Thursday, October 31, 2013

The school system - enabler or driver?

For more than a decade Tasmanian public education has been in a state of continuous structural and policy change. Given the disappointing outcomes this is likely to continue. Well intentioned  initiatives have been largely top-down, one-size-fits-all approaches that ultimately require the compliance of staff at all levels. That is, governments and senior officers have attempted to drive improvements from on high by providing schools and staff with the answers while failing to properly understand the questions - classic MBO (management by objectives, circa 1960s).

To be fair, most initiatives have been rational, "best practice" and/or "evidence based" meaning that the initiatives appear reasonable and have been successful elsewhere. However, initiatives have to occur in a context and each situation (student, teacher, school, family, community...) involves a different context: each with its own history, needs, hopes, culture, resources...

In engineering, "best practices" are readily transferable - cause and effect are consistent over place and time and the outcomes are predictable The same cannot be said for human endeavours such as education. Education is a complex endeavour, not subject to consistent natural laws. In complex systems similar initiatives can have very different outcomes in different places - like the weather, starting conditions (the initial context) make can a huge difference.

Schools, classes, education departments... are all complex (adaptive) systems. They are not factories that can be controlled in a mechanical way - the processes involved are not based on natural laws.  They are not changed by flicking switches and turning dials. Rather they are the sum total of the everyday interactions of their various parts  (the people, policies, rules, working relationships, resources, opportunities... and the context).  What happens emerges over time from the all interactions of the parts of the system.

Key questions
What is the purpose of our systems?  
 - We create systems in order to achieve what is desirable.

What are the underlying mechanisms involved?
- In context, the people involved continually construct (and reconstruct) their knowledge, (inter)actions, arrangements and relationships in ways that will (ideally) help them achieve of what is desirable.

What design principles might apply? 
At all levels, systems should enable the achievement of their purposes easily and well.
Systems should also incorporate their own ongoing improvement strategies.
Due diligence should be undertaken before implementing a major proposal

The implications are that top-down initiatives need to be complemented by matching responses throughout the system. To be successful initiatives need to be coherent and useful. All this sounds a bit cumbersome, so why not allow people at the top make the decisions to drive the achievement of what is desirable?

When systems try to drive detailed change they often end up requiring compliance and this is usually counter-productive and difficult to sustain. When  system requirements conflict with the immediate needs of students, schools and staff often face a dilemma. Such dilemmas are best understood as  opportunities for learning and for system improvement. If such a dilemma is resolved by requiring compliance there will be more losers than winners, especially in the longer term.

The alternative is for the system to focus on providing enablers (purposes, principles, tools...) that will nurture the emergence of what is desirable. People want to do well and to contribute - schools and their staff care about the success and well-being of their students. The system needs to be judged by the extent to which it enables all to achieve success and well-being now and it the future.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Evaluating proposals - some useful questions

All proposals are naturally about achieving a better future and are usually presented as "good ideas". Business regularly does due diligence before undertaking major projects. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for education. Before proceeding with any significant initiative it could be worth considering following

Sample Questions
  1. What differences will we notice if this proposal is successful?
  2. What small scale evidence supports the proposal?
  3. What is necessary for the proposal to succeed?
  4. What is sufficient for the proposal to succeed?
  5. How does the proposal integrate with our key purposes, processes, the present culture, and other historical, current and future initiatives?
  6. Where is it already happening?
  7. What will be the costs of any failure?
  8. Will it be safe to fail
  9. What responses will be made to those situations where the proposal does not work
  10. Can the proposal be easily reversed or abandoned at any stage? 
  11. What is the expected cost of implementing the proposal? (Costs mat include include losses and waste in terms of finance, time, energy, expertise, disruption, deterioration, resources, expertise, social capital,….)
  12. Will the outcomes be sustainable ? Will they require substantial ongoing support and maintenance?
  13. Are we ready, at this time, to undertake this proposal?
  14. Is there a better, cheaper, less disruptive and safer way to achieve the same outcomes?
Three Key Questions
Working through the above (or similar questions) collaboratively will enable consensus to be reached on three key questions:
  1. Is it desirable (and for whom)?
  2. Is it possible (and by what method)?
  3. Is it feasible (and in what time frame)?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Tasmanian Education - a better future

Early next year Tasmania is likely to have a new Minister for Education. The Minister will promise a better future for Tasmanian education. If this is to be achieved, the new Minister will need to avoid the traps into which the current and recent Minsters and senior bureaucrats have fallen. So the key question is...

By what method?” (Deming)

Core Method:
  • Operate consistently on the basis of (explicit, agreed) principles (Covey,... Webb)
Some principles for consideration
     Core goals: Success & well-being for all now and in the future
Use low cost, low risk (safe-fail), potentially high return initiatives (Snowden)
Maximise improvement while minimising change 
Provide principle-based authority and responsibility - shared accountability
Address the current constraint (Goldratt)
Make things easier first
Adopt a common “job description” for all involved; staff, students, families… e.g., 
o       Know what's happening
o       Work with others to improve what is happening
o       Make it easier for the next person to do well  (Webb)

Our knowledge, actions, arrangements, relationships and organisation emerge from (everyday) interactions (complexity theory)
"If you understand the principles... you can choose your own method" (Gaping Void)
A principle-based approach is sustainable
Consistent sharing of authority and responsibility
Sound principles are widely applicable (DoE, other schools and services...)
Sound principles change only slowly co-evolving with the context
A well understood set of principles provides coherence
Moves the focus from driving to enabling
Attracts minimal tampering and disruption
Promotes initiative and commitment
Minimises cost
- Enables and promotes local and system-wide initiatives
- Builds and attracts social capital
- Flexible and adaptive - provides basis for customisation
- Achieves consistency without requiring uniformity
- Responsive to opportunities

It works
I know the above works - I have lived it at Riverside Primary School (1988-2000). And current technology makes the above manageable and scalable at a system level.
Big Picture schools and the Coalition of Essential Schools are other  great examples of very successful principle based  school systems

Common recent traps that can be avoided using a principle-based approach
Confusing drivers and enablers (eg, Naplan with delayed results)
Confusing plans, policies and standards with actual performance
Confusing change with improvement
Confusing additional resources with improvement
Confusing structural change with improvement
Relying on command and control management (compliance)
Ignoring the real starting point – the individual student in his/her current context
[Note: There is nothing wrong with programs, plans, policies, standards, resources... Indeed they can be very useful, if implemented in the right context using sound principles. They should not be assumed to be drivers (causal) despite their successful use elsewhere. At best, they may be useful interim enablers in some contexts.]