If there’s one small bit of good news emanating from the chaos of this pandemic and politics moment, it’s this: a markedly growing number of schools are engaging in more existential discussions about what school needs to be in an age of growing complexity and change.
We know this not only from our work to help international schools articulate and put into practice a set of “new school” principles that will hopefully guide their work into the future.
We’ve also been seeing it more and more on Twitter, in the chats people have during our webinars and workshops, and in the explosion of new forms of “school” that people are designing to respond to all the pandemic has surfaced in terms of what simply isn’t working or has fully broken. (Grades, subject silos, and standardized tests are just a few.)
So, the rhetoric is pretty progressive right now, and pretty “change-y.” Many educators are aspiring to different, not just “better,” despite a lack of consensus as to what that word actually suggests. They’re seeking, as Heifitz et.al. would describe as “adaptive change,” not just technical changes in practice or structure.
But, as always, it’s one thing to talk the talk and another to walk it. And the concern in this very fraught moment is twofold: First, that we don’t have the foundations in place to hold up the types of fundamental changes we seek, and, second, that the pull back to “normal” will undermine the hard work necessary to actually make those changes happen.
Normal is Easier
Make no mistake, as we’ve said before, “normal” is easier. Many schools have been trying to maintain some semblance of “normal” even in hybrid or remote environments. We take attendance, assign homework, serve up tests all in ways that suggest that when the pandemic ends, we’ll continue to do that in physical space. Arguably, in fact, we’re trying to make this pandemic school experience as “normal” as possible for teachers and students given the circumstances.
Serious change breaks what is “normal,” however. It doesn’t just tweak current practice; it replaces it. It requires new ways of working as systems and organizations. I requires that we revisit and challenge old belief systems and values. And it requires new skills on the part of those in the organization or the community who will be living the change.
In essence, real change rejects “normal.”
But even if we are able to resist the pull back to stasis, the larger question is whether the foundations we’ve built can sustain the “new normals” we seek and hope to implement. Not to be repetitive, but rejecting “normal” also means rejecting and reimagining the structures and supports upon which it was built.
Depending on the type of school engaging in this work, that can be extremely difficult. Traditional schools that are built on age old reputations of “success” with little deviation from the dominant delivery of education narrative may break instead of change. Even schools with more progressive, modern approaches may find themselves unable to “adapt” to a world that demands a much different conception of an “education.”
That said, the foundations and supports for relevant change that endures are not hidden away in some ideological vault under lock and key. Instead, they live in the common sense part of our brains and experience. If you want change that matters and sustains, here are some starting points:
First and foremost, are students and teachers learning in cultures of respect, where justice, equity, and inclusion are centered? And related, in cultures where individuals have a sense of agency and power to influence the direction of their learning path?
Have you asked, and answered in your school community, the basic question “What do we hold sacred?” And have you interrogated any practice that didn’t make that list?
From that, do you have a shared sense of purpose, of mission? Are you communicating coherently to your entire community why it is that you exist as a school?
Do you have a shared definition and understanding of the word “learning”?
Do you share a common understanding of other school related terms and ideas such as “success,” “education,” “personalized,” etc.?
And finally, are you living in a culture that learns, one that is helping each individual develop the skills, mindsets, and competencies to not only create the change you seek but also thrive in an increasingly complex and uncertain world?
It All Flows From There
These are the required starting points for actually beginning to walk the talk around real, adaptive change. The technologies you use, the curriculum you create, the budgets you approve must all stem from here. In fact, we’d say that without these elements in place, you might be better off not even mentioning a need or desire to change.
It won’t sustain.
So, yes, it’s great that we’re in a moment when despite the incredible challenges and complexities of this moment that so many are starting to talk about and ask “Why school?”
The unpleasant truth is that before we can engage that question and act on it at the level it deserves, we still have a significant amount of clearing to do for us to walk on that path into the future.
Homa and Will