Monday, September 17, 2012

Rethinking education - some common traps

This morning I came across this
Three essential questions
In discussing our response to new possibilities it can be really helpful to think about what questions we are answering. Clearly Will Richardson and many of the commentators have been answering the question
Q1. What is possible?
But in responding to what is possible we need to be able to answer two more questions:
Q2. What is desirable? And to whom?
Q3. What is feasible? And for whom, given their current constraints such as time, energy, existing policies, practices, expectations...?

So what is possible for some stakeholders (e.g., teachers) may or may not be perceived as desirable and/or feasible by other stakeholders (administrators, government, families...)

Common Traps
Clearly there are some potentially hidden difficulties here including
  • Answering any of the above questions in isolation from the other two questions
  • Being unrealistic - "There is a simple answer to every question and it is usually wrong"
  • being unfair - "Nothing is impossible to those who don't have to do it"
  • Underestimating the disruption involved in taking advantage of what has become possible by focusing exclusively on the future and not how to get there. As Deming would ask "By what method?"
  • ...

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Being 'scientific' about schooling

Wouldn't it be great if we could be 'scientific' about schooling?!!

If only we could find the right thing to do, all would be well. We could treat all cases (students, teachers, schools, sessions...) as if they were all the same. This is a natural (but futile) ambition for anyone wanting certainty, predictability and the capacity to guarantee the outcomes of schooling.

It is obvious that every family, community, school, student, teacher.... is different. Also, cause and effect in teaching and learning are not consistent over person, place and time. Amazingly, this everyday experience flies in the face of so much of the current discourse around school improvement. We need to remember the Emperor's New Clothes!!

But does this mean we should give up trying to achieve improvements? Of course not, we all need to do better and better.

But firstly we do need to give up imposing flawed school improvement strategies including
  • confusing student achievement with school/teacher performance - students in the same class, with the same teacher and lessons, do not all achieve the same results
  • treating all schools, students, teachers... as if they were the same - they are simply not!!
  • identifying and transferring 'best practice' by policy - practices cannot be transferred, they have to be continually constructed and reconstructed
  • being 'scientific' - using evidence-based ('proven') methods - see above
  • firing 'silver bullets' - 'There ain't no one best way (Law of Tanobway)
  • any method based on 'hope for instant pudding' (Deming) - there is a simple solution to every problem and it is usually wrong!!
As well as not really working, such approaches can be disruptive and damaging to current arrangements, practices and relationships. They often result in serious unfairness. When an approach 'succeeds' certain people are rewarded for things they didn't achieve - the 'success' of the approach is substantially coincidental, a matter of luck and/or the result ongoing unofficial corrective efforts of those doing the work. When such approaches 'fail', the blame usually shifts to those doing the work (teachers and/or students). Sadly this often justifies the marginalisation or exclusion of those students not well served by the imposed arrangements (curriculum, pedagogies, sequencing...)

At the same time, under certain conditions and for certain purposes, it can be useful to treat many cases (Pareto's 80%?) 'as if' they were 'basically the same'. Well thought out and delivered programs, courses and timelines can be helpful to a significant proportion of students, but this does not justify imposing them on all students, everywhere and all the time. A significant number of cases (20%?) need to be treated differently and increasingly differently.

There are alternatives to being 'scientific' in this sense. The phenomena involved in schooling are not just complicated, they are complex. Therefore we need to consider improvement strategies derived from complexity theory, for example Nurturing emergence and Solutions Focus.

All schools need the requisite variety of responses in order to meet the needs of those they serve. It is worth noting that there are already mature school systems, such as BigPicture, that have moved beyond the dominant discourse of schooling as a linear activity that can be managed 'scientifically'. These schools have a coherent framework that enables them to make a wide range responses in the best current and future interests of their students.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The issue of predictability in education

On the Solutions Focus discussion list, one member (Hans-Peter Korn) recently posted the following recommendations
  • " with complexity in an iterative/adaptive way of work based on small solution-increments produced within short timeboxes..."
  • "...(most) systems should be seen as complex... Don't try to act on them based on the paradigm of predictability and don't apply huge and detailed analyses and long term planning!"
Schooling is a complex endeavour. Yet schools and school systems, world-wide, continue to make major changes of direction (goals, curriculum, ...) and processes (organisation, pedagogy, assessement, ...) based on the idea that they can predict the outcomes and all will be well, if only the staff follow the plans and policies involved.

In a sense, this approach is almost "fool-proof", at least for those initiating the changes
  • the plans and changes are usually based on successful ('best') practices elsewhere which 'proves' that the proposed changes do 'work'
  • if things do improve the initiators are proved right, and should be rewarded
  • if things don't improve then it must be because staff did not follow the plans and policies properly
It is usually easy to show that "staff did not follow the plans and policies properly" after the event. Making major changes, on a large scale is usually quite difficult and disruptive. It can be useful to keep Hofstadter's Law in mind:
  • "It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law."
Not only does it take longer, it also costs more!! And because of the rate of change expected, many major changes are disrupted by other subsequent major changes. For example, lack of expected success frequently prompts those in charge to introduce new major changes to fix what isn't succeeding, further disrupting the capacity of staff to achieve what is hoped for.

Hans-Peter is recommending strategies like Solutions Focus that achieve significant improvement while requiring minimal change.