologies to do education better. Yes, we can all work to improve our policies, processes and practices, to serve our students and communities more effectively. Yes, we can challenge the measures of success in education and the ways in which students, teachers, school leaders and schools are judged in terms of their positive impact. We can resist external pressures and consider what really matters. We can imagine and enact better ways of doing things. We can consider relevance, authenticity, values, purpose, agency, identity. We can respectfully challenge one another and those leading education systems. We can advocate for our students, families, communities, teachers and school leaders, their learning, their voice, their wellbeing.

Flip the System Australia argues for equity and democracy, and for the elevation and amplification of those in schools and classrooms: students, teachers, school leaders. As Adam Brooks said at the Perth launch of the book: We (teachers and school and system leaders) are the system. We can drive change from the ground up, as the original Flip the System book argues. Peter Hutton today challenged those educators present to “do what you can do now.” “Do what you’re allowed to do,” he said, “and then do a little bit more.”

For me, innovation in education is about interrogating where voice, power and agency reside. It is worth asking: who has power and influence? Who has control of measures, expectations, systems, norms and processes? Who has autonomy, voice and ownership? And what can we each do, now, that is productive and meaningful for our students?