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Change and the professional voice

As we in education are all well aware, change is a constant. This is something we are dealing with almost on a daily basis within classrooms, schools and across our education systems. Many in education are still resistant to change, though. The reasons for this are often less to do with stubbornness or entrenched views and beliefs, and more to do with a lack of connection between what people believe, who they are as individuals, and what they are asked, or worse told, to do. I have long held the belief that real, deep and sustained change cannot be imposed on people and can only happen when there is true buy-in from individuals. Perhaps the strongest way to achieve such buy-in is when individuals themselves identify, or come to recognise, what they need to do to get better. As Dylan Wiliam says, ‘not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.’ This applies to us all, and should do throughout our careers, true career-long professional learning.

Over this half-term break in Scotland I have been thinking a little more about this as I have been reading two books. The first was ‘The New meaning of Educational Change: Fourth Edition’ by Michael Fullan, updated in 2007. The second was ‘The Fourth Way: The Inspiring Future for Educational Change’ written by Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley and published in 2009. These three professors of education have world-wide reputations in working with governments and systems to bring about, and support, educational change, and all acknowledge the complexity of this task. They can also identify all the ways and reasons why such change has had little or no impact on schools and systems for many years, especially for the learners within those systems. Indeed, it can even be seen and argued that many of these well intentioned and motivated reforms have had negative impacts in so many schools and systems. In short, things have got worse!

The reasons for the failures of previous educational change agendas or reforms are myriad and quite common to systems which have gone down the road of standardisation, high-stakes accountability procedures, testing and top-down direction and micro-management, which see schools and teachers of ‘deliverers’ of dictats and strategies imposed from above.  A reform Pasi Sahlberg has identified as GERM, the General Educational Reform Movement. He, and others, would argue, just like any germ encountered and not dealt with appropriately, such reform can make the whole system unwell and unable to thrive. None of these approaches have worked anywhere where they have been imposed. Intelligent and reflective professional individuals know this and can point to experts such as these, and years of research, to explain to anyone prepared to listen, why they don’t work, and what some of the negative consequences of such approaches are. In such circumstance, you can expect push back from those within the system when they see signs that we might be looking to repeat many of the mistakes which have been tried and failed elsewhere.

So what does work? ‘Educational change is technically simple and socially complex,’ writes Fullan. He adds later on ‘…people are much more unpredictable and difficult to deal with than things. They are also essential for success’. Hargreaves and Shirley conclude that in their Fourth Way, we have ‘a democratic and professional path to improvement that builds from the bottom, steers from the top and provides support and pressure from the sides.’ They add, ‘Here, teachers define and pursue high standards and targets, and improve by learning continuously through networks, from evidence, and from each other.’ All these writers then, and many others, point to the primacy of teachers, school leadership, collaboration, relationships, people and the development of new dispositions towards professional development, as being key to success in school and system change. Hargreaves illustrates many of the benefits to be achieved through a focus on the Finnish education system. He, like all the others, also warns about the dangers of just ‘copying’ what works and ignoring contexts. This is another reason that helps determine success. Can you look at what works but then adjust and shape its implementation according to your own particular context? Failure to do so, will only lead to more failure.

Fullan writes, ‘Professional learning ‘in context’ is the only learning that ultimately counts for changing classrooms.’ Hargreaves and Shirley would also agree that not only do we have to develop new dispositions towards professional learning, we also need to develop new practices. The best and most impactful learning for teachers and for their learners is collaborative and situated in their particular context, i.e. in their classrooms and schools. All point to the power of collaborative professional learning approaches which are ongoing and continuous, and which involve teachers observing each other and helping each other to grow and develop. The de-privatisation of practice is a common call by these writers and others to improve what we do collectively. The importance of focused professional dialogue, aimed at improving what we do, is another key factor. ‘School leaders can stand on their heads, dish out awards, or wave pom-poms in the air, but none of it matters unless teachers are engaged in the changes that have to be achieved,’ Hargeaves and Shirley comment in regard to the power of teacher collaboration and engagement. I have always believed that my main role, as a school leader, is to create challenge and conditions of support and trust to allow teachers the ‘space’ to innovate and grow.

There is no change if you do not reach the hearts and minds of the people who are going to have to deliver that change. Both the books I have been reading this week are hardly new, and neither is the research that sits behind them. Yet, we still find systems and schools employing methods and thinking that have been shown to fail to deliver. Why? Obviously, political will and ideology, linked to short term thinking, is a major factor. As is the inability of leaders to engage the hearts and minds of intelligent people and the belittling of their knowledge and professional expertise. But, perhaps the biggest reason for us being asked to yet again engage with practices that have been shown not to work, is our inability or unwillingness to make the case, using research and evidence, to keep arguing for why certain actions won’t work, whilst explaining those that might. We have a professional responsibility, as well as a moral one, to engage continually in the discourse around change agendas. How often when we are ‘consulted’ do we actually respond in a considered and well-argued way. There is no point meeting ideology head on with more ideology. We need to be professional and make the professional case for what we think should happen. We cannot expect to win every argument or discussion, but we have a responsibility to make the voice of the profession heard. This voice should be reasoned and informed and should be continuously engaged. Perhaps then we would be able to sleep at night and prevent more of the haemorrhaging of staff from the profession. 

I write this from a country and system that seems hell-bent on repeating the mistakes of others. I hope our politicians are really listening to the professional voice from within the system, as well as to the likes of Andy Hargreaves, Alma Harris, Pasi Sahlberg, Carol Campbell and the other members of their international advisory group who can really tell them what makes a difference. 

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