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A glitch in the system, or more than that?

As I write this, the annual International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI) is taking place in Singapore. This event brings together researchers, writers and policy makers from education systems across the planet to look at and consider what is happening, and what is working, across those systems, as well as where we should focus next. The theme for this year's congress is 'Deepening School Change for Scaling: Principles, Pathways and Partnerships'.

Whilst not being able to attend this year, though I did manage an appearance two years ago, I have been an interested follower of keynotes and workshops via Twitter and social media. This is one of the joys of such technology, that you can still observe what is happening and being discussed at an event like this, even though you might not be there in person. The various keynotes are also made available online so that you can see and hear these yourself, especially if you want to refer or think more about them later. With Twitter though, you can interact in real time as they use the hashtag #ICSEI2018, you can also check this timeline out at a later date if you wish. I would recommend everyone interested in education to have a look.

Andy Hargreaves gave the presidential address and looked at 'Purpose, Professionalism, Leadership and Change'. In this address he identified that 'wellbeing is the new frontier of school improvement.' This theme has been repeated and added to by various speakers following Andy, representing quite a dramatic change in emphasis for many education systems, and the individuals in them. Hargreaves went on to say that the question was no longer whether people should collaborate but how they collaborate. He was advocating a move 'from professional collaboration to collaborative professionalism', a profound change in how we think about and practice collaboration and professionalism. Key to our new way of thinking and acting should be dialogue and action, learning with meaning and purpose, embedded cultures, teacher leadership and working with students. He was also to say that 'we've moved from an age of achievement to an age of identity, engagement and wellbeing.'

He was followed by Carol Campbell who spoke about the work she and colleagues had been undertaking in Ontario, and the lessons they had learned as a result. She concluded her presentation with the five key lessons they had garnered from their work. These five aspects were key to any successful development. In such development, they have 1) humanity at the core, they develop 2) collaborative professionalism, they are 3) evidence informed, they promote the 4) de-privatization of practice and they create 5) systems for knowledge co-creation, mobilization and use. I was particularly taken by one of her slides which compared ego driven hierarchies, typically found across schools and systems, and eco ones, which were ecological in nature, valued input from everyone one and were non-hierarchical structurally. She was advocating that we have to have people at the heart of any system change. She referenced 'Flip The System' and Jelmer Evers to illustrate an example of a teacher having systemic influence, but also noted that if you flipped a hierarchy, you still had an hierarchy, which is why she preferred a more ecological model.

Another message with resonance given on the first day was 'All improvement requires change, but not all change is an improvement' delivered by a Dr Gruncow. How true is this.

As I am watching the second day of presentations, similar themes are being repeated and discussed as those on the first day. A friend from Australia, Andrea Stringer, sent me a message this morning about how Carol Campbell had given a very powerful message that to bring about large scale educational change we had to focus on humanity and people. This is all music to my ears, because I have been advocating this as an approach that will work and deliver, for some time now.

If we have many of the world's leading educational researchers advocating such a change to how we develop our education systems, the question now is, how prepared, willing and able are our systems to embrace such an approach? I am also not oblivious to the fact that both Andy and Carol are part of the group of International Educational Advisors that are supporting the Scottish government at the present time, and that other members of this group are also in attendance in Singapore.

I Tweeted out Andrea's message and added, 'This won't please the micro-managers, control freaks and power junkies that abound in many systems.' To me, this is going to be a major issue in bringing about the changes being advocated at the ICSEI conference. It has always been my contention that so many of those at the higher reaches of the prevailing hierarchies are the ones who feel most threatened, and perceive they have the most to lose, from any move to a more humanistic and egalitarian system structure and culture. As such, they can become the biggest block to the changes necessary. I agree with Carol and Andy about what needs to happen, and how this needs to be brought about by the actions of teachers and individuals in the system, wherever they are found. My recent chapter in 'Flip The System UK' made much the same point.

In my experience, trying to take such steps, within current systems, can see such individuals being seen as 'outliers' or 'anomalies' in the system. A 'glitch', as techies might say. Any education system is composed of systems and structures, then people, who make it live and breathe. As such, it can be difficult to shift thinking and practice, because if your thinking and practice do not conform to what the system is looking for, you begin to attract attention, sometimes for the wrong reasons. These can be aimed at bringing you back into line, so that you conform to the systems models and expectations. We can judge a system's norms by its behaviours and what it is prepared to accept and support, not by what it purports to support. If you regard an education system, at whatever level, like the human body's systems, you can see similarities in how it operates, and how it protects itself in order to survive. The body's systems have evolved to work for the benefit of the individual, with each part having a role to play in keeping the whole system healthy and alive. When a threat is detected, in the form of germs or foreign bodies, or when parts do not function as expected, the body has defence systems that kick in, to destroy the threat, to isolate it or to compensate for it not working as it should.

This is exactly how some systems and schools work. Everyone has to understand their role, understand the model, and then behave accordingly to support this. When glitches occur, and individuals argue against the prevailing model or practices, no matter how well researched and evidenced, the system tends to push back. This may take the form of individuals being told their performance is different or not what is 'expected', and that they need to deliver in the same way as colleagues, with practice then being monitored closely to see if they are starting to conform. Further action may result, if individuals fail to 'improve' and demonstrate adherence to accepted models. For those further up the hierarchies who decide to push against the system norms and practices, then isolation and ignoring become other ways of dealing with such outliers. Just like the body, the education system, and those who control it, have ways of protecting themselves, and maintaining the status quo.

If we have systems that support such hierarchies and behaviours it can be difficult for individuals to affect change. That is why collaborating professionally with others who feel the same as you is so important in generating organic systemic development and growth. Getting together with others who are considered outliers or different is crucial to individual and systemic growth. Generally, systems like societies, grow and develop organically rather than in revolutionary ways. 'Outliers' can soon become more 'normalised' by force of opinion and practices. We can all look back at behaviours or attitudes that were acceptable in our societies ten or twenty years ago, but which are now no longer acceptable, because we have learnt better. To bring about those changes first required individuals to question what we were doing and why, then to offer an alternative which was better.

As more and more come on board, a tipping-point is reached where permanent change results, we have grown and moved on. I see the same thing happening in the Scottish system at the moment with the work of Suzanne Zeedyk in regard to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and attachment issues, Sue Palmer and the Upstart movement, aimed at promoting play for learning in early childhood, as well as the work of Kate Wall, Mark Priestley and others in developing enquiry for professional development in our schools. All of these show the power of informed, committed individuals to bring about change and growth within a fairly fixed system. They also demonstrate just why our focus needs to be on people and their humanity, rather than on systems and structures.

When we have true democracy, teacher leadership and agency, then we will have the conditions being talked of at ICSEI, leading to organic, deep growth in ever improving and developing systems. Change starts with individuals being brave and asking questions of their own practice, as well as that of the system. Lets commit to this at the start of 2018. More of the same does our profession a disservice and continues to let down so many of our learners and their families. They and we, deserve more than that.

Apologies if I have misinterpreted any of the messages from #ICSE2018 but no doubt there is lots to think about.


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